Country in northern Europe, bounded east by Russia, north by Estonia, north and northwest by the Baltic Sea, south by Lithuania, and southeast by Belarus.
Government Latvia is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. Under its 1922 constitution, Latvia has a 100-seat national legislature, the Saeima, which is popularly elected by proportional representation for a four-year term and which elects a president to serve as titular head of state for a similar term. Executive power is held by a prime minister, appointed by the president but drawn from the majority party or grouping within the assembly, who heads a cabinet of ministers. The president is largely ceremonial, but can veto legislation and call referenda.
History The Vikings invaded the area now known as Latvia in the 9th century, which was ruled by pagan Baltic tribes and stood on a trading crossroads between Scandinavia and Russia. The Russians attacked in the 10th century. The invasion of the Teutonic Knights (German crusaders) in the 13th century was resisted in a lengthy struggle, but Latvia eventually came under their control in 1230, converted to Christianity, and was governed by them for more than 200 years. By 1562 Poland and Lithuania had taken over most of the country. Sweden conquered the north in 1621 and Russia took over control of this area in 1710. By 1800 all of Latvia had come under Russian control. Serfdom was abolished between 1817–19 and the country became increasingly urbanized. A Latvian nationalist movement began to emerge in the mid 19th century and grew from the 1890s.
Struggle for independence Latvia was partly occupied by the Germans during World War I. The USSR reclaimed control in 1917 but was overthrown by Germany in February 1918. In November 1918, a people's council declared Latvia's independence, with Kārlis Ulmanis heading a provisional government. Soviet rule was restored over much of the country when Germany withdrew in December 1918, but Soviet forces were again overthrown by British naval, Polish, Latvian, and German forces in May–December 1919, and democratic rule was established. A constituent assembly was elected in May 1920 and framed a parliamentary constitution, based on pure proportional representation, which was adopted in 1922. A bloodless coup by Ulmanis in 1934, during a time of economic depression, suspended the constitution and replaced the established government with a nationalist dictatorship. In 1939 a secret German-Soviet agreement (the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) assigned Latvia to Soviet rule and in June 1940 Soviet forces occupied the country. Latvia was incorporated as a constituent republic of the USSR. A puppet government was installed and tens of thousands of people were arrested, many of whom were deported and some were shot. During World War II Latvia was invaded and again occupied by Nazi German forces 1941–44. During this occupation more than 70,000 Latvian Jews were killed and more than 100,000 others died during the war. The USSR regained control in 1944.
Communist rule Under the communists, there were mass deportations of Latvians to Russia and central Asia, an influx of ethnic Russians, and development of heavy industries and collective farms. By 1960, only 62% of the population were ethnic Latvian. Repression of Latvian cultural and literary life was extreme during the 1960s and 1970s as a result of a purge of the Latvian Communist Party by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, which saw Latvian-born members replaced by those born in the USSR.
Resurgence of nationalism As in the other Baltic republics, nationalist dissent grew from 1980, influenced by a faltering economy, the Polish example, and the glasnost (‘political openness’) and perestroika (‘economic restructuring’) initiatives of the reform-communist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In October 1988 a Latvian Popular Front was established to campaign for independence, the pre-war flag readopted, and official status given to the Latvian language. In January 1990 the Latvian Communist Party (LCP) broke its links with Moscow and abandoned its constitutional guarantee of a monopoly of power so that a multiparty system could emerge. The 1990 March–April elections resulted in a Popular Front government with Ivars Godmanis as prime minister. In May 1990 Latvia followed the lead taken by Lithuania when it unilaterally declared independence from the USSR, subject to a transitional period for negotiation. In January 1991 Soviet paratroopers seized key installations in Riga, but withdrew later in the month after international protests.
Independence Latvia boycotted an all-Union referendum on the future of the USSR in March 1991, but held its own plebiscite on independence, which received 74% support. During the August 1991 attempted coup in Moscow against President Gorbachev by conservative communists, Soviet troops seized the radio and television station in Riga. In response, Latvia's parliament declared the country's immediate independence and outlawed the communist party. In September 1991 the USSR and Western nations recognized this declaration and Latvia became a member of the United Nations. In March 1992 Russia agreed to a pullout of -Soviet troops from Latvia, which was completed in August 1994.
