Clear majority of Finns still opposed to NATO membership
The intense public debate on foreign and security policy in recent months has not changed the Finns' overwhelming opposition to NATO membership.
According to a poll commissioned by Helsingin Sanomat and conducted in February by Suomen Gallup, 57% of Finns remain staunchly against joining NATO, while only 23% are in favour of membership in the alliance. The figures show little change from the previous Helsingin Sanomat Gallup poll taken a year ago.
Another poll, conducted last summer by the Finnish News Agency STT, showed that opposition to NATO membership was slightly higher than it is now. It appears that former opponents of membership have not joined the pro-NATO camp since then, but are instead adding to the ranks of the undecided.
In sharp contrast to the rest of the population, 51% of supporters of the opposition conservative National Coalition Party are in favour of joining NATO. In December, the party's leadership issued a statement calling for dropping the notion of a militarily non-allied defence policy.
The strongest bastions of opposition to NATO membership are to be found among supporters of the Left Alliance party, residents of rural areas, the unemployed, and young people under the age of 25.
The poll also found that women continue to be more likely to oppose joining NATO than men.
The main argument against joining NATO was widespread fear that as members of the alliance, Finnish soldiers might be sent to military action far away from home to fight in conflicts that would otherwise have nothing to do with Finland.
The poll showed that a full 74% of Finns feel that the risk of becoming embroiled in remote conflicts is an argument for staying out of NATO; even a majority of those who support joining NATO concede the point, although they felt that the argument was outweighed by other considerations.
An increasing proportion of opponents of joining NATO felt that Finland already has sufficient security guarantees as a member of the European Union. There was also fear that as a NATO member, defence spending would increase, and relations with Russia would suffer.
The most persuasive argument in favour of NATO membership was that it is better to join the alliance before there are any crises looming. According to this point of view, it will be too late to join NATO when a crisis is imminent.
This argument is accepted even by many opponents of NATO membership. Another pro-NATO argument gaining widespread acceptance is the recognition that Finland is already involved in peacekeeping operations under NATO leadership.
An increasing number of Finns feel that inside NATO Finland's relations with the United States would improve, and that NATO membership as such would be a deterrent to potential threats.
Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari has said in a newspaper interview that the debate on Finnish NATO membership should be about when - and not if - Finland should join the alliance.
"For Finland to get out from under the shadow of the Cold War, the country should be involved in all Western organisations, including NATO", Ahtisaari said in an interview in the Sunday edition of the Kokkola newspaper Keskipohjanmaa.
In Ahtisaari's view, Finland and Russia are still operating under the shadow of times when the Soviet Union interfered with a heavy hand in Finnish affairs.
"Now it is time for both countries to establish and build new kinds of relations", the former President added.
Ahtisaari sees joining NATO as a purely political question for Finland, and that it would not mean that Finland would see Russia as a military threat of any kind.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Expert forum expects Finland to join NATO in ten years (2.2.2005)
Intervention by President topples conservative NATO operation (20.12.2004)