Hopes fade for swift NATO accession for Finland, Sweden

STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Finland and Sweden are to discuss their stalled NATO bids with Turkey in Brussels on Monday, but hopes are fading they will be able resolve their dispute before an alliance summit next week, experts say.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was to meet with representatives from the three countries to try to make progress on the Nordic nations’ membership applications, which have been blocked by Ankara.

“I think it is possible but it would be very difficult,” Paul Levin, director of the Institute for Turkey Studies at Stockholm University, told AFP.  

“It would require both sides to show real willingness to make some compromises,” he said.

NATO and the two Nordic countries had expected the application process to be quick.

But Ankara’s last-minute opposition caught them all off-guard, at a time when NATO is keen to display a unified front vis-a-vis Russia.

Ankara has accused Finland and Sweden of providing a safe haven for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed as a “terrorist” group by Turkey and its Western allies.

Ankara has also demanded that they lift their weapons freezes on Turkey.  

Any NATO membership deal must be unanimously approved by all 30 members of the alliance, and fears are now mounting that Turkey could delay the Nordics’ bids indefinitely.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin recently expressed fears that unless the issues are resolved “before Madrid, there is a risk that the situation will freeze.”

Kurdish quandary

Ankara’s anger has primarily been directed at Sweden.

“Sweden does view the PKK as a terrorist organisation and has done so since 1984”, Levin said, adding that it was “arguably the first country apart from Turkey” to do so.

“So in that sense Sweden does not really stand out” from other European countries.

However, Sweden has expressed support for the YPG, a US-backed Syrian Kurdish group, and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Ankara views the YPG, which fought against the Islamic State group in Syria with Western support, as the PKK’s Syria offshoot.

In a bid to ease Ankara’s concerns, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has stressed that Sweden has been beefing up its anti-terror laws in recent years, with new stricter legislation coming into force on July 1.

Sweden has also said that its independent weapons export agency would be prepared to review its policy once the country was a NATO member.

Levin noted that one area where Sweden does stand out in Europe is that it is “generally more sympathetic to the broader Kurdish cause.”

The Scandinavian country is home to around 100,000 Kurds, which Levin described as “influential” and “successful in mobilising”.

“In that sense, maybe Turkey is right to put the spotlight on Sweden”, Levin said.

According to Li Bennich-Bjorkman, a political science professor at Uppsala University, the Kurdish issue is the crux of the problem with Ankara.

“There is a real conflict between Sweden’s view of the Kurdish issue and Turkey’s demands on Sweden”, she told AFP.

Sweden’s hands tied

Meanwhile, the Swedish government is also being squeezed on the home front, with its hands tied by an independent lawmaker with Kurdish roots.

Amineh Kakabaveh is a former Left Party member of Iranian-Kurdish origin sitting in parliament as an independent since 2019.

In November, she provided the deciding vote to bring the Social Democrats into power — in exchange for deeper cooperation with the PYD.

“She’s in a very strong position because the Social Democrats need her vote”, Elisabeth Braw, a Nordic expert at the American Enterprise Institute, told AFP.

Kakabaveh has threatened to vote against the government’s budget proposal this week if Sweden agrees to sell arms to Turkey.

The Swedish government’s two sets of negotiations with Kakabaveh and Ankara “are very difficult to reconcile”, Levin noted.

If not resolved before then, Sweden’s legislative elections in September could end the deadlock with Ankara.

Kakabaveh is not expected to be re-elected to parliament, which would enable the government to negotiate more freely with Turkey.

“It really looks like the Swedish government is trying to step away from this agreement with Kakabaveh in order to be able to have this discussion with Turkey”, Levin said.

At the same time, an early election in Turkey has also sailed up as a possibility, which could “change things up and make it possible to come to some kind of solution”, he noted. – AFP