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Kurds in Sweden on edge as Turkey presses government to ditch them in exchange for NATO membership

As Sweden’s government survived a non-confidence vote today, its fate was tied to Kurdish lawmaker and former guerrilla Amineh Kakabaveh.
An image of Nesrin Abdullah, Anne Lindh and Aminah Kakabaveh that prompted a reaction from Turkish officials.

STOCKHOLM & UPPSALA, Sweden — Sweden’s bid to join the NATO alliance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Turkey’s threats to block it have thrust this Nordic nation’s Kurdish minority center stage in a Netflix style drama that is rocking the government of Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and prompting anguished debate over Swedish identity.

On June 7, Andersson and her minority government of Social Democrats faced a no-confidence vote in parliament over the Justice Minister’s failure to curb record levels of gang violence, pushed by a right-wing opposition that smells blood ahead of nationwide elections in September. Its fate seemingly hinged on the decision of Amineh Kakabaveh, an ethnic Kurdish lawmaker and former guerrilla whose swing vote has allowed the government to pass key legislation, notably the budget. Kakabaveh, an independent, lent that support on the condition that the Social Democrats grant their own to the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northeast Syria.

Turkey deems the body a threat to its own national security. It cites the fact that many of its top cadres were previously active in the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the armed group that has been fighting the Turkish army since 1984 for Kurdish self-rule. Turkey is now threatening to launch a fresh military offensive against the US-backed Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who led the fight against the Islamic State (IS), on similar grounds.

The controversial deal sealed between the Social Democrats and Kakabaveh in November last year infuriated Turkey and bolstered its demands that Sweden end its alleged support for Kurdish “terrorists” as a pre-condition for greenlighting Sweden’s accession to NATO. Turkey’s ambassador to Sweden suggested that Kakabaveh, who makes no secret of her sympathy for the PKK, should be extradited to Turkey before discovering she was a Kurd from Iran, not Turkey.

Andersson, Sweden’s first female prime minister, had threatened to resign if the no-confidence motion went through, saying her opponents are acting recklessly at a time when the country is faced with major security challenges.

Kakabaveh stuck to her guns, saying she would not support the government on June 7 unless it reaffirms its backing for the Syrian Kurds. “Why, when the Kurds are attacked by DAESH, by Turkey, why should they not get support?” asked Kakabaveh in a June 6 interview with Al-Monitor, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “They fought for the whole world to be free from terrorism, from DAESH. If Sweden accepts Turkey’s demands, that means DAESH will be strong again,” she fumed.

Kakabaveh said the government delivered the assurances she was demanding just hours before the vote. She abstained. The government is holding steady — for now.

For many Swedes, caving to Ankara goes well beyond concerns about IS. For Europeans writ large, Sweden’s predicament speaks to Turkey’s ability as they see things to blackmail their governments into submission. Among the most striking examples of the horse-trading in play is the 2016 deal whereby Turkey agreed to not flood Europe with Syrian refugees in exchange for billions of euros in aid.

“Swedish foreign policy is driven by values and the self-perception of many Swedes is of a country that stands up for democracy and human rights,” noted Paul Levin, director of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies. “The stark choice between principles and security that Ankara has placed Sweden before is arguably shocking to many here. There is little will to abandon Sweden’s traditional role on the world stage,” he told Al-Monitor.

Turkey has imposed similar conditions on Finland, but its real target is Sweden.

Jens Orback, a veteran Social Democrat and a former minister for Democracy, Integration and Gender Equality, recalled that Sweden is among a handful of EU countries that backs Turkey’s accession to the European bloc. “Sweden and the Social Democrats have been good friends of Turkey,” he told Al-Monitor.

Sweden became the first Scandinavian state to recognize the modern Turkish Republic in 1924 and signed a friendship treaty with Ankara the following year. A shared wariness of Russia dates back to 18th century when the Swedish King Charles XII fleeing the Tsarist army in the Great Northern War was offered sanctuary by the Turks in their Moldovan suzerainty, Bender. But the Ottomans then cut a deal with Catherine, the wife of the Russian emperor Peter the Great, who allegedly seduced the Turkish Grand Vizier in her imperial tent, leaving Charles out in the cold. The parallels with history are not lost on the Swedes. Who but Russia benefits most from Turkey’s current stance?

“[Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s blockage of Finland and Sweden’s NATO application with flimsy arguments regarding Turkey’s security perceptions is essentially in the service of Putin’s aggressive stand against the West,” said Cengiz Candar, a senior associate research fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and a regular contributor to Al-Monitor.

Candar dismissed the idea that had Turkey been accepted as a full EU member that it would have acted differently. “It has more to do with Erdogan’s ideology and Turkey’s autocratic regime,” he said.

Orback insists that Sweden will hold its ground. “We have human rights in our laws, freedom of press and protection of minorities. We should stick to those values.” As it happens, the same values are enshrined in NATO’s charter and Sweden’s job ought to be to see them upheld when it joins. “We are a party that is loyal to the decisions it takes,” Orback asserted.

