Latvia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Latvia: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Latvia, country in northeastern Europe, nestled between Lithuania and Estonia on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. Latvia’s picturesque landscape features gently rolling hills and thick forests interspersed with numerous rivers, lakes, and marshes. Ethnic Latvians constitute a slight majority of the population, while Russians make up the largest minority group. In the Latvian language the country’s full name is Latvijas Republika (Republic of Latvia). Rīga is Latvia’s capital and largest city, as well as its chief port.

Beginning in the 13th century, Latvia was successively dominated by Germany, Poland, and Russia. Latvia became an independent country in 1918, as did its neighbors Estonia and Lithuania. The three countries became known as the Baltic states. In 1940 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) forcibly annexed the Baltic states.

Latvia regained its independence in 1991 and reinstated a parliamentary democracy. The country transformed its economy as well, rapidly dismantling the centralized system of the Soviet period in favor of a Western-style, free-market economy. Latvia’s success in implementing these reforms helped it gain full membership in the European Union (EU) in 2004.


Latvia covers an area of about 64,559 sq km (about 24,926 sq mi), making it slightly larger than the state of West Virginia. It is bounded on the west by the Baltic Sea, on the north by Estonia and the Gulf of Rīga (a deep inlet of the Baltic Sea), on the east by Russia, and on the south by Belarus and Lithuania. Latvia’s land borders extend 1,150 km (715 mi). Its coastline extends 498 km (309 mi) and includes many sandy beaches and sand dunes. About half the total coastline faces the Gulf of Rīga and is well sheltered from the open sea.

Latvia lies within the great East European Plain. The country’s low-lying plains and rolling hills were sculpted during the most recent ice age, when glaciers moved over the land (see Pleistocene Epoch). Fertile lowlands occupy about three-fourths of the country. The land gently rises in elevation from west to east. The eastern uplands constitute the largest expanse of land in the Baltics with an elevation of more than 200 m (more than 660 ft). Latvia’s highest point, Gaizina Kalns, reaches a height of 312 m (1,024 ft) in the east central part of the country.

Rivers and Lakes in Latvia

Latvia is a land of numerous rivers, lakes, and wetlands. The country has more than 12,000 rivers and streams, although only 17 are longer than 100 km (60 mi). The Daugava is Latvia’s largest river in terms of water volume, as well as one of the principal rivers of the Baltic drainage area. It originates in Russia (where it is known as the Western Dvina) and passes through Belarus before entering Latvia, where it follows a northwesterly course and drains into the Gulf of Rīga. Several dams on the river generate hydroelectricity.

Latvia’s longest river is the Gauja, which winds its way through a forested setting in northeastern Latvia. Gauja National Park protects a stretch of the river valley noted for its sandstone cliffs and caves. Also one of the country’s cleanest and least disturbed rivers, the Gauja supports spawning salmon. Other major rivers in Latvia are the Venta and the Lielupe. Thousands of small lakes dot the landscape, especially in southeastern Latvia. The country contains countless marshes, bogs, and other wetlands, some of which are protected for their international importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Plants and Animals in Latvia

Forests cover close to half of Latvia’s land. Forests are most dense in the northern part of the country. The most common trees are pine and spruce, but oak and European linden are also characteristic of the Latvian landscape. Many types of edible berries and mushrooms grow in the wild. In Latvia large areas of wet forest, which grows on peat soil, remain undisturbed. The country’s forests, meadows, and marshes support many types of animals. Mammals include moose (called elk in Europe), deer, wild boars, wolves, lynx, beavers, and otters. More than 300 species of birds can be found in Latvia, including white storks, black storks, lesser spotted eagles (a type of golden eagle), owls, woodpeckers, thrush nightingales, and corncrakes. The wetlands of Latvia provide an important bird habitat and draw flocks of geese and other migrating birds.

Natural Resources of Latvia

Natural resources are limited in Latvia. Peat (a compact, high-carbon material used for fuel and mulch) is the most plentiful mineral deposit; peat bogs cover about 10 percent of the total land area, mainly in the eastern portion of the country. There are also deposits of gypsum, a mineral used in construction materials. Amber, a fossil tree resin, is found along the coast.

