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.
|II||LAND AND RESOURCES OF LATVIA|
Latvia covers an area of about 63,700 sq km (about 24,600 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 531 km (330 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.
|A||Rivers and Lakes|
Latvia is a land of numerous rivers, lakes, and wetlands. About 2,550 sq km (about 980 sq mi) of the country’s area—or roughly 4 percent—is inland water. 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 for 352 km (219 mi) and drains into the Gulf of Rīga. Several dams on the river generate hydroelectricity.
Latvia’s longest river is the Gauja, which covers a distance of 452 km (281 mi) as it 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.
|B||Plants and Animals|
Forests cover 46 percent of the land. Forests are most dense in the north. 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 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.
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.
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. The Latvian government has designated new nature reserves and parks, and today 13.7 percent of the country’s area is protected. Latvia has also ratified several international agreements on reducing air, water, and land pollution and protecting wetlands and endangered species.
|III||PEOPLE OF LATVIA|
The population of Latvia is about 2,245,423 (2008 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 nearly 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.
|A||Ethnic Groups and Languages|
Ethnic Latvians constitute about 58 percent of the population. 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 comprised 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.
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 Eastern Orthodoxy—-are practiced by 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.
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.
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 USSR, 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.
|IV||ECONOMY OF LATVIA|
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), which measures 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. Today the economy of Latvia is among the healthiest of the former Soviet republics.
Latvia’s GDP was $20.1 billion in 2006. Industry contributed 22 percent of GDP, a smaller proportion than in earlier years because of a sharp drop in industrial production following Latvia’s independence in 1991. Agriculture, fishing, and forestry contributed 4 percent of the GDP, and the broad services sector, which includes trade and financial activities, produced 75 percent.
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. The Latvian fishing fleet sails from Rīga and Liepāja to search the Baltic Sea and Atlantic Ocean for mackerel and herring. About 46 percent of Latvia is forested, and timber cutting is a significant economic activity. Agriculture, forestry, and fishing employs 12 percent of the workforce.
|A2||Industry and Energy|
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. Industry, including manufacturing, construction, mining, and power generation, accounts for 26 percent of the workforce.
Latvia, a country with few natural resources, is highly dependent on imported fuels for its energy needs. It imports all of its natural gas and oil from Russia and Lithuania. Hydroelectric plants within Latvia provide 59 percent of the country’s electricity, and the remainder is imported from Lithuania and Estonia.
|B||Trade and Currency|
Latvia’s principal exports include forestry products, textiles, food products, and machinery and equipment. Imports include mineral products (notably fuels), chemicals, food products, metals, and vehicles. Leading purchasers of Latvia’s exports are Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Lithuania. Major sources for imports are Germany, Lithuania, Russia, Sweden, and Finland. 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 (0.60 lati equal U.S.$1; 2006 average). 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.
|V||GOVERNMENT OF LATVIA|
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.
|A||Legislature and Executive|
The national legislature of Latvia, called the Saeima, is a unicameral (single-chamber) body composed of 100 members 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.
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.
When it was a Soviet republic, Latvia had no defense forces apart from those of the USSR. Since becoming independent in 1991, Latvia has developed its own armed forces, which now include an army of 1,817 troops, a navy of 685, and an air force of 255. There is also a border guard and a home guard reserve consisting of volunteers. Conscription for military service is mandatory for all males for a period of 12 months, beginning at age 18.
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.
|VI||HISTORY OF LATVIA|
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.
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.
|B||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.
|C||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.
|D||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 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.
After the USSR’s collapse 100,000 former Soviet troops remained stationed in Latvia under Russia’s jurisdiction. Their withdrawal from Latvian soil was completed in August 1994. Latvia and Russia drew up a border treaty in 1997, but both countries failed to ratify it.
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, as well as applying for full EU membership. Attaining economic stability was a prerequisite for Latvia’s EU bid.
