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A northern European country bordered by Lithuania, Russia, Belarus and Estonia, Latvia is one of the least densely populated countries in the European Union. After breaking free from Soviet control in 1991, Latvia established itself as a parliamentary democratic republic, with a president with limited powers as head of state and a multi-party system where coalitions and short lived governments are the norm. Ongoing human rights issues include the treatment of stateless persons, mainly people of Russian origin unable to attain Latvian citizenship, the treatment of minorities such as Roma and the system for juvenile justice.
Latvia is a Baltic country in Northern Europe. It shares land borders with Estonia, Lithuania, Russia and Belarus in addition to a maritime border with Sweden. The country is largely low lying and includes a long coastline, lakes and large areas of forest. The climate is largely temperate, though extremes of -30 °C with heavy snowfall are common in the winters and temperatures in the summer can get as high as 35 °C. The capital city, Riga, is located in a large gulf of the same name.
Population and Language
Latvia’s population, as of January 2011, was just over two million people. The population fluctuate significantly throughout the year, however, though showing an overall pattern of decline, particularly amongst adults of working age. Both of these are due to the large number of Latvians moving elsewhere in the EU seeking employment. Latvia’s small population contributes to it being one of the least densely populated European countries.
Nearly two thirds of the population of Latvia are ethnic Latvians, while about a quarter are ethnically Russian. The Russian population of Latvia was significantly increased under the Soviet Union and many of the Russians who remain are part of the countries approximately 290,000 non-citizen residents. Historically, Latvia was also home to large Jewish and German populations, but these were significantly reduced by the events of the twentieth century. In addition to other small minority groups, most of them from neighbouring countries, Latvia is also home to a very small indigenous population, usually referred to as Livonians. Only numbering a few hundred people, recent years have seen significant attempts to preserve both the language and culture of the Livonians, a major reversal after years of persecution and forced integration.
The official and predominant language is Latvian, a Baltic language related to that spoken in some of the neighbouring countries. Russian is widely understood and is the native language for around 30% of the country, but its adoption as a second official language was rejected in a 2012 referendum - from which non-citizens, including many of the ethnic Russian population, were barred from voting.
Though predominantly nominally Christian, only a minority of the of the population are actively religious. The largest denomination is Lutheran - though this has declined somewhat in recent years relative to the Catholic and Orthodox believers.
History and politics
Much of modern Latvia was ruled during the medieval period by religious orders of German Knights. With the fall of these orders in the sixteenth century, the territory was divided and elements of it went through periods if Polish, Lithuanian and Swedish rule before being gradually brought under Russian control between 1710 and 1795. Despite these political changes, however, the social order remained dominated by a German speaking elite. During the nineteenth century, Latvian nationalists movements began to develop, initially directed against the Germanic landholders and later resisting Russification by the Tsarist empire. While this was happening, Latvia also saw major growth in economy and infrastructure, with Riga becoming one of the most important ports in the Russian empire and the growth of railways, cities and industry. Taking advantage of the chaos left by the Russian revolution, Latvia declared independence in 1918 but was split between three competing governments - nationalists, communists, backed by the Red Army and pro-Germans, backed by German Freikorps units. In alliance with Estonians and Poles, the Latvian nationalists were able to defeat these two governments and by 1920 had established a constituent assembly and a liberal constitution that was adopted in 1922. Independence coincided with a number of economic problems which Latvia struggled to resolve. The growth of radical leftists and right wing movements caused great concern during the 1930s. In 1934, mirroring similar developments in neighbouring Estonia, democratic processes were suspended and an authoritarian regime established in the name of heading off a growing far right political movement. Kārlis Ulmanis, one of the architects of Latvian independence, ruled strictly with severe limits on civil and political rights but relatively little outright violence and oversaw some improvements in the Latvian economy, although this was partly achieved by dispossessing minorities of their property and wealth. Like his Estonian contemporary Konstantin Päts, Ulmanis modern reputation is thus a mixed one.
With the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, Latvia found itself coming under Soviet influence, followed rapidly by outright occupation. Both this and the subsequent German occupation of 1941-1944 were characterised by great brutality and both sides conscripted Latvian troops into their armies. While the Soviets deported or executed tens of thousands of Latvian political opponents, the Germans oversaw the the mass killing of the country's Jewish population, as well as those involved in resistance to their occupation. With the advance of the Red Army in 1944, at least 200,000 Latvian refugees attempted to flee the country, most to Sweden or Germany. Many of these were either recaptured by Russian forces in the coming months or forcibly returned by the allies - often to face deportation, imprisonment or death.
