Far Right Rising, Russia, Electricity Prices and Climate Change: What to Know About Today's Swedish Election

With 1.3 million voters under the age of 30, these are the new leaders of the younger generation in Swedish politics

Published in "Haaretz": https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/2022-09-11/ty-article-magazine/.highlight/far-right-rising-russia-and-greta-what-to-know-about-todays-swedish-election/00000183-2b80-d7b2-abdf-abf7add50000

As the Swedish general election approaches, two issues are coming into focus. One is how difficult it will be to form a stable government after the election. Since the early summer, polls have been indicating that the two blocs representing the two possible government alternatives are having difficulty mobilizing a clear majority. They are alternating in the polls once every few weeks, unable to consolidate a clear advantage over one another and they are finding it hard to formulate a coherent message within the blocs themselves.

This is nothing new – after the previous election in 2018, the Social Democratic Party took 129 days to form a government and even after it was formed, it had trouble obtaining a parliamentary majority on the critical votes.

The second issue is the expected increase in the influence of the Sweden Democrats, the right-wing party that is considered by many to be populist and extremist (although it considers itself nationalist and conservative). In the past, the party was boycotted by the entire political spectrum and was not a candidate to join any coalition. This time, due to a change in approach by two of the traditional right-wing parties, it has become an integral part of the right-wing bloc.Open gallery view

The latest polls show that the Sweden Democrats is the country’s second-largest party, with over 20 percent of voters supporting it, at the expense of the Moderate Party, which has traditionally been considered the right-wing alternative for governing Sweden. According to the surveys, the largest party – with about 30 percent supporting it – remains the Social Democratic Party, headed by Magdalena Andersson, the current prime minster.

The composition of the two political blocs has changed in recent years, and has consolidated largely surrounding the attitude toward the Sweden Democrats. On the right a coalition is forming led by the Moderate Party and the Christian Democrats, with the support of the small Liberal Party and the Sweden Democrats, which despite its size is not seen as a ruling party but rather as an outside supporter.

On the left the Social Democratic Party is leading a very unstable coalition that is supported by the Green Party, the right wing-liberal Center Party and the Left Party, formerly the Communist Party. The election will be held on Sunday, September 11, and the expectation is that over 80 percent of the 7,772,120 Swedes with the right to vote will participate. About 1.3 million of them are under the age of 30, and almost 440,000 of them will be voting for the first time – more than in any other election campaign in Swedish history.

Romina Pourmokhtari, 26, Photo: Hamid Ershad Sarabi

Where did you grow up? Where do you live now?
“I grew up in Sundbyberg outside of Stockholm and still live there but in another part of the town."
What’s your family background?
“My parents immigrated to Sweden from Iran before I was born. My father got a degree in engineering and my mother in dentistry.”
How old were you when you entered politics?
“I joined Liberal Youth of Sweden in 2013 when I was 17 years old.”
What are your main political fields of interest?
“Education, combating climate change and feminism are my main fields of interest in politics. I strive to create a freer world where personal freedom is defended and expanded, and I believe that these subjects are important for achieving this.”
How far do you aim in your political career? what’s your political dream job?
“Right now I am a candidate for Parliament in Sweden. If I get elected on September 11th, I will have reached a big goal of mine. I want to continue my work there and a dream job would be a minister of education or culture.”
Who are your political idols and influences?
“I am very inspired by former LUF president as well as former minister of EU and democracy Birgitta Ohlsson. Her work for feminism and world-wide equality is inspiring to follow.”
What are your hobbies?
“Politics is a 24/7 business, especially during an election. But the few hours I am free I frequently visit soccer games for my favorite team (AIK), read books and walk my dog.”
What’s your living situation?

“I live with my dog Laban and my boyfriend Fredrik".

Like the young voters, some of the candidates for parliament are in their 20s. The younger generation in Swedish politics has recently been attracting attention outside of the country because Sweden traditionally plays a larger role in European politics than its relative size (a population of about 10 million). It is one of the most important countries in European Union institutions, it is expected to join NATO after 200 years of avoiding military alliances, it is one of the only European countries that still maintains the character of a social-democratic welfare state and it is accustomed to starring in international headlines in connection to many issues, from its policy of absorbing asylum seekers to its unique handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Romina Pourmokhtari is the chairwoman of the Liberal Party’s youth league and a candidate for Parliament. One of the country’s most popular daily newspapers recently chose her as the most influential Swede under the age of 30. “Crime in Sweden is at the center of the public debate in this election campaign, as well as integration issues and the energy crisis that is causing a large increase in electricity prices,” she tells Haaretz at the offices of the youth league in Stockholm. “If we were to set the agenda, we would want to talk more about education and schools.” Pourmokhtari claims that there is a difference between the agenda of younger and older voters. “Young people are interested in questions concerning their lives – the climate crisis, rights of the LGBT community, issues related to the body such as the right to abortion, and of course also economic questions such as taxes, work and unemployment.”

