Turkey has suggested supporting the bid by Finland to join Nato while blocking Sweden, highlighting the deteriorating relations between Ankara and Stockholm after a rightwing activist desecrated a Koran in the Swedish capital.
Turkish foreign minster Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Monday that Turkey would need to evaluate applications for Sweden and Finland to join the western military alliance “separately”.
“I think it would be fair to distinguish between a problematic country and a less problematic country,” Çavuşoğlu said at a press conference in Ankara, according to the state Anadolu Agency. His remarks came a day after Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said “Sweden would be shocked when we respond differently to Finland”.
Relations between Sweden and Turkey have worsened markedly in recent weeks since the rightwing activist set fire to the Koran, the sacred book of Islam, outside Turkey’s embassy in Stockholm.
The decision by Stockholm to allow the protest sparked a backlash from Turkey and triggered protests in several predominantly Muslim countries. In a sign of the mounting tensions, the US warned on Monday over possible “imminent” terrorist attacks against churches, synagogues and diplomatic missions in Istanbul.
The US said in its second security alert in three days that Turkish authorities were “investigating” the potential for terrorist attacks in Istanbul, a city of 15mn people. The US consulate in Istanbul did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the nature of the threat or why it assessed a potential attack to be imminent.
“The US government cautions its citizens of possible imminent retaliatory attacks by terrorists against churches, synagogues, and diplomatic missions in Istanbul or other places westerners frequent, especially in the Beyoğlu, Galata, Taksim, and Istiklal areas,” the US said, referring to parts of Istanbul that are highly trafficked by western tourists.
Relations between Sweden and Turkey were faltering even before the Koran burning incident, with Ankara resisting Stockholm’s bid to join Nato.
Turkey has been insisting that Sweden return dozens of people it deems to be terrorists in return for Ankara’s support of Stockholm joining the western military alliance. Sweden has already made several concessions but said this month it could do no more to persuade Turkey. “You need to extradite these terrorists so you can enter Nato,” Erdoğan said, the Anadolu Agency reported.
Turkey and Hungary are the two Nato members yet to ratify Sweden and Finland’s membership, which requires unanimous support of the alliance’s 30 states.
Finnish president Sauli Niinistö said on Monday that his office had immediately contacted Erdoğan’s after his comments on potentially letting in Finland not Sweden. “There’s nothing to say at this point, but I think there will be statements in the future,” he told Helsingin Sanomat newspaper.
Niinistö insisted that Finland was sticking to its line that it wanted to join Nato with neighbouring Sweden. He added that part of the benefit of Finland joining the defence alliance would be that Sweden became a member at the same time. The Finnish president also noted that in times of crisis it would be potentially easier to supply Finland through Sweden and Norway than the Baltic Sea.
Some Finnish foreign policy experts have urged Helsinki to go alone if Turkey offers to only ratify its application owing to Finland having the longest border with Russia of any European country at 1,300km. Others have urged Finnish leaders to stay calm as Turkey puts pressure on Sweden. Finland will hold parliamentary elections in April and polls point to the possibility of a change in government.
Niinistö also said on Monday that he had a brief telephone conversation with Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg on the issue.