Will exiled Kurds pay price of Sweden’s NATO entry?

Dominique Soguel
Stockholm-based Kurdish author Bubu Eser, at the Kurdish Library Feb. 6, 2023, pulls out two editions of a book he wrote documenting his experiences of torture in a Turkish prison.
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Sweden has been unusually generous in offering protection to Kurds who have fallen foul of the Turkish government because of their activities in support of an independent Kurdish state. There are 100,000 of them who have found safety there.

Now they find themselves caught in a geopolitical tug of war.

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Kurdish exiles have long felt safe in Sweden from the Turkish government’s reach. But Ankara holds Sweden’s key to NATO. What price will it ask? And what price will Stockholm pay?

The Swedish government wants to join NATO. That requires the approval of all NATO members, including Turkey. And Turkey is demanding a price: that Stockholm stop offering a safe haven to groups which Ankara considers to be terrorist, and extradite Kurdish exiles on Turkey’s “wanted” list.

Sweden has said it will not meet all of Turkey’s demands. But it did sign a memorandum on counterterrorism cooperation with Turkey and Finland – another NATO aspirant – last year. And Stockholm has tightened anti-terrorism legislation.

Some Kurdish exiles fear that Sweden will sacrifice some of them, and the country’s reputation for protection, in order to secure NATO membership. Others are more sanguine.

“Turkey is a dictatorship and it shows in the way [Turkish president] Erdoğan threatens Sweden,” says Bubu Eser, a Kurdish writer in exile in Stockholm.

“But I don’t feel threatened by this dictatorship,” he adds. “I trust the Swedish government, and I trust that Sweden will do right by the Kurds.”

Tucked away in an unassuming apricot building, the Kurdish library in Stockholm is a place where Kurds can celebrate their culture, literature, and language. More importantly, it represents what many Kurds long and fight for but have historically been denied.

“In Sweden, I found a democratic system,” says Hedi Gomei, an aging volunteer at the library who was born in Iraq and today considers himself a Kurdish Swede. He came to Sweden in the 1970s after many years fighting with the Kurdish peshmerga and being arrested three times for his political activism. “They welcomed us. For me, coming to this library is like going to a garden with the flowers in full bloom.”

That sense of tranquility and freedom from political repression or jail time – threats all too common in the history of Kurdish minorities in Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq – means most Kurds here consider Sweden home, even while dreaming of a state for the Kurdish people.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Kurdish exiles have long felt safe in Sweden from the Turkish government’s reach. But Ankara holds Sweden’s key to NATO. What price will it ask? And what price will Stockholm pay?

It is also why many now fret about Sweden’s deal-cutting with Turkey to enter the NATO military alliance. Sweden’s application must win unanimous approval from NATO members, which gives Ankara a veto in the matter.

The 100,000 Kurds in Sweden, making up about 1% of the Swedish population, are well integrated politically and culturally. Now they are caught in a geopolitical tug of war that is challenging their faith in Swedish democracy.

“Kurds are quite worried and uncomfortable since Sweden announced all of a sudden last spring that they were going to submit an application to join NATO,” says Gothenburg-based Arin Savran, author of the book “Turkey and the Kurdish Peace Process.” “Kurds, particularly Kurds originating from Turkey, associate NATO with Turkey. NATO has been supplying weapons throughout the years and those weapons have been used against Kurds. There’s a history there.”

A game of foxes

Kurdish refugees have long been a point of friction in Kurdish-Swedish relations. Ankara considers Sweden a safe haven for members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been branded a terrorist group in Turkey and Europe, as well as other Kurdish groups it considers to be extensions of the PKK.

Christine Olsson/TT News Agency/AP
A protestor in Stockholm prepares to jump on a banner depicting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a demonstration organized by Kurdish exiles. There are concerns that Sweden might repatriate some Kurds in a bid to win Ankara's approval of its NATO membership application.

Turkey is troubled by Sweden’s support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which fought against ISIS alongside the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The YPG’s political wing, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), has an office in Stockholm.

“The PYD is a de facto recognized group” in Sweden,” explains Khalid Khayati, an associate professor focused on the Kurdish diaspora at Linköping University. “The Kurds in Syria have sacrificed more than 13,000 people in the fight to ISIS. It would be unfair and inhuman to consider that group as a terror organization.”

In June 2022, during the Madrid NATO summit, Sweden and Finland – which submitted joint applications to join the military alliance – tried to allay Turkey’s concerns. They committed to step up their efforts to prevent PKK activities and to deny support to the PYD/YPG. Both Nordic nations have moved to tighten anti-terrorism legislation.

