ISTANBUL (AP) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday his government will proceed with ratifying Finland’s NATO bid, paving the way for the country to join the military bloc ahead of Sweden.
The breakthrough came when Finnish President Sauli Niinisto was in Ankara for a meeting with Erdogan. Both Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership 10 months ago after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, giving up decades of non-alignment.
NATO needs the unanimous approval of its 30 existing members for enlargement, and Turkey and Hungary are the only countries that have yet to ratify the Nordic nations’ offers. The Turkish government has accused both Sweden and Finland of being too lenient towards groups it believes are terrorist organizations, but has expressed greater reservations about Sweden.
“When it comes to fulfilling its commitments in the Trilateral MoU, we have seen that Finland has taken authentic and concrete steps,” Erdogan said at a press conference in Ankara after his meeting with Niinisto.
“This sensitivity to the security of our country and based on the progress made in the protocol for Finland’s accession to NATO, we decided to start the ratification process in our Parliament,” added the President.
With Erdogan’s approval, Finland’s proposal can now go to the Turkish parliament, where the president’s party and its allies have the majority. Ratification is expected before Turkey holds its presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for May 14.
Commenting on Turkey’s readiness to ratify Sweden’s entry into NATO, Erdogan said it will “depend on the solid steps Sweden will take”.
Explaining the difference between the Nordic countries from Ankara’s perspective, Erdogan claimed that Sweden had “embraced terrorism”, citing demonstrations by supporters of militant Kurds on the streets of Stockholm. “Such demonstrations do not take place in Finland,” he said. “Because of this, we had to look at (Finland) separately from Sweden.”
Niinisto welcomed Turkey’s willingness to bid on his country’s bid, but also expressed solidarity with its neighbor. “I feel Finnish NATO membership is not complete without Sweden,” he said.
Referring to a NATO summit planned for July in the Lithuanian capital, Niinisto added: “I would like to see that in Vilnius we will meet the 32-member alliance.”
Turkey, Finland and Sweden signed a memorandum of understanding in June last year to settle differences over the Nordic countries’ membership.
The document included clauses addressing Ankara’s claims that Stockholm and Helsinki failed to take seriously their concerns about those it considers terrorists, particularly supporters of Kurdish militants who led a 39-year insurgency in Turkey and people linking Ankara to a 2016 coup attempt.
A series of separate demonstrations in Stockholm, including a protest by an anti-Islam activist who burned the Koran outside the Turkish embassy, also angered Turkish officials.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and lawmakers have promised to ratify the two countries’ NATO membership bids. But the country’s parliament has repeatedly postponed a ratification vote.
The parliamentary leader of Orban’s Fidesz party said on Friday that a vote on Finland’s accession would take place on March 27. Mate Kocsis said in a Facebook post that MPs from Fidesz, which holds a two-thirds majority in parliament, “would vote unanimously in favour.”
Niinisto arrived in Turkey on Thursday and toured areas hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 52,000 people in Turkey and Syria last month.
“I’ve known Erdogan for a long time. I’m sure he has important messages,” Niinisto said Thursday while visiting Kahramanmaras, one of the provinces hardest hit by the 7.6-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 6 that killed more than 52,000 people in the city Turkey and Syria were killed.
Ahead of Friday’s announcement, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said Sweden hoped for a “rapid ratification process” after Turkey’s elections.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the decision would strengthen the security of NATO, Finland and Sweden. “The most important thing is that both Finland and Sweden will quickly become full members of NATO, not whether they join at exactly the same time,” he said.
Turkey’s parliament is due to go on polling break in three weeks, but an “accelerated process” to approve Finland’s NATO membership was expected, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara.
He predicted a tougher road ahead for Sweden after the elections, regardless of whether Erdogan returns to power after 20 years in power or the opposition takes the helm.
“While there is now a president who has a majority in parliament, the next president, whoever is elected, will probably not have a majority in parliament,” Unluhisarcikli said.
Three political alliances from more than a dozen parties are taking part in the elections, including a left-wing alliance of politicians who are politically more hostile to NATO.
“Now it’s enough to convince President Erdogan, but after the election several parties have to be convinced,” said Unluhisarcikli.
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