Erdogan Is Hung Up on the Power One Kurdish Woman Has in Sweden

·7-min read

(Bloomberg) -- Amineh Kakabaveh’s journey from Peshmerga fighter to Kurdish refugee and then Swedish lawmaker has thrust her into her adopted homeland’s standoff with Turkey.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is holding up Sweden’s application to join the NATO alliance, saying it harbors “terrorists” — his catch-all label for those with links to Kurdish militancy — and he’s hinted at Kakabaveh’s influence as a particular problem.

When Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson was appointed last year and when her government was saved in a confidence ballot this month, it was Kakabaveh who supplied the key vote. In exchange she won promises from Andersson’s party to expand cooperation with a Syrian Kurdish political party, whose armed wing Erdogan wants Sweden to designate a terrorist entity.

Erdogan’s demands are highlighting the struggles of one of the largest ethnic groups without a state. They are also another test for a way of life that welcomed a woman like Kakabaveh, and helped her prosper. Sweden’s status as a generous refuge has been under strain since far-right groups started calling for restrictions in response to the steady arrival of asylum seekers over the past decade. Swedes are now being forced to consider what they should give up in order to bolster the country’s security against Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Polls show a solid majority want Sweden to join NATO for extra protection against the Russian president’s expansionism, ending its centuries-old policy of military non-alignment. But others want to walk away to safeguard historic openness, and worry that appeasing Erdogan will set a precedent.

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While NATO has signaled a resolution is possible, Erdogan is standing firm, demanding Sweden make written commitments to crack down on supporters of the PKK — which has been fighting Turkey for autonomy for decades, as well as affiliates like the YPG — the armed wing of the PYD political group that Andersson’s Social Democrats is backing and that worked alongside US forces to defeat Islamic State in Syria. He also wants the Nordic nation to lift curbs on arms sales and extradite people Ankara accuses of terrorism.

“Sweden’s voice for a peaceful world is more important than ever,” said Per Bolund, a Green Party lawmaker, during a recent parliamentary debate. “We must stick to our long-held position of a feminist foreign policy and a rock-solid criticism of countries that persecute dissidents, limit the freedoms of their own people and threaten or attack neighboring states.”

For Erdogan, western support of the YPG empowers a broader network of separatists, including the PKK, and he says the militia has attacked his country’s troops. Home to one of the largest Kurdish communities in Europe, Sweden was the first western country to declare the PKK a terrorist organization. But Swedish laws on freedom of expression mean that showing sympathy for the group isn’t punishable, and at times the PKK flag has been seen flying in Stockholm. Erdogan last month described Sweden, and Finland whose bid is also being held up by the Turkish president, “as guest houses of terrorist organizations,” a suggestion categorically denied by authorities in both countries.

Andersson has highlighted anti-terror rules already in the pipeline as a step that could alleviate some of Ankara’s deeply held concerns about Kurdish militancy, and suggested Sweden would be more likely to lift restrictions on arms exports to Turkey if it were a NATO member. The government hasn’t commented on the PYD, the YPG or Turkish extradition demands. Turkish dailies have reported that Erdogan gave the Swedish government the names of people he wants sent to Turkey, but no list has been made public.

Extradition wouldn’t be simple. Sweden and Turkey are both signatories of the European Convention on Extradition, and if Erdogan had solid proof of terrorist crimes, Swedish authorities could comply. But there are rules against extraditions for military or political crimes, and no one can be sent away if they would then face persecution for their political beliefs. Any decision could be appealed in the European Court of Human Rights.

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Back in 1766, Sweden became the first country in the world to enshrine freedom of the press in its constitution, and its principle of public access gives its population far-reaching rights to obtain official records. It has long championed peace and human rights, in a way that at times has put it at odds with great powers, including China and the US.

That image of Sweden is a source of national pride, and practically a brand. Companies such as Volvo, Electrolux and IKEA use their Swedish heritage to send a signal about transparency, sustainability and equity that helps them in global markets. After a Saudi investment fund took an 8% stake in Embracer Group earlier this month, the gaming conglomerate was quick to reaffirm its commitment to “Swedish values.”

Columnist and writer Lena Andersson, who’s more to the right than others pushing for an end to the NATO membership bid, discussed the debate in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper. “What is left for us to choose is a manifestation of self-respect,” she said. “That is an act of freedom.”

Last week, Kakabaveh played her hand again, saying she’d support the 2022 budget if the government stands by its restrictions on arms sales. “Everyone is bowing to Erdogan just because of the problem with Putin,” she said in an interview in parliament, where she’s served as a lawmaker since 2008. Of the YPG, she said, “Why should they be called terrorists just because they are defending themselves, and the rest of the world?”

Read more about the Kurds, their gains and losses

Kakabaveh doesn’t know exactly when she was born, but in her autobiography, “Amineh — No Bigger Than a Kalashnikov,” she says the journey from her native Iran began when she was around the age of 13. That’s when the newly installed clerical regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini invaded the poor mountainous area where she lived, and occupied her village.

The Kurdish Komala party, a Marxist group opposed to theocracy, took up the fight against the regime. “It offered us education, discussions and a new view on the world. And above all, they saw men and women as equal,” Kakabaveh says in the book. “They respected girls and women, which was completely unique in Iran in those days — and still is.” She attempted to join its militia, but was caught by the state-sanctioned religious police, who told her to marry or face execution. She fled a second time, successfully. Kakabaveh has told Swedish public service TV broadcaster that she underwent military training and carried a weapon, but never killed anyone.

Moving frequently between Iran and neighboring Iraq, Kakabaveh soon found herself caught up in Saddam Hussein’s targeted chemical attack that killed thousands of Kurds. She then fled to Turkey where Kurds faced repression as the military attempted to quell an armed PKK campaign for autonomy. With Kurds under pressure across the region, she decided to leave. She arrived Sweden in 1992, where she attended the Stockholm University and was employed as a social worker in one of the capital’s suburbs.

Kakabaveh is among some 100,000 Kurds who have sought refuge in Sweden since the 1970s. Kurdish children learn their mother tongue and have access to the capital’s Kurdish library. There’s even a Kurdish literary style called “the Stockholm School.” The community punches above its weight in politics, culture and sports. Kakabaveh is one of a handful of lawmakers with Kurdish roots. A Kurdish football club has played in the nation’s top-tier soccer league.

“Kurds in Sweden represent the Kurdish language, literature, elegance and diplomacy,” said Stockholm-based writer and social commentator Kurdo Baksi, whose sister was a lawmaker and uncle an activist.

As they battle to keep Kurdish identity alive, the community’s politically active members hold routine demonstrations against the Turkish government. They fear Erdogan wants to “put a terrorist label on Kurds as such,” Baksi added.

Kakabaveh is urging fellow Swedes to stand firm and protect the country’s historic inclusiveness. “Right now I am very worried,” she said. “How far are we willing to go?”

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