“Turkey’s statements have changed very quickly and hardened in recent days. But I am sure we will resolve the situation with constructive talks,” said Finnish President Sauli Niinisto during a visit to Stockholm, the Swedish capital.
Niinisto said he spoke to Erdogan in early April “and it was crystal clear that he supported, and he said that Finnish membership should be judged positively. Now there seem to be differing views. We must continue to discuss.”
On Tuesday, the Finnish parliament rubber-stamped the government’s decision to apply for membership with 188-8 votes. The foreign ministers of the two countries signed formal application letters to be submitted jointly on Wednesday at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.
But Erdogan’s objections on Friday and again on Monday raised questions about how quickly the application process could proceed, as unanimity among all 30 NATO countries is required for new members to join. The Turkish leader accused the Nordic countries of giving “terrorists” a sanctuary and imposing sanctions on Turkey – an obvious 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 rejected a Swedish plan to send a team of diplomats to Turkey to discuss the issue, saying “do not wear yourself out.”
Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said that Sweden is still seeking contact with Turkey to “sort out the question marks”.
“We look forward to having a bilateral dialogue with Turkey but also to having bilateral dialogues with other NATO countries during this process,” she said.
Turkey’s objections seemed to have come as a surprise even in Washington, whose relations with Ankara have been strained in recent years. The United States shut down Turkey from its F-35 fighter program due to Turkey’s decision to buy a Russian missile defense system.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu traveled to New York for meetings on Wednesday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Meanwhile, the White House announced that President Joe Biden would meet with Niinisto and Andersson in Washington on Thursday to discuss their NATO applications and support for Ukraine among other issues.
Joining NATO would be a big shift for the two Nordic countries. Sweden has remained outside 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 their accession to the alliance would have negative repercussions. The Swedish Prime Minister warned citizens to prepare for potentially disruptive measures from Russia, including disinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide the country.
The Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Tuesday that it is expelling two Finnish diplomats and will leave a multinational organization focused on the Baltic Sea. It also said that the Finnish ambassador read a protest against “Finland’s confrontation course in relation to Russia”, including its role in international sanctions against Russia and arms deliveries to Ukraine. The statement did not mention NATO.
European officials expressed hope that Turkey’s objections to Finnish and Swedish membership of NATO could be overcome.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the two countries would receive strong support “from all member states, as it increases our unity and makes us stronger.”
Luxembourg’s longtime foreign minister Jean Asselborn told German radio Deutschlandfunk that he suspects that Erdogan is only “pushing up the price” for the two countries’ membership.
“At the end of the day, I’m convinced that Turkey can not put a brake on this,” he said.
Turkey accuses several European countries of supporting the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, left-wing extremists and supporters of US-based Muslim priest Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara claims were behind a failed 2016 military coup.
Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Tuesday that Sweden and Finland “have not returned a single” suspect that Turkey wants to extradite for alleged links to the PKK or the Gulen movement.
“Those who prefer terrorist organizations over Turkey should see that their own choices have made them lose,” Bozdag said.
Many Kurdish and other exiles have found refuge in Sweden in recent decades, as have members of the Gulen movement in recent times. According to Turkey’s state media, Sweden and Finland have refused to extradite 33 people wanted by Turkey.
Sweden denies supporting the PKK, which is terrorized by the EU, but has had contacts with Kurdish soldiers in Syria who played a key role in the fight against the militant group Islamic State.
Turkey makes no difference between the Kurdish groups.
Amineh Kakabaveh, a former Kurdish peshmerga fighter from Iran who fled to Sweden and now serves in the country’s parliament, appealed to the government not to bow to Erdogan’s demands.
“Everyone who is for Kurdish rights is a terrorist for him,” she said. “It is unacceptable that he gets involved in Swedish politics.”
Jari Tanner in Helsinki, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Geir Moulson in Berlin, contributed to this report.
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This story has been corrected to say that the Turkish Foreign Minister will meet Blinken in New York, not Washington.