Nato Chief Upbeat That Sweden Could Be Ready To Join The Alliance By March

FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, shakes hands with Sweden's Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, right, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg looks on prior to a meeting ahead of a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, Monday, July 10, 2023. The road for Sweden’s NATO membership has been bumpy, chiefly because of Turkey stalling ratifying Sweden’s application. (Yves Herman, Pool Photo via AP, File)
FILE - Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, shakes hands with Sweden's Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, right, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg looks on prior to a meeting ahead of a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, Monday, July 10, 2023. The road for Sweden’s NATO membership has been bumpy, chiefly because of Turkey stalling ratifying Sweden’s application. (Yves Herman, Pool Photo via AP, File)
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BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expressed optimism on Friday that Sweden could be ready to join the military organization by March, after receiving positive signals this week from holdouts Hungary and Turkey.

Sweden, along with its neighbor Finland, set aside decades of military nonalignment after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 to seek protection under NATO’s collective defense umbrella. Finland has since joined, and it along with the other 30 allies must all agree for Sweden to join.

But Turkey and Hungary have held up proceedings.

“Sweden’s entry into NATO will make the whole alliance stronger,” Stoltenberg told reporters as he provided details about talks this with week with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and noted new developments in Turkey.

“The message I have received from Budapest is that the parliament will reconvene at the end of February, so we have to wait for that. But I’m absolutely confident, and I count on Hungary,” Stoltenberg said.

Initially, Hungary gave no clear reason for the delays, and Orbán had insisted that his government wouldn’t be the last to endorse Sweden. But the tone toward Stockholm hardened, as the European Commission refused to allow Hungary access to EU funds over democratic backsliding.

Budapest accused Swedish politicians of telling “blatant lies” about the state of Hungary’s democracy.

Orbán, who has broken ranks with NATO allies by adopting a Kremlin-friendly stance toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said Tuesday that he had invited Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson to Budapest to discuss “future cooperation in the field of security and defense as allies and partners.”

Unless an emergency session of parliament is called to debate Sweden’s bid, the assembly is due to sit on Feb. 26.

To let Sweden join, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan imposed a series of conditions including a tougher stance on groups that Turkey considers to be threats to its security, like Kurdish militants and members of a network he blames for a failed coup in 2016.

Separately, but linked to his approval, Erdogan insisted on a fighter-jet deal with the United States.

On Tuesday, Turkish lawmakers finally held a vote on the issue and ratified Sweden’s accession protocol by 287 votes to 55. The Turkish government finalized the step Thursday by publishing the measure in an official gazette.

Stoltenberg welcomed the fact that on Thursday night Erdogan “gave his signature to the decision of the parliament, so now all decisions are in place in Turkey.”

Sweden will become NATO’s 32nd member once Hungary completes its procedures and the “instruments of ratification” of all allies have been received by the U.S. State Department.