STOCKHOLM — When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insists there are “terrorists sitting in parliaments of certain countries” to justify his objection to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, Swedish opposition lawmaker Amineh Kakabaveh has no doubt whom he is talking about.
“Of course Erdoğan meant me,” the independent opposition lawmaker told POLITICO. “For Erdoğan, every supporter and every defender of the Kurds is a terrorist.”
A long-time campaigner for Kurdish rights, she has pushed the Swedish government to increase its cooperation with the PYD, a political affiliate of the YPG Kurdish militia group from the self-governing territory of northern Syria, which has clashed with Turkish forces. Last fall, she withheld her all-important backing for the candidacy of Social Democrat leader Magdalena Andersson to be Sweden’s prime minister until she had secured a commitment of support.
That move did not go unnoticed in Ankara. Last week, Turkish officials said Kakabaveh’s deal was emblematic of a Swedish foreign policy which has long supported Kurdish groups that Ankara regards as terrorists.
Turkey said because of such policies, it would block Andersson’s most consequential decision since becoming Sweden’s leader: to take her country into NATO alongside neighboring Finland in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As one of 30 current members of NATO, Turkey can veto the accession of new entrants. The Swedish and Finnish accessions are now on hold.
Along with Erdoğan’s apparent labelling of Kakabaveh as a terrorist, in comments he later attempted to walk back, Turkey’s Ambassador to Sweden Hakkı Emre Yunt said on Friday that Kakabaveh should be extradited to Turkey.
“Certain lawmakers …work against Turkey in parliament all the time. They press the Swedish government to take a negative stance toward Turkey,” Yunt said.
For NATO, the clash between Turkey and Sweden, and to a lesser extent Finland, which Ankara also accuses of support for terrorists, is an unwelcome sideshow at a time when Russia is attacking Ukraine, a country bordering NATO members. Diplomats and regional experts reckon that Turkey is probably using Sweden as leverage in a broader political campaign in which Erdoğan wants to play to his domestic base and extract international concessions — most notably pressing the U.S. to unblock a major jet fighter purchase.
That strategy is pushing back the timetable. Sweden and Finland had hoped for rapid accession to the alliance, which would give them recourse to NATO’s mutual defense policy and add new depth to the alliance’s northeastern defenses.
Hopes of such a fast track are now fading. On Sunday, Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said it could take “several weeks” to reach an agreement with Turkey.
The clash also risks reopening old wounds between Turkey and other members of the alliance, some of whom have faced off against Ankara in circumstances similar to those now faced by Sweden and Finland. In 2009, Erdoğan tried to block the appointment of former Danish Premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO secretary-general and a decade later, Turkey also challenged a plan to move troops into eastern NATO member states.
In both cases, Turkey demanded that NATO nations should support its hard line on Kurdish groups.
For Ankara, the YPG and PYD are indistinguishable from the PKK, a militant group that has waged a violent campaign against the Turkish state since the early 1980s and which is classed by Turkey, the EU and U.S. as a terrorist organization.
Unlike Turkey, the EU and U.S. do not regard the PYD or YPG, whose fighters were instrumental in the defeat of Islamist militant group ISIS in Syria in 2019, as terrorists.
Sweden, like a number of other European states, has a fairly large Kurdish community, estimated at around 100,000 people, with politically active members running regular campaigns and protests against the Turkish state.
In some cases, the fluid nature of affiliations within some pro-Kurdish organizations appears to have made it difficult for authorities in Sweden and other European nations to track where support for legal groups like the YPG ends and support for the terrorist PKK begins.
For example, PKK flags have appeared at wider pro-Kurdish demonstrations in Stockholm.
Sweden’s history with the PKK goes back decades and has some high-profile episodes. In 1984, Sweden became the first country after Turkey to declare the PKK a terrorist organization, while in 1986, the group was suspected of involvement in the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in a closely watched line of inquiry that was later discounted.
It is unclear what happens next. Ankara’s demands as of Sunday night were that Sweden must class the YPG as terrorists and cut its links with the group.
Turkey is also demanding the extradition of 33 people to Turkey from Sweden and Finland who it says are supporters of terrorism. Sweden is also being pressed to drop its adherence to a Western weapons embargo in force against Turkey since it launched an attack on YPG forces in Syria in 2019.
Sweden’s Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö spoke with Erdoğan by telephone on Saturday but little progress was made, according to statements by all three governments.
İlnur Çevik, an adviser to Erdoğan, told Swedish television station SVT on Sunday that the sides had so far only “agreed to disagree.”
Çevik said that there “isn’t much Turkey can do” about the fact that the U.S. and other NATO countries do not regard the YPG as terrorists, but Ankara believes that it can at least now force a change in Sweden and Finland’s policies.
“Here there is something we can do and the Turkish people are asking us to do it,” Çevik said.
The days and weeks ahead look set to test Swedish and Finnish negotiating skills. Experts say that Turkey is unlikely to back down in the short term with Erdoğan facing elections next year and seemingly keen to show international influence.
But Sweden and Finland are also seen as highly unlikely to meet Turkish demands on extraditions to Turkey, given that Sweden in particular has long sought to play a role as an international guarantor of human rights.
Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde has slammed as “disinformation” any suggestion that Stockholm supports terrorism and noted that Sweden was the first country after Turkey to designate the PKK as a terror group. After a meeting with a group she referred to as “Kurds from Iran who live in Sweden” in 2020, Linde tweeted that “Sweden stands up for human rights and democracy, not least for Kurds. The oppression which many are subject to in their homelands is unacceptable.”
A unilateral redesignation of the YPG as terrorists by Stockholm or Finland also seems unlikely with Sweden previously condemning Turkish incursions into Syria against that group.
Indeed, the deal between the Social Democrats and opposition lawmaker Kakabaveh said that “freedom fighters who have fought for or sympathized with the YPG or PYD should be classed as terrorists by certain state actors is unacceptable.”
For her part, Kakabaveh has already threatened to withdraw her support for the Swedish government in upcoming votes if it fails to honor its commitments under her deal.
Born in an ethnically Kurdish region of Iran, she fought for the peshmerga militia as a teenager before fleeing to Sweden. She said Stockholm must do more to resist Erdoğan’s attempts to oppress Kurdish groups.
“Turkey does not want the Kurds in any country to have their rights,” she said.