Climate in Latvia

Latvia’s climate is tempered by marine air masses. Near the Baltic Sea winters are mild and summers are relatively cool. The eastern part of the country experiences slightly colder winters and warmer summers. Latvia has high levels of humidity and frequently cloudy skies. Annual precipitation averages between 560 and 790 mm (22 and 31 in), with the upland areas receiving the most. Snow covers the ground for two to four months of the year, and sometimes longer. Rainfall is heaviest in July and August.

Environmental Issues in Latvia

Like most former Soviet republics, Latvia suffers from decades of environmental mismanagement. Soviet economic policies pushed the rapid buildup of heavily polluting industries with no regard for the environment. Although some emission controls have been put in place since independence, industrial pollution continues to be a problem. Untreated industrial, agricultural, and municipal wastes have produced dangerous levels of water pollution, especially in the Daugava River (which receives pollution in Russia and Belarus as well) and the Gulf of Rīga. Air pollution in Latvia is most noticeable in the major urban areas, where industries are concentrated.

Protecting the environment began to be discussed openly in the late 1980s as part of Latvia’s independence movement. Since then, awareness of environmental issues has grown, and the Latvian government has designated new nature reserves and parks. Latvia also ratified several international agreements on reducing air, water, and land pollution and protecting wetlands and endangered species.


The population of Latvia is about 2,231,503 (2009 estimate), yielding an average population density of 35 persons per sq km (91 per sq mi). Latvia is highly urbanized. Some 66 percent of the population lives in urban areas, with about one-third of the total population residing in the capital, Rīga. Other important cities include Daugavpils, an industrial center in the southeast, on the Daugava River; Liepāja, an important port on the Baltic Sea; Jelgava, an industrial center near Rîga; Jūrmala, a resort town on the Gulf of Rîga; and Ventspils, another leading seaport. Numerous towns and small cities are located along the country’s rivers, waterways, and coastal areas.

Ethnic Groups and Languages in Latvia

Ethnic Latvians constituted about 58 percent of the population at the time of the 2000 Latvian census. Russians, who live mostly in Latvia’s urban areas, are the largest minority, representing about 30 percent of the population. Other minorities include Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, and Lithuanians. Before 1940, when the Soviet Union annexed Latvia, Latvians made up about 77 percent of the population within Latvia’s present-day boundaries. After World War II ended in 1945, a large influx of Russian workers into Latvian cities reduced the Latvians’ overwhelming majority. The Latvian population also decreased significantly during the war and the subsequent Soviet-conducted mass deportations to Siberia and other parts of the USSR.

The official language of the republic is Latvian, an Indo-European language related to Lithuanian. Ethnic minorities in Latvia often also speak their own native languages such as Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish.

Religion in Latvia

Evangelical Lutheranism, a Protestant denomination, is the traditional religion of most Latvians, with the exception of those in eastern Latvia, who are predominantly Roman Catholic. Other forms of Christianity—most notably the Orthodox Church—draw members from ethnic minorities to various degrees. There is only a small community of Jews in Latvia, as most of the country’s Jewish inhabitants were killed by German Nazis and their Latvian collaborators during World War II (see Holocaust). Religious expression was strongly discouraged during the Soviet period. However, most Soviet restrictions on religion were lifted in the late 1980s, stimulating a revival of religious practice.

Education in Latvia

Latvia has an adult literacy rate of nearly 100 percent. Education is compulsory for nine years beginning at age six or seven. Universal and free education has been strongly emphasized in Latvia ever since the period of independence prior to Soviet annexation. Since 1991 Latvia’s educational system has been restructured according to an international model put forth by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Since Latvian was adopted as the official state language in 1989, the study of Latvian has become compulsory in all schools.

The country’s largest and most prestigious institution of higher education is the University of Latvia (founded in 1919), located in Rīga. Latvia possesses one of the oldest institutions of higher technical education in northeastern Europe, Rīga Technical University (1862), which offers degree programs in subjects such as civil engineering and computer systems.

