STOCKHOLM (AP) — Turkey’s president on Monday complicated Sweden and Finland’s historic bid for NATO membership, saying he could not allow them to become members of the alliance because of their perceived inaction against Kurdish activists in exile.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doubled down on comments last week that the two Nordic countries’ path to NATO would be anything but smooth. The current 30 member countries of NATO must agree to open the door to new members.
Erdogan spoke to reporters just hours after Sweden joined Finland in announcing it would seek NATO membership following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ending more than 200 years of military misalignment. He accused the two countries of refusing to extradite “terrorists” wanted by his country.
“Neither country has an open and clear position against terrorist organizations,” Erdogan said, apparently referring to Kurdish militant groups such as the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
Swedish officials said they would send a team of diplomats to Ankara to discuss the issue, but Erdogan suggested they were wasting their time.
“Are they coming to try to convince us? Sorry, don’t wear yourself out,” Erdogan said. “During this process, we can’t say ‘yes’ to those who impose sanctions on Turkey, membership in NATO, which is a security organization .”
Sweden has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East over the past decades, including Kurds from Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
Turkey’s objections surprised many Western officials and some got the impression that Ankara would not let the issue spoil NATO enlargement. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said over the weekend that “Turkey has made it clear that its intention is not to block membership.”
In Washington, Swedish Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter was among those who said they were surprised by Turkey’s objections.
“We have a very strong counter-terrorism program and a lot of the accusations, almost, that come out… just aren’t true,” she said.
Sweden on Monday decided to apply for NATO membership a day after the ruling Social Democratic Party approved a plan for the country to join the transatlantic alliance and the Finnish government announced it would seek to join NATO.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson warned that the Nordic country would be in a “vulnerable position” during the bid period and urged her fellow citizens to prepare for the Russian response.
“Russia said it would take countermeasures if we join NATO,” she said. “We cannot exclude that Sweden is exposed, for example, to misinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide.”
Moscow has repeatedly warned Finland, which shares a 1,340 kilometer (830 mile) border with Russia, and Sweden of the repercussions if they want to join NATO. But Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday seemed to downplay the significance of their decision.
Addressing a Russian-led military alliance of six ex-Soviet states, Putin said Moscow “has no problem” with Sweden or Finland’s NATO bid, but that “the ‘Expansion of military infrastructure in this territory will, of course, give rise to our reaction in response.’
Andersson, who leads the centre-left Social Democrats, said Sweden would submit its NATO bid jointly with Finland. Flanked by opposition leader Ulf Kristersson, Andersson said her government was also preparing a bill that would allow Sweden to receive military assistance from other nations in the event of an attack.
“Russian leaders thought they could bully Ukraine and deny them and other countries self-determination,” Kristersson said. “They thought they could scare Sweden and Finland and drive a wedge between us and our neighbors and allies. They were wrong.”
Once a regional military power, Sweden has avoided military alliances since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Like Finland, it remained neutral throughout the Cold War, but entered into closer relations with NATO after the 1991 Soviet collapse. They no longer consider themselves neutral after joining the European Union in 1995, but have remained militarily unaligned until now.
After being staunchly opposed to NATO membership for decades, public opinion in both countries changed following Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, with record levels of support for the alliance membership. The Swedish and Finnish governments soon began cross-party talks on NATO membership and sought support from the United States, Britain, Germany and other NATO nations. NATO.
On Sunday, Anderson’s party reversed its long-held position that Sweden must remain non-aligned, giving NATO membership overwhelming support in parliament. Only the smaller left and green parties opposed when the issue was discussed by lawmakers on Monday.
Left Party leader Nooshi Dadgostar, whose calls for a referendum on the issue were rejected by the government, said NATO membership would increase tensions in the Baltic Sea region.
“It doesn’t help Ukraine,” she said.
Andersson said Sweden would make it clear it did not want nuclear weapons or permanent NATO bases on its soil – similar conditions to those neighboring Norway and Denmark insisted on when the alliance was formed after World War II.
During a visit to Helsinki on Monday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said there was “very strong” support in Congress for welcoming Finland and Sweden into the alliance and that he would expects ratification before the August recess.
In a joint statement, Nordic NATO members Norway, Denmark and Iceland said they were ready to help Finland and Sweden “with all necessary means” during the bid process.
___ Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington, DC, contributed to this report.
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