Russia is an unfriendly state to Lithuania, which poses an economic and military threat. This statement frequently repeated by the country's leaders and reflected by news media was confirmed by research received by Delfi, which shows that public threat perception is clearly defined in a geographic direction.
The sociological research on citizens' news media preferences, geopolitical situation perception and views of threats prepared last year on commission by the Ministry of National Defence and Eastern Europe Studies Centre (RESC) was not the only that asked the Lithuanian citizens' views of other countries and their leaders.
Another research, performed in December 2018 on commission from the Ministry of National Defence inquired about views of national defence, however the survey also asked, what Lithuanians think of neighbouring countries, their leaders and more. The basis of both studies was surveys performed by Spinter Tyrimai.
One was prepared at the end of August last year, interviewing 1007 citizens, with ages ranging from 18 to 75, while the other was performed in late December, interviewing 1010 citizens of the same ages. The results show consistent and little changing views of neighbours, however trends that are linked to geopolitical decisions in recent years have been observed.
Not just neighbours among the friendliest
For example, with the RESC study asking whether each of a list is friendly or unfriendly to Lithuania, most respondents (an entire 96%) saw Latvia as the friendliest country, up from 93% in 2016.
"Latvia is always viewed as the friendliest. Emotions matter. Latvia takes the lead because it is traditionally seen as a sisterly country, even if international relations experts would probably highlight a number of questions where the positions of Lithuania and Latvia may not match.
After all, Latvia is first even though a border agreement has not been ratified, we do not always agree on energy projects and such. Public views reflect a wide range of aspects, both rational and emotional, as well as based on international politics and the citizens' persona experiences," RESC head Linas Kojala emphasised.
No major changes in second place either – Germany is seen as friendly by 91% of respondents (up from 87% in 2016). Furthermore, Lithuanians specify Germany as the most important ally in defence.
After Germany follows Sweden (88%), only then the USA (81%, down from 85% in 2016), Poland (79%), Belarus (56%), while Russia was described as a friendly state by just 15% (71% viewing it as unfriendly). According to L. Kojala, such numbers come as no surprise even if Lithuanians view Germany and Sweden more favourably than neighbouring Poland or our most important strategic ally – the USA.
"Poland is viewed positively, the fluctuations are low. This is incomparable with the situation at the end of the two countries' "Golden" relationship period at the start of the millennium, after which followed a cold period and critical rhetoric, due to which perceptions of Poland among the public became markedly worse. It is now understood that the Baltic States and Poland are in essence "sitting in one boat" – resolving similar security, energy and disinformation dilemma.
I do not really see much of a change in the role of the US either. Of course, Donald Trump's rhetoric toward NATO and Russia sounds chaotic and garners no trust, however the USA continues to be seen as a strategic partner in Lithuania, particularly in regards to security.
It is notable that the change in perceptions of the US is very small in Lithuania compared to many other European countries – Germany, France and others, where trust in the USA has markedly dropped on Trump becoming president. In Lithuania, Latvia Germany, Sweden and the USA have always been viewed especially positively, which can be seen now as well," L. Kojala stated.
In his opinion, the growth of positive perceptions of Germany is linked to the country's grown role in the region, particularly in deploying in the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence Battalion in Lithuania.
"I believe that they identify changes in Germany itself as well. Let us recall German Chancellor A. Merkel's New Year's address. She repeats that we must take greater responsibility in all areas. If earlier we associated Germany with the Eurozone and economic matters, its role in foreign and security policy is now growing. Even where this leads to direct confrontation with Russia.
Let us recall, what was being said about Germany's actions in strengthening the security of the Baltic States: Russia immediately threatened that it would react to it and would perhaps even use nuclear weapons if need be. In this case, Germany leadership was demonstrated and I believe that this is significant to Lithuania. Especially because it is visible: Merkel visited Lithuania herself, met with President Dalia Grybauskaitė, relations seem very good," L. Kojala emphasised.
He conceded that a significant input into the image of Germany has been due to the efforts of President D. Grybauskaitė, personal relations with A. Merkel and also D. Trump's divisive statements, to which Berlin reacts sensitively.
