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Window on Eurasia: Russians Identify Their ‘Friends’ and ‘Enemies’

Russians disagree widely on which countries are the “friends” or “enemies”’ of their own, with no country being labeled as one or the other by more than half of the Russians sampled in a recent poll whose results have been released today

Conducted by the Levada Center May 13-18, the poll found that Russians showed the greatest level of agreement concerning two countries – with 46 percent identifying Belarus as a “friend” and 49 percent saying that Latvia was an “enemy.” But in all other cases, the percentages were lower; and in many, some said the particular country was a “friend” while others described it as an “enemy.”

Among the top five countries identified as “friends” of Russia were after Belarus, Germany (23 percent), Kazakhstan (20 percent) and India (16 percent). In the second five of the friends were France (13 percent), China (12 percent), the United States (11 percent), Bulgaria (11 percent) and Armenia (9 percent.) Among the top five “enemies” of Russia were after Latvia, Lithuania (42 percent), Georgia (38 percent), Estonia (32 percent) and the United States (23 percent). In the second five of the enemies list were Ukraine (13 percent), Afghanistan (12 percent), Iraq (10 percent), Japan (6 percent), and Iran (6 percent).

Several things about these lists are worth noting.  First, Russians displayed greater agreement on their “enemies” than on “friends.” The average percentage identifying the countries in the top five of “enemies” was 37 percent while the average percentage for those identifying the top five “friends” was only 24 percent. Second, many countries were on both lists, a reflection of the increasing complexities of relationships between Russians other states . Ukraine, for example, was among the top five “friends” and in the second five of “enemies,” and the United States was in the second five of “friends” and the first five of “enemies.” In many cases, Russians were almost equally divided in their assessment of a particular country as friend or enemy.  Thus, 17 percent of Russians identified Ukraine as a friendly country, while 13 percent said it was an enemy. But in others, the differences were large or even overwhelming. Some 11 percent of the sample identified the United States as a “friend,” but 23 percent said it was an “enemy.” Only 2 percent of Russians said Latvia was a “friend,” but 49 percent said it was an “enemy.” And no Russian identified Estonia as a friend, while 32 percent said it was an “enemy.”

And third, significant numbers of those polled said that it was difficult if not impossible to name “friends” or “enemies” of their country.  Ten percent of Russians said their country had no friends at all, while five percent said it had no enemies.  And approximately one in seven said they found it difficult to answer the question. 

Such data are interesting not only as an indication of the propensity of most Russians like other people to think about others around the world as friends or enemies but also of the possible opportunities for and constraints on the actions of Russian politicians. But these results should be treated with caution.

Some of them do reflect longstanding and deeply held views – hostility to the Baltic countries and friendship toward Armenia, for example – but others – hostility toward Georgia, Iran and Iraq – almost certainly are the products of recent events and especially of media coverage.
Consequently, if a similar poll is conducted six months or a year from now, the list of Russia’s “friends” and “enemies” may prove to be very different, something the Russians, those who find themselves in each category, and those who hope to understand both need to remember.