The ghost of Olof Palme: how support for the Kurds is complicating Sweden’s NATO accession

Sweden’s application in the wake of the war in Ukraine has given Turkey the chance to bring up old grievances.
olof palme
Olof Palme (1927-1986). Credit: roger tillberg / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Recep Tayyip Erdogan is unhappy about Finland and Sweden’s applications to join NATO. And the Turkish president’s complaints don’t seem to be a ploy for concessions, as most observers initially assumed. He nurtures a real grievance over Sweden’s legacy of hosting militant Kurds. 

Sweden’s ambition to establish itself as a haven for persecuted opposition activists, including Kurds, both peaceful and militant, accelerated under Prime Minister Olof Palme, a Social Democrat firebrand and veteran politician who served as prime minister from 1969 to 1976, and again in the 1980s. Turkey’s anger with Sweden is fundamentally a legacy from Palme’s days. It would be sweet revenge against Palme if his fellow Social Democrats’ attempt to take Sweden into NATO forty years later were to be scuppered by their support of militant Kurds.

Sweden is a ‘total terrorism centre, a nest of terrorism,’ Erdogan has recently complained. Turkey has already blocked the first step of the two countries’ accession, and in a phone call with Swedish prime minister Magdalena Andersson, Erdogan said  that ‘Sweden’s political, financial and weapon support to terrorist organisations must end.’ Even though Joe Biden said he was confident Finland and Sweden would be able to join NATO, Erdogan’s complaints over Kurdish militants seem to be more than a scheme to get, say, new US fighter jets out of the Nordic NATO accession. (The US expelled Turkey from the F-35 programme after the latter bought a Russian missile defence system). Interviewed by Swedish media, Turkey’s ambassador to Sweden, Hakki Emre Yunt, listed three reasons his country opposes Swedish membership in NATO: Sweden’s support of the Syrian-Kurdish YPG militia (‘it’s the same as the PKK,’ Yunt said); Sweden’s arms suspension of arm exports to Turkey, imposed after Turkey attacked the YPG; and Turkey’s extradition requests for ‘terrorists living in Sweden,’ as Yunt put it. In a recent phone call with Andersson, Erdogan is thought to have demanded that Sweden cease support of the PKK, the YPG and the PYD – the latter is a Syrian-Kurdish party — and lift its arms embargo on Turkey, which has been in place since 2019. Andersson would only say that Sweden’s NATO accession might ‘take some time’.

When he refers to ‘terrorists’ he is talking about Kurdish militants — and Kurdish militants have been given asylum in Sweden for decades. As prime minister in the 1970s, Palme sought to make Sweden a moral superpower. His strategy included Swedish neutrality and refuge for foreign opposition activists. ‘Sweden’s foreign policy neutrality and free position between the super-power blocs has allowed us to develop a generous refugee policy. Our non-aligned position has made it possible for us to become active in situations where other countries, as a result of their foreign policy stance, have been incapable of engagement,’ Palme (at the time leader of the opposition) summarised in parliament in 1979. Arguing that NATO member states were incapable of providing refuge to persecuted activists while Sweden’s neutrality allowed it to do so was tremendously arrogant. But that’s how Palme viewed the world. He also had very specific opinions about what Sweden itself should look like — a society steeped in social democratic, indeed socialist, thought — and he implemented these views not just as prime minister but also as education minister and minister of communications.

The upshot of his neutrality and refugees policy was that significant numbers of (often left-leaning) opposition activists from all over the world arrived in Sweden. One of my primary school classmates, for example, was the son of two socialist lawyers from Chile who had fled their country after Augusto Pinochet seized power. During the late 1970s, when Turkey saw violent clashes between left-wing and right-wing factions and a rise in Kurdish separatism, Sweden took in many Kurds, not least because Palme was one of the only international leaders who publicly endorsed Kurdish independence. Many of the refugees were ordinary citizens persecuted simply for being Kurdish, but some were militants with links to the PKK, which had been formed in 1978 and quickly became known for its violent struggle against the Turkish state. After Palme was assassinated in February 1986, the police  briefly suspected the murder might be the work of disaffected PKK militants. 

In subsequent years, Kurdish immigration to Sweden has continued; the country’s Kurdish population is now estimated at around 100,000, including six members of parliament. The Turkish town of Kulu, which has a substantial Swedish-Turkish community, even has an Olof Palme Street

Sweden’s long relationship with the Kurdish has now caused not just a massive NATO headache but parliamentary upheaval too. The independent parliamentarian Amineh Kakabaveh who, until earlier this, formed the Andersson government’s one-vote majority support in parliament is a Kurd born in Iran. Part of her agreement with the Social Democrats involved a pledge by the latter to support the Syrian-Kurdish party PYD. After Sweden submitted its NATO bid and Turkey logged its opposition, she said Erdogan was targeting her, accused the Andersson government of yielding to Turkey and withdrew her support.

Even though Palme has acquired the aura of a pioneering statesman, domestically he was often a conniving operator. He treated his political opponents with contempt — and the United States with outright malice, despite the fact that Sweden backed up its official neutrality with secret military guarantees from America. In 1968, a Swedish anti-US protest march featured two prominent figures: Palme —already a government minister — and North Vietnam’s ambassador to Moscow. ‘The crowd, which had earlier yelled “USA murderers” and “USA leave Vietnam” launched into another melody, “Ho-Ho-Ho-Ho-Ho-Chii-Minhh”,’ the daily Svenska Dagbladet reported.

Now Palme’s prime ministerial successor has travelled to Washington to seek support for Swedish membership in NATO. Sweden, it seems, has left Palme’s legacy far behind. But its radical change may — unwittingly — be thwarted by Kurdish militants living in Sweden. Palme is blocking his country’s NATO accession from the grave itself.

Elisabeth Braw

Elisabeth Braw is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on defence and deterrence against greyzone threats. She is also a columnist with Foreign Policy, where she writes on national security and the globalised economy. Before joining AEI, Elisabeth was a senior research fellow at RUSI, whose Modern Deterrence project she led. Prior to that, she worked at Control Risks, a global risk consultancy. Elisabeth is also a member of the steering committee of the Aurora Forum (the UK-Nordic-Baltic leader conference), a member of the UK National Preparedness Commission and an associate fellow at the European Leadership Network. Elisabeth started her career as a journalist, reporting for Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor and the international Metro group of newspapers, among others. She regularly writes op-eds, including for the Financial Times, Politico, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (writing in German) and the Wall Street Journal. She is also the author of 'God’s Spies', about the Stasi (Eerdmans, 2019) and 'The Defender’s Dilemma' (forthcoming).

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