How will Turkey's election impact Sweden's accession to NATO?

5 min read
12 April, 2023

Finland's entry into NATO last week was hailed as a historic day for the Western military alliance, and a turning point for the Nordic country – officially ending its era of military non-alignment, and doubling the length of the border between NATO and Russia.

Finland joined the alliance as its 31st member following the Turkish parliament's unanimous ratification of its membership earlier in March – which Turkey, alongside Hungary, had been stalling over a number of disputes.

Finland submitted its application to join NATO alongside Sweden in May 2022, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But ahead of key elections in Turkey on 14 May, Sweden's application remains in limbo.

For Sweden, joining the Western alliance would mean ending a policy of neutrality that stretches as far back as 200 years.

"Ahead of key elections in Turkey on 14 May, Sweden's application remains in limbo"

“Sweden's NATO membership is really important politically,” Matthew Bryza, a Turkey-based former White House and Senior State Department official, told The New Arab.

“But strategically speaking, Finland's entrance into NATO is really a big deal,” he said, pointing out that it comes with a 1,300-kilometre (800-mile) border with Russia, as well as 900,000 reservists.

“[Finland's] army is about 290,000. So that's a huge military capability,” Bryza says, adding that it also leaves the three Baltic states, which are NATO members, less exposed.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin previously downplayed the prospect of NATO expansion, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the move an “escalation” and said Russia will take “countermeasures to ensure our own tactical and strategic security”.

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Triangles and two-way streets

Sweden, Finland, and Turkey signed a trilateral agreement during a NATO summit in Madrid last June, which saw Stockholm and Helsinki agree to fulfil certain conditions in return for Turkey's withdrawal of its veto on their membership.

In January, Finland lifted a three-year arms embargo on Turkey. But Turkey says it wants Sweden in particular to take a tougher line against the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group that took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984 and is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, Sweden, the European Union, as well as the United States.

Turkey has accused Sweden of providing a safe haven to PKK militants, as well as to followers of US-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen - whom Turkey blames for a 2016 coup attempt. Turkey has filed several extradition requests, which have for the most part been blocked by Sweden's courts.

Rasmus Paludan burns a Quran during an election meeting in Husby on 14 May 2022 in Stockholm, Sweden. [Getty]

Tensions between the two countries grew further earlier this year when previously little-known far-right Danish politician Rasmus Paludan made global headlines by burning a copy of the Quran in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm. It prompted protests across the Muslim world and backlash from the Turkish government.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces the biggest challenge to his 20-year rule when Turkish citizens head to the polls on 14 May, amid the country's ailing economy and mass displacement after powerful twin earthquakes hit Turkey's southeast on 6 February.

He faces an electoral alliance of six opposition parties led by Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

"Turkey has accused Sweden of providing a safe haven to PKK militants, as well as to followers of US-based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen - whom Turkey blames for a 2016 coup attempt"

During a recent parliamentary debate on Finland's NATO accession, Kilicdaroglu's chief foreign policy adviser Unal Cevikozs said the “steps Finland and Sweden have taken largely meet our expectations,” providing some level of reassurance that Sweden's path to NATO would become smoother should the opposition come to power.

“What remains to be seen is the size of the AKP caucus in the parliament,” Berk Esen, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Sabanci University, told The New Arab, referring to Erdogan's Justice and Development party.

“If it turns out that Kilicdaroglu wins but doesn't have a parliamentary majority and Erdogan decides to stay in politics, he is going to do a very active, very damaging oppositional politics. And in that case, it might be a bit more difficult for the new government to admit Sweden,” he added, explaining it would add arguments for Erdogan to portray the new government as “capitulating” to the West.

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“But this is not only an issue between the West and Turkey. It's a triangle, and Russia is also involved,” Esen said. “Turkey already has made some strong commitments to Russia. Putin postponed Turkey's payment of Russian gas for a year, which means next year there is a huge bill that Turkey needs to pay at a time of economic crisis.”

The Swedish parliament is due to vote in May on a new anti-terror law that would make it easier to prosecute and detain individuals accused of involvement with terrorist organisations. The current Turkish administration has signalled it may consider this as a sufficient sign of the country's goodwill to implement the Madrid memorandum.

“We expect that after [the approval of the new law], the process will pace up,” presidential adviser Ibrahim Kalin told the Anadolu news agency in early April, adding that the next round of talks between Turkey and Sweden could take place on the first or second week of June.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (R) hands over Finland's accession to NATO documents to Finnish Foreign Affairs Minister Pekka Haavisto, during a joining ceremony at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, on 4 April 2023. [Getty]

The potential sale of F-16 US fighter jets is also likely to be part of the bargaining process, which is currently opposed by top members of the US Congress.

“President Biden is letting this debate play out a bit with Congress,” Matthew Bryza, the former US diplomat, said.

“But he has made absolutely clear he wants the F-16 transaction to happen. So it is just a question of when.”

"This is not only an issue between the West and Turkey. It's a triangle, and Russia is also involved"

In the meantime, any government in Turkey will need to continue to balance its relationship with Russia, he says.

“Turkey needs to find a way to continue its ability to mediate and broker agreements like the grain deal, but also to continue receiving energy from Russia,” Bryza says.

“But that's a two-way street too, because Russia desperately needs Turkey now to move its gas to its customers that are going to keep buying it in Europe. And by that, I mean Serbia and Hungary, and that gas moves across Turkey.”

Ylenia Gostoli is a reporter currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. She has covered politics, social change, and conflict across the Middle East and Europe. Her work on refugees, migration and human trafficking has won awards and grants

Follow her on Twitter: @YleniaGostoli