ISTANBUL – Turkey’s president cast serious doubt on NATO expansion on Monday after warning Sweden not to expect support for its bid to join the military alliance following weekend protests in Stockholm by anti-Islam activist and pro-Kurdish groups.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Rasmus Paludan’s protest against the Koran on Saturday, saying it was an insult to everyone, especially Muslims. He was particularly upset with Swedish authorities for allowing the demonstration to take place outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm under the “protection” of the security forces.
“It is clear that those who allowed such indecency to take place in front of our embassy can no longer expect any charity from us regarding their application for NATO membership,” Erdogan said in his first comments regarding the weekend protests, saying Sweden must have calculated the consequences of allowing Paludan’s demonstration.
The burning of Islam’s holy book outraged people across the political spectrum in Turkey, just as Sweden and Finland appeared on the brink of NATO membership after abandoning their long-standing policy of military non-alignment following Russia’s war on Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin will now benefit as the potential expansion of the world’s most powerful military alliance appears to be blocked.
Rasmus Paludan, leader of the far-right Danish political party Stram Kurs, speaks outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, January 21, 2023. (Fredrik Sandberg/TT News Agency/via Reuters)
Erdogan also criticized Sweden for allowing pro-Kurdish protests in which demonstrators waved the flags of various Kurdish groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey. The PKK is considered a terrorist group in Turkey, the EU and the US, but its symbols are not banned in Sweden.
So you will let terrorist organizations run free on your roads and streets and then expect our support to enter NATO. That’s not happening, Erdogan said, referring to Sweden and Finland’s bid to join the military alliance. He said that if Sweden will not show respect for NATO member Turkey or Muslims, then “they will not see any support from us on the NATO issue.”
A joint memorandum signed by Turkey, Sweden and Finland in June averted a Turkish veto of their membership application at the NATO summit in Madrid where they affirmed the PKK as a terrorist group and pledged to prevent its activities. Continued protests have angered Ankara, which has said Sweden needs to address Turkey’s security concerns and demands that the Turkish parliament ratify their NATO request.
“If they love terrorist organization members and enemies of Islam so much, we recommend that they refer the security of their countries to them,” he added. Several hundred pro-Kurdish protesters walked over a photo of Erdogan on Saturday and an Erdogan image was hung from a lamp post in an earlier protest. Turkish officials canceled bilateral meetings in response.
Swedish officials have stressed that freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Swedish constitution and gives people extensive rights to express their views publicly, although incitement to violence or hate speech is not allowed. Demonstrators must apply to the police for a permit for a public assembly. The police can refuse such permits only on exceptional grounds, such as risks to public safety. Top Swedish officials have said that freedom of expression is crucial for democracy, while criticizing Paludan’s actions as disrespectful and with which they do not agree.
Anti-Islam activist Paludan, who has both Danish and Swedish citizenship, established far-right parties in both countries that have failed to win any mandates in national, regional or municipal elections. In last year’s parliamentary elections in Sweden, his party received only 156 votes in the entire country. His burning of the Koran sparked counter-protests in Turkey over the weekend, where protesters burned his photograph and a Swedish flag.