The distinction between issues that interest older voters and those that interest younger ones is very clear in the election campaign. In recent years there has been a rise in violent crime by organized crime gangs, particularly in areas suffering from unemployment, poverty and segregation. The number of serious shooting incidents where innocent bystanders were also hurt have made the issue central to the campaign. Because of the war in Ukraine, electricity costs has become a main issue as well.

Meanwhile, the issue of climate change seems to have taken a back seat. Last Friday, the world's best-known climate activist, Greta Thunberg, took part in a "Fridays for Future" protest in Stockholm. She was quoted as saying: "The climate crisis has been more or less ignored in this election campaign. At best it’s been reduced to an issue about energy. So we have a lot to do."

“The problem of organized crime and the terrible shooting incidents we’re seeing now are causing a kind of doomsday feeling in the public debate and in the media,' says Pourmokhtari. 'The other issues on the agenda are wallet issues – the increase in electricity and fuel prices as a result of the energy crisis. These are questions that look like domestic issues, but they are international issues too,” says Christopher Lindvall, 26, one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party’s youth league, the head of its international committee and a candidate for Parliament.

“Many questions that the younger generation is interested in are now filtered through the main issues that the parties are dealing with. For example, many young people are now in favor of nuclear power because they think that’s the way to get energy and move away from fossil fuels.

Christopher Lindvall. Photo: Emil Nordfjell, SSU


Where did you grow up? Where do you live now?
“Järfälla, northwest of Stockholm.”
What’s your family background?
“I’m from a working-class background; my father works in a storage factory and my mother retired early.”
How old were you when you entered politics?
“I joined the Swedish Social Democratic Youth League in 2013, and have been a member of the Järfälla municipality parliament since 2018.”
What are your main political fields of interest?
“My main political fields of interest are international issues, defence issues and welfare.”
How far do you aim in your political career? what’s your political dream job?
“I am running for Parliament now, so that is my aim.”
Who are your political idols and influences?
“Former foreign ministers Anna Lindh and Margot Wallström.”
What are your hobbies?
“Being out and about in the nature! I also like to read whenever I do have the time.”
What’s your living situation?
“I live with my girlfriend".

“As far as the general sense of security is concerned, this is of interest to both the older and the younger voters. I myself felt it last week when I came back home from a meeting in the city center late at night – there were shootings right outside my window two nights in a row. These are problems that can happen everywhere to almost everyone, and they’re related to segregation and a class society that has become much more present in recent years. This happened because the government in Sweden has recently withdrawn from many areas and left them to the private sector,” he says. As a result of various reforms in Sweden, the authorities still fund universal healthcare and education, but in some cases, private companies are the ones providing the services.

“Both in the case of health care and education, we waste a lot of our tax money by funding private schools and clinics,” Lindvall continues. “Now the schools in many areas lack funding and professional teachers. Education is the best way to achieve social mobility. I myself come from a working-class family, and with a good education I got the opportunity to go to university. There is also a clear link between crime and poor school results. Segregation in housing is also important. The wealthier local authorities do not build cheap housing for rent, so immigrants are forced to live in segregated areas.”

Lindvall is well aware of the fact that his party has been in power for the past eight years and that it will be hard to convince voters that it is not largely responsible for the situation he describes. When we meet in the cafe of one of the Swedish labor movement’s educational centers, he explains that the Social Democratic Party was forced to be pragmatists and to compromise on many issues. According to Lindvall, the situation would be worse if the right were in power. He hopes that his party will be able to govern in Sweden even after the election, with the support of various parties, on the right and the left, each of which will support legislation on various issues.

There is, however, one party he’s not willing to cooperate with. “My red line is the Swedish Democrats. This is an immature party that has proven time and time again that they have neo-Nazi members and people who praise [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. For me, they are off limits.”