Economic reform Latvia's Popular Front administration introduced market-centred economic reforms and a new currency, the lat, which replaced the rouble in March 1993. In the short term, the republic suffered from a disruption of trading relations with the USSR. It experienced fuel and raw material shortages, a decline in GDP, and a consequent sharp increase in inflation and crime. The introduction of a new citizenship law in 1992 – requiring those who had not been, or were not the descendants of, citizens of the pre-1940 republic to apply for naturalization – prompted Russia to ask the UN for the protection of minorities in Latvia. Naturalization requirements included knowledge of the Latvian language and residence of 16 years in Latvia.
The Popular Front lost decisively in the June 1993 general election, and was replaced by a government centred around the Latvian Way, led by acting president Anatolijs Gorbunovs, and the Latvian Peasants' Union (LZS). The parliament elected Guntis Ulmanis, leader of the LZS, as state president and Valdis Birkavs became prime minister. The new government pressed on with economic reform, including privatization of key state enterprises, while providing strong support for farmers. Maris Gailis became prime minister in July 2004. Latvia signed a trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union in June 1995 and applied for EU membership in October 1995.
In the October 1995 elections two extremist populist parties, the pro-Russian Movement for Latvia and the ex-communist-led Master in Your Own Home (Saimnieks), polled strongly, attracting 15% of the vote each. The result was a hung parliament. Almost a third of Latvia's inhabitants – the majority Russian speakers who did not meet the stringent citizenship requirements – were unable to vote in the election. Andris Skele, an independent, became prime minister, leading an eight-party coalition government.
In October 1996 Ziedonis Cevers, leader of the left-wing protectionist Democratic Party Saimnieks, resigned as deputy prime minister in opposition to the ‘authoritarian style’ of Skele and his draconian budget plan. In April 1998 the Democratic Party Saimnieks withdrew from the ruling coalition, leaving it a minority government.
In October 1998 a national referendum approved liberalization of the citizenship laws, making it easier for ethnic Russians to acquire Latvian citizenship.
1998 elections The October 1998 general election again produced a hung parliament. Vilis Kristopans, leader of the centre-right Latvian Way, became prime minister, heading a three-party minority coalition government including the centre-right Latvian Way and the nationalistic Union for Fatherland and Freedom-LNNK, whose leader Guntars Krasts (who had been prime minister since August 1977) became deputy premier. The government continued with privatization, harmonizing laws in preparation for joining the EU, and sought to improve relations with Russia.
Leadership changes In July 1999 Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a former psychology professor in Canada, became the country's new president, and the first female head of state in any former Soviet republic. She remained president until July 2007, when she was replaced by Valdis Zatlers, an independent.
With its proportional representation system, Latvia has had a succession of coalition governments with frequent changes in prime ministers. In July 1999 Vilis Kristopans resigned as prime minister and was replaced by the populist Andris Skele, leader of the right-of-centre People's Party. However, Skele's attempts to dismiss his finance minister led to the Union for Fatherland and Freedom (FF/LNNK) withdrawing from the coalition in April 2000. Skele resigned as prime minister and was replaced by Andris Berzins, from the Latvian Way (LW), heading a coalition which comprised the same three parties as the previous coalition (FF/LNNK, LW, and Skele's People's Party), with the addition of the New Party.
Einars Repse, leader of the right-of-centre New Era Party, became prime minister after the October 2002 parliamentary election, heading a new coalition government. This coalition collapsed in February 2004. Repse resigned and Indulis Emsis, of the Green Party, became prime minister, but he resigned in turn in October 2004 after parliament rejected the government's draft budget.
In December 2004, Aigars Kalvitis, of the People's Party, and formerly a minister for agriculture and economics, became the new prime minister. He headed a coalition which initially included the Union of Greens and Farmers and the Latvian Way/Latvia First Party. The right-wing Fatherland and Freedom Party joined this coalition after the 2006 general election, giving it a solid majority, but Kalvitis resigned as prime minister in December 2007 after his recent dismissal of Aleksejs Loskutovs, the head of the anti-corruption bureau, caused an opposition outcry.
EU and NATO membership Latvia joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999. The EU invited Latvia to begin membership negotiations in 2000, and on 1 May 2004 Latvia joined the EU, after 67% of voters approved accession in a 2003 referendum. Latvia also joined NATO in March 2004. A treaty delimiting the country's boundary with Russia was formally ratified in 2007.