In January, Sweden leveled money laundering charges against the PYD’s representative in Stockholm. The same month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demanded the extradition of 130 “terrorists” in exchange for his country’s green light for Sweden and Finland to join NATO. 

“They expected to be safe here,” says Mr. Gomei, the library volunteer, of Kurds who have sought asylum in Sweden. If the authorities send Kurds to Turkey “this will go against their own Swedish values, of protecting everyone. [But] politics is a game of foxes,” he adds. “Sweden is acting in its interest. Even countries that are democracies put their interest ahead of democracy.”

Swedish officials have clearly stated that they will not meet Turkey’s demands that they extradite all those whom Ankara has asked for. The controversial list reportedly includes Swedish citizens, who by law cannot be extradited to Turkey, and Kurds with permanent residence in Sweden, as well as asylum-seekers.

It is the fate of the latter that worries Miran Kakaee, a Swedish lawyer of Kurdish descent.

“Most of the allegations against them regard crimes that are not even crimes under Swedish law,” says Mr. Kakaee, who is representing a person on Mr. Erdoğan’s wish list. To his knowledge, no one on the list has been extradited to Turkey since Turkey, Finland, and Sweden signed a memorandum on counterterrorism cooperation last June in Madrid. But last year’s deportation of Mahmoud Tat – who had been convicted as a PKK militant in Turkey and whose asylum request was turned down before Sweden’s NATO bid – was painted as victory in Turkey.

Closer police controls

Mr. Kakaee says Kurdish asylum applications have encountered greater scrutiny by the Swedish security and counterintelligence service, SÄPO, since 2019, perhaps because of a 2017 terror attack in Stockholm carried out by a failed asylum-seeker linked to ISIS. 

Kurdish activists in Sweden say they have been under greater scrutiny since last summer. “It is dirty politics ... to do an agreement with one dictator [Mr. Erdoğan] to protect the Swedish people from another dictator [Russian President Vladimir Putin],” says Abdullah Deveci, a member of the Kurdish Democratic Society Center and a Gothenburg-based Kurdish lawyer with roots in Turkey. “Me, as a lawyer, journalists, activists – even we have problems now with the Swedish police. They call us and pay us visits, just to control. We never had this situation before.”

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, says Ankara has legitimate concerns regarding Kurdish activities in Sweden. He attributes them to “lax attitudes Swedish law enforcement agencies have shown towards the PKK and other Kurdish networks,” as well as the country’s ties – informal as they may be – to the YPG in Syria. Ankara is watching closely how Sweden’s tightening of anti-terrorism legislation plays out.

“Turkey was hoping to use Sweden’s accession to NATO to set a precedent ... that it is not OK for the alliance members to have formal contacts and informal support for the YPG,” says Mr. Cagaptay. “That’s why Ankara is playing hardball with Sweden,” he explains. But now, due to the recent devastating 7.8 earthquake in Turkey, “there is almost zero chance that the Turkish parliament will do anything on Sweden before the elections in Turkey.”

NATO has come to Turkey’s aid but also kept up pressure on Turkey to rapidly allow Sweden and Finland into the alliance, irrespective of whether it considers their bids separately or together. “The time is now to ratify both Finland and Sweden,” said Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaking in Istanbul on Feb. 16.

Dominique Soguel
A display of books in front of a photograph of Kurdish shepherds, at the Kurdish Library in Stockholm, Feb. 6, 2023.

Back at the Kurdish library in Stockholm, author Bubu Eser lets his mind drift as he looks out of a window. Moments earlier, he had shared one of his worst memories of Turkey – being thrown out of a four-story window during police questioning. He suffered many kinds of torture during the 72 days he spent in pre-trial detention and the more than two years he spent behind bars, he says. He turns page after illustrated page of his book, “Guardian,” to convey his ordeals.

Sweden, to him, is synonymous with safety. He feels confident Sweden will not just hand over Kurds who might risk ill-treatment to Turkey for political gain. Decisions to send people back to Turkey are a matter for the courts, he stresses – a point that Swedish politicians have also made. He says he supports the country that gave him shelter, no matter what path it takes when it comes to joining NATO.

“Sweden has every right to do what the country needs,” says Mr. Eser. “Turkey is a dictatorship and it shows in the way Erdoğan threatens Sweden. But I don’t feel threatened by this dictatorship. I trust the Swedish government, and I trust that Sweden will do right by the Kurds.”

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