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Erdogan: Sweden 'should not expect' support in NATO bid after Quran burning

By publicly destroying a copy of Islam’s holy book, a Swedish activist may have doomed Stockholm’s chances of joining the alliance.

Analysis | Europe

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that Sweden “should not expect” Turkey’s support in joining NATO after Stockholm greenlit a protest in which a far-right activist burned a Quran, Islam’s holy book.

“Those who allowed such disgraceful acts in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm can't expect good news from Ankara on NATO membership,” Erdogan said in a speech. He did not indicate if his concerns about Sweden would affect Finland, which is also seeking NATO membership.

Turkish officials asked Sweden to stop the far-right demonstration, and Ankara canceled a planned visit by the Swedish defense minister prior to the burning. Stockholm refused to stop the protest, citing fears that such a move would damage freedom of speech in the country. “​​Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of democracy,” tweeted Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson. 

In an apparent attempt to blunt criticisms, Kristersson added that “what is legal is not necessarily appropriate.”

“I want to express my sympathy for all Muslims who are offended by what has happened in Stockholm,” he said.

Turkey’s apparent decision to block Sweden’s accession to NATO comes after months of tense negotiations between the two countries. The primary point of disagreement has been Swedish policy toward Kurdish activists and militants, including some who are currently in exile in Sweden. Notably, Swedish courts have blocked a series of Turkish extradition requests for activists and journalists that Ankara views as terrorists.

The comment comes just four months before Ankara’s presidential election, in which Erdogan risks losing his seat to a coalition of opposition parties. Given the political sensitivities related to Kurdish groups in Turkey, many doubted that the Turkish president would risk looking soft on alleged terrorism before the election.

It remains unclear whether Erdogan’s statement is a sincere change of heart or simply an attempt to earn political points at home and further squeeze NATO allies for concessions.

“It is generally consistent with Erdogan’s modus operandi to levy ambitious demands vis-a-vis his interlocutors only to settle for a more modest set of concessions when all is said and done,” wrote researcher Mark Episkopos in RS. “Yet there is also a clear precedent for the Turkish leader doubling down in response to international pressure.”

As Episkopos noted, the rift over Sweden and Finland’s accession bids highlights the complexities that NATO expansion has brought for the alliance.

“[T]he principle of limitless horizontal expansion has heightened the risk of internal contradictions among NATO’s increasingly diverse membership, making it more difficult over time to distill common geopolitical goals and to maintain the credibility of the Article V commitment that is at the heart of the alliance,” he argued.

Ankara, Turkey, 12/25/2018: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (sefayildirim / Shutterstock.com).
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