ISTANBUL -- Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that his government would move forward with ratifying Finland’s NATO application, paving the way for the country to join the military bloc ahead of Sweden.
The breakthrough came as Finnish President Sauli Niinisto was in Ankara to meet with Erdogan. Both Finland and Sweden applied to become NATO members 10 months ago in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, abandoning decades of nonalignmen t.
NATO requires the unanimous approval of its 30 existing members to expand, and Turkey and Hungary are the only countries that have not yet ratified the Nordic nations' bids. The Turkish government accused both Sweden and Finland of being too soft on groups that it deems to be terror organizations, but expressed more reservations about Sweden.
“When it comes to fulfilling its pledges in the trilateral memorandum of understanding, we have seen that Finland has taken authentic and concrete steps,” Erdogan told a news conference in Ankara following his meeting with Niinisto.
“This sensitivity for our country’s security and, based on the progress that has been made in the protocol for Finland’s accession to NATO, we have decided to initiate the ratification process in our parliament,“ the president added.
With Erdogan’s agreement, Finland’s application can now go to the Turkish parliament, where the president’s party and its allies hold a majority. Ratification is expected before Turkey holds its presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for May 14.
Commenting on Turkey's willingness to consider ratifying Sweden’s accession to NATO, Erdogan said it would “depend on the solid steps Sweden will take.”
Explaining the difference between the Nordic countries from Ankara's viewpoint, Erdogan claimed that Sweden had “embraced terrorism,” and cited demonstrations by supporters of Kurdish militants on the streets of Stockholm. “Such demonstrations do not take place in Finland,” he said. “For that reason we had to consider (Finland) separately from Sweden.”
Niinisto welcomed Turkey's willingness to move on his country's bid but also expressed solidarity with its neighbor. “I have a feeling that Finnish NATO membership is not complete without Sweden,” he said.
Referring to a NATO summit scheduled for July in Lithuania's capital, Niinisto added: “I would like to see in Vilnius that we will meet the alliance of 32 members.”
Turkey, Finland and Sweden signed a memorandum of understanding in June of last year to resolve differences over the Nordic states’ membership.
The document included clauses addressing Ankara’s claims that Stockholm and Helsinki did not take seriously enough its concerns with those it considers terrorists, particularly supporters of Kurdish militants who have waged a 39-year insurgency in Turkey and people Ankara associates with a 2016 coup attempt.
A series of separate demonstrations in Stockholm, including a protest by an anti-Islam activist who burned the Quran outside the Turkish Embassy, also angered Turkish officials.
In Stockholm, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said separate ratification of Finland and Sweden's bids by Ankara was “a development that we didn't want but it's something that we're prepared for. We comply and will continue to comply with the memorandum established between our three countries.”
Billstrom stressed that "it's about when Sweden becomes a member, not about our security. We are even more secure now than we were before we applied for membership in NATO.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and lawmakers have promised to ratify the two country's NATO membership applications. But the country's parliament has repeatedly postponed a ratification vote.
The parliamentary head of Orban's Fidesz party said Friday that a vote on Finnish accession would be held on March 27. Mate Kocsis said in a Facebook post that lawmakers for Fidesz, which holds a two-thirds majority in parliament, would "vote unanimously in favor.”
Niinisto arrived in Turkey on Thursday and toured areas affected by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that killed more than 52,000 people in Turkey and Syria last month.
Prior to Friday's announcement, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said Sweden hoped for “a rapid ratification process” after Turkey’s elections.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the decision would strengthen the security of NATO, Finland and Sweden. “The most important thing is that both Finland and Sweden become full members of NATO quickly, not whether they join at exactly the same time,” he said.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Washington welcomes Turkey's decision on Finland and encourages Ankara to “quickly ratify" Sweden's application while urging Hungary to conclude the ratification process for both countries “without delay.” “Sweden and Finland are both strong, capable partners that share NATO’s values and will strengthen the Alliance and contribute to European security,” Sullivan said in a statement.
Turkey’s parliament is set to go into a pre-election recess in three weeks but an “accelerated process” to endorse Finland’s NATO membership was expected, Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, said.
He predicted a tougher path for Sweden after the elections, regardless of whether Erdogan is returned to office after 20 years in power or the opposition takes charge.
“While there is now a president who commands a majority in parliament, the next president, whoever is elected, will likely not have a majority in parliament,” Unluhisarcikli said.
Three political alliances made up of more than a dozen parties are taking part in the elections, including a left-wing alliance of politicians who tend to be ideologically opposed to NATO.
“Now it’s enough to persuade to President Erdogan, but several parties will need to be persuaded after the election,” Unluhisarcikli said.
Jari Tanner in Helsinki and Justin Spike in Budapest, Hungary contributed to this report.