NATO chief urges Turkey to let Nordic pair join quickly

ANKARA (AP) — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday urged Turkey to ratify the applications of Finland and Sweden to join the military organization, repeating his claim that the Nordic neighbors have done enough to satisfy Ankara’s demands that they crack down on extremism.

At a news conference in Ankara standing alongside Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Stoltenberg also condemned the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, at a protest in Sweden but he said that this is not illegal in Europe.

Alarmed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago, Finland and neighboring Sweden abandoned decades of nonalignment and applied to join the alliance. All 30 NATO members approved their applications, and 28 have ratified their accession. Only Turkey and Hungary have failed to do so.

Stoltenberg and most allies have long said that both the Nordic neighbors should join at the same time, but in recent days NATO’s top civilian official has soften his stance amid Turkey’s reluctance to ratify Sweden’s accession.

“My position is that both can be ratified now. But the main issue is not whether they are ratified together, the main issue is that Finland and Sweden are ratified as soon as possible,” he told reporters in Ankara.

Turkey accuses the government in Stockholm of being too soft on groups it deems to be terror organizations or existential threats, including Kurdish groups. Earlier this month, Cavusoglu said Ankara has fewer problems with Finland joining.

“It would not be a realistic approach to say that Sweden has fully fulfilled its obligations,” Cavusoglu said Thursday. “At the moment, we have not yet seen the concrete steps we want.”

With cracking down on extremism a likely vote-winner in elections scheduled in Turkey for May — although the polls might be delayed due to the devastating earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria last week, killing almost 40,000 people — the rhetoric from Ankara has become increasingly heated.

In recent weeks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed anger at a series of separate demonstrations in Stockholm. In one case a solitary anti-Islam activist burned the Quran outside the Turkish Embassy, while in an unconnected protest an effigy of Erdogan was hanged.

“I understand and I share the pain because I personally regard the burning of the holy book as a disgraceful act,” Stoltenberg said, but he also praised Sweden for being “able to prevent other (protests) with the burning of the Quran.”

“Not all acts which are disgraceful or immoral or provocative are illegal, but it is important to have a strong position and that is what we have seen daily from the Swedish government,” the former Norwegian prime minister said.

Hungary has not publicly raised any substantial objections to either country joining NATO, but it has chosen to push back its ratification date for their applications three times.

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