Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinisto shake hands during a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, March 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey will approve Finland’s application for NATO membership, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday, a move that paves the way for the country to join the military bloc ahead of Sweden.

The announcement comes as Finnish President Sauli Niinisto is in Ankara to meet Erdogan. Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO 10 months ago after Russia invaded Ukraine, leaving behind decades of neutrality.

NATO needs the unanimous approval of its existing 30 members to expand, and Turkey and Hungary are the only countries that have yet to ratify the Nordic countries’ demands. The Turkish government has accused Sweden and Finland of being too lenient towards groups it considers terrorist organizations, but expressed further reservations about Sweden.

“As regards fulfilling its commitments in the trilateral memorandum of understanding, we have seen that Finland has taken genuine and concrete steps,” Erdogan told a news conference in Ankara after meeting Niinisto.

Due to “this sensitivity for the security of our country and, based on the progress made in the protocol for Finland’s entry into NATO, we have decided to start the ratification process in our Parliament”, added the Turkish president.

With Erdogan’s agreement, Finland’s request can now be forwarded to the Turkish parliament, where the president’s party and its allies have the majority. Ratification is expected before Turkey holds its presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for May 14.

Erdogan hinted on Wednesday that his country could rejoin Finland after Niinisto’s trip.

Turkey, Finland and Sweden signed an agreement in June last year to resolve disputes over Nordic states’ membership.

The document included clauses responding to Ankara’s claims that Stockholm and Helsinki have not taken their problems seriously enough over those they see as terrorists, especially supporters of Kurdish militiamen who have led an insurgency. 39-year-old in Turkey and the people Ankara associates with a 2016 coup attempt.

A series of separate protests in Stockholm, including that of an anti-Islam activist who burned the Koran outside the Turkish embassy, ​​also angered Turkish officials.

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