Turkey’s Erdogan defies pressure over Sweden’s NATO application

Turkish president says the Nordic nation has not fully addressed his security concerns.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rebuffed growing international pressure on Turkey to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership bid before the military alliance meets in July.

Western officials had hoped Erdogan would soften his position on the diplomatically charged issue after he secured a hard-fought re-election last month.

But Erdogan signalled no major shift in comments on Wednesday released by his office while Turkish and Swedish officials were locked in last-minute negotiations in Ankara.

“Sweden has expectations. It doesn’t mean that we will comply with them,” Erdogan was quoted as saying.

Sweden and Finland applied for membership together after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, marking a dramatic pivot after decades of military neutrality. Finland became NATO’s 31st member in April after the Turkish parliament ratified its request, but Turkey has held off on approving Sweden’s bid.

NATO wants to bring Sweden into the fold by the time the leaders of its member nations meet for a summit in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, on July 11-12.

The officials in Ankara discussed what Finland and Sweden have done to address Turkey’s concerns over what it calls “terrorist” groups and their supporters living in the Nordic nations. Erdogan said earlier that the Turkish delegation at the meeting gave the message: “Don’t expect anything different at Vilnius.”

Sweden’s chief negotiator said on Wednesday that Turkey and Sweden will continue their discussions but added there was no specific date.

“It’s my job to persuade our counterpart that we have done enough. I think we have,” Oscar Stenstrom said. “But Turkey is not ready to make a decision yet and thinks that they need to have more answers to the questions they have.”

Sweden NATO
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson at a press conference in Lulea, Sweden, in May [File: Jonas Ekstroemer/TT News Agency via Reuters]

More ‘concrete steps’

Turkey’s government accuses Sweden of being too lenient towards groups that Ankara says pose a security threat, including Kurdish armed organisations and people accused of associations with a failed coup attempt against Erdogan’s government in 2016.

A series of demonstrations in Stockholm, including a protest by an anti-Islam activist who burned the Quran outside the Turkish embassy, also angered Turkish officials.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson has said his government has done what it promised in an agreement reached with Turkey last year, which was intended to secure Ankara’s ratification of its NATO membership.

Last week, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström was told by his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, that Ankara needed to see more “concrete steps” from Sweden.

Erdogan also mentioned pro-Kurdish and anti-NATO rallies that took place in Stockholm while he was holding talks with the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, in Istanbul this month. He said he planned to attend the July summit in Lithuania unless “extraordinary” circumstances arise.

Turkey cannot approach Sweden’s NATO bid positively while “terrorists” were protesting in Stockholm, Erdogan said.

Sweden has focused on extraditing suspects with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and passed an “anti-terrorism” law, but Ankara has made it clear those actions are not enough.

Commenting on Sweden’s recent legal changes Erdogan said: “This is not only a matter of a law amendment or a constitutional change… The police should prevent these [protests].”

The Alliance Network Against NATO demonstrates in Stockholm on June 4, 2023 [Maja Suslin/TT News Agency via Reuters]

‘Promises made’

NATO requires the unanimous approval of all existing members to expand, and Turkey and Hungary are the only countries that have not yet ratified Sweden’s request to join.

White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said the United States wants Sweden’s approval quickly.

“We believe Sweden should become a NATO member as soon as possible without delay. And we’ll continue to be very, very public about that… We continue to communicate that with Turkey,” said Jean-Pierre.

Meanwhile, the top Republican on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee said on Wednesday that he was blocking a $735m arms sale to Hungary because its government has refused to approve Sweden’s bid to join NATO.

“Given promises that were made to me and others last year that this vote would be done and the fact that it is now June and still not done, I decided that the sale of new US military equipment to Hungary will be on hold,” Senator Jim Risch said in a statement.

“Hungary should take the actions necessary to allow Sweden into the alliance – and soon.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies