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A fresh crisis threatens Sweden’s hopes of joining NATO. Stockholm has been deadlocked in negotiations with Turkey to allow it to enter the mutual defence body. The burning of a Koran by far-right protesters in Stockholm has sparked outrage and threatens to undermine months of work.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Sweden, and its neighbour Finland, abandoned a decades-old policy of neutrality in the confrontation between the West and Russia. Both countries applied to join NATO, the American-led mutual defence body that has been the West’s military backbone in Europe since 1949.

However, entry into NATO can only occur if all member countries approve a country’s application to enter. Turkey, which joined NATO in 1952, proved to be a spanner in the works and opposed Sweden and Finland’s entry into the organization.

Turkey had a few key demands before it allowed both countries into NATO. It wanted arms embargoes lifted and also that Stockholm and Oslo aid Ankara in its fight against Kurdish groups, who share a complicated and violent history with Turkey and are seen as a security threat by the latter.

Sweden hosts several Kurdish migrants, many of whom are vocal opponents of Turkey’s foreign policy. Despite this, a landmark deal was reached in June last year wherein Turkey removed its block on NATO membership for both Nordic countries after its demands were met.

In the following months, arms embargoes were lifted. Sweden has also extradited certain Kurdish individuals to Turkey that the latter sees as a security threat. However, the June deal has now run into trouble. While Sweden feels it has upheld its part of the deal, Turkey wants Stockholm to crack down harder on Kurdish organizations and extradite targeted individuals faster.

“Turkey confirms that we have done what we said we would do. But they also say that they want things that we can’t and won’t give them. So the decision is now with Turkey," said Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson

It was in the middle of this that right-wing politician Rasmus Paludan decided to hold a demonstration outside the Turkish Embassy. During this demonstration, he publicly burnt a copy of the Koran and made a speech denouncing Islam and immigration to Sweden.

Turkey’s foreign ministry issued a swift condemnation of Paludan’s actions. It also took aim at Swedish authorities, who permitted the protest to take place. Despite Sweden’s protestations that Paludan was exercising his freedom of expression, condemnations have come in thick and fast from the Islamic world, including from Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Turkey also cancelled a meeting with Sweden’s defence minister, who was scheduled to meet with his Turkish counterpart to iron out disagreements that have held up a final agreement on Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO.

A final decision by Turkish President Recep Erdogan seems unlikely before the country’s general elections, slated to occur before June. Observers said Erdogan might drag out negotiations. The image of Erdogan handing down terms to powerful Western nations to get his way is politically useful in an election year.

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