06.03.2024 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Stockholm—Ankara: “Kurdish coin” for NATO membership…

Kurdish community

One of the reasons for Turkey’s apprehension of the accelerated process of Sweden’s accession to NATO was the Kurdish issue. In particular, Ankara before Stockholm put forward a number of demands on the “Kurdish dossier”:

1) to ban the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist organisation, on the territory of Sweden;

2) extradite to Turkey a number of Kurdish activists, according to the Turkish list provided by the MIT and the Foreign Ministry;

3) stop supporting the Kurdish “People’s Self-Defence Units” in northern Syria;

4) amend Swedish criminal law to expand the concept of terrorism and enforcement measures against Kurdish militants;

5) end state and reduce public support for Kurdish institutions and media in Sweden.

As a result, the “Swedish intrigue” in the corridors of Turkish power stretched for 20 months from the moment of submission of the application to join the North Atlantic Alliance on 18 May 2022 to the ratification of this application by Turkey on 23-25 January 2024.

Initially Sweden, positioning itself as a progressive democratic and liberal country, seemed to refuse to fulfil the Turkish side’s requests regarding the extradition of Kurds. Stockholm assured its Kurdish subjects that:

Firstly, the memorandum with Turkey does not specify specific names (although the Turks did not demand anonymity and at the same time submit a list of 33 people to the Finns and Swedes);

Secondly, extradition is impossible without due process;

Thirdly, Sweden, the standard-bearer of democracy, will not extradite suspects to Ankara who may be at risk of ill-treatment. In addition, Swedish Justice Minister Morgan Johansson has stated that the Kingdom’s nationals will not be extradited and the fate of non-citizens will be decided by an independent court.

Sweden, like Germany and Great Britain, has a large Kurdish community (about 100-150 thousand people). As is known, the formation of the Kurdish diaspora in this Scandinavian country began in the 1970s and further migration flows intensified in the 1980s-1990s and 2000s due to the fighting and repression in Turkey, as well as the occupation of Iraq. The Kurdish diaspora is quite politically active and well-integrated in Sweden, and is represented by six members in the local parliament.

It is noteworthy that in November 2021, Turkey was very concerned about a political deal in the formation of Magdalena Andersson’s Social Democratic government involving the decisive vote of Amineh Kakabaveh, a non-partisan Kurdish member of the Riksdag. In particular, a condition of the deal was that Andersson agreed to co-operate with the Syrian Kurds, who are also supported by the United States.

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde denied Ankara’s accusations of supporting Kurdish terrorism and reminded that the Kingdom was the second state after Turkey to recognise the PKK as a terrorist organisation back in 1984 (i.e. two years before the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986, where a Kurdish connection was also considered).

However, the Turks were seriously concerned not only about the PKK’s activities in Sweden, but also about a number of other political decisions in Stockholm that conflicted with Ankara’s interests. For example, the fact that the Swedish Riksdag recognised the Armenian genocide in 2010; the 2017 publications of leading Swedish publications (in particular, Dagens Nyheter) exposing the activities of Turkish state institutions (in particular, the Directorate of Religious Affairs – Diyanet) to finance some imams in Sweden in order to control the local Turkish diaspora; the expulsion in October 2021. of Swedish diplomats for their interference in Turkey’s internal affairs and calls for the release of Turkish public figure Osman Kavala, accused of complicity in the July 2016 events; talks between Swedish officials and representatives of Kurdish militant groups in Syria.

However, after the NATO summit in Vilnius and the talks between Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and Turkish President Recep Erdogan on the eve of the forum on July 10, 2023, with the participation of Alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Stockholm changed its position on the Kurdish issue in favour of satisfying the ambitions of its Turkish partners as much as possible, as well as promising effective support for Ankara’s EU accession. Obviously, the U.S. was behind this turn in order to accelerate Sweden’s accession to NATO and strengthen the alliance’s operational capabilities against Russia in the European direction.

At the same time, the U.S. showed its readiness to sacrifice not only the Kurdish issue to Turkey’s ambitions in order to satisfy anti-Russian interests, but also to compromise its own ideological postulates about democracy and civil liberties, discrediting the image of Sweden. In fact, after World War II, neutral Sweden had no formal or real reason to fear threats from Russia and suddenly rush to join the NATO bloc. Washington was far from interested in the fact that a sharp change in Stockholm’s position could in the short term lead to a transformation of the local political landscape, because in addition to the Kurdish element on the left flank of the Riksdag, there are natives of other Middle Eastern countries (including Iran and Iraq).

However, the fact remains the overnight vote of the Turkish parliament on 23 January and the overnight decree of the Turkish president on 25 January 2024 to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership. The price of the Turkish decision in favour of Sweden’s membership in the North Atlantic Alliance is considered by some to be a military deal with the US over the fate of 40 upgraded F-16 Block70 fighter jets. However, the list of Turkish bargains turned out to be more extensive.

Thus, on 31 January, i.e. actually a week after the Turkish positive decision on the “Swedish case”, the largest Swedish publication SVT published an editorial entitled “How cost-cutting will hit Swedish radio – programmes are closing“. The essence of this publication boils down to the fact that due to financial difficulties of the national media, which unexpectedly fell on economically prosperous Sweden, the management of SVT media corporation decided to close 180 services and dismiss 2000 employees. According to Swedish Radio managing director Cilla Benkö, the “Kurdish editorial office”, which had irritated Ankara because it defended the Kurdish community and reflected their interests in the confrontation with the authorities of Turkey, Iraq and Syria, was also cut.

It should be noted that SVT, being a media giant, is an important promoter of the policy and interests of the ruling elites of Sweden, and regularly receives state funding in the form of government grants. Accordingly, the statement about the closure of the “Kurdish direction” on 31 January, i.e. six days after Turkish President R. Erdogan signed the famous decree on the ratification of Sweden’s membership in NATO, indicates the existence of a political deal between Stockholm and Ankara, where the Kurds once again found themselves in the role of a “bargaining chip”. The fact that in this situation not only Kurdish interests suffered, but also undermined the authority of Sweden itself, which used to be an active champion of the defence of the rights of oppressed peoples and national minorities, apparently, the government of Ulf Kristersson does not care much, because the instruction to make a deal with the Turks, obviously, came from the United States itself.

Thus, the policy of double standards demonstrated by Sweden shows that Stockholm cannot have an independent foreign policy that differs from the course of the US NATO leader. Hopes for Swedish democracy of the same Kurds and other peoples who suffered at different historical times from despotism and tyranny will be betrayed by local authorities in favour of opportunistic interests and in favour of heirs of former tyrants. These are the realities of modern geopolitics of the West.


Alexander SVARANTS – PhD of Political Science, Professor, especially for the online magazine «New Eastern Outlook»

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