Latvia -- Geography --
Official Name: Republic of Latvia
Capital City: Riga
Languages: Lettish (official), Lithuanian, Russian
Official Currency: Lats
Religions: Lutheran, Catholic, Russian Orthodox
Population: 2 259 810 (2008)
Land Area: 64,589 sq km
Landforms: Bordering the Baltic Sea, it's a very flat country with some hills. Small lakes and swamps dot the countryside.
Land Divisions: 26 counties and 7 municipalities
Latvia -- History --
The ancestors of today's Latvians were Finnic and Baltic peoples whose forebears had settled in the area prior to the 2nd millennium BC. They formed five principal tribes between the 5th and 8th centuries AD: the Finnic Livonian, the Baltic Couronians, Semigallians, Selonians, and Latgalians. The period between the 9th and 12th centuries was characterized by conflict and trade with the Scandinavians and Slavs, the Daugava becoming a major Viking trade route.
The arrival of Saxon traders and Catholic missionaries in the 12th century heralded the Northern Crusades. Riga, built on the site of a Livonian settlement, became the seat of the bishopric of Albert of Buxhoeveden in 1201. It took the better part of the 13th century to conquer the surrounding territories. Increasing social and political barriers between the Germans and the indigenous inhabitants gradually reduced the latter to a servant and peasant class, and by the beginning of the 16th century all of the peasants were serfs, bound to the land as chattel. In the towns, property ownership and most trades were prohibited to non-Germans (German: Undeutsche). Though the indigenous population lost its freedom, what is now Latvia became part of Western Europe culturally. Despite the worsening geopolitical situation in the 16th century, political power in the Livonian Confederation was never centralized and remained divided between the archbishoprics, the Livonian Order, and the Hanseatic towns. Livonia, especially Riga, was at the forefront of the Protestant Reformation. Ivan the Terrible, anxious to gain access to the Baltic Sea, invaded in 1558. Livonia turned to Zygmunt II August, the King of Poland, for aid, and the Confederation was dissolved. Zygmunt declared the territory north of the Daugava (today Latgale, Vidzeme, and southern Estonia) the Ducatus Ultradunensis; most of the left bank became the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, a fief of Lithuania that retained control over its internal affairs.
In the Ducatus Ultradunensis, Stefan Batory introduced the Counter-Reformation, strongly resisted in Riga; Jesuits made major contributions to Latvian education, and the first printing press was established. The German nobility retained its privileges. The 17th and early 18th century saw a struggle between Poland, Sweden and Russia for supremacy in the eastern Baltic. Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden took Riga in 1621, and the larger part of Polish Livonia, including Vidzeme, came under Swedish rule with the Truce of Altmark in 1629. The term "Swedish era" (Latvian: zviedru laiki) is still synonymous with beneficent rule; though serfdom was not abolished, it was strictly regulated and a network of schools was established for the peasantry. The Treaty of Nystad ending the Great Northern War in 1721 gave Vidzeme to Russia (it became part of the guberniya of Livland). The Latgale region remained part of Poland as Inflanty until 1772, when it was joined to Russia. In the Duchy of Courland, a German minority of ca. 4% ruled an indigenous majority of 80%. Courland became known as a "paradise of the nobles," though the code granting privileges to the German nobility declared the country a "social paradise." Courland became a Russian province (the guberniya of Courland) in 1795, bringing all of what is now Latvia into Imperial Russia.
The promises Peter the Great made to the Baltic German nobility at the fall of Riga in 1710, confirmed by the Treaty of Nystad and known as "the Capitulations," largely reversed the Swedish reforms. The emancipation of the serfs took place in Courland in 1817 and in Livland in 1819. In practice, the emancipation was actually advantageous to the nobility because it dispossessed the peasants of their land without compensation. At the beginning of the 19th century, 7% of the population was urban, this portion rising to 40% by its close. The population grew from ca. 720 000 persons to almost two million by the end of the century, the proportion of indigenous inhabitants falling from ca. 90% to 68%. The social structure changed dramatically, with a class of independent farmers establishing itself after reforms allowed the peasants to repurchase their land, landless peasants numbering 591 000 in 1897, a growing urban proletariat and an increasingly influential Latvian bourgeoisie. The Young Latvia movement laid the groundwork for nationalism from the middle of the century, many of its leaders looking to the Slavophiles for support against the prevailing German-dominated social order. Russification began in Latgale after the January Uprising in 1863 and spread to the rest of what is now Latvia by the 1880s. The Young Latvians were largely eclipsed by the New Current, a broad leftist social and political movement, in the 1890s. Popular discontent exploded in the 1905 Revolution, which took on a nationalist character in the Baltic provinces.
World War I devastated the country. Demands for self-determination were at first confined to autonomy ("a free Latvia in a free Russia"), but full independence was proclaimed in Riga on November 18, 1918 by the People's Council of Latvia, Karlis Ulmanis becoming the head of the provisional government. The War of Liberation that followed was a very chaotic period in Latvia's history. By the spring of 1919 there were actually three governments -- Ulmanis' government, which concluded an agreement with the Germans and was supported by Great Britain; the Iskolat led by Peteris Stucka, which proclaimed an independent Soviet Latvia and whose forces, supported by the Red Army, occupied almost all of the country; and the Baltic German puppet government headed by Andrievs Niedra. Estonian and Latvian forces defeated the Germans at the Battle of Cesis in June 1919, and a massive attack by a German and Russian force under Pavel Bermondt-Avalov was repelled in November. Eastern Latvia was cleared of Bolshevik forces by Polish, Latvian, and German troops in early 1920.
