BRUSSELS (AP) — Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday gave the go-ahead to Finland’s application to join NATO, overcoming a major hurdle to the Nordic nation’s attempt to join the alliance, but leaving its neighbor, Sweden, on the sidelines for now.
“We decided to start the ratification process in our parliament for the membership of Finland,” Erdogan told a news conference in the Turkish capital Ankara, adding that he would like the vote to take place before the mid-June elections. May.
Mr. Erdogan spoke after concluding a meeting with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto. Both leaders had telegraphed that the announcement would be made soon, and Erdogan said this week that Turkey would “keep our promise.”
For Finland joining NATO after decades of military non-alignment would be a major shift in the balance of power in the region between the Western military alliance and Russia. It would also be a major diplomatic and strategic defeat for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who made it clear before invading Ukraine last year that he intended to block NATO expansion to the east. But instead, his invasion convinced Finnish and Swedish leaders that there was no real guarantee of security for them outside of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Finland has an 830-mile border with Russia, the longest in Europe, and a history of resisting Moscow’s hegemony. By favoring self-reliance, Finland did not reduce its military after the collapse of the Soviet Union and dragged a more reluctant Sweden into applying for NATO together 10 months ago.
But Erdogan blocked the Swedish request, saying the country has become a haven for Kurdish separatists and other dissidents he considers terrorists. So far, Stockholm’s efforts to appease him, including a new anti-terror law, have failed.
He has intermittently insisted on the extradition of more than 120 people now in Sweden, as he did again on Friday. Talks will continue with the hope that Turkey will finally approve Sweden’s bid for membership after the Turkish elections but before the NATO summit in Lithuania in mid-July.
Mr. Erdogan’s decision opens the way for Turkey’s parliament to ratify Finland’s membership in the alliance, which requires the unanimous approval of the bloc’s 30 nations. Hungary is the only other country whose parliament has not ratified the Finnish or Swedish offers. Its leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has warm relations with Putin, has wavered over when the Hungarian parliament will vote. But he always insists that Hungary has no objection to membership in either of the two Nordic countries.
Some Hungarian lawmakers suggested on Friday they might ratify Finland’s NATO bid on March 27, but following Turkey they would abstain from voting on Sweden.
With the elections in Finland on April 2, the current government of the country decided to pass all the necessary legislation to join NATO in order to avoid any period of uncertainty while a new government is formed. So the only remaining problem is to get the approval of the Turkish and Hungarian parliaments.
The two Nordic nations had pledged to enter the alliance “hand in hand”. Sweden, with only a short maritime border, is less exposed to Russia, but Sweden and Finland are closely aligned militarily. After saying they would apply for NATO membership, both countries received guarantees of military aid from the United States and Britain in case of Russian aggression before joining the alliance.
On Friday, Niinisto thanked Erdogan for the decision to ratify, but told the press conference that Finland’s membership “is not complete without Sweden.” The two countries applied together. But for Finland to refuse to join NATO until Sweden also approves would be politically difficult and strategically risky, and Swedish leaders have made it clear that they will continue to pursue membership on their own.
The Turkish leader faces a tough re-election battle in mid-May with a troubled economy and high inflation, as well as criticism of the way his government has handled the recent devastating earthquake. The campaign against Kurdish separatism and terrorism is a popular policy in Turkey and works well with opposition voters as well. And many Turks like the attention and influence Erdogan’s unpredictability often provides.
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, welcomed Erdogan’s announcement. “This will strengthen the security of Finland, it will strengthen the security of Sweden and it will strengthen the security of NATO,” he said on a visit to Norway. “The most important thing is that both Finland and Sweden quickly become full members of NATO, not if they join at exactly the same time.” He stressed that both countries continue to join NATO and participate in NATO discussions and exercises.
Hungary’s Mr. Orban has signaled his support for the two nations’ NATO requests, but his government has shrugged off the issue.
Hungary has used its veto power within the European Union over sanctions against Russia to try to win concessions on other issues, and analysts say Orban appears to be doing the same with offers from Finland and Sweden. Mr. Orban is also known to be upset by criticism of Hungary within the European Union by Sweden and Finland.
In Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin welcomed the news and said in a Twitter message that “Finland will do everything possible so that Sweden also becomes a member of NATO as soon as possible. Together we are strong.”
The chairman of the Finnish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Jussi Halla-aho, said: “I don’t see it being very significant for Finland’s security if Sweden joins NATO later.” Finland in NATO represents “the preventive and deterrent effect,” he told Finnish state broadcaster Yle. “It is much better for Sweden in terms of security that Finland is a member of NATO.”
Finland, he said, has kept the Swedes informed at every step. “It can be psychologically difficult for them to have to react to Finland’s action,” she said. “But these are psychological problems and not related to any real problem.”
gulsin harman and ben hubbard contributed reporting from Istanbul, Juana Lemola from Helsinki and anushka patil from New York.