‘Unjustified prejudice’

Tobias Andersson, also 26, is a member of the Swedish Democrats and the Chairman of the Young Swedes SDU since 2015. He is used to hearing things of this nature about his party and is familiar with the argument that many of those who started it in the late 1980s were right-wing extremists, racists with fascistic tendencies, and he is used to hearing that his party has Nazi roots. “Some of my opponents tried to put the weight of the past on me,” he says in a conversation the Parliament building. “But I was born in 1996 and joined the party in 2012. I have no opinion about what the founders of the party did before they founded it in 1988. From what I’ve read, many of those people were terrible people, but when it comes to our policy, almost from the start there were almost no such issues. There are things that I’m glad we changed, but in general, our policy is far less extreme than the way it is portrayed. Occasionally we still find extremists in our party, we have a responsibility to keep them out and I’m proud that we’re doing so.”Open gallery view

Andersson has been a member of Parliament since the previous elections. He is a member of the party leadership and heads its youth league. He claims that the prejudice against the Swedish Democrats is unjustified. “If a racist sits in the basement of his parents’ home and hears from the media, from his friends and from his teacher that we’re a racist party, it seems to me a rational decision to join us. I’m not saying we’re not at all to blame, but maybe the need of our opponents to portray us as racists doesn’t help us to keep the racists out of the party.”

Regardless of the question of racism among Swedish Democrats members, there are certain aspects of the party’s activities that are more characteristic of a centrist party and could explain its increased strength in the polls. Andersson claims that when it comes to welfare issues, they are in the center of the political map, somewhat more to the left when it comes to the job market and somewhat more to the right regarding financial issues such as lowering taxes. He believes that he problem is that the system is falling apart. “We pay some of the highest taxes in the world, but many people feel that their children have to register for a private school in order to provide them with a good education. With all those taxes, we still spend little on the police and the crime level is high. How did we get to this situation?”

Tobias Andersson

Where did you grow up? Where do you live now?
“Outside of Skövde in the countryside. I now own an apartment in Skövde and in Stockholm I stay at an apartment provided by the Parliament.”
What’s your family background?
“Working class from rural areas.”
How old were you when you entered politics?
“16 years old.”
What are your main political fields of interest?
“Judicial policies and civil society issues.”
How far do you aim in your political career? what’s your political dream job?
“I aim to help strengthen my party and do my best to make Sweden a better country, where that leads the future will tell.”
Who are your political idols and influences?
“Never truly had any, I’m not driven in that way.”
What are your hobbies?
“Training, hunting, cooking, eating and drinking.”
What’s your living situation?
“I am officially single at the moment, so I can focus on the election campaign 100 percent".

For Andersson, crime in Sweden is related to the economy, but also to the immigration policy. He thinks that immigration has created cultural clashes: “We warned that that’s what would happen. If people from a certain part of the world were unable to live in peace for 1,400 years, they won’t start to do so when they arrive in Sweden either. These are conflicts that were imported into Sweden. There’s also the socioeconomic component that has worsened due to mass immigration. There are about 700,000 people who come from immigrant families, who are incapable of supporting themselves and live at society’s expense. That has contributed to a poor socioeconomic situation in certain areas, which leads to crime.”

‘A different Sweden’

As opposed to Andersson, for whom issues of law and order are at the top of the agenda, Aida Badeli, 26, head of the Green Party’s youth league and a candidate for Parliament, claims that nothing is currently more important than the climate issue. “We’re emphasizing the reduction of carbon emissions, but also issues of social justice, economic justice and a war against racism. The conservatives in Sweden have taken control of the agenda, but we have to show the young Swedes and the rest of the country that we believe in a different Sweden, one in which there are equal rights for all and a responsibility to reduce the emissions here in Sweden as well, not only in other countries.”

Aida Bedeli

Where did you grow up? Where do you live now?
“Gothenburg, now I live in Stockholm.”
What’s your family background?
“I was raised by a single mother.”
How old were you when you entered politics?
“15 years old.”
What are your main political fields of interest?
“Human rights.”
How far do you aim in your political career? what’s your political dream job?
“I live in the moment. I have no aim in my political career, I just want to make the world a better place.”
Who are your political idols and influences?
“My uncle and Olaf Palme.”
What are your hobbies?
“Netflix and hanging out with friends.”
What’s your living situation?
“I live with my boyfriend".

Like most of those running in the Swedish election, Badeli believes in the Swedish welfare model even though her party focuses on the climate crisis. “I’m trying to push my party leftward so we’ll talk more about social justice,” she says. “We see that in Sweden, the social disparities are growing. Many young people don’t finish school, the health care system is not longer good enough, and young Swedes, mainly young men, are murdering one another due to poverty and lack of justice.

