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BACKGROUND NOTES: LATVIA
PUBLISHED BY THE BUREAU OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Republic of Latvia
Area: 64,100 sq. km. (25,640 sq. miles); about the size of West
Cities: Capital--Riga (1989 pop. 910,500). Other cities--Daugavpils
(125,000); Liepaja (114,500); Jelgava (74,100); Jurmala (60,600);
Ventspils (50,600); Rezekne (42,500).
Terrain: Fertile low-lying plains predominate in central Latvia,
highlands in Vidzeme and Latgale to the east, and hills in the western
Climate: Temperate, with four seasons of almost equal length.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Latvian(s).
Population: 2.6 million. Growth rate--0.6%. Birth rate--14/1,000.
Ethnic groups: Latvian 52%, Russians 34%, Belorussians 4.5%, Ukrainians
3%, Poles 2%.
Religions: Lutheran, Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic.
Official language: Latvian (official). Russian also is widely
Education: Years compulsory--9. Literacy--99%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--16/1,000. Life expectancy--65 years
male, 75 female.
Work Force (1.4 million): Industry--30%. Agriculture/forestry--16%.
Trade/Dining--9%. Transport/Communication--7%. Construction--10%.
Type: Parliamentary democracy.
Constitution: The 1922 constitution, the 1990 declaration of renewal of
independence, and the 1991 "Basic Law for the Period of Transition"
serve until a new constitution is ratified.
Branches: Executive--chairman of parliament (head of state), elected by
parliament every five years; prime minister (head of government).
Legislative--Saeima (100-member body). Judicial--Supreme Court.
Administrative regions: 26 rural districts and 6 districts in Riga.
Principal political factions: Union "Latvia's Way," Farmers Union,
National Conservative Party, "Harmony for Latvia" Coalition, "Equal
Rights" Faction, Christian Democrats, "Fatherland and Freedom,"
Democratic Center Party.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
Flag: Two horizontal, maroon bands of equal width divided by a white
GDP: $2.6 billion.
Growth rate: -33%.
Natural resources: Peat, limestone, dolomite, gypsum, timber.
Agriculture/forestry (24% of GDP): Products--cattle, dairy foods,
Manufacturing/electricity (45% of GDP): Light electrical equipment and
fittings, textiles and footwear, technological instruments, construction
materials, processed foods.
Trade: Exports--$803 million: transshipment of crude oil; metals,
timber and paper products; furniture; dairy and fish products; light
industrial products and machinery; chemical products; textiles and
clothing. Major markets--Russia 43%; Netherlands 12%; Germany 10%;
Sweden 10%; Ukraine 9%; Belarus 7%. Imports--$1.1 billion: fuel, food,
raw materials, machinery. Partners--Russia 29%; Germany 10%; Lithuania
10%; Sweden 5%; Belarus 4%.
Exchange rate (July 1994): 0.57 Lats=U.S. $1.
Latvians occasionally refer to themselves by the ancient name of
"Latviji," which may have originated from a "Latve" river that
presumably flowed through what is now eastern Latvia. A small Finno-
Ugric tribe known as the Livs settled among the Latvians and modulated
the name to "Latvis," meaning "forest-clearers," which is how medieval
German settlers also referred to these peoples.
The German colonizers changed this name to "Lette" and called their
initially small colony "Livland." The Latin form, "Livonia," gradually
referred to the whole of modern-day Latvia as well as southern Estonia,
which had fallen under German dominion. Latvians and Lithuanians are
the only surviving members of the Baltic peoples and languages of the
Latvians consider themselves to be Nordics, evidenced through the strong
cultural and religious influences gained over centuries during Germanic
and Scandinavian colonization and settlement. Eastern Latvia (Latgale),
however, retains strong Polish and Russian cultural and linguistic
influences. This highly literate society places strong emphasis upon
education, which is free and compulsory until age 16. Most Latvians
belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. A sizeable minority are
Russian Orthodox. Eastern Latvia is predominantly Roman Catholic.