Though Latvia showed signs of economic recovery and the electorate had steadily moved toward the center during the parliamentary period, Ulmanis staged a bloodless coup on May 15, 1934, establishing a nationalist dictatorship that lasted until 1940. Most of the Baltic Germans left Latvia by agreement between Ulmanis' government and Nazi Germany after the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. On October 5, 1939, Latvia was forced to accept a "mutual assistance" pact with the Soviet Union, granting the Soviets the right to station 25,000 troops on Latvian territory. On June 16, 1940, Vyacheslav Molotov presented the Latvian representative in Moscow with an ultimatum accusing Latvia of violations of that pact, and on June 17 Soviet forces occupied the country. Rigged elections for a "People's Saeima" were held, and a puppet government headed by Augusts Kirhensteins led Latvia into the USSR. The annexation was formalized on August 5.
While under German occupation, Latvia was administered as part of Reichskommissariat Ostland. Latvian paramilitary units and police participated in the Holocaust. 80,000 to 100,000 Latvian citizens were killed during the Nazi occupation, including 70,000 Latvian Jews; 20,000 Jews brought from Central and Eastern Europe were also murdered in Latvia. Latvian soldiers fought on both sides of the conflict, including in the Latvian Legion of the Waffen-SS, most of them conscripted by the occupying authorities.
The Soviets reoccupied the country in 1944-45, and further mass deportations followed as the country was forcibly collectivized and Sovietized; 42,975 persons were deported in 1949. An influx of laborers, administrators, military personnel and their dependents from Russia and other Soviet republics meant that the ethnic Latvian population had fallen to 62% by 1959. During the Khrushchev Thaw, attempts by national communists led by Eduards Berklavs to gain a degree of autonomy for the republic and protect the rapidly deteriorating position of the Latvian language were suppressed. In 1989 the Supreme Soviet of the USSR adopted a resolution on the "Occupation of the Baltic States," in which it declared that the occupation was "not in accoradnce with law," and not the "will of the Soviet people". A national movement coalescing in the Popular Front of Latvia took advantage of glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev, opposed by the Interfront, and on May 4, 1990 the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian SSR adopted the Declaration of the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia, subject to a transition period that came to an end on August 21 1991, after the failure of the August Putsch. The Saeima, Latvia's parliament, was again elected in 1993, and Russia completed its military withdrawal in 1994.
In the 1990s and early 21st century, Latvia focused on "rejoining Europe"; its two major goals, NATO and European Union membership, were achieved in 2004. Controversial language and citizenship laws (Latvian is the sole official language and citizenship was not automatically extended to those who arrived during the Soviet era or their descendants) have been opposed by many Russophones. Though many residents are naturalizing since the law was liberalized, almost 18,5% of the inhabitants remain non-citizens today. The government denationalized private property confiscated by the Soviets, returning it or compensating the owners when that was not possible, and privatized most state-owned industries, reintroducing the prewar currency. After a difficult transition to a liberal economy and its re-orientation toward Western Europe, Latvia still has one of the lowest standard of living in the EU, though its economy has one of the highest growth rates.
Latvia -- Economy --
Since year 2000 Latvia has had one of the highest GDP growth rates in Europe. In 2004, annual GDP growth was 8.5% and inflation was 6.2%. Unemployment was 8.5% - almost unchanged compared to the previous two years. Privatization is mostly completed, except for some of the large state-owned utilities. Latvia is a member of the World Trade Organization (1999) and the European Union (2004).
The Latvian government aspires to adopt the euro as the country's currency on January 1, 2008
Latvia -- Culture --
One of the most striking features of Latvian culture to visitors is the mid-summer festival of Ligo or Jani - a celebration of the summer solstice and the feast day of St. John the Baptist. Whilst ostensibly a Christian festival, its pagan roots are unmistakable. Ligo takes place every year on the night between June 23rd and 24th, the shortest night of the year. It is customary for people to go to the countryside for Ligo, traditionally wreaths of leaves and flowers are worn on the head. If a man is named Jani (John) the wreath will be made of oak leaves. In the early evening of the 23rd, fires are lit around which people will chat, sing and dance until the early hours of the following day. It is considered lucky to jump over these fires. Cheese flavoured with caraway and a drink made from birch sap are traditional fare at Ligo firesides. Throughout the night it is not unusual to see young couples slip quietly off into the woods in search of a non-existent "fern flower"- these liasons are not considered unseemly nor are they generally remarked upon the next day.
Great choir sings in Latvian Song and Dance Festival "Rigai 800"Latvian Song and Dance Festivals held every five years or so since 1873, are one of the most important events in Latvian social life - there is even a law to regulate this event. During the festivals exhibitions of photography, art and folk craft also take place. Approximately 30,000 people all together participate in the event.
The country was lucky enough to hold the Eurovision Song Contest on May 24, 2003
Latvia -- Political system, law and government --
The 100-seat unicameral Latvian parliament, the Saeima, is elected by direct, popular vote every four years. The president is elected by the Saeima in a separate election also every four years. The president appoints a prime minister who, together with his cabinet, forms the executive branch of the government, which has to receive a confidence vote by the Saeima.
On September 20, 2003, in a nationwide referendum 66.9% of the participants voted in favour of joining the European Union. Latvia became a full-fledged member of the European Union on May 1, 2004. Latvia is a NATO member since March 29, 2004.
Latvia has no territorial claims towards Russia, but demands an acknowledgement from Russia of the annexation of the small part of the Abrene region, since this land was previously part of Latvia and was detached from it by the Soviet Union. At the same time Latvia is considering to require monetary compensation from Russia for the Soviet occupation. A special government commission has calculated the amount of 100 billion USD in losses caused to Latvia by its incorporation into the Soviet Union; however, no official demands yet for Russia to provide compensation have been made by the Latvian government.