2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Europe; European Countries

Latvijas Republika
Republic of Latvia
Flag of Latvia Coat of arms of Latvia
Flag Coat of arms
Motto: "Tēvzemei un Brīvībai"  ( Latvian)
"For Fatherland and Freedom"
Anthem:  Dievs, svētī Latviju!  (Latvian)
"God, bless Latvia!"

Location of Latvia
Location of  Latvia  (dark green)

– on the European continent  (light green & dark grey)
– in the European Union  (light green)  —  [Legend]

(and largest city)
Official languages Latvian
Ethnic groups  60.0% Latvians
27.3% Russians
  3.7% Belarusians
  2.5% Ukrainians
  6.5% others
Demonym Latvian
Government Parliamentary republic
 -  President Valdis Zatlers
 -  Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis
Independence from Russia and Germany 
 -  Declared November 18, 1918 
 -  Recognized January 26, 1921 
 -  Proclaimed2 May 4, 1990 
 -  Completed September 6, 1991 
EU accession May 1, 2004
 -  Total 64,589 km² ( 124th)
24,937  sq mi 
 -  Water (%) 1.5
 -  December 2007 estimate 2,270,700 ( 143rd)
 -  2000 census 2 375 000 
 -  Density 36/km² ( 166th)
93/sq mi
GDP ( PPP) 2007 estimate
 -  Total $41,108 billion ( 92th)
 -  Per capita $18,103 ( 46th)
GDP (nominal) 2007 estimate
 -  Total $27,301 billion ( 83th)
 -  Per capita $11,958 ( 47st)
Gini (2003) 37.7 (medium
HDI (2007) 0.855 (high) ( 45th)
Currency Lats (Ls) ( LVL)
Time zone EET ( UTC+2)
 -  Summer ( DST) EEST ( UTC+3)
Internet TLD .lv 3
Calling code +371
1 Latvia is continuous with the first republic.
2 Secession from Soviet Union begun.
3 Also .eu, shared with other European Union member states.

Latvia, officially the Republic of Latvia ( Latvian: Latvija or Latvijas Republika) is a country in Northern Europe in the Baltic region. It is bordered to the north by Estonia (343 km), to the south by Lithuania (588 km), and to the east both by Belarus (141 km) and the Russian Federation (276 km). Across the Baltic Sea to the west lies Sweden. The territory of Latvia covers 64,589 km² and is influenced by a temperate seasonal climate.

The Latvians are a Baltic people closely related to the Lithuanians, with the Latvian language sharing many similarities to Lithuanian. Today the Latvians and Lithuanians are the only surviving members of the Baltic peoples and Baltic languages of the Indo-European family. The modern name of Latvia is thought to originate from the ancient Latvian name Latvji, which may have originated from the word Latve which is a name of the river that presumably flowed through what is now eastern Latvia.

Latvia is a democratic parliamentary republic and is divided into 26 districts. The capital and largest city is Riga. Latvia has been a member of the United Nations since 17 September 1991, of the European Union since 1 May 2004 and of NATO since 29 March 2004.


The territory of Latvia has been populated since over 9000 BC with the proto-Baltic ancestors of the Latvian people settling on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea around the third millennium BC (3000 BC). By 900 AD, four Baltic tribal cultures had developed: Couronians, Latgallians, Selonians, Semigallians (in Latvian: kurši, latgaļi, sēļi and zemgaļi), as well as the Livonians (lībieši) speaking a Finno-Ugric language.


Across Europe, Latvia's coast was known for its amber. The ancient Balts traded Latvian amber with Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Even today it is frequently used in traditional Latvian jewellery.

A knight (on the right) of The Livonian Brothers of the Sword.
A knight (on the right) of The Livonian Brothers of the Sword.

At the end of the 12th century, traders from Western Europe often visited Latvia, setting out on trading journeys along Latvia's longest river, the Daugava, to Russia.

The Middle Ages period

Christian missionaries arrived in 1180. As the Balts did not readily convert and strongly opposed the christening, German Crusaders were sent into Latvia to convert the pagan population. By 1211, Christianity had effective control with the foundation stone for the Dome Cathedral in Riga laid.

In the 1200s, a confederation of feudal nations called Livonia developed under German rule. Livonia included today's Latvia and Southern Estonia. In 1282, Riga and later the cities of Cēsis, Limbaži, Koknese and Valmiera were included in the Hanseatic League. From this time, Riga became an important point in west-east trading. Riga, being the centre of the eastern Baltic region, formed close cultural contacts with Western Europe.

