Despite the chill in bilateral relations, the Netherlands is fairly well-regarded by Russian citizens. This is shown by an opinion poll conducted by the Moscow independent opinion polling agency Levada Center on behalf of Leiden University and Raam op Rusland ('Window to Russia'). It is the first time that such an opinion poll has been held in Russia about the Netherlands, and its outcome is spectacular. However, the Dutch government should do more to address some persistent ideas - that the Netherlands is a relatively insignificant country, and a safe haven for drugs and prostitution.
By Menno Hurenkamp, Hella Rottenberg, Jos Schaeken, and Hubert Smeets
Almost 70 percent thinks freedom of opinion is characteristic for the Netherlands
The Kremlin regularly accuses the Netherlands of 'hysterical anti-Russian bias'. Attempts to rekindle the dialogue have failed again and again. For example, a recent visit by members of the Dutch Parliament to Moscow was cancelled, because it turned out parliamentarian Sjoerd Sjoerdsma (D66) was on a black list and refused entrance into the country.
Yet Russia and the Netherlands need one another.
The Netherlands are Russia's third trading partner after China and Germany. Turnover in bilateral trade is at almost 25 billion euros each year. Russia exports more than 31 billion, the Netherlands export almost 3,5 billion euros to Russia. The Netherlands are also important as a safe haven for Russian capital. The country is an important hub for capital either fleeing Russia or returning to it. According to the Central Bank in Moscow, nearly 10 percent of Foreign Direct Investment into Russia flows through the Netherlands. Only Cyprus is a bigger investor. According to Unctad, only 6,5 percent of this Foreign Direct Investment actually originates from the Netherlands.
Nevertheless, the Netherlands have been downgraded by Russian foreign policy. Since 2016, the country is no longer mentioned in the foreign policy doctrine in which president Putin establishes Russia's priorities. It has been replaced by Spain. The Netherlands, in turn, no longer consider Russia as one of its 'countries of focus' in international cultural policy.
The downturn in bilateral relations started in 2013 and reached its climax after the downing of MH17 in the summer of 2014. According to the Russian government, the Netherlands are to blame for this frostiness in relations. The Russian ambassador Alexander Shulgin has recently repeated this in front of the Lower House of Dutch parliament. The official government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta also accused The Hague. According to the newspaper the Netherlands are struck by 'anti-Russian hysteria'. 'Today, the Netherlands are the only EU country that has limited the dialogue with Russia', the newspaper commented in late November. 'Against the background of this Russophobia, it is absurd to expect objectivity about the MH17 crash from the JIT [the international investigation team researching the disaster - red.]. Moscow is interested in the restoration of pragmatic, professional and equal relations. But this does not seem realistic as long as the political establishment in the Netherlands continues to lean on its own non-existant myths and stereotypes.'
Russians are regularly presented with this point of view through the media. But what is the effect of this government communication?
Image of the Netherlands never researched
Until recently, we could only guess the answer. Oddly enough, the image of the Netherlands in Russia has never been seriously researched, leaving few starting points for 'people to people' diplomacy. In order to fill this gap, Leiden University and knowledge platform Raam op Rusland requested the independent opinion pollster Levada Centre in Moscow to research how nowadays Russians look at the Netherlands.
We did so because Russian public opinion really plays a role. Russia may be a country with an authoritarian government, which hammers home its message through state television, Russians do not swallow everything and do have explicit points of view. The government very carefully observes the public mood and tries to limit public dissatisfaction, somtimes through repression, sometimes by making concessions.
This alertness is mostly seen in domestic politics. When it comes to foreign policy, the government has not much worries about public opinion at home. Russians may harbour a deep mistrust towards their government, but they often support president Putin when he defends the great power Russia against pressure from abroad.
These contradictory feelings are especially clear when it comes to the Netherlands. They are mostly reflected in public opinion towards MH17, the largest stumbling block in bilateral relations.
As the opinion poll of the Levada Center is the first of its kind, we cannot compare the results, but the outcome allows to draw some important conclusions about the image of the Netherlands and the relations between both countries.
