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Republic of Latvia
Republic (1994 est. pop. 2,749,000), 24,590 sq mi (63,688 sq km), north central Europe. It borders on Estonia in the north, Lithuania in the south, the Baltic Sea with the Gulf of Riga in the west, Russia in the east, and Belarus in the southeast. Riga is the capital and largest city.
Latvia falls into four historic regions: North of the Western Dvina (Daugava) River are Vidzeme and Latgale, which were parts of Livonia; south of the Dvina are Kurzeme and Zemgale, which belonged to the former duchy of Courland. Latvia is largely a fertile lowland, drained by the Western Dvina, the Venta, the Gauja, and the Lielupe. There are numerous lakes and swamps, and morainic hills rise to the east. In addition to the capital, Liepaja, Daugavpils, Cesis, and Jelgava are the chief cities.
Slightly more than half of the population consists of Letts and of the closely related Latgalians (both widely known as Latvians). About one third of the people are Russians, and there are Belarusian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Polish minorities. Latvian is the official language; Lithuanian, Russian, and other languages are also spoken. The predominant religions are Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, and the Russian Orthodox Church.
After independence (1991), Latvia sought to limit citizenship in order to favor Latvians and other Balts over ethnic Russians and other minorities. However, laws were eased in 1998, granting citizenship to all children born in Latvia after Aug. 21, 1991, and making it easier for Russian-speakers to become naturalized. Nonetheless, about a fifth of all residents remained noncitizens in 2005.
Latvia has been engaged in transforming the state-run economy, inherited from its years as a Soviet republic, into a market economy; reforms include the abolishing of price controls and the initiation of privatization. The country has encouraged foreign investment. Dairying and stock raising remain integral to the agricultural sector, which employs more than 15% of the labor force. Grain, sugar beets, potatoes, and vegetables are also important. The nation has valuable timber resources.
Latvia is an important industrial center, and this sector employs about 40% of the workforce. Its industries are extremely diversified and include the manufacture of motor vehicles, street and railroad cars, synthetic fibers, agricultural machinery, pharmaceuticals, electrical equipment, electronics, and textiles. Food and dairy processing, distilling, and shipbuilding are also significant, and tourism has developed as a source of foreign income. Trade is primarily with Russia and other former Soviet republics, as well as Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Latvia is a member of the European Union.
Latvia is parliamentary democracy. It has a unicameral parliament, the 100-seat Supreme Council (Saeima). The president, who is the chief of state, is elected by this body for a three-year term and is advised by a cabinet. The prime minister, who is the head of government, is appointed by the president. Latvia has over 20 political parties and most governments are formed by coalition. For administrative purposes, the country is divided into 26 counties and seven municipalities.
The Letts (after whom the country was also called Lettland) were conquered and Christianized by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword in the 13th cent. Their country formed the southern part of Livonia until 1561, when the order disbanded and its grand master became the first duke of Courland, a vassal duchy under Polish suzerainty. In 1629, Sweden conquered Livonia (except for Latgale), which it lost in turn to Russia in 1721. With the first (1772) and third (1795) partitions of Poland, Latgale and Courland also passed to Russia.
The region had been dominated since the time of the Livonian knights by German merchants, settled there by the Hanseatic League, and by a German landowning aristocracy, which reduced the Letts to servitude. Under the Russian regime these German “Baltic barons” retained their power, and German remained the official language until 1885, when it was replaced by Russian. Between 1817 and 1819 the serfs were emancipated, and in the middle of the 19th cent. a national revival began.
By the end of the 19th cent. there was great agricultural and industrial prosperity. In the Russian Revolution of 1905 the Letts played a prominent role, and bloody reprisals were meted out. Latvia was devastated in World War I, but the collapse of Russia and Germany made Latvian independence possible in 1918. Soviet troops and German volunteer bands were expelled. Peace with Russia followed in 1920.
The Latvian constitution of 1922 provided for a democratic republic. The largest land holdings were expropriated. However, there was no political stability, and in 1934 its constituent assembly and political parties were dissolved. In 1936, Karlis Ulmanis became a virtual dictator. Soviet pressure forced Latvia to grant (1939) the USSR several naval and military bases; a subsequent Latvian-German agreement provided for the transfer of the German minority to Germany.
Soviet troops occupied Latvia in 1940, and subsequent elections held under Soviet auspices resulted in the absorption of Latvia into the USSR as a constituent republic. Occupied (1941–44) during World War II by German troops, whom the Latvians supported, it was reconquered by the Soviet Union. In the postwar years, the remaining estates were at first distributed to landless peasants, but soon almost all the land was collectivized. Latvia’s resources and industry were nationalized, and a program of industrialization was pursued by the Soviet regime.
In May, 1990, the parliament of Latvia annulled its annexation and reestablished the constitution of 1922. A referendum on independence passed in Mar., 1991. Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union was recognized by the Russian SFSR in August and conceded by the Soviet Union in Sept., 1991. In 1993, under the restored 1922 constitution, a new parliament was elected, and Guntis Ulmanis became president. In 1995, a politically independent business executive, Andris Skele, became prime minister. Ulmanis was elected president for a second term in 1996.
Latvia became a member of the United Nations in 1991, and in 1993 signed a free-trade agreement with its fellow Baltic states, Estonia and Lithuania. Virtually all Russian troops left by Aug., 1994. Guntars Krasts became prime minister in 1997; he was succeeded in 1998 by Vilis Kristopans, who formed a center-right coalition government. In June, 1999, Vaira Vîke-Freiberga was elected president, becoming the first woman to hold such a post in Eastern Europe. Andris Skele again became prime minister in July, but resigned in Apr., 2000, after his coalition collapsed in a dispute over privatization. In May, Andris Berzins became prime minister of a four-party coalition. Elections in Oct., 2002, gave the largest number of seats to the centrist New Era party, whose leader, Einars Repe, became prime minister of a four-party center-right coalition. Charges of mismanagement against Repe caused the coalition to collapse in Feb., 2004, and a three-party center-right minority government, led by Indulis Emsis, was formed. Emsis became the first Green party leader to head a European government, but the coalition government resigned after losing a budget vote in Oct., 2004. In December, Aigars Kalvitis, of the People’s party, became prime minister of a four-party center-right coalition government. Also in 2004 the country became a member of NATO and the European Union.
1997, Livonian Order's castle, von Plettenberg
2012, Ernst Johann von Biron