The Reformation period

The 1500s were a time of great changes for the inhabitants of Latvia, notable for the reformation and the collapse of the Livonian state. After the Livonian War (1558–1583) today's Latvian territory came under Polish-Lithuanian rule. The Lutheran faith was accepted in Kurzeme, Zemgale and Vidzeme, but the Roman Catholic faith maintained its dominance in Latgale and continues to do so today.

The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw a struggle between Poland, Sweden and Russia for supremacy in the eastern Baltic. Most of Polish Livonia, including Vidzeme, came under Swedish rule with the Truce of Altmark in 1629. Under the Swedish rule, serfdom was eased and a network of schools was established for the peasantry.

Latvia in the Russian Empire

The Treaty of Nystad ending the Great Northern War in 1721 gave Vidzeme to Russia (it became part of the Riga Governorate). The Latgale region remained part of Poland as Inflanty until 1772, when it was joined to Russia. The Duchy of Courland became a Russian province (the Courland Governorate) 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 Vidzeme in 1819. In practice, the emancipation was actually advantageous to the nobility because it dispossessed the peasants of their land without compensation. 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 Latvians ( Latvian: Jaunlatvieši) 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 Polish led 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.

Declaration of independence

World War I devastated the country. Demands for self-determination were at first confined to autonomy, but full independence was proclaimed in Riga on November 18, 1918, by the People's Council of Latvia, Kārlis Ulmanis becoming the head of the provisional government. The War of Independence that followed was a very chaotic period in Latvia's history. By the spring of 1919 there were actually three governments — Ulmanis' government; the Soviet Latvian government led by Pēteris Stučka, whose forces, supported by the Red Army, occupied almost all of the country; and the Baltic German government of "Baltic Duchy" headed by Andrievs Niedra and supported by Baltische Landeswehr and German Freikorps unit Iron Division. Estonian and Latvian forces defeated the Germans at the Battle of Cēsis 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 Red Army forces by Polish, Latvian, and German troops in early 1920.

Map of Latvia 1920-1940
Map of Latvia 1920-1940

A freely elected Constituent Assembly was convened on May 1, 1920 and adopted a liberal constitution, the Satversme, in February 1922. This was partly suspended by Ulmanis after his coup in 1934, but reaffirmed in 1990. Since then it has been amended and is the constitution still in use in Latvia today. With most of Latvia's industrial base evacuated to the interior of Russia in 1915, radical land reform was the central political question for the young state. In 1897, 61.2% of the rural population had been landless; by 1930 that percentage had been reduced to 23.2%. The extent of cultivated land surpassed the pre-war level already in 1923. Innovation and rising productivity led to rapid growth of economy, but it soon suffered the effects of the Great Depression. Though Latvia showed signs of economic recovery and the electorate had steadily moved toward the centre during the parliamentary period, Ulmanis staged a bloodless coup on May 15, 1934, establishing a nationalist dictatorship that lasted until 1940.

Latvia in World War II

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 great numbers of Soviet forces occupied the country. Еlections for the "People's Saeima" were held, and a puppet government headed by Augusts Kirhenšteins led Latvia into the USSR. The annexation was formalised on August 5, 1940.

The Soviets dealt harshly with their opponents — prior to the German invasion, in less than a year, at least 27,586 persons were arrested; most were deported, and about 945 persons were shot. While under German occupation, Latvia was administered as part of Reichskommissariat Ostland. Latvian paramilitary and Auxiliary Police units established by occupation authority actively participated in the Holocaust as well. More than 200,000 Latvian citizens died during World War II, including approximately 70,000 Latvian Jews murdered during the Nazi occupation. 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 Nazi and Soviet authorities. Refusal to join the occupying army resulted in imprisonment, threats to relatives, or even death.

The statue of Liberty atop the Freedom Monument in Riga
The statue of Liberty atop the Freedom Monument in Riga

Soviet occupation

The Soviets reoccupied the country in 1944–1945, and further mass deportations followed as the country was forcibly collectivised and Sovietised; 42,975 persons were deported in 1949. Influx of labourers, administrators, military personnel and their dependents from Russia and other Soviet republics started, and by 1959 the ethnic Latvian population had fallen to 62%. 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.

Restoration of independence

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 accordance 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. 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 with Latvian independence 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.

The major goals of Latvia in the 1990s, to join NATO and the European Union, were achieved in 2004. Language and citizenship laws have been opposed by many Russophones, although a majority have now become citizens. (Citizenship was not automatically extended to former Soviet citizens who settled during the Soviet occupation or to their subsequent offspring. Children born to non-nationals after the reestablishment of independence are automatically entitled to citizenship.) The government denationalised private property confiscated by the Soviet rule, returning it or compensating the owners for it, and privatised most state-owned industries, reintroducing the prewar currency. After a difficult transition to a liberal economy and its re-orientation toward Western Europe, though its economy has one of the highest growth rates.


