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Russians’ positive attitudes towards Finland on wane: survey

Published : 14 Oct 2023, 02:50

  DF Report
File Photo: Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

More than one in three Russians feel positive about Finland, compared to one in two a year ago, according to a recent survey commissioned by the Embassy of Finland in Moscow.

Researchers ascribed the decline in Finland’s reputation among Russians mainly to the negative media coverage of Finland’s membership in NATO, said the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in a press release on Friday referring to the survey.

The survey showed that 37% of Russians are positively disposed to Finland, compared to 51% in 2022 and 68% in 2021.

In the youngest group of respondents (18–24 year-olds), 54% still reported having a positive attitude towards Finland. Only 27% of Russians aged over 55 years feel positive about Finland.

As many as 28% of all respondents have a negative attitude towards Finland, compared to 22% in 2022 and 6% in 2021.

The high share of respondents, 35%, who are unable to give their opinion is partly due to the geographic scope of the survey: personal experience of Finland gets rarer the further away from the border you live. The responses from Moscow can be extracted from the survey data.

In Moscow, 48% hold positive attitudes towards Finland, 40% hold negative attitudes and 12% are unable to give their opinion.

The relations between Finland and Russia are perceived as cold, tense or hostile by 61% of the respondents, compared to 51% in 2022.

Finland’s membership in NATO is considered a relatively serious threat to Russia by 36% of respondents, while 32% consider it only a minor threat and 21% as no threat at all.

Forty per cent of all respondents deemed that Finland’s accession to NATO has a negative impact on their perception of Finland, while 55% felt it had no effect.

However, only 58% of all respondents are certain that Finland is now a member of NATO. This shows that the Russian media are covering Finland’s NATO membership less often than before.

When the respondents were asked what in their opinion would further weaken the relations between Finland and Russia, 54% mentioned possible NATO bases in Finland, 15% said tighter EU sanctions against Russia and 10% stated long-term restrictions on border traffic. Twenty per cent were unable to name a single factor.

The Foreign Ministry’s country image surveys in Russia have traditionally asked about Russians’ perceptions of the Winter War.

In 2023, 49% of respondents said they know the history of the war fairly well or in broad outlines, which is in line with the results of previous years. In the opinion of 38% of respondents, the war was caused by the Soviet Union’s need to push the border further away from Leningrad, while 34% thought the reason was the military threat posed by Finland. Seven per cent felt the cause was Stalin’s policy of conquest.

The Ministry for Foreign Affairs has carried out country image surveys in Russia since 2017. They are conducted at least every two years, and the previous survey took place in 2022. The survey asks Russians about their perceptions of Finland and about their views on the relations between Finland and Russia.

The 2022 survey showed that after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the number of Russians who see the Winter War as justified grew compared to previous years.

Of the respondents who know the history of the Winter War, 51% now consider the war was justified, compared to 50% in 2022 and 35% in 2021.

However, 67% of respondents felt that the Winter War has no impact on their perception of today’s Finland, while 20% felt it does have a negative impact (14% in 2022).

Russians’ overall perceptions of Finland and Finnishness have evolved over decades, and changes in them occur slower. While Russians continue to associate Finland with nature and the north (34% of respondents) and with development and wellbeing (15%), a growing share of Russians (15%) is associating Finland with geopolitics and NATO.

When asked to describe the Finnish society, 22% of respondents mentioned ‘high standard of living’, 14% ‘democracy’ and 13% ‘freedom’. However, 16% of respondents described the Finnish society as ‘closed’, compared to 7% in 2022. As many as 31% of respondents are not able to describe the Finnish society at all.

Russians consider nature as the most interesting aspect of Finland (37% of respondents), followed by tourism and shopping (17%) and culture (16%). However, only 7% of respondents mentioned tourism and holidays as the first thing that comes to mind about Finland.

Ville Haapasalo is still the most famous Finn in Russia. He was recognised by 20% of respondents. Gustaf Mannerheim was recognised by 13% of respondents and the racing driver Mika Häkkinen by 12%, followed by Tove Jansson (9%), Kimi Räikkönen (8%), Jean Sibelius (5%), Ville Valo (4%) and Urho Kekkonen (3%).

The survey shows that only 2% of Russian adults can recognise by name President Sauli Niinistö and the former Prime Minister Sanna Marin and 1% the current Prime Minister Petteri Orpo. Nationwide, 59% of respondents could not recognise by name a single Finn, compared to 37% in Moscow.

Eight per cent of respondents mentioned having visited Finland at least once. One in three respondents expressed a wish to visit the country at some point. Seven per cent would be prepared to move permanently to Finland if they had the opportunity, compared to 9% in 2022 and 19% in 2021, said the survey conducted by Levada Center of the embassy.

The Levada Centere estimated that Finland’s decision to join NATO and its negative coverage in the Russian media may be the greatest reason for Russians’ hardening attitudes towards Finland.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the ensuing rise in anti-western attitudes in Russia can be seen as the root cause for the change, according to the Levada Center. While Finland’s decision to restrict the granting of visas and entry to Russians has a milder impact on attitudes across Russia, the Levada Center estimated that the restrictions may have a much greater impact on attitudes in Northwest Russia close to Finland’s border. The nationwide survey received responses from Northwest Russia, but the sample for the region is not sufficient to separate the responses from the nationwide data. This year, the Foreign Ministry did not commission a separate, more extensive survey in Northwest Russia because of the closure of the Consulate General in St Petersburg.

This year’s survey is the fifth of its kind. It was conducted in July. A total of 1,629 adults across Russia responded to the survey. The margin of error is 3.4%.