“There are children who don’t have enough food at home. Although it’s not poverty like in Africa, it’s poverty that we haven’t seen here for a long time. The welfare state must be stronger, I don’t believe that the free market will take care of the needy. The government must do that and increase the budgets that haven’t increased since the 1990s.”

Badeli proposes higher taxes for the top 1% of the wealthy in order to pay for the increase in budgets and finance the cost of joining NATO. Although she and her party were initially opposed to joining NATO, almost nobody in the election campaign is discussing the topic, which only a few weeks ago was the most talked-about issue in the country. Foreign policy, as important as it may be, is simply not on the agenda.

However, the young candidates certainly have something to say on the subject. Pourmokhtari, of the Liberal Party, is opposed to Swedish neutrality, which came to an end with the decision to join NATO, and is proud of the fact that her party has been advocating this change for over 20 years. “There’s good and bad in the world,” she say. “Joining NATO is part of international solidarity and Swedish values – it’s our responsibility as a free democracy.”

Lindvall, of the Social Democratic Party, says that the war in Ukraine was a decisive factor in his party’s position on NATO. “There is now a general trend of return of authoritarian governments that are more aggressive, expansionist and nationalist, such as Russia and China. And when democracy is threatened, it is important that democracies work together. I wasn’t happy with the decision to join NATO [which was the result of a radical policy change by the leadership of the Social Democratic Party in the face of internal opposition], but now that it’s done, it’s important that we work within it and be a clear voice for disarmament together with other Nordic countries,” he says.

The Sweden Democrats were also opposed to joining NATO at the start, but changed their position after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Andersson says that their position was always nationalist, in favor of sovereignty and rejecting intervention by groups such as the European Union. With the situation that has been created with the war in Ukraine, he says, it was natural for them to examine public opinion. After listening to it, they tended to favor joining.

Badeli, leader of the Green Party’s youth league, is aware that for most of the voters, this election will be decided based on issues such as the prices of energy, fuel and food. In spite of that, she sees a bigger picture. “The most important thing is planet Earth,” she says. “We must have a place to live, it’s a question of survival. But it’s also important for us to have social justice. We care about the planet but no less than that, we care about the human beings living on it.”

Sweden and Finland to join NATO due to Russian Threat

This is how the debate in Sweden changed, leading to the announcement Monday the country will join Finland in seeking NATO membership

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/2022-05-16/ty-article-magazine/.premium/fear-won-in-swedens-battle-between-neutrality-and-the-russian-threat/00000180-e9f4-d189-af82-f9fd10820000

STOCKHOLM – Until a few months ago, nobody would have bet on Finland and Sweden joining NATO at all, much less doing so at lightning speed. Public opinion opposed the idea, as did both countries’ political establishments; neither country’s political system was built for rapid decisions on defense affairs; and most importantly, both countries had a decades-old tradition of avoiding military alliances. In Sweden’s case, this was an ideological approach. The last time Sweden was involved in a war was in 1814. Throughout the 20th century, it tried to position itself as a humanitarian superpower that, instead of taking sides in wars, tried to mediate between the parties, while also supporting international institutions, mediating conflicts and taking in refugees. Thus, it ostensibly remained neutral in World War II and nonaligned during the Cold War.

In Finland’s case, its neutrality stemmed from fear of the superpower next door. Finland shares a border with Russia that is more than 1,300 kilometers long. It was once part of the Russian Empire, fought against the Soviet Union during World War II and was threatened by Moscow during the Cold War. The last thing it wanted after the Soviet Union fell apart was to get involved in a new conflict with the Russians. But then Russia invaded Ukraine, and both countries’ unalignment policies melted away.

Finland and Sweden were always completely Western in their orientation. And practically speaking, it’s an open secret that they have been cooperating with NATO for years. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine revealed a flaw – if Ukraine could be ruthlessly attacked by Russia while the world settled for economic sanctions and condemnations, who would protect Sweden and Finland? After all, just like Ukraine, they are independent countries that aren’t under the protection of the NATO alliance, and particularly the treaty’s Article 5 which states that an attack against one NATO country is considered as an attack against them all.

Consequently, the invasion of Ukraine produced a turnaround in Finnish and Swedish public opinion. Immediately after the invasion began, polls published in both countries showed that for the first time in history, there was widespread public support for joining NATO.

In Finland, 50,000 people signed a petition to join the alliance, and parliament began feverish discussions that culminated with Prime Minister Sanna Marin and President Sauli Niinisto saying in a joint statement that “Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay.” To enable the implementation of this decision, parliament will hold a vote on the issue in the coming days.

