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Why does Turkey object to Finland and Sweden joining NATO?


Another ripple effect of Russia's invasion of Ukraine is two Scandinavian countries looking to abandon their long-standing neutrality. The leaders of Sweden and Finland meet with President Biden today after officially applying to join NATO, but their applications have hit an early snag. Turkey's president says he may oppose their accession into the military alliance. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports on the international push to resolve Turkey's objections.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: For Sweden's prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, ending two centuries of neutrality is a major historical shift and a decision that was not taken lightly. Heard here through an interpreter, she told Swedish lawmakers that the invasion of Ukraine convinced her the time has come to join NATO, a process that can take anywhere from several weeks to a year.


PRIME MINISTER MAGDALENA ANDERSSON: (Through interpreter) Sweden will be in a vulnerable position while our application is being considered. Russia has announced that it will take countermeasures if we join NATO. We cannot rule out Sweden being exposed to, for example, disinformation and attempts to intimidate and divide us. But it is also clear that Sweden is not alone.

KENYON: International support for the move has generally been strong. Opposition, however, has emerged from an unexpected source. Wednesday, NATO ambassadors were unable to hold a first vote on the accession bid because of an objection from Turkey. Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters in Ankara Monday that his main objection involves the presence in Sweden of supporters of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a group designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. Erdogan said Sweden needs to change the way it treats the PKK and its allies.


PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) In their Parliaments, they bring these terrorists and let them give a speech. They make special invites for them. There are even members of their Parliament who support PKK terrorists. How can we trust them?

KENYON: Analyst Soner Cagaptay at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says part of Erdogan's long-running political success comes from strategically using his mercurial reputation to energize his political base. For instance, Cagaptay says talks aimed at addressing Turkey's worries about the country's joining NATO were already underway in private when Erdogan suddenly decided to go public.

SONER CAGAPTAY: And I think a bunch of things are going on here. One is that Turkey has a love and hate relationship with Europe, and Turkey's public loves a good fight with Europe.

KENYON: Cagaptay says on one level, Turkey has a legitimate complaint about countries like Sweden allowing political and fundraising activities on its soil that Ankara sees as benefiting the PKK or other militant groups. But he also suggests that on another level, this could be Erdogan's way of seeking a quid pro quo from Washington. For example, Turkey has tried for years to purchase American fighter jets; thus far, to no avail.

CAGAPTAY: I wonder if this is also President Erdogan's way of saying to President Biden, hey, please call me. We can settle this. I will let the Swedes come into NATO if you move forward my request to purchase F-16s through the U.S. Senate.

KENYON: Whatever the outcome, he says being seen to stand up to the U.S. and Europe will help burnish Erdogan's reputation at home as he prepares for a reelection campaign in the coming year. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.