Map of Latvia showing cities
Map of Latvia showing cities

Located on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, Latvia lies on the East European Plain. It consists of fertile, low-lying plains, largely covered by forest, mostly pines, the highest point being the Gaiziņkalns at 311.6 m (1,020 ft). Phytogeographically, Latvia is shared between the Central European and Eastern European provinces of the Circumboreal Region within the Boreal Kingdom. According to the WWF, the territory of Latvia belongs to the ecoregion of Sarmatic mixed forests. Common species of wildlife in Latvia include deer, wild boar, fox, beaver and wolves. The major rivers include the Daugava, the Lielupe, the Gauja, the Venta, and the Salaca. An inlet of the Baltic Sea, the shallow Gulf of Riga is situated in the northwest of the country. Latvia's coastline extends for 531 kilometers.


The Latvian climate is humid, continental and temperate owing to the maritime influence of the Baltic Sea. Summers are warm and the weather in spring and autumn fairly mild, however, the winters can be extreme due to the northern location. Precipitation is common throughout the year with the heaviest rainfall falling in August. During severe spells of winter weather in Latvia is dominated by cold winds from the interior of Russia and severe snowfalls are common.


Latvia is divided into 26 districts (rajoni). There are also seven cities (lielpilsētas) that have a separate status. Latvia is also divided into five planning regions.

  1. Aizkraukle District
  2. Alūksne District
  3. Balvi District
  4. Bauska District
  5. Cēsis District
  6. Daugavpils District
  7. Daugavpils (city)
  8. Dobele District
  9. Gulbene District
  10. Jēkabpils District
  11. Jelgava District
  12. Jelgava (city)
  13. Jūrmala (city)
  14. Krāslava District
  15. Kuldīga District
  16. Liepāja District
  17. Liepāja (city)
  1. Limbaži District
  2. Ludza District
  3. Madona District
  4. Ogre District
  5. Preiļi District
  6. Rēzekne District
  7. Rēzekne (city)
  8. Rīga District
  9. Rīga (city)
  10. Saldus District
  11. Talsi District
  12. Tukums District
  13. Valka District
  14. Valmiera District
  15. Ventspils District
  16. Ventspils (city)
Map of the districts of Latvia in alphabetical order.
  • Abrene District (1919 – 1940), the eastern part of which was annexed to Russia in 1944.
    The legal status of the annexed portion is disputed — the western part of the former district is now in Balvi District.

Regions and cities

Latvia is divided into several historical and cultural regions.

  • Kurzeme
  • Latgale
  • Riga
  • Vidzeme
  • Zemgale

Government and politics

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 held 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. This system also existed before the Second World War. Highest civil servants are sixteen Secretaries of state.

Foreign relations

Membership of the EU and NATO were major policy goals during the 1990s. In a nation-wide referendum on September 20, 2003, 66.9% of those taking part voted in favour of joining the European Union. Latvia became a member of the European Union on May 1, 2004. Latvia has been a NATO member since March 29, 2004.

Treaty delimiting the boundary with Russia has been signed and ratified in 2007, under the treaty the Abrene district passes to Russia; ongoing talks over maritime boundary dispute with Lithuania (primary concern is oil exploration rights)


Latvia's defense concept is based upon the Swedish-Finnish model of a rapid response force composed of a mobilization base and a small group of career professionals. The armed forces consists of mobile riflemen, an air force, and a navy. Latvia cooperates with Estonia and Lithuania in the joint infantry battalion BALTBAT and naval squadron BALTRON which are available for peacekeeping operations.

As of March 29, 2004, Latvia officially joined NATO. Currently, NATO is involved in the patrolling and protection of the Latvian air space as the Latvian army does not have the means to do so effectively. For this goal a rotating force of four NATO fighters, which comes from different nations and switches at two or three month intervals, is based in Lithuania to cover all three Baltic states (see Baltic Air Policing).


Real GDP growth in Latvia 1996-2006.
Real GDP growth in Latvia 1996-2006.

