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As NATO summit prepares to convene, Turkey continues to block Sweden's membership

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As this year's NATO summit gets underway in Lithuania, Turkey is still blocking Sweden's bid for membership in the alliance. Teri Schultz has this report from Brussels.

TERI SCHULTZ: The tone of NATO's Vilnius summit will be determined by one man, and it's not the one running the alliance.

SELIM KUNERALP: So it comes to his decision and his alone.

SCHULTZ: Retired Turkish Ambassador Selim Kuneralp says no one can predict whether Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will let Sweden become a NATO member at the summit, but Kuneralp does detect that Erdogan has slightly softened his anti-Swedish rhetoric since winning reelection in May.

KUNERALP: He's not been saying things like, you know, they will join over my dead body or anything like that. It's been sort of open to discussion, and so anything might happen.

SCHULTZ: Twenty-nine of the 31 NATO governments, as well as Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, say it should already have happened. Stockholm has toughened its stance against the PKK, a Kurdish militant group designated as a terrorist organization but still allowed to hold public demonstrations. Swedish police have tried to block incidents of Quran burning, and restrictions have been lifted on arms sales to Turkey. The Swedish government says it cannot go further. And Paul Levin, head of Stockholm University's Institute for Turkish Studies, says the Swedish public agrees.

PAUL LEVIN: It would be politically very difficult for any government to make restrictions on freedom of speech at the sort of behest of Erdogan, who was running a country that right now does not rank well when it comes to freedom of speech.

SCHULTZ: But Erdogan is also seeking sweeteners from outside Sweden - sales of U.S. F-16 fighter jets currently blocked by Congress. Presidents Biden and Erdogan discussed both Swedish membership and F-16s in a phone call Sunday, after which Erdogan denied the two subjects are connected. Swedish defense policy analyst Elisabeth Braw scoffs at claims there's no quid pro quo.

ELISABETH BRAW: Everybody knows that's not the case. The Biden administration is willing to offer Turkey F-16s in exchange for Sweden's accession.

SCHULTZ: A face-to-face meeting between Biden and Erdogan has just been put on the summit agenda to apply maximum pressure. But Braw remains skeptical on her country's behalf.

BRAW: A promise from Erdogan when it comes to Swedish membership will only be real when Sweden is in NATO.

SCHULTZ: For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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