Specter of geopolitics looms large in Nepal

Saurav Raj Pant

Saurav Raj Pant

Specter of geopolitics looms large in Nepal

Nepal has shown chronic symptoms of falling under the radar of both New Delhi and Beijing while setting its priorities, a situation similar to Finlandization

In the midst of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in May 2022, Sweden and Finland formally wrote to NATO seeking the defense-security alliance’s membership. Against the backdrop of a precarious situation in Europe resulting from the Russia-Ukraine War, 28 out of 30 NATO member-states welcomed Finland and Sweden with open arms. However, Turkey and Hungary (Hungary’s ratification, considered just a formality, is expected shortly) put a stop to Swedish and Finnish attempts to join the bloc by refusing to ratify the latter’s bids. This means NATO’s article 5 (one for all—an attack on a member-state is an attack on all member-states) won’t be activated (unless Turkey and Hungary ratify the membership bids) even if unforeseen events affect these two nations, posing major dangers to the European security architecture.

Turkish objection

After Turkish objection to the ratification process, Sweden, Finland, and Turkey worked out a Trilateral Memorandum in June 2022, part of which states: 1. Sweden and Finland shouldn’t support groups like YPG, PYD, and FETO 2. Sweden and Finland should lift their arms embargo against Turkey 3. All future exports of weapons to Turkey must comply with Article 3 of the Washington Treaty. 4. Terror suspects from Sweden and Finland should be extradited to Turkey in the numbers of 21 and 12, respectively.

Turkey claims that none of these people have been extradited despite five years of requests. In accordance with the memorandum’s initial terms and conditions, Sweden passed the Terror Offenses Act, allowing the prosecution of anyone associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). A few days after the agreement, Sweden’s center-left government restricted the freedom of associations with the PKK. While Turkish President Erdogan praised these actions, Sweden relaxed its ban on the sale of weapons to Turkey in November 2022.

Turkey also sought the extradition of top FETO members, but the Swedish Supreme Court rejected the government’s plea for the extradition of a Turkish journalist pointing that he would face prosecution at home. The court pointed out that this violation of political nature had broken no Swedish law, so there should be no extradition.

The results of a survey showed 79 percent of Swedish respondents agreeing that the government should uphold the legislation even if it means delays in acquiring NATO membership. While main Turkish concerns with Sweden are over the Kurds, Finland said it would wait for redressal of Turkish-Swedish concerns before joining them. Turkey believes that more than 100,000 Kurds residing in Sweden are affiliated with the PKK, which Turkey, the EU, and the US consider to be a terrorist outfit. According to the most recent accord, Sweden has to extradite 130 persons associated with the outfit, though only one has been extradited thus far. Sweden and Finland have also expressed concerns about a Security Zone that Turkey plans to establish in northern Syria.

According to the Middle East Council, Turkey views the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), the Syrian affiliate of the PKK based in Turkey, as a terrorist group whereas the US backs the YPG, describing it as the most successful force fighting ISIS on the ground. This has strained bilateral ties. Turkey has been lobbying for an end to American financial and military support for the YPG. The country is also looking to bargain with the US for securing advanced aircraft by raising Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership issues.

Turkey’s gameplan

Turkey is acting as an intermediary in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, embracing sanctioned Russian oligarchs as tourists and investors as long as their commercial operations comply with international laws. Both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu endorsed this interpretation. At a time when both Russia and Turkey are trying to survive financially, Turkey is in desperate need for investment, and such a resource is life-saving.

Russia and Ukraine both conduct their international navigation through Turkey, which connects the Bosporus Strait to the Sea of Marmara, Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea via the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The Bosporus Strait will be challenging for Russia to cross if Turkey closes it, whose rights have been safeguarded by the Montreux Convention. This allows Turkey to close the strait to all foreign warships if it feels threatened. Second, as the Baltic Sea is the principal route for Saint Petersburg navigation, Finland and Sweden joining NATO will present problems for Russian export-import business. This is because both Sweden and Finland have a sphere of influence in the Baltic sea due to coastal lines.

According to expert opinion, Turkey will most likely accept the membership demands after the Turkish elections in May-June 2023. If done earlier, it must answer pointed questions from the opposition political parties in the parliament, which may hamper Erdogan’s electoral performance. Critics say Erdogan is doing it to divert public attention from the country’s economic underperformance. One of the Turkish ambassadors, Sinan Ulgen, has stated that “Erdogan wants to foster his image as someone, who is devoted to advancing Turkey’s interest and forceful in international discussions.”

Turkey is actually employing a dual strategy to secure its interests. On one hand, it is making the West provide advanced fighter planes in acknowledgement of its crucial role in the Syrian conflict. The Turkish leadership has personalized relations with Putin, enabling Russian oligarchs to park their money in Turkey and helping with its development. Turkey thinks accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO is pivotal for all NATO member-states and playing rightly on this could deliver it juice from the fruit. In realpolitik, all parties try every bit to advance their interests. But authorities should think of innocent Finns and Swedish civilians living under the specter of war.

Concerns for Nepal

Nepal’s strategic autonomy in setting its foreign and defense policies matters a lot because of her two immediate giant neighbors. Nepal has shown chronic symptoms of falling under the radar of both New Delhi and Beijing while setting its priorities, a situation similar to Finlandization (Though a Cold War concept, it is relevant even today). In a positive sense, such a radar effect helps Nepal as a bilateral partner in development and stability whereas in a realistic sense, this might create multiple complexities.  Growing distrust between our northern and southern neighbors in the case of Nepal’s flagship projects is affecting Nepal’s national development. If this continues, every development project in Nepal may suffer from our mismanagement internally and geopolitical complexities externally, like in the case of Pokhara International Airport and Gautam Buddha International Airport (built with the Chinese Exim Bank loan and by the Chinese contractor).

In such a scenario, Nepal’s national development can become a matter of bargain for both neighbors. But there’s no one-liner solution to this problem. For resolution of this problem, Nepal’s political leadersehip should opt for continued negotiations with the neighbors.

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