Since the year 2000 Latvia has had one of the highest (GDP) growth rates in Europe. In 2006, annual GDP growth was 11.9% and inflation was 6.2%. Unemployment was 8.5% — almost unchanged compared to the previous two years. However, it has recently dropped to 6.1%, partly due to active economic migration, mostly to Ireland and the United Kingdom. Some believe that Latvia's flat tax is responsible for its high growth rate, but this is not universally accepted. Privatisation is mostly complete, 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 fast growing economy is regarded as a possible economic bubble, because it is driven mainly by growth of domestic consumption, financed by a serious increase of private debt, as well as a negative foreign trade balance. The prices of real estate, which were appreciating at approximately 5% a month, are perceived to be too high for the economy, which mainly produces low valued goods and raw materials. As stated by Ober-Haus, a real estate company operating in Poland and the Baltics, the prices of some segments of the real estate market have stabilised as of summer 2006 and some experts expect serious reduction of prices in the near future. The government has recently introduced a special program to reduce inflation and retain high growth rates. The main points of the plan are:

  • To create a non-deficit country budget for the current 2007 year and a budget with a surplus for 2008 and beyond;
  • to tax any transaction concerning real estate that has been in a person's possession less than three years;
  • to increase control of credit;
  • to increase energy effectiveness in homes and business to guard against possible rises in energy costs, and
  • to increase work productivity and stimulate competition in business.

Latvia plans to introduce the Euro as the country's currency but, due to the inflation being above EMU's guidelines, this is unlikely to happen before 2010.

Privatisation in Latvia is almost complete. Virtually all of the previously state-owned small and medium companies have been successfully privatized, leaving only a small number of politically sensitive large state companies. Latvian privatization efforts have led to the development of a dynamic and prosperous private sector, which accounted for nearly 68% of GDP in 2000.

Foreign investment in Latvia is still modest compared with the levels in north-central Europe. A law expanding the scope for selling land, including to foreigners, was passed in 1997. Representing 10.2% of Latvia's total foreign direct investment, American companies invested $127 million in 1999. In the same year, the United States exported $58.2 million of goods and services to Latvia and imported $87.9 million. Eager to join Western economic institutions like the World Trade Organization, OECD, and the European Union, Latvia signed a Europe Agreement with the EU in 1995--with a 4-year transition period. Latvia and the United States have signed treaties on investment, trade, and intellectual property protection and avoidance of double taxation.


The transport sector is around 14% of GDP. Transit between Russia and the West is large.

Key ports are in Riga, Ventspils, and Liepaja. Most transit traffic uses these and half the cargo is crude oil and oil producs.

Riga International Airport is the largest airport with 3.2 million passengers in 2007.


University of Latvia is the oldest university in Latvia and is located in Riga. Daugavpils University is the second largest university.


Latvians 60.0%
Russians 27.3%
Belarusians 3.7%
Ukrainians 2.5%
Poles 2.4%
Lithuanians 1.4%
Jews 0.5%
Roma 0.4%
Germans 0.2%
Estonians 0.1%
Others 1.5%

Ethnic and cultural diversity

Latvia's population has been multiethnic for centuries, though the demographics shifted dramatically in the twentieth century due to the World Wars, the emigration and removal of Baltic Germans, the Holocaust, and occupation by the Soviet Union.

Latvians and Livonians, the indigenous peoples of Latvia, now form about 60% of the population; 28% of the inhabitants are Russian. Approximately 56% of the ethnic Russians living in Latvia are citizens of Latvia. In 2005 there were even fewer Latvians than in 1989, though their share of the population was larger — 1,357,099 (58.8% of the inhabitants).

The official language of Latvia is Latvian, which belongs to the Baltic language group of the Indo-European language family. Another notable language of Latvia is the nearly extinct Livonian language of the Baltic-Finnic subbranch of the Uralic language family, which enjoys protection by law; Latgalian language — a dialect of Latvian — is also protected by Latvian law as historical variation of Latvian language. Russian which was official during the Soviet occupation is by far the most widespread minority language and also known by the majority of Latvians. In fact, knowledge of Russian is more widespread than knowledge of Latvian, 81% of all inhabitants know Russian, while only 79% know Latvian.



The largest religion is Christianity, although only 7% of population attend religious services regularly. The largest groups in 2006 are:

According to the most recent Eurobarometer Poll 2005, 37% of Latvian citizens responded that "they believe there is a god", whereas 49% answered that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force" and 10% that "they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, god, or life force". Lutheranism was much stronger before the Soviet occupation, when it was a majority religion, but since then Lutheranism in all the Baltic States has declined to a much greater extent than Roman Catholicism has. The country's Orthodox Christians belong to the Latvian Orthodox Church, a semi-autonomous body within the Russian Orthodox Church. There are 182 known Muslims living in Latvia though the total number is estimated to be much larger: from 500 to 5,000. There are also Jews (9,743 in 2006) in Latvia.

There are more than 600 Latvian neopagans, Dievturi (The Godskeepers), whose religion is based on Latvian mythology. About 40% of the total population is not affiliated with a specific religion.

International rankings

  • Environmental Sustainability Index: 15/146
  • Reporters Without Borders World-wide press freedom index: 12/168
  • Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index: 49/163
  • Heritage Foundation/The Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom: 39/157

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