Sweden’s NATO Bid and Turkey-Kurdish Relations

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Powerful organizations of world leaders rarely let new members into their ranks. On October 23, 2023, Turkey—a member of NATO since 1952—submitted Sweden’s bid for NATO membership for parliamentary ratification. This is a marked turnaround from Erdogan’s previous, seemingly hardline stance against Sweden’s entry to the intergovernmental military alliance. The Turkish president’s stubbornness primarily stemmed from his conviction that Sweden was promoting “anti-Turkish activities” by allowing members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turkish government  classifies as  a terrorist organization, to reside within its borders.

The PKK, an insurgent Kurdish nationalist group, originally arose in response to the Turkish government’s mistreatment of the Kurdish minority ethnic group. Established in 1978, the party aims to extract greater civil and political rights for the Kurdish population in the Middle East—and ultimately, to establish an independent Kurdish nation-state. However, this goal has proven difficult to achieve; due to the widespread dispersion of Kurds across  Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, the ethnic group has not been able to justify the creation of an official Kurdish state. This, alongside the Turkish government’s continuous suppression of Kurdish political rights, has resulted in multiple armed conflicts between the government and the PKK over past decades that have caused tens of thousands of casualties.

This clear animosity between Erdogan’s government and the PKK has made the large Kurdish diaspora in Sweden a point of heated contention regarding the latter country’s ambitions to become a fellow member of NATO. From the very beginning of Sweden’s membership process, Erdogan made it clear that Sweden must increase its crackdown on PKK-related activities within its borders in order to win Turkey’s approval. Even after Sweden complied with these demands, taking actions such as implementing an anti-terrorism law preventing individuals from participating in terrorist organizations (i.e., the PKK), Erdogan remained unsatisfied. He ratcheted up his demands to include the extradition of over a 100 people to Turkey to be put on trial for being involved with the PKK. Erdogan’s stubborn disapproval of Sweden’s policy on the PKK and the Kurdish seemed unlikely to change; that is, until July. 

On July 10th, Erdogan made a sudden about-face and stated that he would approve Sweden’s bid for NATO membership. Such approval would not be unconditional; there are various reasons for why Erdogan could have departed from antagonizing Sweden. For one, he is maintaining his pressure on the Swedish government to crack down further on the Kurdish diaspora and PKK activities. However, Erdogan’s ambitions regarding the suppression of the PKK may extend beyond Sweden’s borders. Galip Dalay, a non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, believes that Turkey hopes to pressure other Western countries—including the US—to take stricter measures against other groups deemed “terrorists” by the Turkish government. Dalay also interprets Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s membership bid as a strategic maneuver to strengthen the ties between Turkey and the EU in order to increase the likelihood that Turkey, which has long-aspired to join NATO, will be able to enter the bloc. 

Turkey may be closer to achieving its political goals with the advancement of Sweden’s NATO membership. But what are the implications of this advancement for the Kurdish population? Turkey’s efforts to push Sweden to take a harsher stance against Kurds have already produced significant outcomes; in July, Sweden sentenced a Kurdish man to four years and six months in prison for allegedly providing funds to the PKK. Now that Sweden in part owes the consideration of its NATO membership bid to Turkey, the Swedish government may feel more indebted to Turkey’s demands regarding the Kurdish diaspora. Given Erdogan’s track record of suppressing the political rights of Turkish Kurds and rousing nationalistic sentiments against the ethnic group, this may not bode well for the Kurdish population in Sweden. Also alarming is how the EU and the US—the two most powerful players in this particular political discussion—have also recognized the PKK as a terrorist organization; this suggests that there may be a lack of accountability regarding Turkey’s potential future attempts to crack down further on Kurdish rights, not only within its own borders but elsewhere. As these developments continue to unfold, members of both NATO and the EU should be careful to keep from conflating the militant PKK with the entirety of the Kurdish population. 

There is solace in knowing that, historically, the EU and the US have criticized Turkey’s domestic human rights concerns and supported movements for the betterment of Kurdish rights. The Turkish government has designated one such movement—the Gülen movement—as a terrorist organization; but the EU and the US still recognize Gülen as a legitimate civil rights endeavor. Although their support does not go much further than mere recognition, there is hope that these world leaders will prioritize protecting the rights and liberties of the marginalized Kurdish community moving forward. As the issue of state sovereignty remains at  the forefront of international issues, NATO and EU leaders may feel more pressure to address the question of whether the Kurdish population will be granted a separate nation-state. Indeed, millions of Kurds facing social and political persecution in Turkey would be glad if such a discussion occurred sooner, rather than later.

Featured/Headline Image Caption and Citation: Türkiye, Finland, and Sweden sign agreement paving the way for Finnish and Swedish NATO membership, uploaded June 2022 | Image sourced from Flickr Creative Commons


Lauren is a student at Yale University (class of 2026) from Korea studying Political Science and Government. She is a competing member of the Yale Debate Association, a Project Manager at the Yale Undergraduate Legal Aid Association, and has interned for the Office of the Federal Public Defender, District of Connecticut.