Did you know that the famous IKEA meatballs are actually Turkish? The legend goes that the meatballs (as well as stuffed cabbage) were actually brought home to Sweden by King Charles XII, who took refuge in the Ottoman Empire for several years after losing a battle with Russia in the early 18th century. The final battle was in Poltava, which is now in central Ukraine, and the Swedish monarch’s opponent was none other than Peter the Great, the tsar who seized parts of Ukraine from the Ottomans and is apparently an inspiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This history, along with the fact that Turkey has long been a champion of NATO enlargement, should make Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more lenient on Sweden and Finland’s bid to join the alliance during this week’s NATO summit in Madrid. The Baltic nations are increasingly feeling the heat from a belligerent Russia, and NATO wants to use this summit as a show of Western unity. But Erdogan has been threatening to veto the Nordic entry into the alliance because of Sweden’s support for the Kurdish movement in Syria.
This impasse is seemingly about Sweden. But in reality, it is Erdogan’s way of airing grievances about a number of NATO allies, most notably the United States. Sweden also has a large Kurdish diaspora and its public has been sympathetic to the Kurdish cause. This recent crisis stems from the Swedish government’s reliance on a Kurdish member of Sweden’s parliament, Amineh Kakabaveh, whose vote as an independent deputy was critical to form the government. In return for her vote, Social Democrats pledged support for Syrian Kurds, who are aligned with the United States but considered terrorists by Turkey due to their affiliation with Turkey’s own Kurdish separatist movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdogan has called Sweden a “nest of terrorism”.
Turkey has legitimate security concerns on its borders. But part of the problem is that Ankara has drifted so far from the European standards in civil liberties that its definitions of free speech and terrorism are vastly different from those in European democracies. Some of Turkey’s demands, such as asking Sweden to prevent fundraising or recruitment for the PKK, a designated terrorist organization in the United States and the European Union, are justified.
Others are a reflection of Turkey’s more inward-looking moment and difficult for Europeans to meet. In public speeches, Erdogan has shown videos of Kurdish demonstrations across Europe, and Turkish media outlets close to the government have been writing stories about diaspora organizations in Stockholm displaying photos of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan or emblems of Kurdish groups. Erdogan is outraged that Swedish television can feature interviews with Syrian Kurdish leaders affiliated with the PKK. For ordinary Swedes, there is nothing wrong with these occurrences. For Ankara, they are direct acts of hostility against Turkey.
There have been weeks of diplomacy between the two governments. But to make matters worse, this month a Kurdish support group in Sweden has projected images of Ocalan and PKK insignia on public buildings in Stockholm, infuriating the Turkish president. The Swedish foreign ministry called it “a deliberate and malicious influence campaign with the clear aim of obstructing Sweden’s accession to NATO”, hoping to calm Ankara’s anger.
Erdogan is scheduled to meet with leaders of Finland and Sweden ahead of the Madrid summit, and it is anybody’s guess what the outcome will be. Ideally, Ankara should not be a spoiler in this moment showcasing transatlantic unity in the face of Russian aggression. It should instead negotiate a reasonable deal with Sweden and Finland that takes into account Turkey’s security concerns but respects Sweden’s and Finland’s standards of free speech.
But Erdogan is impossible to guess. Turkey’s unpredictable leader might feel he has made his point and has gotten enough from Sweden to declare a domestic victory — such as, for example, a NATO statement condemning terrorism or the implementation of a new Swedish anti-terrorism law beginning next month — or continue to block formal membership for Sweden and Finland.
But Erdogan should think of Turkey’s longer-term interests and the state of its already fragile relations with NATO allies. Green-lighting the Nordic march into the Alliance would firm up Turkey’s position in NATO at a critical time of geopolitical reshuffling. Ankara has already played its hand skillfully in supporting Ukraine and engaging in a careful balancing act with Russia. Blocking Sweden would inflame the debate on Turkey’s place in the transatlantic community and alienate Europeans even further.
A master of geopolitical balancing, Erdogan has already demonstrated Turkey’s displeasure at support for Syrian Kurds. He should now use a green light as leverage for better relations with transatlantic allies, including the United States.
Asli Aydintasbas is a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.