Historically, Latvia always has had fairly large Russian, Jewish,
German, and Polish minorities, but postwar emigration, deportations, and
Soviet "Russification" policies from 1939-89 reduced the percentage of
ethnic Latvians in Latvia from 73% to 53%. Latvia's strict language law
and draft citizenship law have caused many non-citizen resident Russians
concern over their ability to assimilate, despite Latvian legal
guarantees of universal human and civil rights regardless of
Written with the Latin alphabet, Latvian is the language of the Latvian
people and the official language of the country. It is an inflective
language with several analytical forms, three dialects, and German
syntactical influence. The oldest known examples of written Latvian are
from a 1585 catechism.
The Soviets imposed the official use of Russian, so most Latvians speak
Russian as a second or first language, while the resident Slavic
populace generally speaks Russian as a first language.
From about 9000 B.C., ancient peoples of unknown origin inhabited
Latvia. By 3000 B.C., the ancestors of the Finns had settled the
region. A millennium later, pre-Baltic tribes had arrived and, within
time, evolved into the Baltic Couranian, Latgallian, Selonian, and
Semigallian groups. These tribes eventually formed local governments
independent of the Finno-Ugric Livian tribe. In the 1300s, they were
conquered by the Germans, who renamed the territory Livonia.
German sailors shipwrecked on the Daugava River in 1054 had inhabited
the area, which led to increasing German influence. Founded by the
Germanic Bishop Alberth of Livonia in 1201, the city of Riga joined the
Hanseatic League in 1285 and shared important cultural and economic ties
with the rest of Europe. However, the new German nobility enserfed the
peasantry and accorded non-Germanic peoples only limited trading and
Subsequent wars and treaties ensured Livonia's partition and
colonization for centuries. The commonwealth's successes during the
Livonian Wars (1558-1583) united the Latvian-populated duchies of
Pardaugava, Kurzeme, and Zemgale, but the Polish-Swedish War (1600-1629)
granted Sweden acquisition of Riga and the Duchy of Pardaugava, minus
Latgale, leaving Latvia again split ethnically.
In turn, victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War (1700-1721) gave
Russia control over the Latvian territories. From 1804 onward, a series
of local decrees gradually weakened the grip of German nobility over
peasant society. In 1849 a law granted a legal basis for the creation
of peasant-owned farms.
Until the 1860s, there still was little sense of a Latvian national
identity, as both serfdom and institutional controls to migration and
social mobility limited the boundaries of the peasants' intellectual and
social geography. The large baronic estates caused a lack of available
farmland for an increasing population, creating a large landless, urban
class comprising about 60% of the population.
Also, in the face of stricter Russification policies, the Baltic German
clergy and literati began to take an interest in the distinctive
language and culture of the Latvian peasantry. These patrons (with such
Lettish names as Alunans, Barons, Krastins, Kronvalds, Tomsons, and
Valdemars) soon formed the Young Latvian Movement, whose aim was to
promote the indigenous language and to publicize and counteract the
socioeconomic oppression of Latvians.
By 1901 "Jauna Strava" had evolved into the Latvian Social Democratic
Party. Following the lead of the Austrian Marxists, the LSDP advocated
the transformation of the Russian empire into a federation of democratic
states (to include Latvia) and the adoption of cultural autonomy policy
for extra-territorial ethnic communities.
In 1903, the LSDP split into the more radically internationalist Latvian
Social Democratic Worker's Party and the more influential Latvian Social
Democratic Union (LSDU), which continued to champion national interests
and Latvia's national self-determination, especially during the failed
1905 revolution in Russia.
The onset of World War I brought German occupation of the western
coastal province of Kurzeme, and Latvians countered the invasion by
establishing several rifle regiments commanded by czarist generals. As
a defensive measure, Russia dismantled over 500 local Latvian
industries, along with technological equipment, and moved them to
The sagging military campaign generally increased Latvian and LSDU
support for the Bolsheviks' successful October Revolution in 1917, in
hopes of a "free Latvia within free Russia." These circumstances led to
the formation of the Soviet "Iskolat Republic" in the unoccupied section
of Latvia. In opposition to this government and to the landed barons'
pro-German sympathies stood, primarily, the Latvian Provisional National
Council and the Riga Democratic Bloc. These and other political parties
formed the Latvian People's Council which, on November 18, 1918,
declared Latvia's independence and formed an army.