The Soviet occupation over the following years continued its patterns of repression and the mass deportation of political opponents. Agriculture and the economy was restructured upon Soviet lines, though Latvia’s relatively developed infrastructure made it a centre for the USSR’s high technology industries and complex manufacturing bases. To meet the additional labour needs, as well as to dilute separatists and nationalist sentiments, the Soviet Union oversaw a mass transfer of Russians and other nationalities from the USSR to Latvia during this period.
With the beginnings of the moves towards liberalisation by the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, spaces for Latvian nationalism began to develop once more, particularly around cultural events like music festivals. Alongside the other Baltic states, Latvian political groups began pressing harder for independence. By 1990, the Latvian Supreme Soviet adopted a declaration of independence and declared the restoration of the Republic of Latvia. When Soviet paramilitary police attempted to restore their control of the country in January 1991, Latvians took to the street in Riga, building barricades around key buildings and successfully preventing a restoration of Soviet control. A referendum in March of that year showed 73% support for independence and with the failure of the hardline counter-coup in Moscow later that year, Latvia was able to achieve full independence and re-establish democracy. The decision was made, however, not to automatically extend citizenship in the Latvian Republic to all inhabitants of the country on independence, leaving more than two hundred thousand people, predominantly from Russian families who emigrated there during the USSR period, effectively stateless and with limited political rights. This has remained an issue in Latvia ever since. Post-independence initially saw a period of rapid political and economical reform. The apparent success of this appeared to be confirmed by the accession of Latvia to the European Union in 2004 and the years of strong economic growth in the early 2000s. Problems began to emerge, however, with the economic crisis of 2008, which hit Latvia particularly hard. Attempts to impose austerity measures proved to be very unpopular with the government losing two emergency referenda during this period, triggering a political crisis and, in 2009, riots in Riga, followed by the resignation of the Prime Minister and the formation of a new governing coalition. The September 2011 saw a social-democratic party who favoured closer ties with Russia wins the most votes and seats in parliament, but lose out on forming a government to a centre right coalition.
Latvia is currently a multiparty parliamentary democracy, with a President as head of state and prime minister as head of government. The legislature, called the Saeima, is elected for four year terms on proportional representation. The president is largely ceremonial, but has in recent years been called upon to take a more active role, such as during the 2009 crisis, by appointing new Prime Ministers after resignations or collapse of governments. The political system tends to favour coalitions between ideologically compatible parties who, as shown in 2011, can edge out even more electorally successful single parties.
The judiciary is independent and includes a constitutional court elected by parliament.
Latvia’s GNI per capita stands at $21,020 as of 2012.. Latvia achieved extremely rapid growth during the early 2000s but was severely hit by the global financial crisis. By 2010, the country formerly known as the Baltic Tiger was facing an unemployment rate of more than 20%. The centre-right coalition that took power in 2011 has implemented major spending cuts, which, while unpopular domestically, have appeased international institutions and secured Latvia enough in investment and loans to make major and rapid moves towards recovery. Unemployment is still a problem, however, alongside the associated demographic of large numbers of young people moving overseas looking for work. Historically important areas such as agriculture, timber and associated industries remain important to the economy, but Latvia’s industrial heritage also continues to make it an important site of manufacturing. Latvia is due to join the Euro in January 2014.
As of 2013, Latvia ranks 39th world wide in terms of press freedom. While the government largely respects media freedoms, attacks on journalists are not unknown, often attributed to private business or political interests unhappy with being the subject of investigations. At times investigative journalists have also been arrested or detained for publishing pieces deemed embarrassing to important political figures.
Political and civil freedoms in latvia are generally reckoned to be good. NGOs, political groups and trade unions have extensive freedom of action largely without government interference. Latvia is home to more than 13,000 NGOs, representing a range of interests and interacting extensively with policy making.
Latvia continues to have problems with corruption, however. While investigatory bodies are in place to counter this, they often encounter hostility and resistance from political and business interests.
Child Rights and Human Rights
Citizenship and cultural rights for non-Latvian permanent resident remains a key issue. The failure of the recent referendum on making Russian a second language means that those who speak it as a first language face possible discrimination. Additionally, the large number of non-citizen residents are predominantly from Russian backgrounds. In 2012, the Latvian parliament began moves to extend citizenship to all permanent residents born after August 1991, on the condition that their parents pledged to help them learn the Latvian language. There remains signficant opposition, however, to naturalising the status of those who emigrated to the country while under Soviet Control.
Other concerns regarding children’s rights in Latvia include the treatment of children in detention and the situation of Roma children. Roma and other minority children, including Russian speakers, have a high dropout rate from education and have difficulty accessing key services.
- Gita Feldhūne and Mārtiņš Mits Implementing European anti-discrimination law: Latvia - An overview of the legal situation and implications of discrimination in Latvia.
- Latvian Centre for Human Rights Publications - A range of reports and publications on key human rights issues in Latvia.