On 4 March, a crowd gathered in Citizen’s Square in Stockholm to hear speeches from a theatre director, a former Social Democrat politician and a Black Lives Matter activist delivered in front of a banner that proclaimed: “Sweden does not need Nato for peace, Nato needs Sweden for war.”
As Sweden presses ahead with its bid for membership of the alliance and talks with Turkey resume, opponents preach the virtues of independence.
“Sweden has been free from military alliances for more than 200 years and it has served us very well,” says Mertz Laakso of No to Nato, which organised the protest. “Sweden has not been in a proper war, when it was attacked, for more than 200 years.”
That historic position of independence changed dramatically after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Neighbouring Finland, with which Sweden shares a common security policy, signalled its intention to join the alliance. Public opinion polls shifted from roughly even to a strong majority in favour of membership. On 15 May, the Social Democrat-led government announced that it supported joining Nato and launched the bid three days later.
Despite the popularity of the policy it was not enough to secure re-election for the party, which was replaced by a right-wing coalition that is enthusiastically pursuing membership.
But a significant minority of opposition remains across the political spectrum for a variety of reasons. Polling since the start of the war has consistently shown that between a fifth and a quarter of the population – equivalent to more than two million Swedes – are against membership, with roughly the same proportion undecided.
Much of the visible opposition to Nato has come from Sweden’s large Kurdish minority. Many Kurds are unhappy at concessions Sweden is handing Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who regards Kurdish nationalist groups as terrorists and is bombing them in Syria and Iraq, in the hope of Turkey dropping its opposition to its Nato bid.
Ankara is demanding the extradition of dozens of Kurds it regards as terrorists, including former MP Amineh Kakabaveh. Some requests have been granted. Sweden has also resumed weapons sales to Turkey.
On 21 January, hundreds of Kurdish protesters marched through Stockholm with an effigy of the Turkish leader against the bid to join Nato. The Swedish Solidarity Committee for Rojava invited supporters to “protest against Swedish participation in the warmongering alliance, against nuclear weapons, and against the measures forced on us by the dictator and murderer Erdogan”.
Such protests have drawn support from across the political spectrum. A far right activist burned a Quran at one demonstration, prompting a ferocious backlash from Ankara and adding a further roadblock to Sweden’s bid.
Conspiracist groups are also attending anti-Nato events, including members of the Schiller Institute, whose leader has argued that man-made climate change is a myth intended to eliminate most of the global population.
There have also been objections based on defence of the environment and minority groups.
Artist Sara Andersson Ajnnak, of the indigenous Sami community, believes that joining the alliance would be a threat to her people.
“I feel it is problematic for Sweden to join Nato, especially for me as an indigenous person in the north,” she told Turkish news agency Anadolu. “There is already a fight over land in the country and I believe that Nato can see the north of Sweden as a huge military region to carry out their drills… I just see this as another form of colonisation.”
Left-wing activists and politicians also fear the arrival of Nato military bases that would be necessary to protect the Baltic region, according to several military analyses, and the abandonment of anti-nuclear principles.
Sweden’s parliament is overwhelmingly pro-Nato, with just two parties holding 42 of 349 seats – the Left Party and the Greens – opposing membership.
The Left Party argues that joining Nato would entail a loss of independence in foreign policy and submission to US leadership, pointing to previous military interventions such as Afghanistan and Libya as indications of what Sweden could be signing up to.
Left Party MP Ali Esbati fears the alliance and its members could be heading towards even more disastrous conflicts that would leave in the country in greater danger, rejecting the argument that membership would make Sweden safer.
“The Russian assault on Ukraine is a disgraceful act… Sweden needs to take a firm stand against Russia in that conflict,” he tells i. “As a Nato member, however, there are a number of other possible conflict scenarios in which it is far from certain that Sweden’s national security interests coincide with those of an inarguably US-led Nato.
“No consideration was given towards the geopolitical developments that point towards US-China tensions,” he adds.
The MP laments that such a significant policy shift was rushed through with limited debate over the implications. Anti-Nato activists describe a hostile environment in which opposition to the alliance is equated with support for Russia.
Mr Esbati’s party drew fire for initially voting against sending weapons to Ukraine before swiftly reversing its position.
“I think the debate climate has not been very tolerant towards those who would voice even mild forms of complicating dissent, and this I think unfortunately will make broad popular discussion about policy choices harder in the future as well,” he says.
Concerns over how the country arrived at the new policy is being echoed in mainstream media.
In a recent column, Karin Petterson, the former political editor of Aftonbladet newspaper, wrote: “I wanted the risks of allying with leaders like Erdogan or an American president who in the future may again be called Donald Trump to be taken seriously. I wanted a conversation about what options there were, about the pros and cons. That was not the case.”
Toivo Sjoren, head of opinion at polling company Kantar, says the two most common reasons given for opposition to joining Nato are support for Sweden’s tradition of independent foreign policy and anti-militarism.
The transformation of public opinion in favour of membership since the start of the war is unprecedented but it is also settled, he says, with figures remaining broadly constant for months.
“The focus is more on delays from Turkey or Hungary – that’s the centre of the debate – rather than joining or not,” he tells i.
Anti-Nato activists acknowledge they are likely fighting a losing battle at this point and are gearing up for battles ahead, says Mr Laakso, against the installation of new military bases, nuclear weapons and military interventions overseas.
The Green Party has said that if Sweden joins Nato, the government “must actively emphasise rejection of nuclear weapons” and “introduce legislation against the introduction of nuclear weapons onto Swedish territory”.
If the question of Sweden joining Nato appears to be largely settled, the debate over what that membership looks like is just beginning.