But is it really? Will the proudly pacifist Swedes rediscover their Viking valor in the face of Turkish bullying?

The question is weighing ever more heavily and no more so than on the minds of Sweden’s estimated 150,000 Kurds. Kakabaveh insists that the government’s muted response to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s continued salvoes is a form of capitulation in and of itself. She’s never felt more vulnerable — or betrayed — she said.

Erdogan now wants Andersson to sack her defense minister, Peter Hultqvist, because he attended a 2014 gathering to celebrate the 33rd anniversary of the founding of the PKK.

“Is the YPG more dangerous than Vladimir Putin? Is NATO going to stick with authoritarians like Turkey at the expense of democracies like Finland and Sweden?” asked Kurdo Baksi, a nonpartisan Kurdish community leader and frequent commentator on Swedish television. “Erdogan is paralyzing NATO, European security,” he told Al-Monitor.

Ridvan Altun, a spokesman for the Democratic Kurdish Society Center, a group that embraces the ideology of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, says pressure from the Swedish authorities has been growing for some time. “Turkey’s long arm and its policy of labeling those who do not conform to its views as terrorist is being felt here now,” Altun told Al-Monitor.

Altun said the squeeze began in 2018 when the government began to refuse to extend residency permits to like-minded Kurds and submit their files to Sweden’s national intelligence services. “We know of at least 57 such cases,” Altun said, citing figures garnered by Swedish radio. “My brother is among them.” The reason given by the authorities to deny his brother continued residency was that his wife, a Swedish national, “is active in [pro-PKK] politics.” In 2020, Zozan Buyuk, a Belgian Kurd married to a Swedish Kurd, was deported back to Belgium on similar grounds, triggering uproar in the Kurdish community.

“It is because of these concessions that Turkey feels entitled to make such brazen demands,” Altun said. “As a Kurd and as a Swedish citizen, I feel deeply worried.”

In fact, the moves against the PKK date back to 1984 when Sweden became the first country after Turkey to designate the group as a terrorist organization. The EU and the United States followed suit.

The conflict averse Swedes were horrified when two former PKK operatives were killed on their soil upon orders from Ocalan. This prompted another top PKK member to threaten the Social Democratic government of Sweden’s then prime minister, Olof Palme, who was assassinated by an unknown assailant in 1986. The PKK was counted among the suspects, though the theory has since been discredited.

The PKK’s admonishments together with the 2002 “honor” killing of a Turkish Kurd by her father for having a relationship with a Swedish man stained the Kurds’ reputation for many years, said Baksi the community leader. Kurdish kids joining criminal gangs didn’t help.

But the negative image was dramatically reversed when the women fighters of the YPG shot to global fame with their fearlessness in the battle against IS. Today, pro-PKK groups have more influence in Sweden than any other of their rivals, not least because they are the best organized.

Efforts championed by Kakabaveh, among others, to have the PKK delisted have failed so far. But the YPG continues to be held in the highest regard in Swedish officialdom.

Turkey’s claims that it has nothing against the Kurdish people and only targets “terrorists” ring hollow in Uppsala, a picturesque university town renowned for its splendid gothic cathedral and Europe’s most successful Kurdish soccer team, Dalkurd.

It was founded in 2004 by members of the Kurdish diaspora in Dalarna county — hence “Dal” — to keep their children off the streets. The club’s giddying rise fueled by feelings of Kurdish pride to the top tier of the Sweden’s premier league in 2017 awed the public. Hudqvist, the defense minister, is a big fan.

Its fortunes have since fluctuated, and Dalkurd slipped to the third division before clawing its way back up to the second tier this year. Finances remain a big problem and Turkish meddling is one of the causes. When the Chinese telecom giant Huawei offered to sponsor the team, Ankara threatened to ban sales of its products in Turkey, according to Dalkurd’s manager, Welat Kilincaslan.

The club was forced to change its corporate name to DK Elite AB after Turkish state lender Halkbank refused to transfer funds on behalf of Dalkurd’s chief sponsor, a telecom company called FASTLINK owned by Iraqi Kurdish businessman Kawa Junad. “The bank said it would not deal with an entity that has the word ‘Kurd’ in it,” Kilincaslan told Al-Monitor during a recent tour of the team’s headquarters at Uppsala stadium.

He added, “We steer clear of politics. Nobody is allowed to chant any political slogans in favor of that party or the other. Turkey’s hostility is incomprehensible to us.” All the more so because the Iraqi Kurdish government used to deposit its oil revenues in Halkbank’s coffers until the bank was tried in a US Federal Court for laundering billions of dollars in an oil for gold scheme on behalf of Iran.


Members of Dalkurd hold a Kurdish flag. (Courtesy of Dalkurd)

Despite Turkey’s best efforts, the Kurds command growing influence in Sweden where they account for over 1 percent of the total population of 10 million. There are currently six ethnic Kurdish members of parliament.

