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Turkish anger at Sweden over Qur’an burning complicates Finland’s NATO bid

Finland’s top diplomat appeared to suggest Tuesday that the country may have to consider joining NATO without Sweden after Turkey’s president cast serious doubt on the expansion of the military alliance.

“We still have to evaluate the situation if it turns out that Sweden’s application is stalling for a long time to come,” Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told Finnish broadcaster YLE.

His comment came a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Sweden not to expect support for its bid for NATO membership following weekend protests in Stockholm by an anti-Islam activist and pro-Kurdish groups.

It was the first time a leading government official in either country had appeared to raise doubts about joining the alliance together.

Haavisto later backpedalled, telling reporters in parliament that his comment earlier Tuesday had been “imprecise” and that Finland’s ambition to join NATO jointly with Sweden remained unchanged.

He said he had spoken with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who had stressed to Haavisto that the military bloc would like to see the two Nordic nations join simultaneously.

“But of course there have been raised concerns within NATO on how the incidents in Sweden will affect the schedule,” Haavisto said.

Sweden concerned by remark

The bid by Sweden and Finland to join NATO needs the approval of all existing NATO members, including Turkey, which has so far blocked the expansion, saying Sweden in particular needs to crack down on exiled Kurdish militants and their sympathizers.

Until now, Sweden and Finland have been committed to joining the alliance together, but Haavisto’s comment to YLE raised concerns that Finland was considering proceeding without its Nordic neighbour.

“We are in contact with Finland to find out what is really meant,” Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said in a statement to The Associated Press. “Sweden respects the agreement between Sweden, Finland and Turkey regarding our NATO membership. We have done that so far and we shall continue to do so.”

WATCH | Billstrom speaks to CBC News last week about NATO bid:

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Rosemary Barton Live speaks with Sweden’s foreign minister, Tobias Billström, in his first Canadian interview about Sweden and Finland’s NATO ratification process. Their entry into the military alliance is currently being held up by Turkey and Hungary’s approval.

In a memorandum of understanding signed by the three countries at a NATO summit last year, Sweden and Finland committed not to support Kurdish militant groups and to lift arms embargoes on Turkey imposed after its incursion into northern Syria in 2019.

Pro-Kurdish and anti-Turkish demonstrations in Stockholm have complicated the process. On Saturday, a far-right activist from Denmark staged a protest outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm where he burned the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. A separate pro-Kurdish demonstration was held later Saturday in the Swedish capital.

The Swedish government has tried to distance itself from the demonstrations, while insisting that such protests are allowed under the country’s freedom of speech.

Turkey responded angrily to the protests, cancelling a planned visit to Ankara by the Swedish defence minister. Protests were held outside Swedish diplomatic missions in Ankara and Istanbul.

Erdogan slammed Swedish authorities for allowing the Qur’an-burning demonstration.

A woman speaks into a microphone as several people, including a religious figure, gather around in an outdoor setting.
An imam recites from the Qur’an during a demonstration outside the Swedish Embassy in Ankara on Tuesday. Outrage over a Qur’an-burning by a Danish-Swedish politician in Stockholm led to protests in Turkey. (Burhan Ozbilici/The Associated Press)

“It is clear that those who allowed such vileness to take place in front of our embassy can no longer expect any charity from us regarding their NATO membership application,” he said.

He also criticized the pro-Kurdish demonstration, accusing Sweden of letting “terror organizations run wild on your avenues and streets.” He said that if Sweden won’t show respect to Turkey or Muslims, then “they won’t see any support from us on the NATO issue.”

One man gestures to another in front of a flag.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto attend a joint news conference in Kyiv on Tuesday. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Matti Pesu, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said Haavisto’s comment was “the first public signal that there is a Plan B if the Swedish NATO membership bid freezes for a longer time.”

He stressed that Finland still prioritizes joining the alliance together with Sweden.

“Having Sweden as a fellow NATO ally is a vital security interest for Finland,” he said. “Finland should consider other alternatives only if there was a serious possibility of a significant delay in Sweden’s NATO bid and only if NATO allies welcomed Finland’s entry without Sweden.”

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, who visited Ukraine on Tuesday, said he didn’t expect any progress on the issue before the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections set to be held on May 14.

Turkey and Hungary are the only NATO members that have yet to ratify Finland and Sweden’s accession.

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