The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan devised a secret plan to create a rift between Sweden and Finland as they seek to overcome Turkish objections for NATO membership, hoping to get more concessions during the negotiations.
The plot, carefully planned among advisors of Erdoğan and several diplomats at the foreign ministry, had a two-prong approach. One is based on private communications to delegations representing the two countries to imply that Turkey may look more favorably at one over the other. The Turks floated several suggestions to boost the impression that one country has a better chance than the other if they go along with Turkish demands.
The second part of Turkish tactic was focused on shaping the public debate with remarks and talking points around supposed differences between the two countries and how Turkey would like to approach each application separately.
The main target has always been Sweden, the big dog among Nordic states, according to Erdoğan's people, who have come to hate the Nordic country for everything they dislike, from a strong tradition of upholding rights and freedoms, conflict aversion, consensus building, pursuit of a rule-based global order and what Sweden brands as a "feminist foreign policy."
Last month Reuters reported how the Turkish foreign minister lashed out at his Swedish counterpart at a meeting in Berlin of NATO foreign ministers by raising his voice at Sweden's Ann Linde in a break with diplomatic protocol and saying that said he was irritated at Linde's "feminist policy" bringing "so much drama."
The first phase of the plan was put in motion when Swedish and Finnish delegations arrived in Ankara to hold a first round of talks on May 25, 2022. The Turkish side demanded separate talks with each delegation in order to determine if either country would be willing to negotiate solo.
In the eyes of the Turkish side, Finland was considered a weak link and Sweden was a tough nut to crack. Therefore, the first meeting Turkish side hosted was with the Finnish delegation, followed by the Swedish group.
Both the Swedish delegation, led by Oscar Stenström, state secretary and former ambassador, and the Finnish delegation, led by Jukka Salovaara, the foreign ministry undersecretary, made it clear to the Turkish delegation, represented by Ibrahim Kalın, Erdoğan's point man in the palace, and Sedat Önel, deputy foreign minister, that they did not want separate tracks and wanted to proceed together.
As a result the two delegations jointly held a third meeting with the Turkish side to convey to the public at large that the two countries want to move forward together as they did in their submission of a formal application to NATO in Brussels a week ago.
Although the Turkish side saw their that plot to divide Sweden and Finland had failed in the first attempt, Turkish officials continue to make public remarks aiming to create the perception of a rift between the two with a view to mobilizing public opinion and opposition in those countries against their governments.
In an interview with the state-owned Anadolu news agency on May 31, 2022 Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said his government views Finland's bid relatively positively in contrast to Sweden's but said both countries as well as NATO want to move forward simultaneously with the applications.
In public remarks since Turkey declared its opposition to Sweden and Finland's NATO bids before resolving outstanding issues, President Erdoğan focused in particular on Sweden in his attacks rather than Finland. At a town hall with young people on May 19, he talked specifically about Sweden and said, "Sweden is a terrorist hub, and it imposed an arms embargo on Turkey." Similar remarks were made by Erdoğan in the following days.
Frustrated in their attempt to create a rift between the two countries, the Turkish government avoided holding follow-up trilateral meetings. Çavuşoğlu revealed on May 31 that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg suggested holding trilateral meetings last week in Brussels, first at the technical level, followed by the foreign ministers of all three countries under Stoltenberg's mediation.
He said Turkey had rejected the proposal and saw no benefit in holding such talks without concrete progress in Finland and Sweden meeting Turkish demands. "There's no use or meaning in giving the perception that 'we [NATO together with Sweden and Finland] are somehow convincing Turkey' [by holding such meetings]", Çavuşoğlu said, recalling that Turkey had handed over a document listing all its demands and that Sweden and Finland must respond to the document before such a meeting takes place.
Yet on June 1, a day after Çavuşoğlu's refusal, Stoltenberg told reporters in a joint press event with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that a meeting in Brussels of senior officials from all three countries was planned in the coming days under his leadership. So far, no such meeting has taken place.
The issue on the table has much to do with domestic politics and the upcoming elections in Turkey, likely to be held in September, earlier than the scheduled date next year. Erdoğan and his people are bent on using Sweden and Finland as punching bags to fire up his core Islamist base and throw a bone to the government's nationalist (Ülkücüler) and neo-nationalist (Ulusalcılar) allies, both of which are fiercely anti-West.
President Erdoğan also wants to use the issue to negotiate with the US administration and is especially keen on derailing a federal case in New York that would expose him to criminal charges over Turkish state lender Halkbank's illegal dealings with Iranian entities which was done with his personal approval. The Halkbank case is set to begin soon in a New York federal court after all sorts of delaying tactics employed by lawyers representing the Turkish government with the US judiciary failed.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.