Between 2000 and 2007 Latvia's economy grew at an annual rate of 8%, fuelled by growing domestic consumption and debt and a property bubble. After joining the EU, Latvia suffered outward economic migration of some skilled workers, chiefly to the UK and Ireland, and between 2000 and 2011 the population fell by 13%.
Economic recession and unrest In December 2007, Ivars Godmanis, the country's first prime minister after independence, and a member of the Latvian Way/Latvian First Party, became prime minister again. He survived a head injury in a car accident in June 2008. His government faced the challenge from December 2008 of a sharp economic recession – one of the worst in the EU – as Latvia was hit hard by the global financial crisis and many companies went bankrupt. In February 2009, the government was forced to nationalize the country's second biggest bank, Parex Bank, and obtain a 7.5bn-euro ($9.6bn) loan from the International Monetary Fund and EU, and agree to sharply cut public spending and increase taxes. This was unpopular, leading in January 2009 to violent anti-government riots, in which over 100 were arrested.
In February 2009 the Godmanis government resigned and was replaced in March 2009 by a coalition government of the Union of Greens and Farmers, the People's Party, the Fatherland and Freedom Party, and the centre-right populist New Era Party, whose 37-year-old leader, Valdis Dombrovskis, became prime minister. With GDP falling by a fifth in 2009, unemployment tripling to over 20%, and inflation climbing to over 10%, Dombrovskis pushed through austerity cuts of $1bn in government spending. He meanwhile maintained Latvia's policy of pegging the currency (the lat) to the euro.
Early general election after dissolution referendum Support fell sharply for the Latvian Way/Latvian First Party and the People's Party in the October 2010 general election. The New Era Party, rebranded as the Unity alliance, won most seats and Dombrovskis remained as prime minister, heading a coalition government formed with the Union of Greens and Farmers.
In May 2011, Valdis Zatlers, the country's president since July 2007, triggered a political crisis by calling a referendum for a snap general election after the Saeima's deputies had voted to frustrate investigations by the anti-corruption agency, KNAB. In this July 2011 referendum, voters overwhelmingly supported dissolution of the Saeima.
The September 2011 general election saw public support for the Unity alliance fall to 19% (down from 32% in October 2010), despite the return of economic growth and falling unemployment. Its austerity measures had not been popular. Instead, support rose for the left-of-centre pro-Russian Harmony Centre. For the first time ever, a pro-Russian party finished first in a Latvian election, with 28% of the vote and 31 seats. It was followed in second place by the Zatlers' Reform Party (ZRP), formed after Zatlers was replaced as president in July 2011 by Andris Berzins, a wealthy businessman.
Dombrovskis third term Despite its loss in support, Dombrovskis continued as prime minister, leading a new centre-right coalition government which comprised Unity, the ZR, and the National Alliance (including the Fatherland and Freedom Party).
The new government excluded Harmony Centre, but in February 2012 the Russophone ‘Native Tongue’ movement collected enough votes for a referendum on making Russian a joint official language. However, the referendum's proposal was rejected by a large margin. Instead, Latvia became more closely integrated within the EU. The Dombrovskis government took tough austerity measures to improve government finances. Buoyed by strong economic growth of over 5% a year in 2012 and 2013, this enabled Latvia to adopt the euro and join the eurozone in January 2014.
Latvia's first female prime minister In November 2013, assuming political responsibility for a supermarket roof collapse in Riga, which claimed 54 lives, Dombrovskis resigned. He was replaced in January 2014 by the agriculture minister Laimdota Straujuma, of the Unity party, who became Latvia's first female prime minister.
The October 2014 general election saw Straujuma's centre-right coalition of Unity (which now included the ZRP), the Union of Greens and Farmers, and the National Alliance returned to power, winning 61 of the 100 seats. The election was held at a time of growing concern about the potential threat posed by Russia following its annexation in March 2014 of Crimea. This was a factor behind support for the Russian-speaking oriented Harmony party falling by 5%, to 23% of the vote.
In March 2015 NATO responded to the concerns of the Baltic States by carrying out a major military exercise in the Baltic region and boosting its military presence.
New president and prime minister In June 2015, Raimonds Vejonis, of the Green Party, was elected president, following five rounds of voting. He had formerly been defence minister in 2014–15.
In December 2015 Straujuma tendered her resignation as prime minister. This followed coalition disagreements over EU migrant quotas and how to meet the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence. Maris Kucinskis, from the Union of Greens and Farmers, replaced her in February 2016, heading the same three-party coalition.
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