Turkey’s Erdogan Stands Firm Against Sweden’s NATO Bid

Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership is in doubt with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voicing opposition after demonstrators burned a Quran in Stockholm.

Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told a news conference Tuesday that he did not expect any progress on Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership bid until after the Turkish elections later this year.

Haavisto’s comments follow Ankara’s outrage over demonstrators Saturday in Stockholm burning the Muslim holy book, the Quran, close to the Turkish Embassy.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Monday ruled out supporting Sweden’s bid.

Erdogan said, the “Swedish government does not need to (talk) about the rights and freedom to us. If you really do respect rights and freedom, at first, you need to respect the Turkish republic or Muslims’ religious beliefs. If you do not show that respect, I am sorry, you will not see any support from us regarding NATO membership.”

Even before the Quran burning, the Turkish government was outraged over a protest earlier this month in Stockholm in which demonstrators hanged from a lamp post an effigy of the Turkish leader.

The Swedish government, while condemning the protests, says they fall within freedom of expression, a stance supported Monday by United States. 

Speaking in Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “We have a saying in this country: something can be lawful but awful. I think in this case, what we’ve seen in the context of Sweden falls into that category.”

Washington is strongly backing both Sweden and Finland’s bids to join NATO.

But with Sweden granting asylum to many of Erdogan’s opponents, some of whom Ankara accuses of being terrorists, Turkey is demanding concessions from Stockholm in exchange for lifting its veto.

Last year NATO brokered a deal among Stockholm, Helsinki, and Ankara to resolve the impasse. But Ilhan Uzgel, an analyst for the Kisa Dalga news portal, said that with Erdogan facing reelection by June, the Turkish president sees a political opportunity in prolonging the dispute.

“This issue can be handled in diplomatic corridors. But Erdogan prefers to make it public that he has the power. He is still a world leader. He can bend the will of NATO and to aspiring countries, even the United States. So, I guess that he’s going to use it until the elections,” said Uzgel.

Saturday’s Quran burning, some analysts say, will likely be a political opportunity by the Turkish president to rally his base of religious and nationalist voters.

Standing up to NATO also will play well with his supporters, said Sebnem Ayse Duzgit, an international relations professor at Sabanci University close to Istanbul.

“It has to do with the sort of anti-NATO sentiment that’s very closely related with the anti-Western and anti-American sentiment in Turkey and the sort of perception that NATO has never really helped Turkey to fight with its own terrorism problem,” said Duzgit.

With Turkey’s president lagging in many opinion polls as the country grapples with economic problems, few predict any softening in Ankara’s stance before elections that are due by June. 

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