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Historical Profile

Situated in north-eastern Europe with a coastline along the Baltic Sea, Latvia has borders with Estonia, Russia, Belarus and Lithuania. It has linguistic links with Lithuania to the south and historical and religious ties with Estonia to the north.

Not much more than a decade after it declared independence following the collapse of the USSR, Latvia was welcomed as an EU member in May 2004. The move came just weeks after it joined Nato. These developments would have been extremely hard to imagine in the 51 years when Latvia – like Estonia and Lithuania – was occupied by the Soviet Union.

For centuries Latvia was primarily an agricultural country, with seafaring, fishing and forestry as other important factors in its economy.

Latvia was under foreign rule from the 13th until the 20th century, but managed to keep its unique language and rich cultural and especially musical traditions alive. After the First World War it declared independence from Russia, which recognised it in 1920.

Two decades later, following a pact between Stalin and Hitler, Soviet troops invaded in 1940 and Latvia was absorbed into the Soviet Union. Nazi forces pushed the Soviets back in 1941 but the Red Army returned in 1944 and remained for half a century.

During the Soviet period Latvia underwent heavy industrialisation, and experienced a big influx of immigrants from other parts of the USSR, mainly Russia. Many ethnic Latvians maintain that this wave of immigration was part of a deliberate Soviet policy to dilute Baltic culture and destroy local national sentiment.

More than a quarter of the population is Russian-speaking and the rights of this section of society have been a thorny issue since independence. Government reforms introduced in 2004 to restrict the use of the Russian language in schools remain controversial.

Legislation on citizenship was toughened up in 2006. Candidates who fail a Latvian language test three times will be denied citizenship. People without citizenship are entitled neither to vote nor to obtain an EU passport.

Like its Baltic neighbours, in the decade after independence Latvia made a rapid transformation to embrace the free market.

Latvia’s economy grew by 50% between 2004 and 2007 but the global financial crisis of 2008-9 hit the country hard, and the former Baltic tiger endured one of the worst recessions in the EU.

The social turmoil triggered by the financial crisis led to the fall of the Godmanis government in February 2009. By January 2010, unemployment had soared to 20%, prompting fears of further political instability.

Deep public spending cuts introduced by the subsequent Dombrovskis government led to discontent at home, but impressed international lenders enough to earn Latvia an IMF/European Union 7.5bn euro ($10bn) bailout.

This has helped Latvia’s economic recovery, and it returned to growth in 2011. By late 2012, its economic revival was the EU’s strongest. The country joined the eurozone at the start of 2014, despite the unpopularity of the move.

Despite a relatively successful economic transition, unemployment remains persistently high, and in recent years many young Latvians have left the country to seek opportunities abroad. Between 2000 and 2011, the population fell by about 13%.



Full Name                   Republic of Latvia

Capital                          Riga

Gov’t Type                   Parliamentary Democracy

Currency                      Euro

Population                   2014 estimate – 1,990,300; 2011 census – 2,070,371; 68% urban; 38% rural

Total Area                    24,938 Square Miles (slightly larger than W. Virginia); or 64,589 Square Kilometers (slightly smaller than Ireland)

Regions                          Kurzeme (west), Zemgale (south), Vidzeme (north), Latgale (east)

Baltic Coastline         494 kilometers

Ethnic groups             62.1% Latvians; 26.9% Russians; 3.4% Belarusians; 2.2% Ukrainians; 2.2% Poles; 1.2% Lithuanians; 0.3% Jews; 0.3% Roma (Gypsies); 1.4% others / unspecified

Major Languages       Latvian (official), Russian

Major Religions          Lutheran, Catholic, Russian Orthodox

Life Expectancy          69 years (men), 79 years (women) (UN)

Main Exports                Timber and wood products, fish and fish products

Export Partners           Russia 18.2%, Lithuania 14.9%, Estonia 12.1%, Germany 7.5%, Poland 5.6%, Sweden 4.8% (2012)

Import Partners           Lithuania 19.1%, Germany 11.6%, Russia 9.2%, Poland 8.2%, Estonia 7.6%, Italy 4.6%, Finland 4.4% (2012)

Natural Resources      Peat, limestone, dolomite, amber, hydropower, timber, arable land

GNI per capita               US $13,320 (World Bank, 2011)

Calling Code                   +371

Historical Timeline

1201             Riga is founded by Danish/German Crusaders as a trading post. Credit is given to Bishop/Prince Albert.

1282             Riga is incorporated into the Hanseatic League and becomes a major point of East-West trade

1621-1712   The Swedish Times. Latvia is conquered by the King Gustavus Adolfus, the Lion of the North. Riga becomes the largest city in Sweden.

1710           Riga falls to Peter I, also known as Peter the Great.

1710-11      50% of Riga killed by the plague.

1905          The Baltic Revolution fails as Latvians revolts against all things Russian and German.

1918           Bolshevik Revolution in Russian; Latvian National Council proclaims Latvia an independent sovereign state.

1920           Soviet Russia recognizes Latvian independence and sovereignty.

1921            Latvian Independence recognized by the West. Latvia accepted in the League of Nations.

1935            Karlis Zale’s Monument of Freedom is erected in the place of the Monument of Peter the Great in Riga.

1939            The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany sign the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, in which Northern and Eastern Europe were divided into German and Soviet “spheres of influence”.  Latvia, Finland and Estonia were assigned to the Soviet sphere and Poland to Germany. World War II begins two weeks later.

1940-41      First Soviet Occupation. Russian troops invade and incorporate Latvia into the Soviet Union, along with Estonia and Lithuania.  Mass deportations.

1941-45       Nazi Germany occupation. Between 75-90,000 Latvian Jews are killed.

1945-91       Second Soviet Occupation. More mass deportations. 207,000 Latvian flea as refugees.

1985             Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev announces ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’, opening the door for sweeping reform in the USSR and freedom in the Baltics.

1987             Freedom movement begins in Latvia.

1990             Latvian Supreme Council (Parliament) declares independence, but it is not recognized by the Western world.

1991             During the attempted anti-Gorbachev coup in Moscow the Supreme Council again declares full independence. Immediately recognized by the West.  Latvia was admitted to the UN.

1993            Guntis Ulmanis, great nephew of Latvia’s last president, Karlis Ulmanis, is elected president.

1994            Last Soviet troops leave Latvia.

1995            Latvia is admitted to the Council of Europe.

1996            Vaira Vike-Freiberga is elected president.

1998            Latvia is admitted to World Trade Organization.

2001-13     13% of Latvia’s workforce leave the country to find jobs, mostly in northern Europe.

2003           Latvia deploys soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan.

2004           Latvia is admitted to NATO.

2004           Latvia is admitted to the European Union.

2007           Dr. Valdis Zatlers is elected president.

2009          The government of Prime Minister Godmanis falls in the midst of the huge financial crisis.

2010           Unemployment soars to 20%.

2011            President Zatlers uses his constitutional powers to initiate a referendum on the dissolution of the current Parliament. In a special election the people support Zatlers’ decision and the Parliament is dismissed. New parliamentary elections are organized and President Zatlers is replaced by Andris Berzins.

2014            Latvia joins the Eurozone.

Sources – The World Factbook, Latvian Institute and BBC Monitoring

Compiled by BBC Monitoring & Bridge Builders International