Turkish president softens on Finland's Nato bid, but still opposed to Sweden's
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted he could drop his threat to veto Finland's bid to join Nato, but he remains firmly opposed to Sweden joining the military alliance after Swedish authorities outraged Ankara by allowing demonstrators in Stockholm to burn a copy of the Koran.
Members of parliament from Erdogan's AKP party cheered as he sought to place himself centre stage in deciding the fate of Sweden and Finland's efforts to join Nato.
All existing members of the defence alliance have to agree to any enlargement.
Erdogan, still smarting from last month's burning of a Koran by far-right protestors outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, says he's ready to use his Nato veto to make Sweden pay.
"We are closely monitoring the developments regarding the expansion process of Nato. Sweden, do not bother to try at this point," said Erdogan.
"We will not say yes to your Nato application as long as you allow the ripping and burning of our holy book, the Koran, with your security officials around. We look positively at Finland but negatively at Sweden," declared the Turkish president, to rapturous applause from his deputies, who rose to their feet in support.
Until now, Erdogan had threatened to veto both Finland and Sweden's Nato membership.
But Finnish-Turkish relations got a boost last month, when Helsinki allowed the sale of specialized steel to Turkey's defense industry, ending Finland's military embargo on Ankara over human rights concerns.
But even before the Koran burning, Ankara was outraged over another protest last month in Stockholm, where demonstrators hung an effigy of the Turkish leader from a lamppost.
Ankara accuses the Swedish government of allowing its country to become a sanctuary for terrorist organizations fighting Turkey.
As a result, Erdogan last week demanded that Sweden extradite 120 people whom Turkey considers terrorists. Swedish officials insist the extradition demands are a matter for the courts.
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With presidential elections expected to be held in May, Erdogan is seen as seeking to maximize the concessions from Nato to allow its enlargement.
"This issue can be handled in diplomatic corridors. But Erdogan prefers to make it public that he has the power," says Ilhan Uzgel, a political analyst at the Kisa Dalga news portal. "He is still a world leader. He bends the will of Nato and Nato-aspiring countries, even the United States. So, my guess is that he's going to use it until the elections."
Erdogan is not concerned about his standing within Nato, according to Uzgel. Instead, he is focused on a domestic audience: "He is completely and utterly focused on winning the elections because he knows he is losing his constituency," the analyst says.
Rallying the base
Erdogan is seizing upon last month's Koran burning to rally his base of religious and nationalist voters ahead of presidential polls. Standing up to Nato also will play well with his supporters.
"It has to do with the sort of anti-Nato sentiment that's very closely related with the anti-Western and anti-American sentiment in Turkey, and the sort of perception that Nato has never really helped Turkey to fight with its own terrorism problem," said Senem Aydin Duzgit, an international relations professor at Sabanci University near Istanbul.
Until now, Finland and Sweden have been committed to joining Nato together. Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto reiterated at the end of January that Finland remains hopeful both countries will be accepted into the alliance this year.
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But with Erdogan increasingly balancing his relationship with the West against strong ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Nato will need to get used to a more assertive Turkey.
"The dynamics have changed. Turkey no longer feels a strong and firm member of the Western camp or Nato alliance," said Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting scholar with the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "It is still [in] Nato, but obviously also interested in having alternatives."
Sweden and Finland have pencilled in Nato's next summit in July as the date for joining and securing themselves protection from any future Russian aggression.
Still, given that there will be only around a month between the conclusion of Turkish elections and the July summit, they could be destined to wait a good deal longer – a prospect that could put a smile on Putin's face.
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