On May 19, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his opposition to Sweden and Finland joining the NATO defense alliance. Turkey is one of NATO’s 30 member states, all of which must agree to allow new members to the U.S.-led pact.
Erdogan accused the two Nordic countries, mainly Sweden, of harboring members of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and supporters of U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is wanted by Ankara for allegedly orchestrating a failed 2016 coup.
On May 18, Sweden and Finland announced they would simultaneously submit applications to join NATO, a development that Britain’s The Guardian newspaper said was “a seismic shift in Europe’s security architecture after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
For decades, Finland, which shares a border with Russia, and Sweden, Finland’s western neighbor, saw joining NATO as an unnecessary provocation of Russia and remained neutral.
Now, with Russia raining bombs and missiles on Ukraine, that’s all changed. NATO has an “open door policy” for any country that wants to join – but Erdogan is standing in it.
“NATO is a security organization, we cannot accept that it includes terrorist organizations. These countries host the PKK and the YPG,” said Erdogan, referring also to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which allied with the U.S. to push Islamic State from Syria.
Erdogan’s characterization is misleading, however, as it diverts attention from several other possible motivations and ignores some pertinent facts.
For one thing, Finland and Sweden are in the European Union, which has banned the PKK.
The PKK has been engaged in a decades-long campaign for independence in southeast Turkey, which considers it a terror group, as does the EU and United States. The YPG is the military arm of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of the PKK in Syria.
Sweden and Finland reject the allegation that they are harboring terrorists.
On May 20, Sweden’s Foreign Affairs Minister Ann Linde accused Erdogan of spreading “disinformation.” In a tweet, she said the late Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was the first to declare the PKK a terrorist group in 1984, a position that is unchanged.
For years, in fact, the PKK was suspected of being behind the 1986 assassination of Palme. Those accusations were fanned by Turkey until in 2020, when the Swedish prosecutor named Palme’s assassin as Stig Engstrom, a graphic designer and Palme critic who committed suicide.
Meantime, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said on Twitter that, “Finland condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. Close dialogue continues” with Turkey.
U.S. President Joe Biden has welcomed Sweden and Finland and said their membership would strengthen the NATO alliance.
A spate of news reports speculated on other Turkish motives for Erdogan’s opposition. POLITICO noted that Turkey pulled a similar move in 2009, when it blocked appointment of Denmark’s prime minister as NATO chief because the country hosted a Kurdish TV station.
POLITICO said that Turkey might be pressuring the United States to move forward with a deal to provide F-16 fighter jets. Biden and the U.S. Congress have been weighing Turkey’s request.
The Associated Press reported that Turkey also might be seeking an end to a ban on weapons purchases that several European countries, including Finland and Sweden, imposed on Ankara in 2019 after Turkey’s military moved into northeastern Syria.
Erdogan cited security concerns for the incursion, saying it was aimed at clearing Kurdish militias from Turkey’s borders.
Then there are internal politics.
Turkey is scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentarian elections in 2023. Now, though, inflation has soared to 70 percent, the highest since Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power in 2002. And as the economy nosedives, anti-refugee sentiment has grown.
Turkey has the world’s largest refugee population, including 3.6 million Syrian refugees it took in as part of a 2016 deal with the EU. The Europeans then agreed to give Turkey 6 billion euros for refugee aid and to renew stalled talks over Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.
Turkey spent the last of the EU aid in December 2021, and Europe has shown interest in renewing the arrangement. Writing for The National, an English newspaper in the UAE, journalist David Lepeska said Turkey might stomach “the NATO entry of ‘terrorist-supporting’ Sweden and Finland” if the Europeans agree to cough up more aid for the Syrian refugees.
As for Erdogan’s claims about Gulen, who lives in the U.S state of Pennsylvania, Turkey has failed to make a solid case that Gulen was behind the 2016 coup attempt.
The U.S. and EU do not agree with Turkey that Gulen’s movement is a terrorist organization, and the U.S. has rebuffed Turkey’s repeated requests for Gulen’s extradition.
In 2020, John Bolton, the former U.S. national security adviser, told Turkey’s T24 News, “[The] Turkish government repeatedly submitted the same documents, which lacked evidence of the cleric’s involvement in the failed putsch.”