Right-wing Quran burning in Sweden enrages Turkey and throws a new wrench in Nordics’ NATO bid

Sweden and Finland have taken another step in joining NATO, meaning only a formal ratification of their accession agreement is now left.

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It’s now been eight months since Sweden and Finland declared their intent to join NATO, a move that upended the countries’ longstanding policies of nonalignment following nearby Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

While most of the organization’s members want to fast-track the new joiners’ memberships, tensions and a fresh spat between Sweden and Turkey threaten to extend that waiting time — perhaps indefinitely.

All 30 of NATO’s current states need to approve a new member. And Turkey, a key geopolitical player and home to the alliance’s second-largest military, stands as the primary vocal opponent to the Nordic countries’ membership.

The reasons behind Ankara’s opposition are complex, but center mainly on Sweden’s support for Kurdish groups that Turkey considers to be terrorists, and on weapons embargoes that both Sweden and Finland, along with other EU countries, put on Turkey for its targeting of Kurdish militias in Syria.

Sweden and Finland are working to try and turn things around in their relations with Turkey, but events of recent weeks have threatened to dash hopes for progress.

Rasmus Paludan holds a burning Koran outside of the Turkish embassy on January 21, 2023 in Stockholm, Sweden. Swedish authorities granted permission to a series of protests for and against Turkey amid the bid to join NATO.

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On Saturday, far-right demonstrators burned a Quran and chanted anti-Muslim slogans in front of Turkey’s embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. Ankara immediately denounced the act, as well as Sweden’s granting of a permit to the right-wing group to hold the demonstration. Turkey also canceled an upcoming visit from Sweden’s defense chief that would have focused on its NATO membership.

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the vile attack on our holy book … Permitting this anti-Islam act, which targets Muslims and insults our sacred values, under the guise of freedom of expression is completely unacceptable,” Turkey’s foreign ministry said.

The Quran burning was led by Rasmus Paludan, who leads the Danish far-right political party Hard Line. Swedish authorities say the protest was legal under the country’s free speech laws, but Sweden’s leaders condemned the act, calling it “appalling.”

Several media outlets and independent journalist gather to see Rasmus Paludan stage a Koran burning outside the Turkish embassy on January 21, 2023 in Stockholm, Sweden.

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Protests by Turks in response to the burning were held in front of the Swedish embassy in Ankara and its consulate in Istanbul over the weekend.

In a separate event earlier this month, Turkey summoned Sweden’s ambassador after a video was published by a pro-Kurdish group in Sweden showing an effigy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan being hung upside down from a rope.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson reportedly denounced the protest as an act of “sabotage” against the country’s NATO membership bid.

“If it goes on like this, Sweden’s entry into NATO will never be approved by Turkey,” Numan Kurtulmus, deputy chairman of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, AKP, said Sunday.

‘Things that we cannot do’

Sweden, Finland and Turkey last year signed a three-way agreement dedicated to overcoming their differences and the opposition to NATO membership.

But Sweden’s Kristersson said earlier this month that Stockholm could not meet all of Turkey’s demands, which include handing over Kurdish journalists living in Sweden, a request that was blocked by the country’s Supreme Court.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson speaks during a joint conference with the President of the European Council Charles Michel (not seen) in Stockholm, Sweden on January 16, 2023.

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“Turkey both confirms that we have done what we said we would do, but they also say that they want things that we cannot or do not want to give them,” Kristersson said at a conference on Jan. 8.

Nonetheless, he expressed confidence that Turkey would approve his country’s NATO bid. Hungary, whose populist leader Viktor Orban is friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is the only other country besides Turkey that has not yet approved the bid.

Election calculus

Turkey analysts say the latest angry statements from Ankara have more to do with the country’s upcoming election on May 14 and getting leverage from other NATO allies, particularly the U.S., than anything else.

Both the Quran burning and the Kurdish video of the Erdogan effigy “make it harder to get past the impasse,” between Turkey and Sweden, said George Dyson, a senior analyst at consultancy Control Risks.

“But,” he told CNBC, “the impasse was already there. And it doesn’t have much to do with Sweden really and more to do with Turkey trying to squeeze as much as it can from any leverage over its allies that it has.”

“It’s more to do with U.S.-Turkey relations,” he added. “Turkey feels that the U.S. is a good friend when they need Turkey but not when Turkey needs them … Or at least this is the rhetoric.”

Timothy Ash, a senior emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, believes Turkey is doing tremendous damage to its Western alliances and that NATO may come to a pivotal choice between Turkey and the Nordic states.

“Reaching [the] point that NATO allies will have to decide between Turkey and Finland/Sweden? I get the election calculus by Erdogan but eventually this will damage long term relations with key allies,” Ash said via Twitter.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) meets President of Russia, Vladimir Putin (R) within the 22nd meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) leaders’ summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 16, 2022.

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Meanwhile, U.K.-based security and terrorism analyst Kyle Orton wrote in a blog post that “Turkey has been holding [Sweden’s] NATO application hostage to demands about the [Kurdish militant group] PKK. With the Qur’an burning in Stockholm yesterday,” he wrote, “Ankara is cynically trying to pile on the pressure with an outrageous intervention in Sweden’s internal affairs.”

There is also some speculation that the U.S. will use the promise of its F16 jets — an arms sale that Ankara has long wanted — to force Turkey’s hand. Some members of Congress have expressed opposition to the sale over Turkey’s position on the new NATO applicants.

Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin recently said that Sweden has eight to 10 weeks to make the changes demanded by Ankara as Turkey’s parliament could go into recess before the elections in May. Sweden says it needs six more months to make those changes.

But whatever timeline Sweden follows, Turkey’s leadership is likely to hold a hard line until the elections, knowing that anti-Western rhetoric and a strong nationalist stance tend to do well with voters.

“Bottom line,” Dyson said, “I’m doubtful much will happen before the elections in Turkey.”

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