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A nation must think before it acts.
Enmity and amity between countries is primarily defined by state institutions. Perceptions of societies in this regard are more obscure. They are influenced by a range of factors and actors. State institutions have influence on public opinion and vice versa. In both democratic and undemocratic states, institutions cannot ignore the way citizens perceive the world beyond national borders.
Rīga Stradiņš University, in cooperation with the Center for Geopolitical Studies Riga, explored the views of Latvian society on this matter with a nationally representative poll conducted in July 2022 by the SKDS research center. The survey reached 1,020 respondents in face-to-face interviews throughout the country. Respondents were asked to name the five friendliest countries and the same number of least friendly countries from a predefined list, including Belarus, Canada, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Lithuania, China, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States. Given available space, the questionnaire included Latvia’s geographically closest neighbors and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Germany was added as one of the power centers of the European Union, along with Canada, the lead nation of the multinational NATO battlegroup in Latvia. Ukraine and Georgia were added as both have been victims of Russia’s military aggression, and both have been strongly supported by Latvia.
The friendliest countries according to informant responses are Estonia (69.2%) and Lithuania (65.3%). (Percentages designate the share of respondents naming the respective country in the top five list of either friendliest or least friendly countries). Both Baltic neighbors are far ahead compared to other countries. Among the rest, Poland has the next place and third overall (30.2%), followed by the United States (27.3%), Ukraine (26.2%), the United Kingdom (24.1%), and Sweden (20.9%). Other countries were mentioned by less than 20% of respondents.
On the other end of the spectrum, the list of least friendly countries is more imbalanced, with a clear top three far ahead of others. The three least friendly countries according to respondent perceptions are Russia (70.5%), Belarus (53.7%), and China (29%). Other countries in the list lagged significantly behind; indeed, none reached 20%.
As expected, there were some — though not fundamental — differences between Latvian-speaking respondents (n=634) and Russian-speaking respondents (n=384). Although neither group is monolithic, opinions between ethnolinguistic groups in similar polls tend to diverge, especially on foreign and defense policies.
Interestingly, the resulting lists of the friendliest and least friendly countries were quite similar in both groups. Among both Latvian and Russian speakers, the top three least friendly countries were identical: Russia, Belarus, and China. However, the emphasis differed. Latvian speakers called these countries unfriendly more often than Russian speakers did: Russia was listed by 85.5% of Latvian speakers, and 46.5% of Russian speakers; Belarus by 67% of Latvian speakers, and 32.3% of Russian speakers; and China by 33.1% of Latvian speakers, and 22.5% of Russian speakers.
In the list of friends, Estonia and Lithuania came first among both Latvian and Russian speakers: Among Latvian speakers, Estonia was named by 75.8% of respondents and Lithuania by 70.7%, while among Russian speakers – 58.7% and 56.7%, respectively. The United States received one of the most divisive assessments. It was ranked as the third friendliest among Latvian speakers with 33%, but only seventh among Russian speakers with 18.1%. Among Russian speakers, Poland came third with 27.1%.
The lists of the friendliest and least friendly countries produced by this survey overlap largely with the official positions of Latvia. The other two Baltic states, Estonia and Lithuania, are Latvia’s closest cooperation partners in a variety of policy areas — both within NATO and the European Union, as well as beyond. Poland, the United States, and the United Kingdom are among the closest strategic partners in foreign and defense policy. Ukraine has strong support from Latvian state institutions in the war with Russia.
On the other hand, Russia has traditionally been securitized by Latvian state institutions as a source of risks to national security. However, since the 1990s, the intensity of that securitization has fluctuated. At some points — most notably in the late 2000s — the temptation of benefits from economic cooperation appeared to outweigh risks (a brief period of exception was the Russo-Georgian war of 2008). Bilateral relations significantly deteriorated after the occupation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. But the image of Russia completely crashed in 2022 with its full-blown invasion of Ukraine. The Latvian parliament (Saeima) formally designated Russia as complicit in genocide in April and as a state sponsor of terrorism in August. These are only two and highly symbolic examples in a long list of measures that Latvia has taken against Russia.
Belarus is also perceived by Latvia as a pariah due to its support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as the brutal repression of its own citizens and the weaponization of migrants on the border with Latvia. Meanwhile, Latvia’s official position towards China has been less pronounced publicly. Even so, it is perceived now as an authoritarian country that poses more risks than opportunities. China’s implicitly supportive position of Russia over the war in Ukraine hastened Latvia’s decision to withdraw from the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries, also known as the 16+1 and 17+1 cooperation format.
Although nationally representative, this is only a one-time survey. Care must be taken when generalizing the results. However, the results of the poll give ground to the argument that the official Latvian foreign and defense policy resonates well with society. While the positions between the Latvian and Russian speaking parts of the population diverge, the differences here were smaller than one might expect.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.