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Fortified by euro, Finns take bailouts on the chin
HELSINKI (Reuters) - After dutifully abiding by EU fiscal rules, Finland's tiny population remains surprisingly phlegmatic about bailing out less disciplined euro zone members, and is mostly clinging on to its faith in the single currency project.
That faith has been tested as a succession of struggling nations make ever greater demands on the sounder economies in the currency bloc, but it is not yet at breaking point.
"We had to sort out our own problems ourselves in the past. That's why people are asking, do we have to help others?" said Maija Siirala, a freelance dressmaker and alterations specialist.
Finland, one of only four euro zone countries still boasting a triple-A credit rating, recovered from a financial crisis in the early 1990s without outside help, and the years of harsh austerity and debt repayments are part of the collective memory for many.
Now Finland must cough up 12.6 billion euros ($15.3 billion), which is equivalent to about 6 percent of GDP, for the European Stability Mechanism, the zone's permanent bailout fund.
"But I think yes, we still have to help others," Siirala adds without hesitation.
That is at least in part a recognition that Finland has benefited from membership of the euro zone.
Jussi Huotari, a man in his 30's working for a technology startup, criticized European officials for letting the crisis get out of hand, but said the euro had been "great for Finland" so far, and he had not been put off the idea of a currency union.
"The crisis has been mismanaged in an expensive way," he said. "But if Finland leaves the euro zone, I'd like to see another common currency with more similar economies. Something like a Deutsche euro, a euro for the 'North-of-the-Alps' countries or even a Scandinavian krona."
While Finland demands collateral for its participation in European bailouts, economist Nouriel Roubini has said its best option is to exit the euro altogether, an idea he calls "Fixit".
Finland's recent history makes that unpalatable to most.
It adopted the euro as it was emerging from the shadow of the former Soviet Union, which dictated the country's foreign policy for decades after World War II.
The Soviet Union's collapse triggered a spike in unemployment and inflation, as well as a wave of currency speculation that caused a spike in interest rates.
"The way I see it, a small country like Finland is always going to be controlled from the outside to some extent," said Timo Korkeamaki, professor of finance at the Hanken School of Economics. "If you're in the euro, at least you have more control than if you're just a small country with a small currency."
Another major advantage for Finnish businesses has been the lower cost of raising debt from financial markets now than when it had its own currency, the markka.
"It may not be such a big issue for large, international firms, but mid-sized and smaller firms now have better access to the global market compared to what they had in the markka-era," Korkeamaki said.
Bjorn Rosengren, chief executive of Finnish engineering firm Wartsila (WRT1V.HE), said his company was benefiting from the euro as well as from its recent weakness.
"Going back would have much greater downside than the cost of being part of it," he said.
Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen told Reuters last week that he was hearing the same from other business leaders.
"When talking to the industrial sector or entrepreneurs, they say they've been very satisfied with the stability the euro has provided," he said after parliament voted to approve a rescue plan for Spanish banks.
Timo Soini, head of the anti-euro opposition group, the Finns Party, hopes the tide will turn in his favor. He has asked the finance ministry to study how Finland might exit the euro.
He can find some encouragement in opinion surveys.
A poll by MTV3 and Aamulehti earlier this month showed over a third of respondents want the weakest countries out of the euro zone, and 17 percent hope Finland itself will exit.
A separate opinion poll last weekend showed 44 percent supporting a referendum on a possible exit from the euro zone, while 49 percent were against such a vote.
But such surveys don't capture the nuances of popular opinion.
Leena Hietaniemi, an office worker in her forties at a concert in the west-coast town of Pori, wonders if it might have been better not to have joined the currency union, an option taken by Britain, Sweden and Denmark, but she is not in favor of leaving.
"Maybe we should have done what Sweden did. It's not possible now, but maybe it would have been better," she said.
And she gives qualified support for the bailouts.
"We should help if we can, to a certain extent. But you shouldn't go beyond an excessive level."
Finns know that their firepower for assistance is limited. Not just because of the size of their economy - which at 189 billion euros last year is much less than Greece's outstanding debts even after more than 100 billion euros of writedowns - but also because they themselves face an uncertain future.
While Finland has avoided a recession so far, tepid annual growth of 1-2 percent might not be enough to pay for its growing ranks of pensioners without drastic changes to the country's welfare model.
It has few growth industries left; flagship technology firm Nokia (NOK1V.HE) is struggling with losses, and the old paper and metals sectors are cutting jobs and production to cope with weak demand.
Economists say that might one day make membership of the euro club a lifeline for Finland, too.
"The euro is an insurance scheme. Finland might need help in the future, and now is our turn to help," said Pasi Kuoppamaki, chief economist at Sampo Pankki.
($1 = 0.8248 euros)
(Additional reporting by Terhi Kinnunen; Editing by Will Waterman)
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