Culture of Latvia

Latvian culture is rooted in native folklore, which survived the centuries through a rich oral tradition of ancient legends, songs, and poetic verses. Subjects of folklore have commonly included the seasons, myths, family life, and the land. Latvia’s national epic, Lāčplēsis (1888; The Bear Slayer)—written by Andrējs Pumpurs—is based on traditional Latvian folk stories. Latvian literature emerged most notably in the 19th century, as more Latvians began receiving formal education.

Among the first writers of note were Indrikis the Blind, who published poetry in the early 1800s, and Juris Alunāns, the first widely published Latvian poet. The most prominent figure in Latvian literature is the poet and playwright Jānis Rainis, whose greatest work, the epic tragedy Fire and Night (1905), deals with Latvian prehistory. Rainis was also a social reformer who spent six years in Russian imperial prisons and 15 years in exile in Switzerland before becoming independent Latvia’s minister of education in the 1920s. During the Soviet period the communist regime imposed severe restrictions on artistic expression, and many Latvian writers, such as Anšlāvs Eglītis, fled their homeland to live and work abroad. Latvia’s most prominent contemporary writers include poet Vizma Belševica and novelist Alberts Bels.

Museums in Latvia include the Latvian Historical Museum (1869) and the Rainis Museum of the History of Literature and Arts (1925), both located in Rīga. Latvia’s national symphony orchestra and philharmonic orchestra are critically acclaimed. The country’s highly rated Rīga Ballet, known as one of the best in the former Soviet republics, has produced stars such as dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Other popular cultural activities include the country’s many folk festivals and the permanent circus in Rīga. Popular spectator sports include basketball and soccer.


After World War II ended in 1945, Latvia was fully integrated into the centrally planned economic system of the Soviet Union. Soviet planners in Moscow pushed the growth of heavy industry, and Latvia experienced rapid urbanization as people from across the USSR were resettled to work in its new factories. After achieving independence in 1991, Latvia sought to establish a free-market economy and reintegrate its economy with the rest of Europe. Toward this goal Latvia quickly dismantled the Soviet economic structures and implemented comprehensive economic reforms to reduce government intervention in the economy and transfer public assets to the private sector.

The economic transition was not smooth, however. The first difficulty was a severe shortage of fuels and raw materials, caused by the disruption of trading relationships resulting from the breakup of the Soviet Union. This forced Latvian enterprises to cut back or cease production, casting many of the workers into unemployment. After a sharp decline, the gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of the value of all goods and services in the country, did not start growing again until 1994. A year later a banking crisis swept the country. Unwise loans and lax government supervision created conditions in which the nation’s largest bank and some of its smaller institutions failed and were unable to pay depositors the money they had entrusted to the bank. The government restored confidence by creating a stricter regulatory system to oversee banking practices.

By the mid-1990s inflation was contained and the national currency was stable, both of which encouraged international trade and economic growth. During the 2000s the economy of Latvia experienced rapid growth and ranked among the healthiest economies of the former Soviet republics.

Latvia’s GDP was $27.2 billion in 2007. Industry contributed 22 percent of GDP. Agriculture, fishing, and forestry contributed 3 percent of the GDP, and the broad services sector, which includes trade and financial activities, produced 75 percent.

Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing in Latvia

Nearly all of Latvia’s agricultural land was gathered into collective or state-managed farms during Soviet rule. Since independence a government privatization program has returned farmland to private ownership. Dairy farming and pig breeding are important agricultural activities. Leading crops include potatoes, barley, sugar beets, wheat, and cabbages. Latvian forests supply timber for the construction industry and wood pulp for making paper. The Latvian fishing fleet sails from Rīga and Liepāja to search the Baltic Sea and Atlantic Ocean for mackerel and herring.

