Sweden’s NATO Entry Launches a New Phase for the Country’s Kurds

The conviction of a PKK member may have helped smooth the way for Stockholm’s membership, but it also signals a tense turning point

Sweden’s NATO Entry Launches a New Phase for the Country’s Kurds
Demonstrators in Malmo, Sweden, protest Turkish military attacks against Kurds in Syria in 2018. (Magnus Persson/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

On July 6, the conviction of Yahya Gungor, 41, a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) member, caused shockwaves in the Swedish-Kurdish diaspora. Gungor had extorted a Kurdish businessman in order to get him to fund the PKK, a designated terror organization in Sweden, the United States and the EU. According to the judge, Gungor had been part of a European fundraising campaign and will serve a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence and then be extradited to Turkey. This is the first time a PKK member has been convicted in a Swedish court.

This will worry the 100,000-strong Swedish-Kurdish diaspora, as they see Gungor’s case as politically motivated, aimed at smoothing the Nordic country’s entry into NATO by doing Turkey’s bidding. His case follows the Russian invasion of Ukraine, after which Sweden’s security interests changed overnight. Sweden abandoned its long-standing neutrality in favor of NATO membership and, consequently, became dependent on Turkey, a NATO member, which held veto power over the bid. Turkey said it would only let Sweden in if its security concerns were satisfied. Ankara has long accused Sweden specifically, and Europe generally, of being too easy on an organization linked not only to terror attacks but organized crime, including extortion and drug trafficking.

Swedish judges went to great pains to stress that Gungor’s case had nothing to do with Turkish demands that Sweden crack down on the PKK. But that likely won’t stop Swedish Kurds from seeing the decision as a sign of an insecure future. While the political views of Swedish Kurds are manifold and varied, there is considerable sympathy for the organization, even if many disagree with its methods and radical ideas. Many Swedish Kurds still hold a common grievance against the Turkish state and may even have attended PKK rallies in solidarity. Now, displays of sympathy could land them in a Turkish prison.

Such fears are not wholly baseless. Even before Gungor’s conviction, on June 7 a Swedish court approved Turkish demands to extradite Mehmet Kokulu in order to finish off a prison sentence for drug trafficking. From the outside, Kokulu’s extradition appears quite reasonable. States often send convicted criminals to complete prison sentences in the countries in which their crimes were committed. However, Kokulu was also a refugee and a PKK supporter, and the case suggests that anyone who is a PKK sympathizer might face the prospect of extradition in spite of their refugee status. Both court cases appear to signal the end of Sweden’s tolerance for the political activities of its Swedish-Kurdish citizens, and may herald their becoming a suspect community. Yet in reality, that relationship between Swedish society and its Swedish-Kurdish citizens has always been one of alternating admiration and suspicion, since the time the latter arrived in the country.

When Kurds arrived in Sweden after World War II in the 1960s, Sweden had gone from being a country whose citizens migrated to other countries to one which required migrants for its growing industries. The first wave of Kurdish migrants was not dissimilar to the German foreign workers (“Gastarbeiter”) and came mostly from southeastern Turkey. The second wave came in the late ’70s and ’80s and were far more educated, middle class and politically active. They were also affected by political instability, repression and martial law which they suffered not only at the hands of the Turkish state, but also the Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi states. None of these countries wanted to see a Kurdish state being carved out of their territory.

The Kurdish diaspora felt aggrieved. Many of these countries that had sprung up from the former Ottoman empire erased their identity, either under the guise of Turkish nationalism or pan-Arabism. This took forms including the genocidal policies of the Iraqi Baath Party, culminating in the Anfal campaign, which killed thousands of Kurds in the late 1980s, and the land seizures of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, which aimed to create an “Arab belt” by seizing land from Kurds and bequeathing it to Arabs, and, in the case of Turkey, the process of Turkification, which sought to turn Kurds (or “mountain Turks,” as they were euphemistically known) into assimilated Turks bereft of an independent ethnic identity.

The latter policy manifested itself in the suppression of Kurdish language and culture in Turkish institutions. Since Kurds did not speak Turkish very well, they were left behind in a rapidly modernizing country. Even in 2022, the Kurdish soprano, Pervin Chakar, was allegedly canceled by her local university in the city of Mardin, on the Turkish-Syrian border, for including a Kurdish folk song in her repertoire. So the freedom experienced in Sweden was not underestimated by the nascent Swedish-Kurdish diaspora.

