The entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO would be a game-changer for security in the Baltic Sea region. However, all NATO countries must first approve their NATO applications and two members, Turkey and Hungary, have yet to do so.
Over the past week, Sweden’s chances were derailed by protests in Turkey, which were primarily in response to a Koran burning protest outside the Turkish Embassy in Sweden. As a consequence, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated he would not be supporting Sweden’s application, although it is unclear whether there is still a chance to resolve this.
This is a convenient series of events for the Kremlin – and there are indications that it may not have happened organically. Let’s take a deeper look at the initial Koran-burning protest that led to it.
The hand of the Kremlin
The Koran-burning protest in Sweden was conducted by Danish politician Rasmus Paludan, but he told journalists that the idea came from “some Swedes who would like me to burn a Koran in front of the Turkish embassy”. The Swedish media discovered that the permit for the protest was paid not by Paludan, but by Swedish journalist Chang Frick.
Frick openly supports Putin and used to work for Kremlin propaganda channel RT before founding his own alternative news site, Nyheter Idag, which supports the far right. He has made multiple trips to Moscow in recent years. An investigation by the New York Times in 2019 revealed how the Kremlin was attempted to polarise Swedish society by staging provocations and supporting far right online media outlets, like Nyheter Idag, which appeared to be boosted by a considerable outside effort linked to the Kremlin. This support to Frick’s news site involved payments in the form of advertising through a front company and enhanced search engine rankings through link building from other Kremlin-connected sites.
When approached for comment by the Swedish media who uncovered that he paid for the protest permit, Frick explained that he was simply supporting free expression when he was told me another alternative Swedish news site, Exakt24, that Paludan was unable to make the payment himself from Denmark. However, when Exact24 was also approached for comment, they contradicted that story. A journalist from Exakt24 explained that it was Frick who first approached them to ask if they knew anyone who would be willing to burn a Koran, for which he was willing to cover expenses. They recommended Paludan to Frick.
The story of the Koran-burning protest made headlines globally, especially in Turkey where it fueled opposition to Sweden’s NATO application and served as the catalyst for derailing them. Yet these circumstances involving a Kremlin-connected journalist who initiated, facilitated, and promoted that initial incident has only really been covered in the Swedish-language media.
Perhaps if protestors in Turkey knew more about that, they would actually be more willing to support Sweden’s application.