Sweden isn’t lagging far behind. Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist, who asserted in the past that “As long as I’m defense minister, I can promise that we won’t join” NATO, told Sweden’s national broadcaster last week that “Nordic mutual defense will be strengthened if Sweden and Finland join.” Explaining why he changed his position, he said, “There’s before February 24 and after February 24,” referring to the date when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Over the weekend, a parliamentary committee submitted a report about the worsening of Sweden’s security situation following the invasion of Ukraine. Many saw this as further support for those who advocate joining NATO. The ruling Social Democratic Party announced on Sunday that it had changed its position and would support joining NATO, and took the formal decision to apply on Monday after a debate in parliament.

“In Finland, the question of joining NATO was always a practical one, but in Sweden, it’s a more sensitive subject,” says Hans Wallmark, a veteran Swedish parliamentarian from the center-right Moderate Party who has supported joining NATO for years. “For part of the left, not being a member of NATO was almost a religious position, so for some politicians, supporting joining NATO is like converting to another religion. Therefore, it’s difficult and painful.

“When Russia invaded Ukraine and the Finns began their joining process, the Swedish Social Democratic Party was more or less pushed into the process,” adds Wallmark, who is deputy chairman of parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. Nevertheless, he said, Sweden shouldn’t join NATO just because it’s forced into it, but because it’s the right thing to do.

“There are three reasons why Sweden should join NATO,” he continues. “First of all, there’s Article 5 of NATO’s treaty, with its principle of ‘one for all and all for one.’ Second, there’s a need for joint defense planning with other countries in the region, and third, this is an issue of solidarity with European and North American countries.”

Deterrent power against Russia

On the other side of the Baltic Sea, Jouni Ovaska, a member of Finland’s parliament representing the Center Party since 2019, made many of the same points as his Swedish colleague. As a member of his parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, he is also involved in the parliamentary proceedings to enable Finland’s membership bid. “Membership in NATO will guarantee Finland’s security, because of the alliance’s substantial deterrent power,” he says. “And of course, the most important thing is Article 5 of the treaty. ”Nevertheless, he says, Finland must continue investing in its own military and training its soldiers, just as it has until now, and continue cultivating its other international partnerships.

“The European Union is our main partner, and most European countries are NATO members,” he notes. “I hope joining will strengthen European countries so that they can take care of defense on their own. Sweden is our closest partner, and if it, like all the Nordic countries, becomes a NATO member, this will provide greater security for the entire region.” Ovaska says the Finns have moved very swiftly to join NATO. “February 24 changed everything,” he says. “We have cooperated with Russia in the past, but the invasion of Ukraine showed that we can’t trust it. That’s why we rethought the situation. Public opinion changed very quickly, more quickly than change happened among elected officials.” He says the change in public opinion stemmed directly from the war in Ukraine: “What was done to Ukraine dredged up memories from the past. It’s not like something from the 21st century, it reminds us of atrocities from many years ago, and we have to make a change.”

However, there are some who oppose joining the military alliance. The Swedish Green Party, for example, argues that Sweden should be an independent power that promotes democracy and peace in the world, not part of a military alliance that possesses and bases its power on nuclear weapons. According to the Left Party, Sweden will defend itself better if it adheres to the policy of refraining from military alliances, which it says has served the country well for many generations.

The two parties that oppose joining NATO have a total of just over 40 seats out of 349 in the Swedish parliament. In Finland, opposition to the move is even smaller, and at this point is heard only on the fringes. Therefore, it seems that Sweden and Finland’s rush into NATO is inevitable, although the process itself is not short. “After the official request is submitted to Jen Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, in Brussels, Sweden and Finland will enter what is called the Membership Action Plan,” Prof. Ann-Sofie Dahl explains.

Dahl, who lives in Denmark and serves as a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., has written extensively about the NATO alliance. “Usually this is a process that takes a long time, but Sweden and Finland are very close to NATO, so that this time it will be just a formal process that will probably take only a day or two,” she says, explaining that the initial process will be followed by the ratification process.

