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FILE PHOTO - Finland's Prime Minister Juha Sipila listens to media after government's open session for members of public took place during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence in Porvoo, Finland May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins


By Tuomas Forsell and Jussi Rosendahl

HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland should remain militarily neutral because it helps ensure security in the Baltic Sea region, Prime Minister Juha Sipila said in an interview ahead of celebrations of the country's 100 years of independence.

The EU member state was part of the Russian Empire and won independence during the 1917 Russian revolution but it nearly lost it fighting the Soviet Union in World War Two.

The centre-right government retains the option of seeking NATO membership but remaining non-aligned and increasing defence cooperation with Sweden and the EU was Finland's way, Sipila said.

"At the moment, to have Finland and Sweden forming this militarily non-aligned zone, I think that increases the security and stability in the Baltic Sea region ... I see no reason to change this," Sipila told Reuters by phone.

Finland has stepped up military cooperation with Sweden and forged closer ties with NATO because it is concerned about Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and heightened East-West tensions in the Baltic Sea.

However, the government has opted to stay out of NATO in line with its tradition of avoiding confrontation with Russia.

A report commissioned by the government said last year that if Finland joined NATO it would lead to a crisis with Russia, which is also a major trade partner for Finland.

Moscow has hinted that it could move troops closer to the Finnish-Russian border if Finland joins NATO.

"It is clear that Finland is part of the West and the western community. That is our place," Sipila said.

"We want to be ... at the core of the European Union, influencing EU's future. But the main difference between us and the majority of EU states is our military non-alignment."

Polls show that only 22 percent of Finns support NATO membership, while 62 percent are opposed. Sipila, who leads Finland's Centre party, said any move to join would need public approval via a referendum.

Finance Minister Petteri Orpo from Finland's poll-leading National Coalition party told Reuters last week he believed that joining NATO would improve Finland's security.

(Reporting by Tuomas Forsell and Jussi Rosendahl; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

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