Sweden’s new centre-right government said it would distance itself from several Kurdish groups as the Scandinavian country’s prime minister prepares to meet Turkey’s president to persuade him to back its application to join Nato.
Tobias Billström, Sweden’s new foreign minister, said Stockholm would change how it viewed the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia in Syria, and associated political group, the Democratic Union party (PYD).
Many western countries have backed the YPG, which helped defeat the terror group Isis in north-east Syria. But Turkey views the militia as a direct threat because of its close ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which is recognised by the EU and US as a terrorist organisation.
“There is too close a connection between these organisations and the PKK . . . for it to be good for the relationship between us and Turkey,” Billström told state broadcaster Swedish Radio on Saturday.
His comments came as the new government in Stockholm mounts a campaign to win over Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the last big holdout against approving the Nato applications of both Sweden and neighbouring Finland.
Ulf Kristersson, who became Sweden’s new prime minister last month, will make one of his first overseas visits a trip to see Erdoğan next week. Kristersson told Swedish media he would insist Stockholm was committed to combating terrorism “in every way”.
The new Swedish stance drew a positive reaction in Ankara, but was condemned by the former centre-left government in Stockholm and by Kurdish activists.
The Social Democrats, who were in power in Stockholm until October only thanks to the vote of a pro-Kurdish MP and support for the YPG and PYD, criticised both the comments on the Kurdish groups and separate remarks that Sweden would not close the door to hosting nuclear weapons after joining Nato.
“The government’s handling of the Nato process is both worrying and excruciating,” said Morgan Johansson, former Social Democrat justice minister.
Ahmed Karamus, co-chair of the Kurdish national congress, told Swedish media: “It’s a blow against democracy, against safety, against the world’s security . . . Kurds regard this decision as the Swedish government bowing to the demands of Erdoğan.”
But İbrahim Kalın, a spokesperson for Erdoğan, told Swedish state broadcaster SVT: “We see this as a very positive step.”
Turkey is holding up Sweden’s Nato application — and by extension Finland’s, with which Ankara has less of a problem — on grounds including its support for Kurdish groups and failure to deport dozens of people Turkey classifies as terrorists. Swedish experts said Stockholm would have difficulty on the latter point as the government has no formal role in the extradition decisions.
Billström stressed in the radio interview: “The primary objective is Sweden’s membership in Nato.”
Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, said during a visit to Turkey on Thursday that “it’s time to welcome Finland and Sweden as full members of Nato”, the most pressure he has placed on Ankara in public.
After meeting Stoltenberg, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, noted that the new Swedish government was “more determined”. “However, it’s not possible to say all the agreed measures . . . have been fully implemented yet,” he added.
Hungary has also not ratified Finland and Sweden’s Nato applications but has suggested it will do so in the coming months.
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Ankara