The new Latvian army faced rogue elements of the retreating German army
and engaged in civil war against the Soviet Red Army, composed largely
of former Latvian Riflemen. Soviet power resumed in Latvia one month
later, on December 17, by order of the Latvian Soviet Socialist
Republic, which forcefully collectivized all land and nationalized all
industries and property.
By May 22, 1919, the resurgent German army occupied and devastated Riga
for several days. The Latvian army managed to win a decisive battle
over the combined German-Red Army forces and, thereafter, consolidated
its success on the eastern Latgale front.
These developments led to the dissolution of the Soviet Latvian
Government on January 13, 1920, and to a peace treaty between Latvia and
Soviet Russia on August 11 later that year. By September 22, 1921,
Latvia was admitted to the League of Nations.
Having obtained independent statehood in which Latvians were an absolute
majority, the government headed by Prime Minister Ulmanis declared a
democratic, parliamentary republic. It recognized Latvian as the
official language, granted cultural autonomy to the country's sizeable
minorities, and introduced an electoral system into the Latvian
constitution, which was adopted in 1922.
The decade witnessed sweeping economic reform, as war had devastated
Latvian agriculture and most Russian factories had been evacuated to
Russia. Economic depression heightened political turmoil, and on May 15,
1934, Prime Minister Ulmanis dismissed the parliament, banned outspoken
and left-wing political parties, and tightened authoritarian state
control over Latvian social life and the economy.
The effects of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement steadily forced
Latvia under Soviet influence until August 5, 1940, when the Soviet
Union finally annexed Latvia. On June 14 of the following year, 15,000
Latvian citizens were forcibly deported and a large number of army
officers shot. The subsequent German occupation saw the mobilization of
many Latvians into German Waffen SS legions, while some Latvians joined
the Red Army and formed resistance groups; others fled to the West and
East. By 1945, Latvia' s population had dropped by one-third.
After the war, the U.S.S.R. subjected the Latvian republic to a scale of
social and economic reorganization which rapidly transformed the rural
economy to heavy industry, the Latvian population into a more
multiethnic structure, and the predominantly peasant class into a fully
urbanized industrial worker class.
As part of the goal to more fully integrate Latvia into the Soviet
Union, on March 25, 1949, Stalin deported another 42,000 Latvians and
continued to promote the policy of encouraging Soviet immigration to
Latvia. The brief "Krushchev thaw" of the 1950s ended in 1959, when the
Soviets dismissed Latvian Communist Party and government leaders on
charges of "bourgeois nationalism" and replaced them with more
aggressive hardliners, mostly from Russia.
Perestroika enabled Latvians to pursue a bolder nationalistic program,
particularly through such general issues as environmental protection.
In July 1989, the Latvian Supreme Soviet adopted a "Declaration of
Sovereignty" and amended the constitution to assert the supremacy of its
laws over those of the U.S.S.R. Pro-independence Latvian Popular Front
candidates gained a two-thirds majority in the Supreme Council in the
March 1990 democratic elections.
On May 4, the Council declared its intention to restore full Latvian
independence after a "transitional" period; three days later, Ivars
Godmanis was chosen Council of Ministers Chairman, or Prime Minister.
In January 1991, Soviet political and military forces tried
unsuccessfully to overthrow the legitimate Latvian authorities by
occupying the central publishing house in Riga and establishing a
"Committee of National Salvation" to usurp governmental functions.
Three-fourths of all Latvian residents confirmed support for
independence on March 3 in a nonbinding "advisory" referendum. A large
number of ethnic Russians also voted for the proposition.