Industry and Energy in Latvia

The processing of raw materials from Latvia’s farms and forests accounts for much of the country’s industrial production. The leading manufacturing branches are food products, particularly goods made from milk and sugar refined from beets; textiles and clothing, notably leather and rubber footwear; wood products, such as plywood and paper; and transportation equipment, primarily buses.

Latvia, a country with few natural resources, is highly dependent on imported fuels for its energy needs. It imports natural gas and oil from Russia and Lithuania. Hydroelectric plants within Latvia provide more than half of the country’s electricity, and the remainder is imported from Lithuania and Estonia.

Trade and Currency in Latvia

Latvia’s trade rose substantially after the country joined the European Union (EU) in 2004. Today, the countries of the EU are Latvia’s principal trading partners, followed by Russia. Latvia’s exports include forest products such as cardboard, paper, and wood pulp; metals; machinery and equipment; textiles and clothing; and food products and beverages. Imports include mineral products (notably fuels), transportation equipment, food products, and metals. In 1993 the Baltic states signed a free-trade agreement that removed duties on imports and standardized visa and customs regulations. In 1997 the three nations completed negotiations establishing a Baltic free-trade area. Latvia became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999.

Latvian officials promoted economic independence by abandoning the Russian currency, the ruble, in 1993. That year Latvia issued its own currency, the lat. After becoming a full member of the European Union (EU) in 2004, Latvia pegged the value of the lat to the euro, the common currency of the EU, with the aim of eventually adopting the euro as its sole currency.


The present republic of Latvia is a legal successor to the independent republic of the same name that existed from 1918 to 1940. The 1922 constitution, which was fully restored in 1993, is recognized as the country’s supreme legal document. All citizens of Latvia age 18 and older may vote.

Legislature and Executive of Latvia

The national legislature of Latvia, called the Saeima, is a unicameral (single-chamber) body whose members are elected by popular vote to four-year terms. The legislature elects the president of Latvia by secret ballot. The president may serve no more than two consecutive four-year terms. (Until 1999 the president’s term was three years.) With the approval of the legislature, the president selects a prime minister and a cabinet of ministers, who carry out the day-to-day operations of the central government.

Judiciary in Latvia

Latvia’s judicial system consists of the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, regional and district courts, and administrative courts. The Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal. The Constitutional Court was established in 1996 to ensure that legislation is in conformity with the constitution. Most judges are appointed for life with the confirmation of the Saeima. The members of the Constitutional Court are appointed by the Saeima for ten-year terms.

International Organizations in Latvia

After gaining independence Latvia immediately became a member of the United Nations (UN) and sought closer ties with Western Europe. In 1995 Latvia joined the Council of Europe and became an associate member of the European Union (EU). In 1994 Latvia joined the Partnership for Peace program, which provided for limited military cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and in 2004 it became a full member of the Western military alliance. That year Latvia also became a full member of the EU. Latvia maintains close economic and political ties with its Baltic neighbors, Lithuania and Estonia. In 1991 the three nations created the Baltic Assembly to loosely coordinate their policies. They declined to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that was formed as a partial successor to the USSR, preferring instead to form bilateral ties with other former Soviet republics on an individual basis.


The first inhabitants of what is now Latvia entered the region from the southeast as early as 5000 BC. Archaeological remains suggest an evolution over several thousand years to a cluster of tribal societies based on settled agriculture, hunting, and trading with immediate neighbors. The Roman historian Tacitus included the region’s inhabitants in lists of peoples known to be living beyond the northeastern borders of the Roman Empire, but he offered no specific information about them. Only in the 9th and 10th centuries AD, when Viking raiders began to cross the Baltic Sea regularly, does any specific information emerge. In that period the region’s peoples consisted of the Kurs (or Curonians) in the western coastal region; the Livs (or Livonians) around the Gulf of Rīga; the Zemgals in the south; the Latgals in the east; and the Selonians in the southeast. These peoples lived in loosely organized tribal societies with distinct traditions and mythologies. They often fought with one another and at times with the neighboring Estonians, Lithuanians, and Russians.