“In the old days, Turkey used to be hailed in Europe and the United States as the sole Muslim country that was pro secular, pro-Western and where women had more freedom than in any other. The Kurds have snatched that crown,” said Baksi. “Turkey is now seen as anti-Western and pro-DAESH,” he said.

Nesrin Abdullah, commander of the YPG’s all-female arm, is a frequent visitor to Stockholm where she enjoys hero status and is received by top officials. They include the foreign minister, Ann Linde, a long-time campaigner for minority rights. Photos showing Abdullah, Linde and Kakabaveh together in the Swedish parliament in May drove Ankara mad, leading Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to blast her at a NATO gathering last month for her “so-called feminist policies.”

Turkey says no such visits can be repeated. All support for the YPG, which enjoys the protection of US forces in Syria, needs to end. The activities of PKK-leaning groups inside Sweden must be banned. Ankara also wants Sweden to extradite individuals, mainly Kurds and associates of Fethullah Gulen, the Sunni preacher accused of orchestrating the failed attempt to violently overthrow Erdogan in 2016.

Various versions of Turkey’s alleged wanted list are circulating in the media. One includes the name of a Kurdish author who died seven years ago.

“For extraditions, there must be solid evidence about offenses that are considered serious crimes according to Swedish law,” said Bitte Hammargren, an independent Turkey and Middle East analyst and a senior associate fellow of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. “It seems that the names on Turkey’s list have been floating around for some years, and they are requests that have been turned down by the Swedish court system,” Hammargren told Al-Monitor.

Turkey’s claims that Sweden had provided $367 million in “terrorism financing” to the Syrian Kurds are “disinformation,” she said. The figure equals the total funds disbursed over the past five years for humanitarian aid and support to Syria’s neighbors hosting large refugee populations such as Turkey and Lebanon. Moreover, Sweden has never supplied arms to the YPG. All of the above was relayed by a Swedish delegation that traveled to Ankara last month to help defuse the crisis. It returned empty-handed.

Hopes that Washington would ride to Sweden’s rescue have also proved empty. “Sweden’s membership is not for the United States to deliver,” said a well-placed source speaking on condition of strict anonymity.

The reckoning in Stockholm is that the row will not be resolved in time for the NATO summit that is scheduled to be held in Madrid on June 30, and that while this is “deeply irritating, particularly for Washington, it won’t be the end of the world,” the source contended.

Turkey’s other demand — that Sweden scrap an arms embargo imposed by it and fellow EU member states in the wake of Turkey’s latest invasion of northeast Syria in October 2019 — can be more easily met.

The Swedish Inspectorate of Strategic Products that vets applications for arms sales insists that there “is no arms embargo" on Turkey and that Sweden examines applications based on their individual merits. “This may be interpreted that some sales are up for grabs — I guess primarily material that is not directly lethal,” Hammargren speculated. Either way, Sweden’s previous weapons sales to Turkey are “peanuts” compared to what it wants from the United States after it imposed sanctions on Ankara chiefly over its acquisition of Russian S-400 missiles.

“My guess is that the government will try to offer some compromises,” Levin concurred.

“There may be some other moderate concessions as well. The PKK has long been listed as a terrorist group in Sweden, so to offer to be more vigilant in pursuing them and not allowing them to operate on Swedish soil would not really be 'caving in.' But anything that could be construed as selling out our principles I would guess is off-limits,” Levin said.

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the idea that Sweden would end 200 years of determined neutrality after losing large chunks of territory to Russia in the Napoleonic wars would have been laughed off as a fantasy. Therefore, the idea that it would make some concessions to Ankara for the sake of its own security cannot be entirely dismissed.

Jenny White, a Stockholm-based anthropologist and expert on Turkey, says Sweden is gripped by fear. “Crank radios and iodine pills sold out across the country. The government began rehabilitating its network of bomb shelters.”

“The daily visual diet of destruction and violence coming out of Ukraine and Russia’s belligerence to other countries on or near its borders has convinced the population and the politicians to seek safety and protection by bigger powers,” White told Al-Monitor.

“There was anxiety about the period between seeking NATO admission and receiving it — that Russia would take advantage of that period to attack Gotland, the Swedish island in the Baltic Sea that would be a strategic prize for Russia. It never occurred to anyone that the danger would be enhanced by another NATO member, Turkey,” White added. “Turkey is seen as an unreliable, authoritarian land that has no respect for and doesn’t understand countries like Sweden because it doesn’t share their values.”

Not all Swedes feel the same way. Adam Mohammed, an ethnic Somali worker at the Chinese-owned Swedish car manufacturer Volvo, accused his government of “hiding behind America’s skirts” and said Sweden should not join NATO. Erdogan, his fellow Muslim, was right in expecting Sweden’s support against “Kurdish terrorists,” he told Al-Monitor. “NATO is supposed to be family. Then why is one member, America, supporting terrorists against another member, Turkey?” he asked. “And why are we?”

Editor's note: June 7, 2022. This article was updated after its initial publication to reflect the result of the no-confidence vote in the Swedish parliament.

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