24.12.2023 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

The notorious “Swedish issue” has once again run counter to Turkey’s interests

Swedish issue

The issue of Sweden’s accession to NATO has once again acquired new facets of Turkish-Western (or rather, as the Jewish anecdote goes, Turkish-American) contradictions. Since May 2022, i.e. since Stockholm approached NATO for Sweden’s admission, Turkey has become the main obstacle to a positive resolution of the issue.

Initially, Ankara’s demands included the Kurdish issue (more precisely, the fight against Kurdish terrorism and separatism), which was viewed rather liberally by the Swedish democracy. Turkey demanded to toughen Swedish anti-terrorism legislation, deport Kurdish extremists according to the list provided, or deny them the right to political emigration to Sweden. However, time has shown that the Kurdish issue, although important in Turkish political reality, is not the main reason for Sweden’s rejection of NATO membership.

Thus, at the NATO summit in Vilnius in July 2023, Recep Erdoğan, after his victory in the difficult presidential elections, did not use the Kurdish issue to make another claim or to express his high level of dissatisfaction with the Swedish side’s actions. Turkey in Lithuania expressed de facto agreement to Sweden’s membership in the North Atlantic Alliance, but the Turkish leader tied the final decision on this issue to the opinion of Turkish parliamentarians.

Erdoğan, an experienced politician, apparently began to conduct flexible diplomacy, making Sweden’s accession to NATO dependent on the “softening” of US policy towards Turkey. As is well known, it was about two important issues for Ankara: a) military deal, i.e. supply of modernised F-16 Block70 fighters and spare parts worth $40 billion; b) financial deal, i.e. provision of effective financial assistance to the Turkish economy, which is undergoing a serious crisis, through lucrative loans and investments.

Ankara in Vilnius changed the focus of its demands to Stockholm – the arrows were shifted from the Kurds in favour of Sweden’s support for accelerating Turkey’s accession to the EU and providing Turks with favourable loans. Nevertheless, Erdoğan did not rush the National Parliament (GNAT) to make a decision on the Swedish issue. Even though the NATO summit was held on 11 July and the GNAT deputies go on holiday from the second half of August to early October, Erdoğan then referred to the “summer holidays” and postponed the issue to the autumn.

However, the beginning of October 2023 was marked by a new major military-political crisis in the Middle East, associated with another Palestinian-Israeli war. Turkey initially took a balanced position in this conflict, hoping for a positive response from Israel and the United States to its peace initiatives (including R. Erdoğan’s proposal to recognise the State of Palestine within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital and granting Turkey an international mandate as a security guarantor). However, the dynamics of the hostilities have clearly shown that Ankara’s ideas are not particularly attractive to Tel Aviv and Washington.

Accordingly, on 28 October this year. The “Great Palestinian Rally” in Istanbul, attended by 1.5 million people, became the starting point of Turkey’s new diplomacy regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Ankara unequivocally supported Hamas and the just struggle of the Palestinians for their freedom. The condemnation of Israel and Jewish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the brutality in the Gaza Strip, which Turkey describes as a “massacre,” “war crimes” and “genocide,” and the criticism of the collective West (the U.S. and other NATO countries) for their complicity with Tel Aviv, obviously won Erdoğan respect in Palestine and other parts of the Islamic world, but did not arouse enthusiasm in the West.

On 23 October 2023, the Turkish President signed the protocol on Sweden’s accession to NATO and submitted it to the parliament for consideration. It is already December, and the START is still in no hurry to make a final decision on the Swedish issue and finds new justifications for postponing the vote on this topic. Meanwhile, the “Turkish democracy” has allowed various political forces (parties, organisations, personalities, experts) to speak freely on the Swedish status.

Thus, the leader of the Turkish “Motherland” party Dogu Perencik and the Turkish Communists came out in the press categorically against the expansion of NATO and Sweden’s accession to the alliance. The Communists suggested that Turkey should withdraw from NATO altogether. This seemed to be the opinion of political marginalisers, i.e. non-parliamentary parties that do not represent a special weight in Turkish public life and, moreover, have no influence on President Erdoğan.

However, Recep Erdoğan’s ally, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Dövlat Bahceli, who is in a coalition with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), on 10 December this year put forward three conditions for the Turkish parliament to approve Sweden’s membership in the NATO bloc. Specifically, the HDP proposes:

  1. A permanent peace between Israel and Palestine (i.e. a permanent cessation of hostilities in the Gaza Strip), with recognition of the State of Palestine on the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital.
  2. Israel’s payment of compensation to Palestine for moral and material damage. 3.
  3. the conviction of Israeli Prime Minister B. Netanyahu by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for the crime of genocide.

Although Dövlat Bahceli is the head of a radical Turkish political force of the pan-Turkist persuasion, it is unlikely that such an experienced politician would voice something that does not come from the interests of the Turkish president. In fact, the conditions declared by an ally of the ruling AKP are evidence that Turkey cares little about Sweden’s NATO fate. Ankara is putting forward conditions that are initially impossible to fulfil because the US and most of the other NATO members will not support the aforementioned anti-Israeli demands. Turkey is simply looking for a way and an excuse to put the Swedish issue on the back burner.

What is Sweden’s connection to the events in the Middle East, the compensation of one side of the conflict to the other, the ICC and the prospect of a court verdict against the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? The answers to these questions are probably not clear to all Turks (except for Dövlat Bahceli, perhaps).

Sweden does not really care much about Turkey’s position because Stockholm has concluded new military agreements with the USA and will increase the corresponding partnership with the Americans in the future. Turkey is deprived of the means of pressure on the West, but continues its hysterics with new disproportionate conditions.

Apparently, Turkey reacted in this way to the fact that the US blocked the UN Security Council resolution on Gaza on cessation of hostilities in the Middle East and recognition of the State of Palestine within the 1967 borders. It should be noted that while the US vetoed the resolution and voted “against” it, another permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK, abstained. It turns out that the initiative of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, which includes 11 points on the Palestinian issue, although supported by the majority of Muslim and some non-Muslim states, was rejected by the US.

That’s why Recep Erdoğan, referring to peace in the Middle East, believes that “a just peace is indeed possible, but not with America”. Well, if this is the case, then the US proposals (requests) regarding the same Sweden will be met with non-agreement in Turkey. Moreover, Turkey, rightly accusing the U.S. and the rest of the West of complicity and unlimited support for Israel, considers it necessary to fundamentally reform the UN and the Security Council. In Ankara’s opinion, the current Security Council with five permanent members does not reflect the realities of the time, does not protect the interests of the Islamic world, and it is necessary to change its composition with the participation of a key Muslim country. Well, the one who fights for it should take a place in the renewed Security Council.

Thus, the Swedish issue has become a convenient card for Turkey’s exposing diplomacy.


Alexander SVARANTS – PhD of Political Science, Professor, especially for the online magazine «New Eastern Outlook».

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