Foreign Rule

The Baltic peoples were drawn into the history of medieval Europe during the later 12th century as a result of the expansionist goals of German merchants and the Roman Catholic Church. The Germans wanted to control the old Viking trade routes in the Baltic region. The church sought to convert the Baltic peoples, who were still pagans. From 1164 on, these motives brought in a succession of ambitious merchants, soldiers, and missionaries from Germany.

The German eastward expansion was ruthlessly carried out by the military-religious Livonian Order, founded in 1197 in the region of Livonia, known in German as Livland, which included most of present-day Latvia and southern Estonia. In 1237 the order became an integral part of the Teutonic Knights (see Military Religious Orders), which by 1300 was the most formidable power in central and eastern Europe. Gradually overcoming all resistance, the Germans imposed total economic, religious, and political control over the Baltic region by the early 1400s. The Baltic peoples formed the lower classes of society, as peasants in the countryside or as skilled craftspeople and artisans in cities such as Rīga.

In the 15th and 16th centuries new expansionist powers—Denmark, Sweden, Russia, and Poland-Lithuania—fought over control of the Baltic region, prized for its trade opportunities. In an attempt to conquer it, Russian tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich (Ivan the Terrible) attacked Livonia in 1558, thereby instigating the Livonian War. Unable to withstand the Russian incursions, the Livonian Order disbanded, and Livonia was partitioned in 1561. The dynastic union of Poland and Lithuania absorbed the provinces of Latgale and Vidzeme to the north of the Daugava River. Kurzeme and Zemgale provinces to the west and south became Kurland (Courland), an autonomous duchy under the Polish-Lithuanian sovereign.

In 1581 the free city of Rîga was incorporated into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita), a political union formed in 1569. Meanwhile, the Livonian War continued, ravaging eastern Latvia and most of mainland Estonia, until Russia’s defeat in 1583. Sweden conquered Rîga in 1621 and acquired Vidzeme in 1629 but lost both to Russia in the Great Northern War (1700-1721). By 1795, after the partitions of Poland, the Russian Empire controlled the eastern Baltic region.

However, the German-speaking landed aristocracy and city-dwelling merchants continued to effectively control the Baltic lands. At the urging of Russian emperor Alexander I, the Baltic barons freed their serfs between 1816 and 1819. In exchange, however, the barons claimed extensive landlord rights that left the peasants working on the estates owing labor rents instead of feudal dues. The peasants acquired personal freedom but did not achieve any major alteration in their economic position.

A second crucial change came in the late 1850s, when the Baltic barons decided to release farmlands on their estates for the peasants to purchase outright. Over the next 30 years large numbers of peasants finally came into possession of the farms their families had worked for generations. Those who remained landless tended to move to the cities, and the Latvian provinces began to see unprecedented urban growth as well as industrialization. The increase in the number of urban Latvians put political pressure on the German burghers (city dwellers) to recognize their presence and share power, but no substantial power sharing took place until the early 20th century.

Meanwhile, the Latvians came together to form political and cultural associations, and a Latvian independence movement arose. Latvian nationalist activists were particularly active in urban centers such as Rîga, coming from the ranks of young university-educated Latvians and urban Latvian merchants and craftspeople. During the Russian Revolution of 1905, nationalist revolutionaries in Latvia attacked symbols (especially manors) of Baltic German power, and their political rhetoric included calls for an independent Latvian state.

Period of Independence

Latvian nationalists seized the opportunity brought by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the end of World War I to declare the formation of an independent Latvian republic on November 18, 1918. By February 1919, however, Latvia was overrun by Red Army troops of Soviet Russia. The Bolsheviks, who had seized power in Russia during the 1917 revolution, sought to establish a communist regime in Latvia and in other former territories of the defunct Russian Empire.

A newly formed Latvian army, with some assistance from German army units still in the country, drove back the Bolshevik forces. The German army then supported a coup d’état against the Latvian government, replacing it with one controlled by Baltic Germans. Aided by Estonian troops, Latvian forces successfully overthrew the Baltic German government. The independent nationalist Latvian government was reinstalled in early July, although Red Army troops were not completely expelled until January 1920. In August a Latvian-Russian treaty stipulated that Russia would respect Latvia’s sovereignty. In December 1922 the communists founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which bordered Latvia to the east.

