Turkey’s objections have complicated the alliance
Stockholm: Sweden and Finland moved ahead with bids to join NATO on Tuesday, even as Turkey insisted it will not allow the previously non-aligned Nordic countries to join the alliance because of their alleged support for Kurdish militants.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s forceful objections caught the two candidates and other NATO members by surprise, complicating what was expected to be a rapid expansion of the alliance in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Turkey’s statements have changed very quickly and hardened in the last few days. But I am sure we will resolve the situation with constructive talks,” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said during a visit to Stockholm, the Swedish capital.
Niinisto said he spoke with Erdogan in early April “and it was very clear that he supported him, and he said that Finnish membership should be evaluated favorably. Now it seems there are different opinions. We need to discuss further.”
On Tuesday, the Finnish parliament resoundingly approved the government’s decision to seek membership in a vote of 188-8. The foreign ministers of both countries signed formal letters of application that will be jointly delivered on Wednesday to the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.
But Erdogan’s objections on Friday and again on Monday raised doubts about how quickly the application process could move forward, as unanimity among NATO’s 30 countries is required for new members to join. The Turkish leader accused Nordic countries of harboring “terrorists” and imposing sanctions on Turkey, an apparent reference to the suspension of Swedish and Finnish arms exports in 2019 after Ankara sent troops to northern Syria to attack Kurdish fighters.
Erdogan also dismissed a Swedish plan to send a team of diplomats to Turkey to discuss the issue and said “do not run out of steam.”
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said Sweden is still seeking contact with Turkey to “resolve the question marks.”
“We hope to have a bilateral dialogue with Turkey, but also to have bilateral dialogues with other NATO countries during this process,” she said.
Turkey’s objections appear to have come as a surprise also in Washington, whose relations with Ankara have been strained in recent years. The U.S. suspended Turkey from its F-35 fighter jet program over Turkey’s decision to buy a Russian missile defense system.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was traveling to Washington to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the White House announced that President Joe Biden would meet with Niinisto and Andersson in Washington on Thursday to discuss their applications to NATO and support for Ukraine, among other issues.
Joining NATO would be a big change for the two Nordic countries. Sweden has stayed out of military alliances for more than 200 years, while Finland adopted neutrality after being defeated by the Soviet Union in World War II.
Russia has repeatedly warned its Nordic neighbors that joining the alliance would have negative repercussions. The Swedish prime minister warned citizens to prepare for possible disruptive moves by Russia, including disinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide the country.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it would expel two Finnish diplomats and leave a multinational organization focused on the Baltic Sea. It also said the Finnish ambassador was read a protest against Finland’s “confrontational course in relation to Russia,” including its role in international sanctions against Russia and arms supplies to Ukraine. The statement did not mention NATO.
European officials expressed hope that Turkey’s objections to Finnish and Swedish membership in NATO could be overcome.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the two countries would receive strong support “from all member states because it increases our unity and makes us stronger.”
Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, told Germany’s Deutschlandfunk radio that he suspects Erdogan is simply “raising the price” of the two countries’ membership.
“At the end of the day, I am convinced that Turkey cannot stop this,” he said.
Turkey accuses several European countries of supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, left-wing extremists, and followers of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara says were behind a failed military coup attempt in 2016.
Turkey’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said Tuesday that Sweden and Finland “have not returned a single” suspect Turkey wants to be extradited for alleged links to the PKK or the Gulen movement.
“Those who prefer terrorist organizations to Turkey should see that their own decisions have caused them to lose,” Bozdag said.
Many Kurds and other exiles have found refuge in Sweden over the past decades, as have members of Gulen’s movement more recently. According to Turkish state media, Sweden and Finland have refused to extradite 33 people wanted by Turkey.
Sweden denies supporting the PKK, which is on the EU terrorist list but has had contacts with Kurdish fighters in Syria who played a key role in the fight against Islamic State group militants.
Turkey makes no distinction between Kurdish groups.
Amineh Kakabaveh, a former Kurdish peshmerga fighter from Iran who fled to Sweden and now serves in the country’s parliament, implored the government not to give in to Erdogan’s demands.
“Everyone who is for Kurdish rights is a terrorist to him,” he said. “It is unacceptable for him to get involved in Swedish politics.”