According to Barzoo Eliassi, a researcher of social policy at Oxford University, and Minoo Alinia, professor of sociology at Uppsala University in Sweden, Kurds were regarded as a “culturally remote and incompatible group in Swedish society.” Facing immense prejudice and racism and feeling a sense of alienation from their homeland, the Kurdish diaspora developed a sense of their “Kurdishness.” Sweden had become a melting pot, where Kurds from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran could gather freely for the first time, having previously been separated by national boundaries. Martin van Bruinessen, an anthropologist who specializes in the Kurds, notes that the presence of Kurdish intellectuals helped to stitch the community together and contributed to the spread of Kurdish nationalism.

As Eliassi and Alinia point out, the first generation did not care whether they were accepted by Swedes or not. They were migrants and they knew it; they were just thankful to be in a country that didn’t persecute them. For the first generation, prejudice was a price worth paying for the immense political freedom they experienced in their daily lives. For Kurdish women in particular, life in Sweden led to opportunities that they would never have experienced back home.

For their children, however, the situation was very different, as they didn’t have that pre-migratory experience of their parents. For them, to be accepted as Swedish mattered, and the realization that they were never going to be “Svensk Svensk” (Swedish Swedish) took a toll on them. If they didn’t face overt racism, at the very least, they experienced what Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish-Balkan soccer player, identified as “undercover racism.” They experienced the stigma that came with not having a surname like “Andersson or Svensson,” as he put it. It manifested itself in fewer job prospects or the near-complete segregation of foreign-born Swedes, who lived in self-contained suburbs like Rinkeby away from their white compatriots.

Alinia, who has written extensively on the Kurdish diaspora in Sweden, told me that Kurds were made to feel doubly incompatible with Swedish society, especially after 9/11. Not only did they experience the prejudice that many Muslim communities faced globally but they were also affected by the backlash that followed the honor killings of Pela Atroshi in 1999 and Fadime Sahindal in 2002. Atroshi was killed by her uncles for moving out of the family home. Sahindal was shot by her father for having a Swedish boyfriend and speaking out in the Swedish Parliament. It was a common accusation that Kurdish men were seen as “perpetrators” and women “their victims,” Alinia said. It made second-generation Kurds feel spurned by their country of birth.

And so sometimes, the second or third generation became even more hardcore Kurdish nationalists than their parents. Unlike the latter, who had experienced life in their homeland, the second generation created little idyllic Kurdistans in their heads, far removed from the messy political reality that always comes with such nation-building projects. As Alinia points out, nationalism became the framework and created a sense of “collective identity,” perhaps even more so when, in 2005, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a federal Iraq was created and Kurdish Iraqis were given an autonomous Kurdistan governorate rich in oil resources.

Arguably, the Swedish Kurds spread and strengthened Kurdish nationalism in Sweden because it gave both first- and second-generation Kurds a way to protect themselves from the prejudice of wider Swedish society; it gave them self-confidence and self-respect. In many ways it anchored them to something, even if it was just a vague idea.

Politically and culturally, however, according to Khalid Khayati, a political scientist at Linkoping University, Sweden became a “gravitational center” for Swedish Kurds. Up until now, at least, the Kurdish diaspora felt they could express themselves freely in Sweden. The Swedish state supported cultural federations in general, and Kurds could form associations and societies in a way that they couldn’t in Turkey or Syria. Kurdiska Riksforbundet i Sverige, the Federation of Kurdish Association in Sweden, had 40 or so associations and many other associations were formed in the ’90s. Kurds also established several TV and radio channels, as well as newspapers. Kurdish libraries and publishing houses printed books in the Kurdish languages that riveted the Kurdish diaspora in Sweden. These activities would be difficult or impossible in Turkey. Unlike many other ethnic minorities in Sweden, Swedish Kurds had managed to penetrate many spaces of Swedish society, rarely available to ethnic minority Swedes.

As someone born in Stockholm and raised in Rinkeby, to spot a white Swede there is a rarity, something noteworthy, and to witness the grit and tenacity of Swedish Kurds is extraordinary. Not only did Swedish Kurds manage to elect six members (MPs) to Parliament in 2018 but they had journalists, intellectuals, writers, academics and pop singers in wider Swedish society, too. In fact, such was the political skill of some that Amineh Kakabaveh, an independent MP of Kurdish heritage and a former PKK guerrilla fighter, for one brief moment held the decisive vote that could have resulted in the fall of the Swedish Social Democrats’ minority government. Kakabaveh managed to leverage her single vote to secure concessions for the Kurdish factions fighting in Syria.