In May 1920 the people of Latvia elected the country’s first president, Jānis Čakste. Latvia’s first constitution, promulgated in 1922, introduced a democratic system of government. In September of that year the Saeima (parliament) passed an agrarian reform bill that initiated land reform in favor of farm workers. The old landed estates were promptly expropriated and distributed to landless peasants. Political instability ensued in the years that followed, however, in large part because many parties were vying for seats in parliament.

In 1934 Latvian prime minister Kārlis Ulmanis claimed he had discovered a communist plot to overthrow the government. He instituted martial law by declaring a state of emergency, suspending parliament, and banning all political parties. Most Latvians tacitly accepted Ulmanis’s argument that he needed additional powers to maintain Latvian democracy, and Ulmanis secured authoritarian rule without noticeable opposition. In 1936 he assumed the title of president in addition to that of prime minister.

Soviet Annexation and Rule

On August 23, 1939, about a week before World War II broke out, Germany and the USSR signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. The treaty contained a secret protocol that sanctioned the USSR to annex Latvia and its Baltic neighbors. Latvia adopted a neutral position after the outbreak of the war. However, in June 1940 the USSR accused Latvia of forming a secret anti-Soviet military alliance with neighboring Estonia and forced the Latvian government to resign. The same month Soviet forces occupied Latvia. Latvian elections were held under Soviet supervision (only one Soviet-appointed candidate was allowed to run for each position), and a communist regime was installed. In August Latvia officially became the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) within the USSR (a federation, or union, of Soviet republics).

More than 30,000 Latvians were deported or executed in the first year of Soviet occupation. Nazi German forces attacked the USSR in June 1941 and invaded Latvia the following month, suspending Soviet control in the region. Latvians initially hoped the invasion would bring renewed independence, but it soon became clear that Germany intended to annex Latvia.

On July 28 Germany set up a puppet government and created a new territorial unit, called Ostland, out of the Baltic states and Belorussia (now Belarus). Latvia’s Jewish population was systematically exterminated during the Nazi occupation. In 1944 Soviet forces expelled most of the German forces from Latvia (Germany retained southwestern Latvia until the war ended in 1945), and Latvia was officially reinstated as part of the USSR. By the end of the war, an estimated 180,000 Latvians had died. At least 100,000 more had fled to Sweden and Germany before Soviet forces arrived.

After the war, a patriotic guerrilla movement arose to oppose Soviet rule, but the movement received no outside assistance and was eventually crushed. Latvian residents suspected of opposing the communist regime were subject to arrests, executions, and deportations to the Gulags (Soviet concentration camps) in Siberia and Central Asia. The deportations reached a massive scale in 1949. Altogether at least 100,000 Latvians were sent to the Gulags, where many perished due to harsh conditions. In a process known as Sovietization, the country’s cultural and political institutions were reorganized to conform to Soviet models. Latvian language and culture were suppressed, and all non-communist social and political organizations were prohibited. The Communist Party of Latvia, a branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), held exclusive political power. Russian immigrants and Russified Latvians dominated the party.

By the early 1950s almost all of Latvia’s privately owned farms had been collectivized, or combined, and taken over by the state. The communist government implemented a process of rapid industrialization, leading to a continuous influx of immigrants from Russia and other Soviet republics to work in new industries in Latvia’s urban areas. Latvia became one of the most urbanized republics in the USSR, with about 70 percent of the population residing in cities. It was also the most industrialized of the Baltic states. Latvia’s economy became fully integrated into that of the USSR. New factories in Latvia were dependent on raw materials from other parts of the USSR and were used to supply products to other Soviet republics.

Political liberalization in the USSR during the late 1980s sparked a revival of Latvian nationalism. Latvian was declared the official state language, pro-independence political groups formed, and the Latvian Supreme Soviet (legislature) voted to end the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. In March 1990 the republic held its first multiparty legislative elections since 1931.

