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News Analysis

Frustrated Finland, blocked from NATO by Turkey, practices patience

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a ceremony, in Ankara, Turkey, May 16, 2022. Analysts say Erdogan is taking advantage of the war in Ukraine to push his own agenda in Syria — even using Turkey’s veto powers as a NATO member to block alliance membership by Finland and Sweden as potential leverage. But an incursion by Ankara would be risky, threatening to upset its ties with both the United States and Russia.Burhan Ozbilici/Associated Press

BRUSSELS — Spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden applied last month to join NATO, anticipating swift and smooth entry into the alliance. Instead, they are in a bind, their path blocked by the unpredictable Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

With NATO’s annual summit beginning June 29 in Madrid, their expectations to be greeted as fast-track applicants are quickly fading after Erdogan backtracked on earlier promises not to put obstacles in their way. Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s main foreign policy spokesperson, said there is no schedule for their acceptance and has even talked of a delay of a year.

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Finland is especially frustrated, mindful of its 830 miles of border with Russia. After the Feb. 24 invasion, Finland moved quickly to prepare its application, and Finnish diplomats, according to Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, checked with all 30 NATO members in advance and got rapid green lights from them all. That included an assurance from Erdogan himself, Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, has said.

NATO was so confident that the invitation to both countries would go smoothly that it choreographed a series of events around a vote accepting the applications in May, which the alliance had to cancel when Turkey suddenly objected.

Erdogan has made numerous demands, mostly centering on nationalist issues with domestic impact, like Kurdish separatism and terrorism, and the extradition of some followers of an exiled opposition leader, Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan blames Gulen, who lives in the United States, for a failed coup attempt against him in 2016.

Turkey wants both Finland and Sweden to strengthen their antiterrorism laws; to extradite particular people, including a number of Kurdish journalists; and to eliminate an informal embargo on arms sales to Turkey, imposed after Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria in 2019.

Finns are deeply frustrated, but the government counsels patience, said Haavisto in an interview.

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“The very same terrorist legislation is almost in all NATO countries,” he said, and “we all condemn the PKK,” the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a group operating in Turkey and Iraq that the European Union and the United States have labeled a terrorist organization.

“So we feel that the pressure is also not only so much against Finland and Sweden, but against some other NATO countries on this issue,” he added.

NATO countries should have similar criteria for all states, he said, “because otherwise, we come to the situation where different NATO member states would put different criteria to applicants, and I would guess that would end up in chaos.”

On Monday, there was the first meeting in several weeks of Swedish, Finnish and Turkish officials under the auspices of NATO, but the results were minimal. “We don’t see ourselves limited by any timetable,” Kalin said afterward. “The speed, scope of this process depends on these nations’ manner and speed of meeting our expectations.”

Most of those demands have to do with Sweden and its long-standing sympathy for Kurdish refugees and the Kurdish desire for autonomy, which Turkey regards as a threat to its own sovereignty. While the West condemns the PKK, it has relied heavily on a Syrian Kurdish offshoot in the fight against the Islamic State group. And Turkish Kurdish leaders long ago abandoned talk of independence to concentrate on autonomy and increased rights for Turkish Kurds.

Erdogan is facing elections next June, and his popularity is slipping along with the Turkish economy. The Kurdish issue is an important one in Turkey, and he is playing on nationalist sentiment now while suppressing political dissent and independent journalism.

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In an interview on Swedish television, a former NATO official, Stefanie Babst, said that Erdogan’s real agenda is domestic. “Primarily, this is a message toward his electoral base at home,” she said. “He has an election ahead of him. The economic situation in Turkey is pretty gruesome, and so he wants to demonstrate leadership. He wants to demonstrate that he is a heard leader, and so he is, I am afraid to say, using Sweden and Finland in order to get his strategic messages across.”

NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, has been careful publicly to say that every NATO member has the right to express its concerns; that Turkish terrorism concerns are “legitimate” and must be heard and responded to; and that he is confident that Finland and Sweden will become members, even if not by the Madrid summit.

But Haavisto, while preaching patience and a willingness to allay Turkey’s concerns, also notes that Erdogan is annoying his allies at a time of war, when the security of Europe is in question.

“I have to say, the pressure is mounting among the other EU members, or other NATO member states, that they would like to see this process going smoothly or rapidly,” he said. “Speculation that there could be a one-year delay to after the Turkish elections and others would be a big disappointment for many NATO countries as well, let alone for Finland and Sweden.”

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There is popular frustration among Finns, but it is aimed less at their leaders than at Turkey, said Charly Salonius-Pasternak of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

“There is a sense that this was supposed to be easy, and therefore there’s frustration that is definitely visible,” he said. “People understand Turkey played a double game.”