Extremely positive image
In spite of negative coverage like in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russians see the Netherlands in an extraordinarily positive light. When asked about the Netherlands, they primarily think about 'freedom of speech' (68%), 'rights for minorities' (67%), 'tolerance' (65%), 'freedom of religion' (65%) and 'working ethos' (65%). Highly esteemed are also 'respect by the state for the individual citizen' (63%), the social security system (54%), health care (55%), and education (52%).
Almost 64 percent thinks that the state should respect civil rights
There are a few civil liberties in the Netherlands that - not surprisingly - are rejected by Russians: gay marriage (69%) and state tolerance towards drugs (55%). Both state and Church in Russia use these themes in order to illustrate that Europe is in the grip of unchristian cultural decadence. In this context, it is all the more surprising that the view of Dutch policy on euthanasia is considered much more neutrally. A quarter of respondents says not to have a notion of it, but of those who do have an opinion 32% have a positive attitude, as opposed to 27%, who reject it. There is no coherent explanation for this, but maybe Russians, in practice, find ways to deal with euthanasia themselves.
That Russians consider the Netherlands an insignificant country, is not surprising either. Although the Russian national income is barely twice as high as the Dutch one, Russia is the biggest country on earth and a nuclear superpower. More surprising is that many Russians do not know that the Netherlands is, in fact, one of the most serious economic partners of Russia, and that there is far more to that then the Keukenhof, symbol of our flowers and tourism industry.
Russian state companies like Gazprom, Rosneft, Lukoil (gas and oil), Sberbank (bank), Metzhel (coals and steel), and Veon (telecommunication), but also smaller businesses, have registered their holdings in the Netherlands, some to protect themselves from legal insecurity at home. If a Russian company is based in, for instance, Amsterdam, not a Russian, but a Dutch judge has the last say in conflicts. Apparently, Russian business has more trust in Dutch civil law than in its own rule of law.
However, 65 percent of Russians rejects the idea that in a lawsuit a Dutch law court can rule against Russian state interests. The most spectacular recent example of such a judicial confrontation between a private firm and the government is the conflict between the shareholders of the seized oil company Yukos, registered in Amsterdam, and the Russian state. In this case, 50 billion dollars are at stake. Two thirds of Russian citizens reject these judicial sanctuaries for Russian oligarchs.
Double check with MH17
The opinion poll becomes even more interesting when MH17 is mentioned. Around 60 percent of respondents tow Moscow's official line: the plane was shot down by the Ukrainian military or by volunteer batallions. That is not surprising, but striking are the views of the rest: more than a quarter avoid the question. Levada sees a pattern here: when it comes to secret interventions abroad, like the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Skripal in 2018 is Salisbury, respondents frequently stick to neutrality by picking options like 'hard to say' or 'everyone could have done it'.
Almost 60 percent thinks that Ukrainians are guilty of the downing of the MH17
In that respect it is rather surprising that, asked about the question of guilt for MH17, around 10 percent point towards pro-Russian rebels or Russia itself. This is a significant increase compared to public opinion polls held in 2015. Though the phrasing of the question was somewhat different in that poll - one year after the crash, Levada asked if there was a support for an international tribunal for the MH17 disaster - only two percent of those surveyed thought Russian support for the rebels in the Donbass was responsible for the tragedy.
That three quarters of Russians think that their country should not give in to blackmail by European sanctions, was again to be expected. Three fifths to two thirds of citizens would not be willing to allow the Russian government to barter by paying compensation to relatives of the victims in return for the lifiting of sanctions. To pay means to admit guild, is the reasoning behind this. The younger generation, though, thinks differently: half of the young respondents are up for such a silent deal with the relatives.
If guilty, majority wants to pay compensation
Strikingly enough, about 55 to 60 percent of respondents are in favour of paying compensations ‘if research by the international community establishes that Russia is guilty’. Among people under the age of 25, more than three quarters would find this acceptable. It is remarkable that in this hypothetical case – so far the Russian authorities have done everything to hinder the international investigation – education and wealth make no difference. Highly or lowly educated, rich or poor, if this is recognised around 60 percent would be in favour of compensations.
