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Why Turkey is opposed to Sweden's bid to join NATO


Russia's attack on Ukraine has prompted a push for NATO expansion. Sweden and Finland applied to join the alliance, and while Finland's bid went through, Sweden's has been opposed by Turkey and Hungary. Sweden's prime minister meets today with President Biden, who wants the Nordic nation admitted as soon as possible. We wanted to get more insight on Turkey's opposition to the Swedish bid, so we called Alper Coskun of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as deputy permanent representative for Turkey's NATO mission. Good morning. Thanks for joining us.

ALPER COSKUN: Thank you.

MARTIN: So as briefly as you can, can you just tell us what exactly is Turkey's problem with Sweden joining NATO?

COSKUN: Turkey doesn't necessarily have a problem. It's traditionally been supportive of NATO enlargement and of what is called the open-door policy within the alliance. But when it comes to Finland and Sweden, Turkey had two main issues. One was, it argued, that both nations were implementing arms embargos on Turkey. And second, it complained that there were various terror groups in these countries, as perceived by Turkey, that were acting against Turkey's interests. And it asked that these countries that wanted to join NATO act against these terror groups. Now, Finland, as far as Turkey is concerned, met those thresholds, so Turkey greenlighted Finland. But the problem continues as far as Sweden is concerned, in Ankara's view. And that's where the problem is.

MARTIN: You know, obviously there are different views about what actually constitutes a terrorist threat or terrorist sort of supporters. So is there any - how can we put this? - objective basis for believing that that is, in fact, the case?

COSKUN: That's obviously an important question because it boils down to the definition of terrorism and how you define it. And I think that's where there is a gap between the Turkish expectations and the legal restrictions that Sweden faces. That said, Sweden has promised to take certain steps, including the amending of its constitution, and it has delivered on those. But there are continuing propaganda activities that are visible out in public that are disturbing Turkey. Sweden argues that, legally speaking, it cannot curtail these types of activities, whereas Turkey wants it to act and take further steps. The problem has been convoluted by another dimension, which is the burning of the holy book of Islam in Sweden, which, again, is legally permitted in Sweden as an expression of freedom. But that has infuriated Turkey further, including President Erdogan. It's not part of the agreement that Sweden and Turkey had met, but Turkey is further aggravated by this issue.

MARTIN: Could we look at it from a different perspective, though, with - the war in Ukraine is effectively on NATO's doorstep. I mean, you know, Romania, for example, is a NATO member, and it's right there, right? So is there something that the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has to gain or is gaining by delaying Sweden's ascension?

COSKUN: I think so, yes. That's definitely one of the calculations taking place in Ankara, because Erdogan is trying to leverage this issue, which is, geopolitically speaking, one of the most important developments in European security, Sweden and Finland deciding to join NATO. And he's trying to leverage this in his relations with the West. That's definitely a consideration.

MARTIN: So, you know, Hungary's foreign minister said this week that his country will support Sweden's bid if Turkey changes its stance. Do you have a sense of whether this would influence Turkey's position in any way?

COSKUN: Not necessarily, not necessarily. And I think Hungary is just basically standing behind Turkey. They have their own issues as far as Sweden is concerned and consideration vis-a-vis Russia. But I don't think that's necessarily implementing the calculation in Ankara.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, Swedes are in Washington today to talk about their country's NATO bid. Is there something that President Biden could offer?

COSKUN: Yes, I think a renewed commitment by Sweden and possibly a - an opening towards Ankara from Washington could help the process.

MARTIN: Alper Coskun of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thank you so much for taking the time.

COSKUN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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