Turkey Holds the Nordic Countries at Gunpoint: Implications for NATO

Baby steps: the foreign ministers of Turkey, Finland and Sweden sign a Memorandum of Understanding at the NATO Madrid Summit in June 2022. Image: UPI / Alamy

It is a paradox that two democratic Nordic countries that are willing to join NATO and become interoperable with it are kept at bay by pseudo-democratic NATO member Turkey. As long as this situation persists, Russia strategically has the last laugh. This could have been avoided if the proposed policy recommendations had been implemented by NATO some time ago.

To begin with, it is crucial to recall a preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty (Washington Treaty 1949), namely: ‘The Parties to this Treaty are determined to safeguard the freedom – founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law’. Obviously, these principles have been repeatedly trampled upon by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the last decade. And now, two democratic candidates for NATO membership, Finland and Sweden, have to fulfil conditions virtually imposed by the pseudo-democratic government of Turkey. This is a worrying paradox.

It should be remembered, however, that a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed by the three countries’ foreign ministers on 28 June 2022.

One sticking point stipulated in this MoU has been the extradition of persons Turkey regards as terrorists. Sweden’s top court denied a request from Ankara to extradite a journalist with alleged links to Islamic scholar Fetullah Gulen, blamed by Turkey for involvement in the 2016 coup attempt. Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said: ‘Sweden has an independent judiciary and there was nothing the government could do to change such decisions. Our courts are bound by Swedish and international laws, including the European Extradition Convention, which Turkey also has signed, I might add’. However, Turkey sees it differently – and Erdogan has singled out a journalist by the name of Bulent Kenes. Erdogan said: ‘Deporting this terrorist to Turkey is very important to us’. From Erdogan’s point of view, by not deporting Kenes to Turkey, Sweden has failed a litmus test.

Another sticking point is related to a number of what Turkey regards as terrorists. Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said on 4 August 2022: ‘I am awaiting the extradition of 33 terrorism suspects from Sweden and Finland’. Other sources cited not 33 but 73 terrorists. However, according to Erdogan: ‘They need to extradite nearly 130 terrorists’. Whether or not this is the final figure remains to be seen. One thing is certain about Erdogan: seriousness and honesty cannot be taken for granted.

Erdogan is trying to delink the two countries’ bids, which would then allow him to exert extra pressure on Sweden to meet his demands

Another sticking point mentioned in the MoU has been the effect of Sweden’s tightened terrorism law. The new law, which the government hopes will come into force in June 2023, will give authorities much wider powers to detain and prosecute individuals who support terrorist organisations, either through financing or other [unspecified] means. Sweden’s Justice Minister Gunnar Strommer said at a press conference in Stockholm on 26 January: ‘The new law would not affect the right to demonstrate nor prevent people waving the flag of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). To wave a flag as part of an expression of a differing opinion will not, in and of itself, be criminalised’. It is easy to foresee the Turkish government’s negative reaction to a new Swedish law that does not prohibit the right to demonstrate or wave a flag, since that government sees otherwise and wishes to impose its rules and regulations on NATO candidate countries. The point that Turkish rules and regulations are not consistent with the Nordic countries’ rules and regulations is of no concern to the Turkish government. Moreover, Ankara is demanding an ‘asset freeze’, a request that has not been expressed publicly before.

In order to divert Turkish citizens’ attention from the country’s economic malaise and to unite Muslims around the world behind him as a powerful no-nonsense leader who stands up for Islam, Erdogan said on 23 January: ‘Sweden should not expect Turkey to back its NATO membership bid, days after a copy of the Quran was burned in a Stockholm protest’. This episode shows again that Erdogan is holding the Nordic countries at gunpoint by intentionally putting obstacles in the countries’ path to NATO membership. The question of whether or not Quran burning has anything to do with the countries’ path to NATO membership is irrelevant to Erdogan, since he is the one who will ultimately decide whether to allow the Nordic countries to join NATO. As a result, we might expect further obstacles for the Nordic countries. We need to remember that Erdogan is not negotiating with the Nordic countries but blackmailing them, and hence further demands are likely.

The Quran incident raised a serious question in Finland, namely, whether the country is willing to join NATO without Sweden. It can therefore be seen that Erdogan’s strategy to delink the two countries’ bids has almost succeeded. However, in response to remarks from Erdogan that ‘Turkey may accept Finland into NATO without Sweden’, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said he rejected that option. Haavisto also said on 26 January: ‘Finland and Sweden remain in agreement, that irrespective of all current objections and obstacles we will continue our joint journey into NATO. We plan to work on common measures to ratify our membership and join at the same time’. Whether or not we have heard the last word from Finland remains to be seen, since Erdogan has not yet given up on his efforts to delink the two countries’ bids, which would then allow him to exert extra pressure on Sweden to meet his demands.

Therefore, setting any particular date for when the two countries will join NATO is a waste of time. What is more, the earthquakes that struck Turkey and northern Syria on 6 February 2023 and the subsequent declaration of a state of emergency in the country by Erdogan mean that the issue of the Nordic countries is not on his agenda for the time being.

The only winner from the current Turkish policy of obstruction is Vladimir Putin

Turkey’s obstruction of the Nordic countries’ efforts to join the Alliance is dealing serious damage to the cohesion, strength and – perhaps most importantly – the unity of NATO. The Alliance motto, ‘All for One and One for All’, is effectively null and void. The only winner from the current Turkish policy of obstruction is Russian President Vladimir Putin. The latter has saluted his reliable friend Erdogan by stating unequivocally that the ‘refusal of the Nordic countries to hand over terrorists to Turkey and [to agree] an asset freeze are unacceptable and, as a result, the Nordic countries should not be granted NATO membership anytime soon’.

In order not to repeat the same possibility of one member of the Alliance hindering future accession candidates such as the Balkan countries, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, certain changes need to be implemented by NATO. It needs to be remembered that NATO’s original composition of 16 members has changed to 30 members, and that the world has changed radically since the 1990s. As a result, the decision-making process by unanimous consensus needs to be changed to decision-making by a qualified majority (for instance, a two-third majority). The founding principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law need to be reemphasised, strongly underlined and unconditionally applied by all members. Finally, a new article related to the suspension and ultimate expulsion of a NATO member state from the Alliance – which was not foreseen by the founding fathers of the Washington Treaty – needs to be inserted into the updated/amended Treaty. Let us call it Article 14, since it would logically come after Article 13, which refers to the termination of the Treaty by a member state itself. The previous final article of the Treaty would become Article 15. The new article would be used to restrain any non-complying member that breaks the founding principles, and would also serve as a warning that not abiding by the founding principles will have consequences. Whether or not NATO is ready for these changes is beyond the scope of this article. However, it would be better to implement such changes now rather than later, since Erdogan with his own arbitrary agenda is unlikely to accept the two Nordic countries’ application to join NATO.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Eugene Kogan

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