Latvia is a multiparty democracy whose elections are regarded as free and fair. Civil liberties are generally respected in law and in practice. However, corruption remains a major problem affecting politics, the judiciary, and the wider criminal justice system. The country’s ethnic Russian population faces disadvantages in matters such as education and employment.
- In March, a state of emergency was declared as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It lasted until June, when it was replaced by less extreme social-distancing measures. A second state of emergency was declared in November in response to a new wave of COVID-19 cases. In late December, a New Year curfew was imposed, and the emergency restrictions were extended until February 2021. As of the end of the year, Latvia had reported roughly 40,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 600 deaths.
- In June, the parliament approved an overhaul of local government, including a reduction in the number of municipalities. The reform was set to be fully implemented after the 2021 local elections.
- In August, the Development/For!/Progressives alliance won the Riga city council elections, defeating the Harmony party, which had long governed the city but suffered from a series of corruption scandals. The victorious alliance formed a governing coalition with other groups and installed a new mayor in October.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The Saeima (parliament) elects the president, who may serve up to two four-year terms. The prime minister, who holds most executive authority, is nominated by the president and approved by the parliament. After legislative elections in October 2018 and lengthy negotiations, a ruling coalition of five parties was formed in January 2019. A former economy minister and member of the European Parliament, Krišjānis Kariņš of the center-right group New Unity, was confirmed that month as the new prime minister.
In May 2019, the Saeima selected European Court of Justice judge Egils Levits to succeed Raimonds Vējonis as president.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution provides for a unicameral, 100-seat Saeima, whose members are elected to four-year terms. The 2018 parliamentary elections were viewed as competitive and credible, and stakeholders accepted the results.
The 2018 elections featured significant losses for all three previously governing parties—the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), New Unity, and the conservative National Alliance—which jointly took 32 seats. The center-left opposition party Harmony, which relies on support from Latvia’s ethnic Russians, took 23 seats, one fewer than in the previous elections. Newly founded movements took the remaining 45: the populist Who Owns the State? (KPV LV) and the right-wing New Conservative Party (JKP) each took 16 seats, and the liberal coalition Development/For! (A/P!) took the remaining 13. Kariņš of New Unity successfully formed a coalition with the National Alliance, JKP, a majority of KPV LV lawmakers, and A/P! in January 2019.
In August 2020, an alliance between A/P! and the Progressives won the Riga city council elections, receiving 26 percent of the vote. Harmony, which had governed in the city since 2009, finished a distant second with 17 percent, having been weakened in part by corruption scandals. The winning bloc formed a coalition with the National Alliance, New Unity, and the JKP, and Mārtiņš Staķis of A/P! was installed as mayor in October.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
In general, the electoral framework is implemented fairly by the Central Election Commission and regional and local election administrations.
The president has traditionally been elected through a closed vote, but in late 2018 the outgoing Saeima amended the constitution to make future balloting open.
In June 2020, the parliament passed legislation to reorganize local government in the country. The reform, which would take full effect after the 2021 local elections, included a reduction in the number of municipalities from 119 to 42.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Latvia’s political parties organize and compete freely, and elections often result in representation for newly founded parties or coalitions. However, candidates cannot run as independents, and those who belonged to communist or pro-Soviet organizations after 1991 may not hold public office.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
The country has experienced numerous peaceful transfers of power between rival parties, and opposition parties typically have a strong presence in the Saeima and in local governments. However, Harmony and predecessor parties that were mostly supported by Latvia’s Russian-speaking population have never been invited to participate in forming a government.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||4.004 4.004|
Politically connected businesspeople have historically exercised undue influence in the country, using patronage networks, corruption, and other opaque means to infringe on the autonomy of voters and candidates. However, the 2018 election defeat of the ZZS—whose most prominent politician has long faced corruption allegations—and subsequent efforts by the new government to combat graft and money laundering have reinforced an apparent decline in improper influence by such figures.
Authorities and other observers continue to express concern about the presence of Russian government disinformation and propaganda in Latvian media, among other attempts by Moscow to influence domestic politics.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
More than 200,000 of Latvia’s registered residents are stateless, and most of them are ethnic Russians. They may not vote, hold public office, work in government offices, or establish political parties. Under a 2019 law that took effect in January 2020, the Latvian-born children of noncitizen residents are granted Latvian citizenship by default, unless both parents agree on conferring the citizenship of another country. The measure was intended to further reduce the stateless population over time.
Women have made gains in political participation in recent years. Women candidates won 31 percent of the Saeima seats in 2018, up from 19 percent previously.
LGBT+ people are poorly represented in Latvian politics, and parties have been reluctant to address their interests. However, the Saeima elected in 2018 included two openly LGBT+ members, Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs and A/P! lawmaker Marija Golubeva.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
The country’s elected leadership is able to set and implement government policies without improper interference from foreign or unelected entities, and the politically diverse legislature provides a meaningful check on executive authority.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3.003 4.004|
Latvian anticorruption and auditing bodies have historically been subject to politicization attempts, funding shortfalls, and a dearth of qualified personnel. However, the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB) has recently expanded its activities. The bureau initiated 47 criminal proceedings during 2019, representing an increase of 24 percent over the previous year and the largest number in the last decade.