In August 1991, during a coup attempt by communist hard-liners in Moscow, Latvia declared its full independence. The coup attempt failed, leading to the downfall of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union’s central government. In September the Soviet government conceded the independent status of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, and all three republics were admitted to the United Nations (UN) later that month. The USSR itself collapsed in December.

Latvia Since Independence

In June 1993 Latvia held its first parliamentary elections as an independent republic, and in July the constitution of 1922 was fully restored. The new parliament, again called the Saeima, elected economist Guntis Ulmanis as president, and he selected Valdis Birkavs to be prime minister.

Citizenship and Language Issues

Citizenship and voting eligibility were major issues in Latvia during the 1990s. In the 1993 elections only residents (including nonethnic Latvians) who had lived in Latvia before 1940, along with their descendants and spouses, were eligible to vote. This was a result of legislation passed in late 1991 that guaranteed citizenship to these residents only; all other residents (mostly Russians and other Slavs) were allowed to apply for naturalization once citizenship requirements had been finalized. The new citizenship law, adopted by the Saeima in amended form in July 1994, required a minimum of five years of permanent residence and a demonstrated proficiency in the Latvian language. However, many of the country’s ethnic Russian residents did not have a working knowledge of Latvian. In a referendum held in October 1998, 53 percent of Latvian voters approved several amendments that relaxed the country’s citizenship law, including its language requirements.

In 2002 the Saeima voted to abolish a controversial provision in Latvia’s election law that required electoral candidates to be fluent in the Latvian language—a provision that discriminated against Latvia’s large Russian-speaking minority. The Saeima changed the law to strengthen Latvia’s bid for full membership in the EU. However, in February 2004 the Saeima passed legislation that required all public schools to teach at least 60 percent of their lessons in Latvian, including schools attended mainly by ethnic Russians. The new law angered many ethnic Russians and was condemned by Russia’s parliament.

In 2006 the Latvian government introduced amendments to the country’s citizenship laws, toughening the rules for the language part of the required exam. The amendments stipulated that the review of a citizenship application would be stopped for those who fail the language test three times. About 450,000 people, mostly ethnic Russians, remained noncitizens in Latvia.

Foreign Relations

Following independence Latvia began working toward a Western-style, free-market economy. However, dismantling the centrally planned economy of the Soviet period posed many difficulties. Latvia initially suffered a significant decline in industrial output and standard of living. In 1992 the government introduced measures to stabilize the economy while broadening the scope of reform. Meanwhile, Latvia strengthened ties with Western Europe, joining the Council of Europe and becoming an associate member of the European Union (EU) in 1995. Attaining economic stability was a prerequisite for Latvia’s EU bid.

By 2002 Latvia’s economic stabilization program had achieved considerable success, despite the banking crisis in 1995 and slow growth in 1999 due to a financial crisis in Russia. In 2002 the rate of inflation was at its lowest level since independence, and strong growth was recorded. At the end of 2002 Latvia was one of ten countries invited to become full members of the EU. Latvia’s voters overwhelmingly approved Latvia’s membership in a national referendum in 2003, and Latvia formally became a full member of the EU in 2004. Latvia and its Baltic neighbors, Lithuania and Estonia, were the first former Soviet republics invited to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); Latvia formally entered the Western military alliance in 2004.

Latvia also maintained close political, economic, and cultural ties with Lithuania and Estonia. The three Baltic states initially reduced many barriers to trade and in 1997 established a Baltic free-trade area. However, relations between Latvia and its two Baltic neighbors were strained over the demarcation of their sea borders. Latvia, geographically caught in the middle, needed to secure maritime border agreements with both. At stake were national rights to fishing areas and offshore oil reserves. After extensive negotiations, the Latvian and Estonian legislatures ratified a border agreement in 1996, but a similar agreement with Lithuania was delayed due to protests by Latvia’s fishing industry.

