The issue of the accession of the two Nordic states to NATO in 2023 attracted the maximum public attention and gained the greatest urgency. It went beyond consideration only in the sphere of interstate relations in Greater Europe. The position on preventing the entry of Sweden and Finland into the alliance as soon as possible, taken by the political leadership of Turkey, headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, confused the maps as much as possible for the Scandinavian states themselves, as well as for the ardent supporters of NATO expansion represented by the United States and the “small states” of the EU, such as Poland and the Baltic Republics.
In a broader dimension, the dispute about whether Sweden and Finland should be members of NATO unfolded with renewed vigor against the backdrop of the ongoing conflict of civilizations, the split between East and West, the cultural codes of modern European Christianity and world Islam. When right-wing extremist populist radicals from Denmark and Sweden launched a whole series of public actions to burn the Koran, sacred to all Muslims, as a sign of opposition to the position taken by the Turkish leadership, they not only set Muslims around the world against themselves. These people also rallied around Erdogan, in addition to the ideological supporters of the Justice and Development Party, a doubting electorate throughout Turkey and in the Turkish community abroad.
Considerations about European security and geopolitical relations with allies in the West in general, and the interfaith dimension of the “Scandinavian story” for the Turkish leadership are seen as very important and significant. But in the winter-spring of 2023, they are of a secondary and even functional nature on the eve of the presidential elections scheduled for spring-summer.
The key foreign policy thesis that representatives of the coalition of six parties opposing Erdogan and his new term managed to agree on in the most general form was the maxim about the need for a radical revision of relations with the West. Its essence lies in the fact that the return to the primacy of the idea of Turkey’s accession to the EU over all other foreign policy goals can serve not only as a reliable guarantee of security, but will also help overcome the economic crisis, and at the same time get rid of the “destructive effects” of the legacy of the Erdogan era in relations with neighbors and the world.
Back in mid-2022, from the point of view of the architects of the opposition program, Turkey’s consent to the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO could be the starting point for restoring trust between Ankara and its Western allies in the alliance. In this way, she could show that she was striving to play by the rules and was ready to work to return the status of a responsible partner and a disciplined member of the alliance in the eyes of the United States and Western European states.
The Turkish opposition, or rather, part of it, hoped that in response the West would be able to offer significant assistance in overcoming the economic crisis affecting all segments of the population. And this will naturally mark a new perspective and rally society around the opponents of Erdogan, who “brought” the country to collapse and poverty.
Nevertheless, by linking Turkey’s position on the membership of Sweden and Finland in NATO with the policy of these states towards Kurdish dissidents and political organizations that question the constitutional order and territorial integrity of Turkey, President Erdogan sharpened the issue as much as possible. By doing this, he turned the public discussion in an exceptionally beneficial direction for himself.
At the peak of these disputes, when the situation could still change, on November 13, 2022, a terrorist attack took place in Istanbul, the responsibility for organizing which the authorities laid on the PKK. After that, talk about the potential economic prospects and dividends that Turkey could potentially receive by agreeing to the membership of Sweden and Finland in NATO without preconditions turned out to be more than just meaningless. They have become very dangerous for the political career of any Turkish politician.
A significant part of the electorate of this country began to evaluate the issue of the presence of distant Scandinavian states in the same alliance with Turkey, not in terms of possible economic advantages, but in an emotional and symbolic way. Security, the fight against terrorism and the conflict of civilizations turned out to be the key narratives through which a significant part of society began to look at the problem. So now Erdogan can ignore the time factor, which is running out before the elections, and bargain with American and European politicians on his own terms.
And bargaining is quite appropriate, because no matter how much the Turkish public is worried, the flames of anger will soon begin to subside, especially if this is facilitated by the media controlled by the leadership of the republic. But this will happen and the wave will decline only when the presidential elections are over and nothing threatens Erdogan’s power. After that, the question of Sweden and Finland’s membership in NATO will depend only on whether its supporters can offer Turkey a sufficiently attractive price. True, it will no longer be limited to economic resources, but will also include serious political concessions and decisions.
The author is an expert of the Valdai Club
The position of the editors may not coincide with the opinion of the author