By Hamdi Firat Buyuk
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said in an address to the Swedish parliament on Tuesday that the two Scandinavian countries should be able to reach an agreement with Turkey over Ankara’s objections to their expected applications to join NATO.
“Statements from Turkey have very quickly changed and become harder during the last few days. But I am sure that, with the help of constructive discussions, we will solve the situation,” Niinistro said, Reuters reported.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on May 13 that Turkey is not positive about the two countries becoming members of NATO, accusing them of harbouring terrorist organisations. He was referring to Sweden’s support for Kurdish YPG forces in Syria, which Turkey considers a branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK.
Erdogan’s statement came as a surprise for many members of the Western military alliance. Finland’s Niinisto said he talked by telephone with the Turkish President a month ago and that the message then had been supportive of Finnish and Swedish membership of NATO.
“But in the last week he has said ‘not favourable’. That means we have to continue our discussions. I am optimistic,” Niinsto added.
However, Erdogan said on Monday evening that Swedish and Finnish delegations should not bother coming to Ankara to convince Turkey to approve their NATO bids.
“How can they persuade us?” Erdogan asked. After his statements, Swedish and Finnish foreign ministers cancelled their trips to Turkey and decided to send high-level delegations instead.
Both countries previously followed decades-long neutrality policies but after the Russian invasion of Ukraine signalled their intention to join the NATO.
Sweden submitted its application on Monday and the Finnish parliament voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to support the proposal to join, with 188 votes in favour and just eight against.
Responding to the Finnish and Swedish moves towards joining NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response”. Most NATO countries have welcomed the idea, apart from Turkey.
Experts believe Turkey will eventually accept the Finnish and Swedish memberships of NATO but criticised President Erdogan’s communication strategy.
“As far as I know such bargaining is done behind closed doors,” Soli Ozel, a veteran foreign policy expert from Kadir Has University in Istanbul, told Turkish news website T24 on Tuesday.
“Everyone agrees that Turkey’s move was made for bargaining and the general opinion is that Ankara wants to have a bargaining chip against the US,” Ozel said.
Experts have suggested that Erdogan is seeking to bargain over sales of US fighter planes to Turkey and sanctions imposed on Ankara because of its rapprochement with Russia and the purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems. He is also seeking to reduce northern European countries’ support for Kurdish groups, which he can display as a victory in domestic politics.
Countries can join NATO only if all its members unanimously agree, which effectively gives Turkey veto powers over any possible enlargement.
Turkey has been member of NATO since 1952, guarding the alliance’s eastern and southern flanks as well as the highly strategic Turkish Straits.
Turkey is the second-largest NATO military force after the US. But relations between Ankara and its NATO allies have deteriorated in recent years over President Erdogan’s foreign policy choices, rapprochement with Russia and increasingly authoritarian rule.