“They will also try to accelerate this step, but because there is a need for the approval of the parliaments of the 30 member countries, it will probably take at least four to six months until the formal membership of the two countries goes into effect,” Dahl says. Naturally, in both Sweden and Finland there is some concern regarding the interim period between their decision and the validity of membership. Dahl note the guarantees of security that have been obtained in recent months. “British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Sweden and Finland this month and declared that the United Kingdom will guarantee the security of the two countries,” Dahl says. “

That is a very important declaration, because Britain is an important player as well as a nuclear power,” she notes, adding that there is apparently a less official, and less overt, commitment from the White House. It is known that the Finnish president has met in Washington with President Joe Biden, and the Swedish foreign minister recently also held meetings in the U.S. capital. In addition, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin visited Berlin and received a promise from Chancellor Olaf Scholz that their countries “can rely on German support if they submit a request for NATO membership.”

“I think that after the decision to join NATO – and certainly from the moment the candidacy is submitted – we’ll see a lot of ‘Russian noise,’ but not a military assault,” says Dahl. “We may see things such as a cyberattack or an attack of disinformation, but Moscow is busy in Ukraine and probably, as happened during the previous NATO expansion process, Russia will make a lot of noise – but will then continue as usual.”

Wallmark, the deputy chairman of the Swedish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, is also aware of the anticipated saber-rattling by Moscow. However, he anticipates that “the Kremlin will bark, but nothing more than that.” His Finnish colleague, Ovaska, finds it difficult to say what the Russian reaction will be. “We’re ready to make decisions and we’re ready for anything that happens because of them,” he says. “But it’s important to remember that even when we’re part of NATO, Russia will remain our neighbor. It’s important that in future, in some way, we find a way to cooperate with them.”

Will Putin's Ukraine War Push His Neighbors Into NATO's Hands?

Since the invasion of Ukraine, even traditionally dovish Social Democrats are beginning to change their minds, as seen in historic polls showing that about half of Swedes and Finns want their country to join the alliance

Published in Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-putin-ukraine-s-war-could-push-his-neighbors-into-nato-s-hands-1.10668900

STOCKHOLM – NATO membership has been a controversial issue in Sweden and Finland since the alliance’s founding in 1949, but the two countries’ traditions of nonalignment are so strong that they’re staying out for now, despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  

The end of the Cold War saw 14 new members join NATO, bringing the roster to 30, but without these two Nordic countries. For Sweden, the main reason for staying out has been its long-standing policy of nonalignment and neutrality. For Finland, it has largely been concern about the way its Russian neighbor would interpret such a step. Thus, while the other Nordic countries –  Denmark, Norway and Iceland – are full NATO members, Sweden and Finland have been cooperating with the alliance for years without actually joining. But then came Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine.

According to surveys conducted after the invasion, about half of Swedes are in favor of joining NATO – a record for the country, and up from 37 percent last summer and 32 percent in 2017. Other studies show that more and more Swedes are concerned about a possible Russian attack. In Finland, a petition signed by over 50,000 people calls for a referendum on NATO membership, a subject discussed in parliament last week. A poll by Finland’s public broadcaster early in Russia’s invasion showed that a record 53 percent of Finns support full NATO membership. In 2017 this number was only 19 percent.

In Helsinki last weekend, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and her Finnish counterpart, Sanna Marin, discussed defense policy and cooperation while keeping the NATO issue vague. Marin said that it’s “very understandable that the mindset of our citizens is changing due to Russia’s attack against Ukraine,” adding that Finland’s political parties would now be delving into the issue. Andersson agreed and added that “the security situation has altered in a dramatic way, and of course this will be discussed both in Finland and in Sweden.” In the current crisis, officials from both countries have spoken with U.S. President Joe Biden on their close cooperation with the United States.

“Historically, in both countries, nonalignment has been a long tradition, especially in Sweden, which was ‘neutral’ during World War II, though it was of course helping the Germans,” says Ann-Sofie Dahl, an associate professor in international relations and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “Sweden clung to nonalignment during the Cold War as mostly a political and ideological tool for the ruling Social Democrats, who have a romantic view of Sweden playing a role in global politics as a neutral country,” Dahl says. “But this was a two-sided doctrine because it was combined with top secret cooperation with NATO during the Cold War.”

Getting closer

In the Finnish case it’s more of a security matter. “Finland has a very long border with Russia and they’ve also been part of the Russian Empire, which puts them in Putin’s sphere of interest. The Finns have also fought against the Russians [during World War II], which means that the Russians respect them. So, although Sweden and Finland both have nonalignment security doctrines, they have very different historical backgrounds.”

In 1994, Sweden and Finland were among the first to join the Partnership for Peace, NATO’s nonmember partnership program. But unlike Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states, they have not joined NATO. In 2014, with the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland became part of the Enhanced Opportunity Partnership, a small group of the alliance’s closest partners that now includes Ukraine.

