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Turkey expected to back Finland for NATO membership, snub Sweden

Turkey expected to back Finland for NATO membership, snub Sweden


BRUSSELS — In May 2022, when Finnish and Swedish officials announced their intention to join the NATO alliance, in a historic change for both countries, there was talk of “a quick affirmation.”

But the path to membership turned out to be more difficult than first thought. This week, Finnish officials traveled to Turkey to try to seal the deal, while Swedish officials stayed home.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has played spoiler for almost the past 10 months. On Friday, he announced that Finland’s membership request had been sent to Turkey’s parliament for ratification, paving the way for the alliance to grow.

But Erdogan won’t sign Sweden’s bid without further steps, meaning the Nordic neighbors who promised to join NATO “hand in hand” will not, in fact, come together.

At a joint news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto on Friday in Ankara, the Turkish capital, Erdogan praised Finland for taking “sincere and concrete steps” to fulfill the security commitments it made to Turkey nearly a years ago, at a NATO summit in Madrid.

“We have decided to start the process of approving Finland’s NATO accession protocol in our parliament, based on the sensitivity and distance our country has achieved in addressing our security concerns,” Erdogan said, adding that the engagement -talks with Sweden will “continue on the basis of the principles of our alliance and our strategy in the fight against terrorism.”

“At this point, how the process develops will be directly linked to the concrete steps that Sweden will take,” he said, citing what he said was Sweden’s refusal to extradite “terrorists” affiliated with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party , or PKK.

In recent months, Turkey has expressed anger at street protests held in Stockholm against Erdogan, including a demonstration in January that included the burning of a Quran.

For Erdogan, separating Finland from Sweden also appears to be a domestic political play — an appeal to nationalist voters as he trails his main rival in several polls ahead of the planned May 14 election.

For NATO, Erdogan’s antics are something between an untimely irritant and a dangerous distraction. NATO has insisted that the two countries will eventually join, strengthening the alliance.

But until they do, officials will continue to spend time and energy shuttling between capitals to cut a deal — while Russia is waging war.

This week, Sweden’s prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, seemed to agree that Finland would go first. “It is not excluded that Sweden and Finland will adopt different measures,” he said.

The question now is what comes next. Turkey has been the main holdout, but not the only one.

Hungary has indicated support for Finnish and Swedish membership, but continues to delay a parliamentary vote on the matter, leading to speculation that it may be using the issue as leverage in its fight with the European Union. However, NATO officials say they are confident Hungary will ratify both bids soon.

Assuming Hungary comes first, Sweden will still need to negotiate with Turkey.

Friday’s meeting was the latest twist in what has become an unexpectedly dramatic — and revealing — story.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland began to rethink its policy of military non-alignment. It urged Sweden to do the same.

How Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine pushed Finland towards NATO

The 30-member alliance welcomed their interest, saying the addition of the two countries, which are close partners, would strengthen NATO’s posture. Finnish and Swedish membership would bring the full force of the alliance to the far north and strengthen a greater presence around the Baltic Sea.

After months of debate and diplomacy, representatives from both countries formally submitted their bids to a carefully choreographed display.

“I warmly welcome the requests of Finland and Sweden to join NATO,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference in Brussels that day. “You are our closest partners, and your membership in NATO will enhance our shared security.”

After the cameras stopped, however, Turkey objected to the bids.

Erdogan has called for Sweden to grant asylum to PKK members, and he has hinted that he may push through. The extent of Turkey’s resistance appeared to catch the alliance by surprise.

In the weeks that followed, NATO leaders, diplomats and officials worked hard to move things forward. Before a NATO summit in Madrid in June 2022, the three countries cut a deal: Turkey has agreed to end its opposition in exchange for concessions on what it calls Kurdish militant groups and weapons.

Turkey dropped opposition to Finland and Sweden joining NATO

“Welcoming Finland and Sweden into the alliance will make them safer, NATO stronger and the Euro-Atlantic area safer,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference after the signing ceremony. “This is important as we face the biggest security crisis in decades.”

Over the months, Stoltenberg became increasingly clear that Finland and Sweden had met Turkey’s demands. Turkey continued to retreat.

By the fall, while Turkey was digging in, Helsinki and Stockholm insisted they were contiguous. “We take every step hand in hand and none of us have other ambitions,” Kristersson said in October.

But Turkey did not budge. And in January, Finland’s foreign minister floated for the first time the idea of advancing without Sweden.

On Friday, President Niinisto thanked Erdogan for advancing Finland’s membership application. “It’s great to hear this news,” he said.

“But we have a neighbor, Sweden,” he added, saying that the countries shared common interests, such as the Baltic Sea state, and good relations. “I have a feeling that Finnish NATO membership is incomplete without Sweden,” he said.

Fahim reports from Istanbul.

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