BRUSSELS — Hopes that Turkey would ratify the NATO memberships of Sweden and Finland any time soon have faded, with its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the midst of a tough fight for re-election.
Turkey will vote in mid-May for president and parliament, and opinion polls show that Mr. Erdogan and his Islamist party, Justice and Development, are facing difficulties, largely because of a dire economy and high inflation.
As he faces mounting domestic challenges ahead of the vote, Mr. Erdogan has been trying to focus attention elsewhere, and has been raising fresh objections to Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership bids, suggesting he might further delay the process after his initial threat to block them. Sweden and Finland insist that together they will stay the course.
Sweden, which has a tradition of openness to refugees from Kurdistan, is a particular target of Mr. Erdogan’s demands, given Turkey’s battle against Kurdish separatism, especially from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist organization.
Mr. Erdogan has fewer issues with Finland, although he has demanded — and received — some toughening of laws against terrorism in both Sweden and Finland. But he has raised further doubts about Turkey’s willingness to approve Sweden’s NATO application after a far-right Swedish politician burned a Quran at a small demonstration near the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm on Jan. 21. The politician, Rasmus Paludan, is suspected of having “certain connections in his vicinity” to Russia, said Finland’s foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, on Saturday.
Meant as a provocation, but legal under Swedish law, the burning of the Quran caused fury in the Muslim world and was seized upon by Mr. Erdogan as another reason to question Swedish membership in NATO. His government canceled trilateral talks with officials of the two countries and suggested that Finland could get Turkey’s approval if it separated its application from Sweden.
That premise has been rejected by Finnish leaders, including the influential president, Sauli Niinisto, who was instrumental in organizing the joint bid, given how dependent both formerly nonaligned countries have been in their security plans.
“There’s no point in paying attention to comments that include words like ‘possibly’ and conditionals,” Mr. Niinisto told the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper on Monday, adding that “we stick to our plan.”
He said that Finland and Sweden would stick together, telling Yle, Finland’s national broadcaster, on Thursday that if nothing happens after the Turkish elections in May, “we’ll have to speak man to man” to Mr. Erdogan.
Mr. Haavisto underlined that policy at a news conference in Helsinki on Monday, saying: “Our strong wish is still to join NATO together with Sweden.”
Mr. Erdogan is playing off deeply held — and largely bipartisan — feelings in Turkey about the perceived dangers of the P.K.K. and of Kurdish separatism, and is seeking to use his leverage to persuade Sweden in particular to toughen its laws and even extradite some Kurds wanted in Turkey.
He is also appealing to his more religious base and presenting himself as a defender of Islam in accusing Sweden of somehow condoning the burning of the Quran. The opposition in Turkey is varied and contains numerous parties, but is generally in favor of NATO enlargement to include Sweden and Finland.
The hope in NATO is that Turkey will vote to allow both Sweden and Finland to join the alliance at its next summit meeting, in Lithuania in mid-July.
Johanna Lemola contributed reporting.