“This means Sweden and Finland are part of NATO military exercises and various forms of communications and training. Now, because of the war, Sweden and Finland are even closer to NATO, and they’re participating in its discussions on the Ukraine crisis,” Dahl says. “This is a historic moment; we have never seen discussions like this before. Domestically in both countries, some center-right parties have supported joining NATO for years, others have recently joined, but now even some Social Democratic voices are moving towards accepting the idea of NATO membership. In Sweden this means a possible ideological U-turn for traditional supporters of nonalignment, while in Finland, the Social Democrats seem to be one step ahead because of a more pragmatic approach in these matters.”  

Exposed and vulnerable

Swedes and Finns who are now changing their minds about NATO membership have a clear understanding of its benefits. It’s all about Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. That clause, sometimes called the “Three Musketeer article,” commits each NATO member to consider an attack on another member an attack on it. As in the Alexandre Dumas novel, it’s “all for one and one for all.”
“People in Sweden and Finland are afraid of what’s happening in Ukraine, which isn’t very far from them. They realize that they’re outside NATO, which means that like Ukraine, they’re exposed and vulnerable, particularly Sweden, which still has a very weak military and is seen as the most vulnerable part of the Baltic,” Dahl says. “We have a president in Moscow who is obviously unstable and ready to invade a neighboring country. Russia has been provoking Sweden with fighter jets entering its airspace. People are aware of this and of course they’re scared.”

Still, on Tuesday, Prime Minister Andersson said that a Swedish application for NATO membership was not on the table at the moment, adding that such a move would further destabilize the situation in Europe. Sweden prefers to strengthen its ties with Finland and the United States, cooperate with NATO as a nonmember partner and work within the EU framework to support Ukraine.
Finland doesn’t seem like it will be joining NATO in the immediate future either. “The Finnish position is that we are at the beginning of a process,” says Maimo Henriksson, a senior Foreign Ministry official who headed the Eastern department and is now ambassador to Sweden. “The security situation has changed in our neighborhood, which means there are more reasons to analyze and discuss the situation and its implications. Joining NATO is one option, but it’s not self-evident that we’ll land there.”

Henriksson says a political debate has been launched in Finland that includes policy papers, parliamentary debates and discussions among the parties. “It’s an open issue, it should be handled efficiently but with care, and it’s not clear what the end result will be,” she says, adding that Finland has constantly been talking with the Russians throughout the years, but not over the last few weeks. The Finnish people, shocked like so many people around the world,  have shown strong support for Ukraine. Regarding Sweden, Henriksson says that “both countries wish to go hand in hand when it comes to the decision about NATO. But of course, there are no guarantees since both countries have their individual national processes, and decisions will be made on the basis of national interest.”

Sweden's war in Afghanistan

המדיניות השוודית באפגניסטאן

Published in The Local – Sweden's news in English, December 2010 http://www.thelocal.se/30858/20101215/

 

One of those catchy phrases about foreign policy is the one in which Winston Churchill explains why he cannot forecast Russia's actions. "It's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma", he said. Churchill knew what he was talking about, foreign policy can be complicated, and the war in Afghanistan is a perfect example. 

First, the conflict's history is long and full of twists and turns. Second, it's a war and like any other war it's a matter of life and death, which makes it an urgent moral issue, not just an abstract geopolitical one. Third, the story is told differently by different spectators, each holding a different narrative. The participants themselves meanwhile frequently say one thing while doing another, creating policy drowning in hidden interests and secret dealings. In fact, the dealings around the war in Afghanistan have turned out to be a war in itself, what a Frontline documentary called a war behind closed doors.

Afghanistan, which has been in a state of war or civil conflict since its ancient history, has seen many great powers fighting over it, from Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to the modern British, Soviet and American empires. The current war started just months after 9/11 when a combined US and British military attack toppled the Taliban regime which supported Al-Qaeda. An Afghan anti-Taliban front then created a local government and an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was subsequently formed by the UN to secure Kabul. ISAF is now led by NATO and Sweden is one of over 40 countries who is part of it.

Despite ISAF's successes there are many who now claim that it's fighting a losing battle and that the war in Afghanistan can't be won. According to American journalist Bob Woodward even president Obama is sceptical. "I'm not doing 10 years" he supposedly told Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I'm not spending a trillion dollars".

With these doubts and with more and more ISAF member countries planning exit strategies, what is the wider context of Sweden's new wide political agreement on a an Afghanistan strategy shift, changing the military's mission from actively fighting insurgents to training and supporting local forces?

