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Finland’s foreign minister signals country could join NATO without Sweden

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto in Helsinki on Tuesday. (Vesa Moilanen/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS — Finland still hopes to join NATO alongside its neighbor Sweden but could be forced to reconsider if Stockholm’s application is stalled, the Finnish foreign minister said Tuesday.

“We have to be ready to reevaluate the situation. Has something happened that would in the long run prevent Sweden’s application from progressing?” the minister, Pekka Haavisto, told Finnish broadcaster YLE.

A day earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that recent protests in Stockholm by an anti-Islam activist and another by pro-Kurdish groups could jeopardize Sweden’s bid, and NATO diplomats are becoming less confident that the two countries will be welcomed swiftly.

Finland and Sweden asked to join the 30-member military alliance in the aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, formally submitting their applications together last spring and generally moving in tandem. Their membership would double NATO’s land border with Russia and reshape European security.

But their bid has been held up, primarily by objections from Turkey, which blocked initial accession talks. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has criticized Sweden for granting asylum to members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. But Turkey then cut a deal so that matters could proceed. Now it is again threatening to derail — or at least significantly delay — the process, undermining NATO unity amid Russia’s war on Ukraine.

For non-NATO countries to join the alliance, the assent of member countries is needed, and Hungary and Turkey are the only countries that have not ratified the joint bids. Hungary has signaled it will do so, but Turkey has not, dampening hopes that the two countries could be welcomed as members to the 2023 NATO summit in July.

Although this is the first time Finland seemed to open the door to proceeding without Sweden, Haavisto’s remark does not appear to signal an official change in position — at least not yet.

After his comment made headlines, including in Sweden, Haavisto told Finnish reporters that he had been “imprecise” and reiterated his hope that the countries would proceed into NATO together, according to the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.

Top NATO officials, including Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, have pressed Turkey to move forward, arguing that division and delay are a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a danger to the alliance.

“It’s time to welcome Finland and Sweden as members of NATO,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference with the Turkish foreign minister in the fall. Ratification, he added, is key to preventing “misunderstanding or miscalculation in Moscow.”

Despite entreaties from allies, Turkey has continued to press Sweden. And the recent protests, which included the burning of a Quran, appear to have deepened the standoff.

Erdogan slammed Swedish authorities Monday for allowing the demonstration. “It is clear that those who caused such a disgrace in front of our country’s embassy can no longer expect any benevolence from us regarding their membership applications to NATO,” he said.

Erdogan also criticized Stockholm for allowing protesters in a separate demonstration to wave flags of Kurdish groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Turkey and others consider a terrorist group.

“You have terrorist organizations roaming wild on your streets and avenues, and then you expect us to support them in joining NATO? There is no such thing. Do not expect such support from us,” he said.

Swedish officials have defended the public’s right to protest.

Zeynep Karatas in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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