STOCKHOLM — When the Turkish president rebels against the “terrorists” in the Swedish Parliament, Amineh Kakabaveh is convinced that he is talking about her.
The former Kurdish rebel fighter turned Swedish lawmaker has become a central figure in the drama surrounding Sweden and Finland’s historic bid for NATO membership. Turkey opposes NATO membership of two Nordic countries, accusing them of harboring Kurdish militants.
Kakabaveh, a staunch supporter of Kurdish self-determination in the Middle East and a fierce critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wields extraordinary influence because the Swedish government depends on his vote for its majority of a seat in parliament.
“He can’t decide on us,” she says of Erdogan. “I stand for Swedish values and Swedish sovereignty.”
Despite a long history of non-alignment, Sweden and Finland rushed to seek NATO membership after Russia invaded Ukraine, but were stunned by Erdogan’s opposition.
To allow the Nordic countries to join NATO, a decision that requires unanimity among alliance members, Turkey has demanded that they lift arms embargoes against Turkey, extradite suspected Kurdish terrorists and stop support Kurdish fighters in Syria. Turkey says these fighters are closely linked to the PKK, a national Kurdish group that Ankara and the West consider a terrorist organization.
Meeting these demands would have been difficult for the Swedes and Finns anyway, but with the Swedish government dependent on Kavikabeh’s support for its survival, there is little room to negotiate a compromise.
“We are not used to isolated MPs having such influence,” says Svante Cornell, director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm. “It’s maximum bad luck on the side of the government, you might say.”
Kakabaveh’s support enabled Social Democrat leader Magdalena Andersson to become Sweden’s first female prime minister last year. In return, the center-left Social Democrats agreed to deepen cooperation with the Kurdish authorities in northern Syria.
The minority government survived a no-confidence vote last week thanks to Kakabaveh and will need his support again on Wednesday to push its spring budget proposal through parliament.
Kakabaveh, an independent lawmaker, says she has not yet decided how to vote and is waiting for the government to show its plans on issues close to her heart, including efforts to tackle honour-based violence and oppression against women and girls in immigrant communities and how it will address Turkey’s demands.
“I don’t want them to retreat,” she said.
The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.
The unusual situation has raised Kakabaveh’s political profile in Sweden and around the world. It also exposed her to criticism that she would hold Sweden’s NATO bid hostage to advance her own agenda. Kakabaveh says he has received threats from Turkish nationalists and Sweden’s far-right fringe.
“It’s a terrible situation,” said Kakabaveh, 48. “But I don’t want to sit in a corner and say, ‘I’m scared.’ I left my family, my childhood, everything I had, to stand up for what I believe in.
Kakabaveh, who grew up in a poor Kurdish home in western Iran, says she was just 14 in the late 1980s when she joined peshmerga fighters who were rebelling against the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In her parliamentary office in Stockholm, she showed pictures of herself as a teenager in the steep mountains between Iran and Iraq, a Kalashnikov slung over her shoulder.
The rebels fought against the Iranian regime and that of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who used chemical weapons against Kurdish villages.
Kakabaveh says many of his comrades and some relatives were killed. She breaks down in tears as she recalls the contrast between her life in Sweden and the hardships she left behind. For years after arriving in Sweden as a refugee in 1992, the roar of helicopters instinctively made her want to seek shelter.
A socialist, Kakabaveh continued his political activism in Sweden, joining the Left Party and campaigning for gender equality in immigrant communities. Her activism against the “culture of honour” quickly put her at odds with party colleagues who feared her work would stigmatize Muslims. After years of tension, she quit the party in 2019 and has since been an independent MP in the 349-seat parliament.
The ruling Social Democrats reached an agreement with Kakabaveh in November to work more closely with the Kurdish autonomous authorities in northern Syria, led by the PYD political party. The military wing of the PYD, the YPG, with US support, has played a key role in the fight against Islamic State militants.
Turkey makes no distinction between Kurdish groups in Syria and the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been waging an armed insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict. The group is considered a terrorist organization in Turkey, Europe and the United States
Kakabaveh called for removing the PKK from the terrorist lists, which did not go unnoticed in Turkey.
“As you know, Sweden is currently a country that terrorist organizations like the PKK, PYD and YPG are using as their playground,” Erdogan said in a speech last week. “In fact, there are terrorists even in the parliament of this country.”
Although he didn’t mention her by name, Kakabaveh says he is referring to her.
“Of course,” she said, adding, “I was never a member of the PKK. I even criticized them. But on the other hand, I think they paid the price.
Kakabaveh says she thinks the NATO membership impasse will be resolved by a behind-the-scenes deal between the United States and Turkey. If not, and Sweden can’t join NATO because of her, Kakabaveh will have no regrets. She is against NATO membership anyway, saying it would undermine Sweden’s ability to be a voice for peace in the world.
“I am for disarmament,” she says. “The world needs more peace and diplomacy.”