Latvia claimed de facto independence on August 21, 1991, in the
aftermath of the failed Soviet coup attempt. International recognition,
including by the U.S.S.R., followed. The U.S., which had never
recognized Latvia's forcible annexation by the U.S.S.R., resumed full
diplomatic relations with Latvia on September 2.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
Latvia emphatically states that the Russian troop withdrawal issue
remains its highest priority and that its resolution will exponentially
speed economic and political reform. Estimated Russian troop strengths
now are less than 7,000. In October 1991, the Latvian Supreme Council
began deliberations on a citizenship law, which remains to be finalized.
Under the accepted guidelines, those who were Latvian citizens in 1940
and their descendants can claim citizenship. Almost half of Latvia's
population is ethnically non-Latvian, yet perhaps more than 85% of its
ethnic Slavs can pass the residency requirement. The guidelines set
naturalization criteria for conversational knowledge of Latvian, a
loyalty oath, renunciation of former citizenship, a 16-year residency
requirement, and a knowledge of the Latvian constitution.
Dual citizenship is allowed for those who were forced to leave Latvia
during the Soviet occupation and adopted another citizenship. In
addition, the resolution calls for excluding criminals, drug addicts,
members of the Soviet army, and certain other groups from becoming
On March 19, 1991, the Supreme Council passed a law explicitly
guaranteeing "equal rights to all nationalities and ethnic groups" which
"guarantees to all permanent residents in the Republic regardless of
their nationality, equal rights to work and wages." The law also
prohibits "any activity directed toward nationality discrimination or
the promotion of national superiority or hatred."
Significant portions of the 1922 constitution were temporarily
reinstituted in autumn 1991. The government took a census in spring
1993 to determine eligibility for citizenship. Parliamentary gridlock
in the former Supreme Council had halted passage of any substantive
political or economic legislation.
The Saeima, a unicameral legislative body, is the highest organ of state
authority. It initiates and approves legislation sponsored by the prime
minister. The prime minister has full responsibility and control over
the cabinet, and the president holds a primarily ceremonial role as head
In the June 5-6, 1993, elections, in which over 90% of the electorate
participated, 8 of Latvia's 23 registered political parties passed the
4% threshold to enter parliament. The Popular Front, which spearheaded
the drive for independence two years ago with a 75% majority in the last
parliamentary elections in 1990, did not qualify for representation.
The centrist "Latvia's Way" party received a 33% plurality of votes and
joined with the Farmer's Union to head a center/right-wing coalition
Led by the opposition National Conservative Party, right-wing
nationalists won a majority of the seats nationwide and also captured
the Riga mayoralty in the May 29, 1994, municipal elections. Correctly
anticipating that it would do poorly, the governing party, "Latvia's
Way," spent few resources to contest the elections. Its coalition
partner, "Farmers' Union," did well in the countryside while former
Foreign Minister Jurkans' left-leaning "Concord for Latvia" took eastern
Latvia. European observers pronounced the elections free and fair, and
turnout averaged just under 60%.
The popular and effective Foreign Minister, Georgs Andrejevs, resigned
in early June due to poor health and because of accusations that he and
four other members of parliament had cooperated with the Soviet KGB
prior to Latvia's independence.
On July 13, 1994, Prime Minister Birkaus and his cabinet resigned,
ostensibly over the withdrawal of the Farmer's Union from the coalition
because of a dispute on agricultural tariffs and other policies. While
it appears certain the President will not call new elections, it is
unclear whether the current government simply will remain in place with
a few ministerial replacements, or whether the National Conservative
Party can muster the support to form a new government.
Latvia's defense concept is based upon the Swedish-Finnish rapid
response model force. The armed forces consist of border guards, mobile
infantry, special units, and an air force and navy whose status has not
fully been determined financially or administratively. The zemessardze,
or home guard, is an autonomous, volunteer paramilitary organization
which also performs traditional national guard duties and assists the
border guards. Special independent interior ministry, intelligence, and
civil defense units also exist. Active-duty defense forces will stand
at 9,000. There is a mandatory one-year draft period of active duty,
and alternative conscription for conscientious objectors is available.
