Turkey and Sweden Fail to End Their NATO Membership Standoff. Their Leaders Will Try Again on Monday

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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, July 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

BRUSSELS — Sweden and Turkey made some progress in talks aimed at overcoming President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s objections to the Nordic country joining NATO, but gaps still remain in their positions and their leaders will meet next week to discuss them, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday.

NATO had hoped the problems would be resolved before its July 11-12 summit in Lithuania. Sweden’s entry would be a symbolically powerful moment and the latest indication that Russia’s war in Ukraine is driving countries to join the alliance. Those hopes have been all but dashed.

Stoltenberg told reporters after the meeting that he, Erdogan and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson would hold talks in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on Monday — on the eve of the summit — in an effort “to bridge the gap we still see.”

“We all agreed that we have made good progress. We all agreed that the full membership of Sweden is in the security interests of all allies, and we all want to conclude this process as soon as possible,” Stoltenberg said.

But he added: “There are some unsolved issues. We are addressing them now. We’ll work on it over the weekend."

    Fearing for their security, Sweden and neighboring Finland ended their longstanding policy of military nonalignment after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and applied to join NATO.

    Only Turkey and Hungary have delayed Sweden’s membership. The other 29 allies, Stoltenberg and Sweden have all said the country has done enough to satisfy Turkey’s demands. Sweden has changed its constitution, modified anti-terror laws and lifted an arms embargo on Turkey, among other concessions.

    But Turkey accuses Sweden of being too lenient toward groups that Ankara says pose a security threat, including militant Kurdish groups and people associated with a 2016 coup attempt. NATO requires the unanimous approval of all 31 members to expand.

    Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan acknowledged the changes in Sweden’s anti-terrorism laws and the lifting of arms restrictions.

    “However, the legislative changes now need to be reflected in practice,” he said. He also lamented a series of demonstrations that have taken place in Sweden.

    In a new development just before the meeting, a Turkish man was found guilty in Sweden of attempted aggravated extortion, weapons possession and attempted terrorist financing, saying he was acting on behalf of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party.

    The Stockholm District Court sentenced Yahya Güngör to a total of 4½ years in prison for the crimes, after which he would be expelled from Sweden and banned from returning. It was the first time that a Swedish court sentenced someone for terrorist financing of the party, Judge Mans Wigen said.

    Also known as PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984 and is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. It's unclear whether the Swedish court action would have any impact on Erdogan's thinking.

    Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström, who described Thursday's meeting as “very positive,” said that the court sentencing “is very important indeed, because it shows that we take the security of those who have concerns with the PKK activities very seriously.”

    Hungary is also holding up approval of Sweden’s candidacy, but has never clearly stated publicly what its concerns are. NATO officials expect that Hungary will follow suit once Turkey lifts its objections.

    At a European Union summit last week, Kristersson said he had spoken twice to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and “both times he has confirmed that Hungary will not delay.”

    Turkey is a different matter. A Quran-burning protest, at which the media vastly outnumbered the participants, outside a mosque in Stockholm has fueled tensions. Police permitted the protest, citing freedom of speech, after a court overturned a ban on a similar burning of the Muslim holy book.

    Erdogan criticized Sweden last week for allowing the protest. Turkish defense ministry spokesman Zeki Akturk condemned what he called a “vile attack on our sacred values that was carried out in the name of so-called freedom of expression.”

    "The Quran-burning incident that took place of the first day of the Eid al-Adha holiday is an indication of how justified we were with our reservations (about Sweden),” Akturk said, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.

    Beyond the latest incidents, Erdogan railed against Sweden while on the campaign trail for elections in May, and NATO officials had expected him to relent after he was reelected. Erdogan is also seeking upgraded F-16 fighter jets from the U.S., but Biden has suggested that Sweden’s membership should be endorsed first.

    Asked whether it’s clear to him what Turkey actually wants from Sweden, Stoltenberg said: “I understand what President Erdogan is asking for. We have met many, many times and we have discussed in detail.”

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    Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.

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