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Why Turkey threatens to block Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO bids

Turkey has strongly objected to Finland and Sweden joining the NATO military alliance, but analysts say the issue could be resolved through concessions and pressure on Ankara. Helsinki and Stockholm on Wednesday submitted a joint application to join the alliance. New members must be approved by all 30 NATO states. Here, AFP looks at what Turkey wants: – Can Turkey block the bids? – Turkey, which joined NATO in 1952, can in theory block Finland’s and Sweden’s bids since every member must agree on starting membership talks and their parliaments must ratify any application. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated Wednesday that Ankara could not approve the two bids, urging the alliance’s other member states to “respect” its concerns over Finland and Sweden. NATO ambassadors failed to agree on an immediate start to membership talks due to Turkey’s opposition at a meeting in Brussels Wednesday. Paul Levin, director of the Institute for Turkey Studies at Stockholm University, told AFP he still believed an agreement could be reached. “On such an important strategic issue… Sweden might make some concessions and other NATO members may contribute, by both putting pressure on Turkey and giving them some candy.” But “you can’t rule out” that Turkey will dig in its heels and block membership because the issue of Kurdish militants “is a very important and emotional issue to many Turks”, he said. – What is Turkey’s issue? – Turkey has rebuked Sweden and Finland, especially Stockholm, for what it describes as leniency towards the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and other armed Kurdish groups in Syria that Turkey is fighting. The PKK has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 and is blacklisted as a “terrorist organisation” by Turkey and Western allies like the European Union — which includes Finland and Sweden. But Sweden’s anti-terror laws are not as extensive as in Turkey, in fact, “they are on the other end of the spectrum”, said Levin. “For example, in Sweden it is not illegal to be a member or a supporter of a terrorist organisation, or wave its flag,” he said, which means that pro-PKK demonstrations regularly take place in Stockholm. Erdogan has also accused Finland and Sweden of providing a safe haven to PKK members, and refusing Ankara’s extradition requests. Turkey’s anger over the PKK issue has in recent years extended to Swedish support for Syrian Kurdish groups, such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Ankara views the YPG, which fought against the Islamic State group in Syria with Western air support, as the PKK’s Syria offshoot. Relations between Turkey and the West deteriorated in 2019 when Helsinki and Stockholm, along with other European countries, banned arms exports to Turkey in response to a Turkish offensive in northern Syria. Ankara, which accuses Stockholm of leading that charge, “will not say ‘yes’ to those who apply sanctions to Turkey”, Erdogan said. – What does Ankara want? – The Turkish president could seek to extract other concessions in exchange for Ankara’s support, such as US warplanes. Analysts said he could also be trying to increase support at home ahead of a critical presidential election next year, or to send a positive signal to Russia, with which he has complex ties. “Erdogan is a transactional leader in terms of Turkey’s ties to the West, so I think he is also trying to kill some other birds with one stone, not just forcing Sweden to come close to Turkey’s position on PKK,” said Soner Cagaptay, Turkish Research Program director at The Washington Institute. The export of US fighter jets to Turkey is frequently mentioned as one possible solution to the spat. There have been talks in recent weeks on an export deal for the US F-16 fighter jets but Congress has yet to give its green light. Experts say any move seen as blackmail could ruffle feathers in Washington. “I don’t think the Turkish government will be able to obtain anything significant at the end of these negotiations,” said Zeynep Gurcanli, a columnist at Turkish daily Dunya. She said Ankara was acting “tactlessly” by repeatedly opposing the bids. Similar power struggles between Turkey and the West have occurred in the past, and Ankara has not always come up winning. In the 1990s, Turkey threatened to block NATO enlargement to Eastern European countries unless its EU membership bid moved forward. And in 2009, Ankara failed to block Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark from taking the reins of NATO.

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