Among the providential results of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the reawakening of the West to the value of its mutual defense pact, NATO, whose 30 members are all pledged to come to the defense of any member threatened with aggression. And the Ukraine war has led to a spectacular development: the desire expressed by both Finland and Sweden to become members of NATO.
Before the invasion of Ukraine, most Finns and Swedes were lukewarm about joining NATO. All that has changed: 76% of Finns now want Finland in NATO, and so do more than 60% of Swedes. Finland has already declared its intention to seek NATO membership; Sweden is just about to follow suit. NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, has announced that both countries would be “welcomed with open arms.”
Well, not quite. One set of arms that will remain resolutely closed belong to the Turkish President, the dour and difficult Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has already announced that he will oppose membership in NATO for both countries. Since approval of new members of NATO requires a unanimous vote, Turkey by itself can keep both Sweden and Finland out.
Why would Erdogan do this? He is angry that there are Kurds – 15,000 of them – living in Sweden and that some of them, unsurprisingly, support the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which favors greater autonomy for the 15 million Kurds living in Turkey. The PKK is recognized by Turkey, the US, and the EU as a terrorist organization, although this designation has become increasingly controversial as the PKK has greatly decreased its acts of terrorism. “Erdogan says Turkey does not support Finland and Sweden joining NATO,” by Dylan Stableford, Yahoo News, May 13, 2022:
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that his country does not support plans by Finland and Sweden to join NATO, claiming they are home to “terrorist organizations.”
This is rich, coming from someone who in 2020 gave refuge, and Turkish citizenship and passports, to dozens of members of the terror group Hamas. Furthermore, Sweden does not support, but outlaws the PKK. What Erdogan really objects to is Sweden not also outlawing members of the YPG, which Turkey regards as the Syrian branch of the PKK. The YPG, which was America’s most useful ally in the fight against the Islamic State, continues to receive American military and financial support. Should Turkey be allowed to keep Sweden and Finland out of NATO just because the Swedes – like the Americans – have supported, or at least not banned, the YPG?
“We are following the developments regarding Sweden and Finland, but we don’t hold positive views,” Erdogan told reporters at a press conference in Istanbul. “Scandinavian countries are guesthouses for terrorist organizations.”
There is only one “guesthouse for terrorist organizations” in Europe – Turkey itself, where until recently the welcome mat was always out for Hamas.
“They are even members of the parliament in some countries,” Erdogan added, without offering evidence. “It is not possible for us to be in favor.”
His comments came a day after Finland’s leaders said they intended to apply for NATO membership “without delay.”
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and President Sauli Niinistö released a joint statement announcing that Finland — which shares an 810-mile border with Russia — intends to join the alliance.
“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security,” their statement said. “As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg had said the Finns would be “warmly welcomed” into the pact. The United States and United Kingdom back the move as well.
Sweden is also expected to announce its decision to join the alliance in the coming days.
For a country to be accepted into NATO, there is a list of minimum requirements. This includes having a functioning democracy, treating minority populations fairly and having the ability to make military contributions to NATO operations.
Does Turkey still have a “functioning democracy”? It holds elections, but Erdogan is an authoritarian — a despot — who does not brook dissent. During his time in power, first as prime minister and since then as president, Erdogan has been purging his military of the Kemalist officer corps, replacing them with Islamists. The purge in the military of secularists, bizarrely accused of being supporters of Fethulleh Gulen, a rival of Erdogan who was absurdly charged with directing the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey from his exile in Pennsylvania, became much wider following that failed coup. Nor were military men the only ones to be discharged or imprisoned. After the coup, more than 100,000 professors, university rectors, lawyers, doctors, teachers, civil servants, and journalists all lost their jobs for supposedly “supporting the Gulenist coup,” but really for harboring secularist views that Erdogan feared and despised. An estimated 150,000 state employees were suspended or dismissed, and more than 50,000 were jailed. Turkey a few years ago had jailed more journalists than any other country. Now it has slightly improved, and is #6 on the list of countries that jail the most journalists.. Is any of that a sign of a “functioning democracy”?
And does Turkey treat its minority populations fairly, as is required of NATO members? Fifteen million Kurds apparently do not think so; that is why the PKK has attracted such support during the last few decades. Are Christians – the Greek Orthodox – treated “fairly” when Erdogan’s government has continued to keep closed the only seminary for Greek Orthodox priests left in Turkey, the Halki Theological School? This seminary, which was closed in 1971 on the pretext that privately run institutions were no longer legal, was the only school in the country for the training of Orthodox clergy. The continued closure means the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey is unable to train new clergy in-country. Erdogan’s government has also confiscated valuable church property, including an historic orphanage on the island of Pringipo, and the expropriation of 152 properties of the Balukli Hospital in Istanbul. Neither the very large number – 15 million — of Kurds, nor the very small number – 3,000 – of Greeks, are treated fairly in Turkey. Treating minorities” fairly” is one of the most basic requirements that must be met to be a member of NATO. On this score, too, Turkey fails.