In this case people more boldly answer the question of what has to be done. Only 10 percent hesitates with an answer, two and a half times less than on the question who shot down the plane. Most people in Russia shun direct questions about actions of the government, but when the interviewers insist, most Russians seem to admit that the MH17 narrative could deviate from the Kremlin version.
If the international community establishes that Russia is guilty, almost 55 percent are in favour of paying compensations to the families of the victims
Because the answers to the questions on the MH17 seemed paradoxical, Levada repeated the poll on these specific questions. The results were almost identical.
Apparently, truth prevails over politics. Could this be the coming out of the proverbial Russian soul? Be that as it may, this outcome could encourage the relatives of the victims, and will be welcomed by the investigators of the JIT. It shows that the MH17 court case, starting on March 9th in the Netherlands, matters for Russians too.
As usual the views of Russians are affected by age, education, work, and living situation. Young, highly educated people and city-dwellers care significantly more for the rule of law than the elderly and people from the provinces. They are also less receptive to the Kremlin narrative. Respondents aged 24 and under are also more interested in the immaterial values the Netherlands promote. The basic value that the citizen is more important than the state and should be protected against the government – an idea that conflicts with the historical practice in Russia – is embraced far more by students (78%) and Muscovites (75%) than by the country as a whole (63%).
75 percent thinks Russia should stick to its own course. notwithstanding sanctions
Need for contact
It is good to know how Russians view the Netherlands. But does this socio-cultural knowledge also have a political meaning? It certainly does. The research by Levada also concludes that Russians feel a need for intercultural contact.
In the course of 10 years, the amount of Russian students in the Netherlands doubled to 900 in 2019. These young Russians not only are getting acquainted with Dutch values, they are also the policymakers of the future. The Dutch institution Nuffic-Neso maintains a network of Russian students who have studied in the Netherlands and plays a key role in the exchange of academics and universities. There are plans, however, to close the office in Moscow down. This is a bad idea. The core goal should not be less but more contact among young people, academics and civilians active in societal organizations.
42 percent thinks relations between Russia and the Netherlands soured because the Dutch criticism of human rights
The research by Levada also forces the Dutch to consider their image in a broader light. Do the Netherlands promote their strong points effectively enough in Russia? The Levada research shows that the Netherlands is wasting its energy on the one hand, and is missing opportunities on the other hand.
Because of its logistical and financial infrastructure, the Netherlands is of great strategic significance for Russia on an economic level. The Netherlands does not use this position enough.
59 percent is negative about same sex marriage
Meanwhile, it is questionable if the promotion of Dutch ‘norms and values’ is effective. In Russia many people think negative about the fundamental rights of the LGBTI+ community abroad, though these same Russians crave for more traditional civil liberties. They think highly of our rule of law and welfare state. This means the Netherlands have an important and relevant story to tell in Russia.
Jos Schaeken is a professor of the Russian and Eurasian Studies programme at the Faculty of Humanities of Leiden University. Hella Rottenberg, Menno Hurenkamp and Hubert Smeets are staff members of knowledge platform Raam op Rusland (‘Window to Russia’).
About the research
Russia’s largest, and only, independent opinion pollster, the Moscow-based Levada Center, has surveyed over 1600 Russians about their image of the Netherlands. Leiden University and Raam op Rusland commissioned this research, the first representative poll on this subject. The surveys were taken in the period between late 2019 and early 2020.
The research had both a quantitative and a qualitative component.
Pollsters went from door to door with questionnaires in various urban and rural areas in Russia. For reasons of reliability, Levada does not poll using phone calls or online surveys.
Furthermore, Levada selected over thirty Russians, who showed their interest in other countries, for more in-depth group interviews. These 32 civilians, all of average education and working in corresponding jobs, were divided into four separate focus groups. In two of these, participants were relatively younger (35-), and in the other two they were middle-aged (40+). These interviews took two hours and were held in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Levada guaranteed participants that they would remain anonymous.