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.
|D3||Shifts in Government|
Latvia’s first post-independence government collapsed in July 1994 as the ruling coalition split over the Latvian Farmers’ Union’s demand for high tariffs on agricultural imports. Members of the Farmers’ Union left the coalition, which was led by Birkavs’s Latvia’s Way party, resulting in the resignation of Birkavs and his cabinet. In September a new coalition government formed with Maris Gailis of Latvia’s Way as prime minister. Gailis’s term as prime minister was rocked by numerous bank failures, including the collapse of the nation’s largest commercial bank, Banka Baltija, in May 1995. As a result of the banking crisis, Latvia’s budget deficit for 1995 was double the figure expected, and growth in gross domestic product (GDP) came to a standstill.
In the 1995 elections the left-leaning Democratic Party Saimnieks received the highest percentage of votes, followed by the right-wing nationalist People’s Movement for Latvia. In December the Saeima approved Andris Škēle, an entrepreneur with no political affiliation, as prime minister. Škēle worked to accelerate economic reforms and attract foreign investors. President Ulmanis was reelected by the Saeima in June 1996.
In August 1997 Guntars Krasts, from the conservative Fatherland and Freedom Union (FFU), became prime minister of a new coalition government. Škēle formed a new conservative party, the People’s Party, which won the most number of seats in the 1998 parliamentary elections. However, Latvia’s Way formed a ruling coalition with the FFU and the centrist New Party, and Vilis Krištopans of Latvia’s Way was selected prime minister. Discord within the cabinet caused Krištopans to resign in July 1999, and Škēle formed a new center-right coalition government.
Also in July 1999 the Saeima elected Vaira Vike-Freiberga as president, making her the first woman president in Eastern Europe. Škēle resigned in April 2000 in a dispute with members of his cabinet over privatization of the economy. Andris Berzins, the mayor of Rīga and the new leader of Latvia’s Way, was subsequently named prime minister.
In May 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. The provision was widely regarded as discriminatory toward Latvia’s Russian-speaking residents. The Saeima changed the law to strengthen Latvia’s bid for full membership in the EU. However, in February 2004 the Saeima passed controversial 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 law angered many ethnic Russians and was condemned by Russia’s parliament.
A new center-right coalition government came to power following parliamentary elections held in November 2002. Six parties won representation in the Saeima. A newly formed center-right and pro-business party, New Era, won the largest number of seats and formed a governing coalition with three other parties. New Era leader Einars Repse became prime minister. Repse was known for guiding Latvia through tough monetary reforms in the 1990s when he was the president of Latvia’s central bank.
|D4||Integration with the West|
Latvia, along with six other nations, was invited to become a full member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in November 2002. Latvia and its Baltic neighbors, Lithuania and Estonia, were the first former Soviet republics invited to join the Western military alliance. Latvia formally entered NATO in April 2004.
In December 2002 Latvia was one of ten countries invited to become full members of the EU. By then 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. The decision to join the EU rested with Latvia’s voters, who overwhelmingly approved Latvia’s membership in a national referendum in September 2003. Latvia formally became a full member of the EU in May 2004.
In June 2003 the Saeima reelected Vike-Freiberga to a second four-year term as president. Repse resigned as prime minister in February 2004 after his ruling coalition fell apart. He 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 with the People’s Party and First Party. Emsis oversaw Latvia’s final preparations for entry into NATO and the EU. However, he resigned after only eight months in office, following a vote by the Saeima to reject the 2005 draft budget. He was replaced by Aigars Kalvitis of the People’s Party, which had sided with the opposition in voting against the budget.
In August 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.
In March 2007 Latvia and Russia signed a border treaty, making their shared border official for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The treaty had been drawn up in 1997 but never ratified due to considerable opposition within Latvia over a small section of territory that had been officially transferred to Russia in 1944. In the treaty Latvia did not demand the return of this territory.
In May 2007 the Saeima elected Valdis Zatlers, a physician, to succeed Vike-Freiberga as president. Prime Minister Kalvitis resigned in December, following street protests against his 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 led Latvia’s drive for independence from the Soviet Union as prime minister from 1990 to 1993.