Turkey joined NATO in 1952. The country was clearly the odd man out in what was a military alliance of anti-Communist Western states that shared a Christian heritage. The Americans wanted to reward Turkey for sending troops to fight in the Korean War and, of course, Turkey was also useful as an intelligence base for monitoring events in the Soviet Union. But the Turkey that joined NATO in 1952 was still run by secularists in the Kemalist mode. Turkey has become much more Islam-oriented since Erdogan first became president in 2003. He warned the Austrian prime minister Sebastian Kurz in 2018, whose closure of some mosques had angered him, about a potential future conflict “between the crescent and the cross,” and left no doubt as to which side Turkey would be on. In his neo-Ottoman dreams, Turkey would be the natural leader of the forces of the “crescent” — the Muslim states — against the states of “the cross,” which would include all the other members of NATO.
Erdogan also had published in Yeni Safak, the newspaper that reflects his views, a plan for an “Army of Islam” that would combine the men and weaponry of many Muslim countries into one vast army that would be able to destroy Israel. Apparently none of that was enough for NATO’s other members to begin thinking about expelling Turkey from NATO.
This expansion of NATO – with Sweden and Finland as its two new members — would be an enormous blow to Putin. Preventing NATO’s expansion was one of the main reasons the Russian President launched his military invasion in Ukraine. Instead his invasion has had the opposite effect, in finally pushing two once-reluctant Scandinavian states into the arms of NATO. But as long as Turkey is allowed to exercise its veto, that blow will not be delivered. Two countries that are part of the West will be kept out of NATO by a country that is neither a truly “functioning democracy” nor a state that “treats its minorities fairly,” as NATO members are required to be, and that has now cast aside Kemalism, to again become part of the East or, more exactly, part of the Islamic East.
Erdogan must not be allowed to exercise that veto.
Here is what the other NATO countries could do to bring Erdogan to heel:
First, the stick: NATO members could threaten to end all financial assistance to Turkey. The U.S. alone gives $125 million to Turkey annually. It allows Turkey to buy advanced weaponry. Both the money, and that access to weapons, could be ended. So could loans to Turkey from the IMF, if the U.S. and other major economic powers opposed them. Turkey’s economy is just now in free fall; it is desperate for help. That help can be denied unless Erdogan withdraws his opposition to Finland and Sweden joining NATO.
Second, instead of the stick, the carrot. If Erdogan drops his objections to Finland and Sweden joining NATO, he might find the Americans wiling to increase their aid. And Sweden itself might promise, in order to obtain Turkey’s approval of its admission to NATO, that it will closely monitor the Kurdish exiles in Sweden, to make sure they do not engage in political or military plots against Turkey.
Third, it might be time for neither carrot nor stick, but for something that has been a long time coming: a simple parting of the ways. A number of NATO members have been angered by Erdogan’s attacks on them as “Nazis”; they are tired of his antics; his trying to block Sweden and Finland from membership should be the last straw. Now is the time to end permanently the problem of Erdogan’s Turkey in NATO, by calling an extraordinary meeting of NATO to discuss ending Turkey’s membership in the defense pact. It could be pointed out that Turkey no longer satisfies the requirement that it be a “functioning democracy” and will not do so as long as the authoritarian, autocratic, despotic Erdogan, sitting in his 1,150-room White Palace (Ak Saray), continues to keep so many of his political enemies locked up and the “country’s free press” has become a joke. Turkey is not a “functioning democracy,” but a “despotism-plus-elections.” For NATO, that won’t do.
Furthermore, the 15 million Kurds in Turkey have been subjected to severe mistreatment. Violence has been widely reported against ordinary Kurdish citizens and the headquarters and branches of the pro-Kurdish rights Peoples’ Democratic Party have been attacked by mobs. The European Court of Human Rights and many other international human rights organizations have condemned Turkey for thousands of human rights abuses against Kurds. Many judgments are related to systematic executions of civilians, torture, forced displacements, destroyed villages, arbitrary arrests, and murdered and disappeared journalists, activists and politicians. Use of the Kurdish language is forbidden in schools; officials who use Kurdish have been given long prison sentences. Can the treatment of Turkey’s Kurdish minority be considered to meet NATO’s requirement that “minorities be treated fairly”? Absolutely not.
Now the issue is squarely before NATO. Choose between A) Turkey stays in NATO, while Sweden and Finland are kept out and B) Sweden and Finland are admitted to NATO, and Turkey is expelled. How hard a choice is that?