Principal Government Officials
Prime Minister--Valdis Birkavs
Minister of Foreign Affairs--vacant
Latvia maintains an embassy in the United States at 4325 17th Street,
Washington DC 20011 (tel: 202-726-8213).
For centuries under Hanseatic and German influence and then during its
interwar independence, Latvia used its geographic location as an
important East-West commercial and trading center. Industry served
local markets, while timber, paper, and agricultural products comprised
Latvia's main exports. Conversely, the years of Russian and Soviet
occupation tended to integrate Latvia's economy to serve those empires'
large internal industrial needs.
Today, Latvia's economy still remains heavily dependent upon the markets
of the states of the former Soviet Union. Other than in peat, timber,
and gravel, Latvia is deficient in most natural resources and relies
upon trade with its former Soviet neighbors to provide 91% of its energy
needs. Freed prices, including once-rationed food items and fuel, now
are reaching market levels, and most small businesses and farms have
been formally privatized or are operating as such. Industrial
production dropped 35% in 1992, and the urban, resident non-citizen
Russian work force--which dominates Latvia's highly diversified but
inefficient industrial sector--may face significant unemployment and
economic displacement once Latvia undertakes deeper necessary reforms.
As a result, Latvians' standard of living and purchasing power has
fallen catastrophically. As a new member, Latvia received critical
loans from the IMF and World Bank, as well as from G-24 nations, in
order to stave off critical energy, medicinal, and feed grain shortages
and financial shortfalls caused by the disruption of traditional Soviet
The monetary situation has stabilized, with monthly inflation less than
2% in accord with IMF plans and hard currency reserves in excess of $320
million. Last year, Latvia began issuing its own freely convertible
currency, the lats, which replaced the interim currency, the Latvian
In 1993, Latvia exported to the U.S. $23 million worth of goods and
imported $90 million of goods and services. American firms registered
$35 million out of a total $110 million in foreign investment. The U.S.
is the largest Western investor in Latvia. Private businesses are
booming, with over $75 million in foreign investment last year, and the
government has recreated over 50,000 private farms. With 48% of the
populace, ethnic Slavs control about 80% of the economy.
Latvia became a member of the United Nations on September 18, 1991, and
is a signatory to a number of UN and other international organizations
and relationships. It also is a member of the Conference on Security
and Cooperation in Europe and of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council.
Latvia is unaffiliated directly with any political alliance but welcomes
further cooperation and integration with NATO, the European Union, and
other Western organizations. It also seeks more active participation in
United Nations peace-keeping efforts worldwide.
Latvia maintains embassies in the United States, Belarus, Belgium,
Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Sweden, the
United Kingdom, and Russia. It also operates missions to the United
Nations in New York City and a consulate general in Australia. Honorary
consuls are located in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Greece,
India, Israel, Italy, South Korea, Moldova, Norway, Switzerland, Taiwan,
Relations with Russia are improving, primarily because Latvia and Russia
signed a troop withdrawal agreement on April 30 calling for the
withdrawal of Russia's remaining 4,000 troops from Latvia no later than
August 31, 1994. In July, Latvia also passed a naturalization law that
could enable many of its resident non-citizens to apply for citizenship
within 10 years.
Latvia has agreed that Russia may continue to operate the Skrunda radar
facility under CSCE supervision strictly for a four-year period.
The United States established diplomatic relations with Latvia on July
28, 1922. The U.S. legation in Riga officially was established November
13, 1922, and served as the headquarters for U.S. representation in the
Baltics during the interwar era. The Soviet invasion forced the closure
of the legation on September 5, 1940, but Latvian representation in the
United States has continued uninterrupted for over 70 years. The U.S.
never recognized the forcible incorporation of Latvia into the U.S.S.R.
and views the present Government of Latvia as a legal continuation of
the interwar republic. Latvia has enjoyed most-favored-nation (MFN)
treatment with the U.S. since December 1991. It annually receives
approximately $6 million in humanitarian and medical aid, technical
assistance, and professional training, along with having received about
$38 million in feed grain credits from the U.S. since 1991.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Economic Officer--Constance Phlipot
Political Officer--Douglas Wake
Administrative Officer--Susan Pazina
Consular Officer--Ellen Conway
AID Director--Baudouin de Marcken
Public Affairs Officer--Philip Ives
The U.S. embassy in Latvia is located at Raina Boulevard 7, Riga (tel.
