Ankara’s Opposition to NATO Nordic Enlargement, the Take from Türkiye and Sweden
A chorus of NATO members expressed their warm welcome and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expected a smooth ride and quick confirmation. The leadership of Finland and Sweden met with leaders of the main NATO countries and were given security assurances. But then Türkiye, or rather President Erdoğan, threw a wrench into the confirmation machinery, producing a list of demands, especially for Sweden.
Ankara asks that Sweden stop its perceived support for what Türkiye considers Kurdish terrorist organizations and lift restrictions on arms exports to Türkiye. Erdoğan has also demanded that Sweden take measures against certain individuals from the Kurdish diaspora in Sweden. Kurds in Sweden constitute a sizable constituency, around 100,000, though exact numbers are difficult to find as Sweden registers nationality and not ethnicity.
Under President Erdoğan, Turkish foreign policy has increasingly become an extension of domestic politics. Therefore, whenever President Erdoğan is conducting foreign policy, he has goals at both the international and domestic levels. Given that Erdoğan has an uphill battle in the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2023, the domestic level game is at least as important as, if not more important, than the international level game.
In this specific case, Erdoğan’s goal at the international level is to further weaken international support for the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) which both Sweden and Finland designate as a terrorist organization, and its various off shoots, such as the PYD (Democratic Union Party) in Syria, which they do not. While this issue may appear tangential to others, it is central for Türkiye’s national security strategy. Degrading the PKK has been a priority for every government since the 1980s. While the PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by both the EU and the United States, Ankara argues that that the terrorist organization has been allowed to establish a presence in European countries, raise funds including through illicit activities such as drug trafficking, and even organize public demonstrations featuring its symbols, which are supposed to be banned. This is a long-standing conflict among Türkiye and European countries and now Türkiye has the chance to force the point, an opportunity it does not want to miss.
At the domestic level, President Erdoğan wants to bolster his image as a strong leader who can defy the West to protect Türkiye’s interests, in ways that others before him could not. Even if Erdoğan loses the game at the international level—if Sweden and Finland do not fulfill Ankara’s conditions and Türkiye blocks their NATO accession and faces backlash from allies—he can still win at the domestic level. According to the Turkish Perceptions of the European Union 2022 Survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, 67.9 percent of Turkish citizens believe that European countries want to divide and disintegrate Türkiye, just like they did to the Ottoman Empire in the past. Moreover, 70.1 percent believe that European countries have helped strengthen separationist organizations such as the PKK in Türkiye. Clearly then, Erdoğan’s criticism toward Sweden and Finland will easily resonate with the Turkish people.
Whatever the reasons for President Erdoğan’s demands on Sweden (and to a lesser degree Finland) this transactional approach is a difficult diplomatic game to play for a country, like Sweden, that has for decades prided itself for taking the “moral high ground” in international politics as well as in immigration policy.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has taken the lead in resolving the issue. After meeting Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, Stoltenberg said Türkiye’s concerns are legitimate and that that no NATO ally has suffered more terrorist attacks than Türkiye. Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has said her country takes Türkiye's concerns very seriously when it comes to the fight against terrorism and that Sweden aims to resolve the disagreement. Prime Minister Andersson has also announced that a new and tougher terrorism law approved last year would take effect on July 1.
Meanwhile the Swedish Embassy in Ankara posted a statement on its website on June 9, saying that Sweden “has never given any support, material or financial, to terrorist organizations like the PKK,” provided anti-tank weapons nor any other military equipment to non-governmental groups in Syria or provided financial support to political and military structures in northeastern Syria.
Türkiye’s reservations against Swedish and Finnish NATO membership have taken most by surprise, not least the governments in Helsinki and Stockholm, who boldly seized the moment by giving up their tradition of neutrality and applying for NATO membership. This will make them safer, and NATO stronger. While their accession to NATO will considerably lengthen the border between the alliance and Russia, they will also contribute significant capabilities and assets which in the end will also benefit Türkiye. It is still not too late to find a common ground that would address Türkiye’s concerns in a way that is politically feasible in all three capitals, but this will require empathy and political will from all three parties.