Latvia retained closer ties to Russia after independence than did her Baltic neighbors. The country’s dependence on Russia for fuel made these ties desirable. In 2007 Latvia and Russia signed a border treaty, making their shared border official for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Latvia agreed to give up its demand for a section of territory transferred to Russia in 1944.

Shifts in Government

The Latvian government remained shaky in the first decades after independence, as numerous coalitions came to power in rapid succession. Latvia’s first post-independence government collapsed in July 1994 as it split over the Latvian Farmers’ Union’s demand for high tariffs on agricultural imports. The next coalition government was rocked by numerous bank failures, including the collapse of the nation’s largest commercial bank, Banka Baltija, in May 1995.

In the 1995 elections nine parties and coalitions won seats in the Saeima. After drawn-out negotiations the Saeima approved an entrepreneur with no political affiliation, Andris Škēle, as prime minister. Škēle worked to accelerate economic reforms and attract foreign investors. However, Škēle resigned in 1997 after a series of corruption scandals that involved ministers in his cabinet.

Guntars Krasts, minister of the economy in the Škēle government, formed the next coalition government from five parties. Škēle, meantime, formed a new conservative party, the People’s Party. Although his party won the greatest number of seats in the 1998 parliamentary elections, it was not part of the new ruling coalition. Instead, Vilis Krištopans of the centrist Latvia’s Way party was selected prime minister. In 1999, discord within the cabinet caused Krištopans to resign, and Škēle became prime minister for the third time. He resigned the following year after a dispute over privatization of the economy caused his coalition to collapse.

Vaire Vike-Freiberga became the first woman president in central and eastern Europe in 1999, when the Saeima elected her to the largely ceremonial position of president. She replaced Guntis Ulmanis, who had been elected Latvia’s first post-independence president in 1993 and reelected in 1996.

A center-right coalition government came to power following parliamentary elections held in 2002. The newly formed center-right, pro-business party New Era won the largest number of seats, and its leader, Einars Repse, became prime minister. Repse had guided Latvia through tough monetary reforms in the 1990s when he was the president of Latvia’s central bank. Repse survived a no-confidence vote in 2003, but feuding within his coalition government led to its collapse in 2004.

Repse was replaced by the leader of the centrist Greens and Farmers Union, Indulis Emsis, who became Europe’s first Green prime minister (see Green Parties). Emsis formed a fragile center-right governing coalition but resigned after eight months in office, following a vote by the Saeima to reject the 2005 draft budget. Aigars Kalvitis of the People’s Party, which had voted against the budget, succeeded Emsis.

In 2007 the Saeima elected Valdis Zatlers, a physician, to succeed Vike-Freiberga as president. Prime Minister Kalvitis resigned later that year, following dissension within his cabinet and street protests against his policies. The street protests were brought on by Kalvitis’s attempts to sack the country’s anticorruption chief, who had been investigating possible campaign violations by the People’s Party. The same center-right coalition remained in power and chose Ivars Godmanis, leader of the Latvia’s Way party, to replace Kalvitis. A veteran politician, Godmanis had served as prime minister from 1990 to 1993 and led Latvia’s drive for independence from the Soviet Union.

The global economic crisis and breakdown in financial credit markets that led to recessions in a number of industrialized nations in 2008 had enormous repercussions in Latvia. Latvian banks, like their counterparts elsewhere, invested heavily in so-called toxic mortgage securities. When the mortgage securities proved worthless and financial credit began to dry up, depositors in Latvia’s second largest bank started withdrawing their money, and the bank failed. In December 2008 the Latvian economy had to be rescued with a 7.5-billion euro (9.5-billion U.S. dollar) loan package from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the European Union (EU).

The loan was conditioned on tax increases and cuts in government spending, leading to growing discontent with the government. In February 2009 Prime Minister Godmanis resigned after two parties in his coalition government expressed a lack of confidence in his leadership. The Latvian government thus became the second to fall, after Iceland’s, due to the global economic crisis. Zatlers named Valdis Dombrovskis of the center-right New Era party as the prime minister and asked him to form a new government.

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