Turkey on Tuesday postponed NATO accession talks with Sweden and Finland, further denting the Nordic neighbors’ hopes of joining the Western defense alliance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Ankara announced its decision a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked Sweden for allowing weekend protests that included the burning of a Koran outside Ankara’s embassy in Stockholm.
A Turkish diplomatic source said the tripartite meeting had been postponed from February to a “later date”, without giving further details.
The decision further reduced the chances of the two countries joining NATO ahead of Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections in May.
Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) border with Russia, and Sweden decided to jointly end their decades-long policy of military non-alignment, gaining formal support for their plans at a historic NATO summit in June.
The two countries’ offers were then quickly ratified by 28 of NATO’s 30 member states, underscoring the urgency of the issues in the face of Russian aggression.
Candidates for joining NATO must be ratified by all members of the alliance, of which Turkey is a member.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has promised that his parliament will approve both offers next month.
But Erdogan is mired in a tight presidential election in which he is trying to galvanize his nationalist electoral base.
Erdogan’s resistance prompted Finland to hint for the first time on Tuesday that it might try to join on its own because of Stockholm’s diplomatic problems with Ankara.
“We have to assess the situation, whether something has happened that would prevent Sweden from continuing in the long term,” Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told Yle TV.
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström said he was “in contact with Finland to find out what this really means”.
Haavisto later clarified his comments, saying he did not want to “speculate” about Finland joining alone “as both countries seem to be making progress”, and emphasized their commitment to a joint application.
But “of course, somewhere in the back of our minds, we’re thinking about different worlds where some countries will be permanently banned from membership,” he said.
Swedish leaders strongly condemned the Koran burning but defended their country’s broad definition of free speech.
The incident comes just weeks after a group supporting Kurdish armed groups in Syria, the Rojava Committee, hanged an effigy of Erdogan by the ankles outside Stockholm’s city hall, sparking outrage in Ankara.
Haavisto said the anti-Turkish protests “obviously hampered the progress” of the applications from Finland and Sweden.
“My own assessment is that there will be a delay, which will certainly last until the Turkish elections in mid-May,” Haavisto said.
“Plan B” outdoors
Turkey indicated that it has no major reservations about Finland’s entry into NATO.
Helsinki has so far refused to speculate on the option of joining without Sweden, stressing the benefits of joint membership with its neighbour.
But “frustration grew in different parts of Helsinki” and “for the first time it was said out loud that there are other possibilities,” Matti Pesu, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told AFP.
“There is a change” in Finland’s position, he said. “These plan B’s are being said out loud.
Pesu noted that while Turkey has so far given no indication that it will treat the two applications “separately,” it will be “interesting to see how Turkey reacts” to Haavisto’s comments.
Ankara signed a memorandum of understanding with the two Nordic countries at the end of June, paving the way for the membership process to begin.
But Ankara says its demands remain unfulfilled, particularly for the extradition of Turkish citizens it wants to prosecute for “terrorism”.