First, it's worthwhile taking a look at the two parties opposing the government's proposal. Though both the left-wing Vänsterpartiet and the Sweden-Democrats can agree the Taliban is a fundamentalist war-mongering movement, they want the troops home earlier than 2014. The Sweden Democrats don't prioritize solving problems far away from home, and Vänsterpartiet won't support any kind of military strategy.

This should be seen in context. It's an ongoing debate if the west should be responsible for imposing freedom and democracy on the rest of the world. On the one hand, there are doctrines of using economic and military power to export democracy, liberalism and human-rights. The shortcomings of these doctrines are obvious – their disciples tend to choose targets according to their own self-interests, they almost always invest more in short-term force than in long-term education, infrastructure and civil service and often they make the situation worse than it was in the first place.

On the other hand there are those who reject any attempt to meddle in the affairs of others. Who are we to decide what's right and wrong? they say, why should we impose our values on others? Perhaps the most telling argument against this political moral relativism is that if it had been implemented in the 1940s it would not have allowed the war against Hitler. Taking this argument further, it may have been these attitudes that made concentration camps and genocide possible in the first place, since it was precisely the disappearance of clear definitions of good and evil that led the way to politics of strong and weak and ethics of superior and inferior. If you can't define evil, you can't fight it, you just ignore it.

Swedish decision makers are somewhere between these arguments. Most of them agree that the Taliban is evil and I assume all of them know that back in 2001 the Taliban wasn't going anywhere without military intervention. The Sweden Democrat's position is therefore somewhat self-centered and indifferent. Vänsterpartiet's attitude, on the other hand, lacks a basic ingredient – the civilian aid it speaks of could never reach Taliban-led Afghanistan without an invasion. Take away the support for an invasion, and your policy becomes either naïve or complacent.

The government's position and new strategy is, I think, more morally balanced. But in the real world moral debates are usually a disguise for other motives. It all goes back to the post 9/11 conflict within the Bush administration which ended up adding a war in Iraq to a relatively limited and reasonable reaction focusing on the actual terrorists and their hosts in Afghanistan.

The two-front war which shook an all ready trouble-ridden region, inevitably created political and social instability. This instability had many effects. When the part of the world which produces so much oil is in flames, for example, prices rise. That may be bad for car owners in suburban Stockholm but it's great if you're selling oil and even better if you're making money from the financial difficulties of industrial heavy oil users.

Though blaming greedy generals and over-eager military establishments is common practice, it's men in suits, not in uniform, who have hidden interests. There are many, in official offices and financial institutions rather than army HQs, whose livelihood or political aspirations depend on instability – advocates of nuclear weapons for example, opponents of regional peace negotiations and your usual suspects of international lenders, financial speculators, drug and arm dealers and money launderers.

So should Swedish politicians avoid destabilizing wars a long way from home all together? The answer, I think, is no. Once a war has started, the worst scenario for an occupied nation is a premature withdrawal which leaves it no chance of rebuilding. Take Iraq for example, even if the war was originally based on lies and deception, now that the old regime is gone and the country still isn't stabilized, the international community must take responsibility and help build a modern and stable Iraq.

This is also true for Afghanistan where the war made much more sense in the first place. Some in Islamabad, Tehran and even Washington and London have everything to gain from the chaos, but for most Afghans it's just a prolonged nightmare.

So it's no use obsessing about final dates. It's more important to create a situation which allows a safe home-coming for Swedish troops while not leaving Afghanistan in ruins. How is this done? As far as the military aspect goes it'll probably be wise to focus less on killing insurgents and more on protecting local populations while taking every possible measure to avoid civilian casualties. Politically, investments must be made in Afghanistan's industry and welfare and a wide international front must strengthen all branches of the local government and take tough measures against international actors supporting destabilizing forces.

Ultra-modern, super-organized, secular Sweden is a long way from Afghanistan. Stockholm's government offices and TV studios are safe; they're surrounded by prosperity and while the debate commences in parliament, first signs of Christmas decorations are popping up all over town. It's so easy to forget what it's all about. It's not about Lars Ohly's political loneliness or about Aliansen's brilliant parliamentary tactics. It's about one of the richest countries in the world participating in an international force in one of its poorest. It's about trying to make real people's lives better while other forces are cynically exploiting them. If Sweden can do this, its years of involvement in Afghanistan, I think, may both be valuable and as most people hope, soon be over.