"Germany with Merkel is seen as a stable, reliable partner, whose role is growing steadily. The USA is seen as an irreplaceable strategic ally, however with Trump, musings arise over the long term future of this link. Perhaps the fluctuations can be explained this way. ON the other hand, I would not overemphasise it – the USA and Germany are in the same group of Lithuania's closest friends because the percentage differences are minimal," L. Kojala said.
Not too strict on Russia
The Ministry of National Defence's questions were presented a little differently – name three European countries you think are the friendliest to Lithuania right now. Respondents answering spontaneously also viewed Latvia as the friendliest country. It was specified as the friendliest by 35%, while 15% set it as second and 12% set it as third.
Germany is formally in second place: 12% specified it as the friendliest, 8% as the second friendliest and 13% as the third friendliest. However, the third and fifth place, which went to Estonia and Poland, gathered a higher total percentage – respectively 44% and 36%. In this study, Russia took last place with 0.1%.49% of respondents agreed with the statement that relations with Russia should be improved (15% disagreed), but only 35% thought that Lithuania's policy toward Russia is too harsh.
This number was higher in 2016, reaching 42%. Thus, the claims of Kremlin propaganda outlets that "common Lithuanians disagree with the ruling elite, which is an obstacle to good relations with Russia" appear to be false, while Lithuania's strict policy toward Russia is shown by another metric: only 29% of respondents thought that sanctions against Russia should be lifted (with 34% supporting sanctions).
Which leaders are the most (dis)liked?
On asking opinions about world leaders, there were no major surprises. For example, the highest ranting went to the Lithuanian head of state Dalia Grybauskaitė (57 points compared to 34 a few years ago), with the lowest going to Vladimir Putin (-35 points), albeit in 2016 he was viewed even more negatively (-48 points).
Among foreign leaders, Lithuanians rated German Chancellor A. Merkel most positively (54 points), which is up from 34 points in 2016. The French and Polish presidents Emmanuel Macron (47 points) and Andrzej Duda (40 points) were not far behind.
US president Donald Trump only received five points, while neighbouring Belarus' head of state Alexander Lukashenko received -26 points. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko received only seven points (with negative ratings from 29% of respondents).
"This could be linked to ambiguous information about reforms ongoing in Ukraine, constant doubt whether they are successful, if tangible results are being reached, if the country really is moving in the right direction. Thus, a straightforward image of Poroshenko himself does not form. Especially when he faces quite significant criticism in Ukraine itself," L. Kojala stated.
In terms of percentages, the highest negative ratings percentages went to V. Putin (56%) and D. Trump (38%). According to the head of RESC, in the end there are more of those, who view Trump positively than those viewing him negatively. But in essence, just like in the USA, he is a divisive figure because the groups of critics and supporters are near even.
"It is not worth being surprised over this and I would not associate it with the overall image of the USA, which has formed over a far longer period," the analyst stressed. Nevertheless, the ratings of the Russian president's opinion receive the most negative evaluations even when he attempts to tempt with Soviet nostalgia.
For example, V. Putin has said that the fall of the Soviet Union is the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Only one percent of respondents in the RESC study agree completely, while another ten percent agree.
Older (56 and over) and lower income (300 euro and less) respondents are more often inclined to agree with V. Putin's opinion, while middle age (36-45) and without middle school education, rural area residents often do not have a clear opinion on the Russian president's opinions.
Younger (26-35 year olds), lowest income (up to 200 euro) and those living in regional centres are more often inclined to disagree with the Russian president's opinion. Even younger (18-25), with higher education and highest income (over 500 euro) and residents of large cities are often inclined to completely disagree with the expressed opinion.
Favourable views of the EU and NATO
Meanwhile, the Ministry of National Defence also asked about organisations, not just countries and leaders. For example, 83% of respondents agreed to the presence of NATO allies in the country. Compared to 2017, when the Alliance deployed an international battalion in each of the Baltic States, the percentage barely changed, growing by just 2%.
Furthermore, the number of those agreeing that the NATO battalion contributes to deterring hostile countries has risen – from 70% in 2017 to 75% last year. A particular rise has been in those, who agree completely – from 17% to 29%.
In the RESC study the number of those agreeing that the deployment of NATO troops in Lithuania and the Baltic States is just a needless provocation against Russia is just 17%.
Views of the EU are also favourable. The number of those thinking that EU membership was harmful to Lithuania was just 7% and only 18% were convinced that the EU is destroying traditional Lithuanian values.