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Can Turkey's Erdogan decouple Finland's and Sweden’s NATO bids? 

Though Erdogan is adopting a more positive attitude toward Finland's NATO bid as he slams the door in Sweden’s face once more, neither Helsinki nor NATO seem keen on leaving Sweden behind just yet.  
Police secure the area in front of the Turkish Embassy in Copenhagen.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed the door in Sweden’s face once more Wednesday, saying that the Nordic country should not “bother” to attempt to persuade Ankara to support its bid to join NATO after the recent Quran burning by an ultra-right politician last month. He did, however, signal a more positive attitude toward Helsinki should it consider joining the military alliance without its neighbor. 

But Finland maintained Wednesday that it would continue to advance the membership process together with Sweden. A joint presidential and government committee on Finnish security and foreign policy said that the “fastest possible realization of both countries’ memberships” was in the best interest of Finland, Sweden and NATO. 

But Erdogan, whose tone has become more belligerent on both foreign and domestic policy as Turkey enters the final cycle before parliamentary and presidential elections on May 14, insisted that there was no easy ratification for Sweden. "We will not say yes to [Sweden’s] entry into NATO as long as you allow our holy book, the Quran, to be burned, torn apart, and to be done with [the approval of] your security personnel," he told the deputies of his Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

The Turkish president repeated that he was “more positive” toward the membership of  Finland, which recently jumped a major hurdle by removing its de facto arms embargo toward Turkey. In a move aimed to quell Ankara’s outrage at Quran burnings in Stockholm and The Hague, Finland announced Monday that it would not allow Kuran burning in the country, as it was against its existing laws on blasphemy. 

Since mid-January, when Turkish-Swedish ties deteriorated over anti-Turkish demonstrations, Turkish officials have dropped hints at decoupling Sweden's and Finland's separate but parallel accession bids. The two countries have shed decades — in the case of Sweden, centuries — of military non-alignment to bid for NATO membership and hope to join by the next NATO summit, which will take place July 11-12 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Turkey and Hungary are the only two countries that still need to ratify the accession protocol. 

Erdogan said Sunday that Ankara might “have a surprise for Finland” and just agree to its joining  NATO ahead of Sweden since Helsinki has taken more steps to address Turkey’s security concerns as they were spelled out in a tripartite memorandum to overcome Turkey’s veto. 

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu echoed the same line during official visits to Hungary and Estonia, two countries where Turkey has a more positive image than the rest of the European Union member states. Cavusoglu said in a joint presser with Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu Wednesday that if NATO decides to separate the membership processes of Finland and Sweden, then Turkey would “reconsider Finland's membership separately, and more favorably.” Reinsalu, in turn, said that his country’s position was to see both countries in NATO without delay.  

Finland, which has a 1,340-kilometer-long (832 miles) border with Russia and was occupied by its powerful neighbor between 1809-1917 and then briefly again in 1939, showed some signs of wavering from the Stockholm-Helsinki front on Jan. 23. Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said that his country would have to reassess its position if Turkey stalls Sweden’s entry for a long time. But the Finnish top diplomat made a U-turn after speaking to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg later the same day. Insisting that the Nordic countries would join the bloc together, he said  a "time out" of a “couple of weeks” was needed so that the trio could see where the "dust has settled after the current situation.”  

“The prominent view in Finland is that we should maintain the same position — of joining NATO along with Sweden —  and wait until the end of elections in Turkey to see whether we can have joint entry at the same time. Then Helsinki would reassess this position if there is no sign of detente between Ankara and Stockholm,” Toni Alaranta, senior research expert at the Finnish Institute for Foreign Affairs, told Al-Monitor. 

“Both Erdogan in Ankara and Cavusoglu in Tallinn today say that they ‘might’ agree to Finland’s bid, which is not exactly the same as Turkey will agree to the bid,” he said, expressing concern that Ankara would make additional demands on Helsinki. 

“Also, we have an issue of trust given that [in 2022] President Erdogan first told his Finnish counterpart that he would support Finland’s accession to NATO, then he blocked the process,” Alaranta told Al-Monitor. 

Paul Levin, director of the Stockholm Institute for Turkish Studies, also maintained that if the Turkish veto on Sweden becomes semi-permanent, Finland may consider going alone. “But for now, the two countries are going together,” he told Al-Monitor. 

Levin opined that while burning holy books was “disrespectful and deeply upsetting to many believers,” it had nothing to do with NATO. “Hindering a strategically important NATO enlargement unless applicant states implement blasphemy laws is hardly in line with NATO's open door policy,” he tweeted. 

Cavusoglu, who had brushed away the Swedish government’s condemnation of the Quran burning by right-wing politician Rasmus Paludan, got support from his Hungarian counterpart, Peter Szijjarto. Szijjarto said the burning of the Quran outside the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm was “unacceptable” and claiming it was a part of freedom of expression was “sheer stupidity.” 

Hungary is the only other NATO country that has not yet accepted Sweden’s and Finland’s membership applications. According to Szijjarto, Hungary has a clear intention to say yes but will not try to influence Turkey in its decision. 

But the implications of the Quran burning went beyond diplomatic corridors and the press conference today, as German, Dutch, UK, French, Italian and Spanish  consulates and several European cultural centers in Istanbul remained shut due to “security threats.” 

Last week, protesters gathered before Sweden’s consulate general in Istanbul to denounce the desecration of the Quran. Over the weekend, the foreign ministries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark issued a travel advisory, calling on their citizens to avoid large gatherings in Turkey amid ongoing tensions. On Friday, several embassies in Ankara, including those of the United States, Germany, France and Italy, released security alerts for their citizens in Turkey that flagged "possible retaliatory attacks by terrorists against places of worship." 

In response, Turkey issued an almost identical travel warning for Turkish nationals visiting European countries, urging caution against “the dangerous surge in anti-Muslim, xenophobic and racist acts.” It also suggested that Turkish citizens stay calm if they experience such hostility in European countries and contact local security forces or the ministry, embassies and consulates. 

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