Customs: Latvian tourist visas may be obtained at certain road border-
crossings and at Riga Airport. However, the U.S. embassy strongly
recommends that all visitors obtain visas from the Latvian embassy in
Washington, D.C. (or in major Western European capitals) before
departure. The embassy charges a $10 mail processing fee for visas.
Visitors are encouraged to register at the U.S. Embassy. Lithuanian
visas are also valid for entry into Latvia.
Unlimited hard currency, 1 liter of alcohol, 200 cigarettes, and
foodstuffs valued at less than one month's minimum wage (3,000 rubles)
may be imported; $125 worth of goods not regulated by Latvian or
international law requiring special permission may be imported. Export
regulations cover hard currency (in unrestricted amounts) and foodstuffs
worth less than 10 monthly minimum wages). Articles purchased in Latvia
for hard currency must be accompanied by a receipt.
Climate and clothing: Latvia's climate enjoys seasons of almost equal
length. Riga and the coast are temperate, with pleasant, cool summers
and damp winters; eastern Latvia is continental, with warmer summers and
Health: Medical care does not meet Western standards and faces severe
shortages of basic medical supplies, including disposable needles,
anesthetics, and antibiotics. Recent disruption of energy supplies has
decreased the availability of heat and hot water. Raw fruits and
vegetables are safe to eat, but avoid drinking unpasteurized milk and
Transportation: Several international airlines, including SAS and
Lufthansa, provide service between European cities and Riga airport.
Train service is available via Moscow, St. Petersburg, and
Warsaw/Frankfurt, and a bus line connects the Baltic capitals with
Warsaw. Bus and taxi services within the capital and its environs are
good. Taxis are inexpensive and available at stands, or may be ordered
by phone. Rental cars are available. Gasoline prices are reaching
Telecommunications: Improved telephone and telegraph services are
readily available at standard international rates. Riga is 7 hours
ahead of eastern standard time.
These titles are provided as a general indication of material published
on this country. The Department of State does not endorse unofficial
Berkis, Alexander V. The History of the Duchy of Courland, 1561-1795.
Baltimore: Paul M. Harrod, 1969.
Bilmanis, Alfreds. A History of Latvia. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1951; reprinted Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970.
Ekmanis, Rolf. Latvian Literature Under the Soviets, 1940-1975.
Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing Company, 1978.
Jegers, Benjamins. Bibliography of Latvian Publications Published
Outside of Latvia, 1940-1960, 2 volumes. Stockholm: Daugava,
Rodgers, Mary M., , and Tom Streissguth, eds. Latvia: Then and Now.
Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1992.
Rutkis, Janis, ed. Latvia: Country and People. Stockholm: Latvian
National Foundation, 1967.
Urdzins, Andrejs, and Andris Vilks, eds. The Baltic States: A
Reference Book. Riga: Encyclopedia Publishers, 1991.
Williams, Roger, ed. Baltic States: Insight Guides. Boston:
Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1993.
For information on economic trends, commercial development, production,
trade regulations, and tariff rates, contact the International Trade
Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, DC 20230 at
(202)482-4915, or any Commerce Department district office. For
information on business opportunities, call the Commerce Department's
East European Business Information Center at (202) 482-2645.
Published by the United States Department of State -- Bureau of Public
Affairs -- Office of Public Communication -- Washington, DC August
1994 -- Managing Editor: Peter A. Knecht -- Editor: Peter Freeman
Department of State Publication 10195 -- Background Notes Series For
sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing
Office, Washington, DC 20402.
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