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Firat Kozok and Selcan Hacaoglu

Sweden’s NATO Bid in Doubt After Erdogan Refuses Support

Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, during a news conference with Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic at the Palace of Serbia in Belgrade, Serbia, on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. Erdogan blamed the West's "provocative" approach to the war in Ukraine, and said Russia should "not be underestimated." Photographer: Oliver Bunic/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ruled out supporting Sweden’s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after an activist burned Islam’s holy book in Stockholm at the weekend.

Turkish parliamentary approval is required for the membership, so Erdogan’s comments suggest Sweden and neighboring Finland’s efforts to join NATO are now a more distant prospect.

“If you cannot show this respect, then sorry but you will not see any support from us on the NATO issue,” Erdogan said after a cabinet meeting in Ankara Monday, without indicating whether or not that meant the door for negotiation was now closed.

Turkey Cancels Swedish Minister Visit in Fresh Koran Tension

“Those who promote and turn a blind eye to this perversion have undoubtedly taken into account its consequences,” he said. 

All but two of NATO’s 30 members have ratified the Nordic applications, and Hungary has said it plans to do so at the opening of parliament next month. That would leave Turkey as the lone holdout to the expansion, which NATO diplomats had hoped to finalize in time for the alliance’s summit in Vilnius in July.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, during a news conference following the final day of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit at the Ifema Congress Center in Madrid, Spain, on Thursday, June 30, 2022. President Joe Biden said he told Erdogan that he supported the sale of F-16 jets to modernize Turkey's air force, after the two leaders met following Ankara's decision to drop its opposition to NATO expansion. Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg (Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg)

Turkey is sensitive about any hostile act toward Islam, and the president is looking to strengthen support from nationalists and the religiously conservative ahead of elections slated for May.  

Erdogan Keeps World Guessing as Turkey Stalls NATO Expansion 

Danish far-right activist Rasmus Paludan set fire to a copy of the Koran near the Turkish embassy in central Stockholm on Saturday. Paludan, who also has Swedish citizenship, has made a name for himself through a number of provocative Koran burnings, which last year led to protests and riots in Swedish suburbs where many residents are Muslim.

Paludan, who has been convicted of racism and defamation in Denmark, told a populist right-wing news site before the event that his aim is to promote freedom of expression. 

US Steps Up Pressure on Turkey to Ratify NATO’s Nordic Expansion

Turkey had agreed in principle to NATO allies including the US inviting Sweden and Finland to join the group, but went on to demand concessions from Sweden. Those included a broader crackdown on Kurdish groups that Turkey considers terrorist organizations alongside the extradition of suspects.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg)

Sweden has insisted that it’s in compliance with an agreement hammered out at NATO’s June summit in Madrid last year, which allowed the expansion process to move forward.

“On the security concerns, we continue to expect that NATO will formally welcome Finland and Sweden as members,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday following Erdogan’s comments. She condemned the burning of the Koran as a “deeply disrespectful act.”

She echoed comments from Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on Saturday, who expressed sympathy for all Muslims who were offended.

“Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of democracy, but what is legal is not necessarily appropriate,” Kristersson wrote on Twitter.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he’s in close contact with officials in Sweden, Finland and Turkey. He criticized “the kind of behavior” seen on the streets of Stockholm but said it wasn’t illegal and that “freedom of speech is a very precious right.” 

--With assistance from Beril Akman, Leo Laikola, Niclas Rolander, Kati Pohjanpalo, Iain Rogers, Akayla Gardner and Taylan Bilgic.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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