But there were problems too. Many of these societies were dominated by supporters of the PKK, which started life as a Marxist-Leninist and radical leftist party. Even though there were other political parties in Kurdish politics, the PKK was the loudest in channeling the grievances of the Kurdish diaspora. The problem was that the PKK was outlawed by Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme after a PKK defector was killed in 1984. When Palme was assassinated in 1986, the national security service, SAPO, suspected that the PKK had killed him out of revenge. These allegations proved baseless, and over the years the Swedish state left them more or less alone because they threatened neither the Swedish state nor the West, despite the fact that the group was accused of involvement in terrorism, human trafficking and the heroin trade. A 2019 paper by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction suggested that the PKK controlled the nexus for heroin trafficking in southern Turkey and there was “limited” open source evidence that the PKK was involved in importing narcotics into Europe. Until recent years, the PKK was never deemed “a question” for the Swedish state, according to Svante Cornell of the Institute of Security and Development Policy, and so they were left to do their politicking among the Kurdish diaspora unchecked.

With the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011, however, turning a blind eye toward the PKK was seen as tacit support. The Kurdish political groups seized northern Syria by 2012 and captured the Western imagination in the battle for Kobani and Rojava in 2015. While as many as 300 Swedish nationals joined jihadist groups and made Swedish headlines by beheading Syrian pilots, ramming a truck into a famous department store in Stockholm and taking some of their blond and blue-eyed children to the Islamic State caliphate, the Kurds led the fight against them. One of the PKK’s offshoots, the YPG, was prominent in the fight against the Islamic State. For a fleeting moment, Kurds could do nothing wrong, as the YPG appealed to Swedish sensibilities. They seemed egalitarian. Kurdish women fought on the front lines against a barbaric jihadist group that enslaved Yazidis and oppressed women. No longer were the Kurds seen as the perpetrators of honor killings. Popular support translated into political support; Sweden, alongside the U.S. and other NATO countries, supported the YPG in its fight against the Islamic State.

Such support, however, was deemed unacceptable to Turkey, especially as the truce between it and the PKK ended in 2015. As a result of the renewed clashes between the two, according to the International Crisis Group, from 2015 up until very recently, 6,677 fatalities have occurred in Turkey, 614 of whom were civilian victims. In 2016, the Kurdish Freedom Hawks, said to be an offshoot of the PKK, bombed transport hubs in Ankara and a mosque in Bursa, in northwest Turkey, as “payback” for a Turkish military operation. While not all Kurds are part of the PKK, Turkey believed that Sweden was not only supporting the YPG but harboring cadres involved in extorting money and funding the PKK. These fundraising activities supposedly affected not only small stores in Rinkeby and elsewhere in Western Europe but also the streets of Turkey in acts of terror. Turkey needed to cut off the indirect relationship between the PKK and the Swedish government. In this, Sweden was not an exception in attracting Turkey’s ire over PKK activities. Other countries such as France had also fallen afoul of Turkey, but Sweden arguably occupied a special place because of its important role in Kurdish cultural and political life. Turkey saw its opportunity in 2022, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian invasion led Sweden to discard its neutrality by applying for NATO membership. This application, however, could have been vetoed by Turkey, meaning that Sweden had to placate Ankara’s security concerns. Moreover, by 2022, Sweden was governed by a right-wing coalition led by Ulf Kristerson that relied on the support of the far-right Sweden Democrats party, which was even less sympathetic to immigrants, let alone Kurdish causes. And so Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom distanced the government from organizations like the YPG, while also turning its attention to the PKK’s activities at home. While wider Swedish society fretted over being dictated to by Turkey, the Kurdish diaspora in Sweden felt a deep betrayal at this seeming about-face from the Swedish state. After all, Kurds had died on the frontline fighting on behalf of the West. They were also holding European jihadist women and children, including Swedes, in camps such as al-Hol and Roj in northeastern Syria.

The cases of Gungor and Kokulu were not seen as merely coincidental by Swedish Kurds but rather as betrayals auguring an insecure future. For many Swedish Kurds, the new detente between Sweden and Turkey could mean their extradition and the beginning of a new relationship between them and Swedish society; one in which they are viewed as a suspect community.

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