The courts were adjudicating several high-profile corruption cases in 2020. The long-running trial of ZZS power broker Aivars Lembergs—the former mayor of Ventspils and one of the richest people in the country—continued during the year, as did the case of longtime central bank governor Ilmārs Rimšēvičs, who was charged with bribery in 2018 and money laundering in 2019. Separately, in the wake of a procurement scandal in Riga’s municipal government in late 2018, Nils Ušakovs of Harmony was forced to resign as mayor in 2019, and in February 2020 the Saeima dissolved Riga’s city council and appointed an interim government. That move triggered Riga’s snap municipal elections in August.
In June 2020, the parliament established a specialized Economic Affairs Court to deal with cases of economic and financial crimes. The legislation was criticized by the Council for the Judiciary, which expressed doubts that the new court would improve quality and efficiency.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
The legislative framework features extensive provisions intended to ensure government transparency. However, there is a notable lack of transparency in the functioning of state-owned companies and in public procurement processes.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
While Latvian media outlets publicize a wide range of political views in both Latvian and Russian, government offices, courts, and politically connected businesspeople sometimes interfere with their work. The National Electronic Mass Media Council (NEPLP), the country’s media regulator, is perceived to be vulnerable to political influence. Libel remains a criminal offense.
Authorities have occasionally restricted access to Russian radio and news websites, citing concerns about propaganda in some cases. In June 2020, the NEPLP banned seven television channels operated by the Russian state-owned network RT, arguing that they were under the effective control of Dmitry Kiselyov, who heads another Russian state media group and had been sanctioned by the European Union (EU). The move was criticized by Reporters Without Borders. Separately, it was reported in July that the NEPLP had started infringement procedures against the Russian-language television channel PBK on the grounds that it improperly rebroadcast content from other outlets and failed to provide a minimum of local coverage. In December, the authorities charged several journalists with violating EU sanctions, apparently because they worked for units of Kiselyov’s media group in Latvia.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of religion is generally respected. However, Latvia’s small Muslim population has faced some social pressure since a 2015 refugee crisis. Instances of antisemitic and Islamophobic hate speech have appeared on social media and the internet but are rarely reported to the police.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||3.003 4.004|
While academic freedom is largely upheld, lawmakers have begun to place some limitations on instruction in recent years. A 2015 law mandated that schools provide a “moral education” that coincides with the values of the constitution, including traditional views on marriage and family life. A law that took effect in 2017 enabled the firing of teachers found to be “disloyal to the state.”
Authorities in 2018 endeavored to discourage or eliminate the use of minority languages in schools and universities, and the measures were generally viewed as targeting Russian-language instruction. The Saeima amended the Education Law to phase out the use of minority languages in public and private high schools, and to significantly reduce their use in primary schools. The Kariņš government has pledged to maintain these policies.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
There are few restrictions on personal expression or private discussion. However, legal constraints include a ban on the public display of Soviet or Nazi symbols as well as prohibitions on incitement to ethnic hatred and denial of historical crimes.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is protected by law and generally respected in practice.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
The government does not restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). However, advocacy by NGOs is increasingly viewed as partisan activity.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
Workers may establish trade unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining, and antiunion discrimination is prohibited. In practice, the share of workers covered by collective-bargaining agreements has declined over time. A 2019 law imposed fines on employers that refuse to negotiate a collective agreement, among other potential violations.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||3.003 4.004|
While judicial independence is generally respected, inefficiency, politicization, and corruption within the judicial system persist.
Legislation that took effect in 2020 increased transparency and the judiciary’s role in the selection of both new judges and the country’s prosecutor general, with candidates applying through an open competition.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||3.003 4.004|
The legal framework provides safeguards against arbitrary arrest and guarantees for fair trial procedures. However, the court system is hampered by corruption and inefficiency, and defendants with adequate resources have exploited these weaknesses to delay or obstruct prosecutions. Criminal suspects are sometimes interrogated without the presence of a lawyer, and lengthy or unnecessary pretrial detention remains a concern.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
Latvians are generally free from major threats to physical security, though the country has comparatively high levels of violent crime by EU standards. According to the statistics agency Eurostat, Latvia had the bloc’s highest intentional homicide rate in 2018, the latest year for which data were available. Latvia also has one of the EU’s higher prison population rates, with some 179 incarcerated people per 100,000 residents in 2020. Some prison facilities reportedly suffer from poor physical conditions and episodes of violence.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution guarantees equality before the law and the protection of human rights without discrimination, and a number of safeguards are specified in law. However, a 2018 report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged Latvia to adopt a comprehensive antidiscrimination law and expressed concern that state language policies could discriminate against ethnic minority groups in education, employment, and access to services. Women continue to suffer from a gender-based pay gap in practice, and members of Latvia’s Romany minority face discrimination in schools and workplaces. Discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation is prohibited, but the law does not provide broader protection against discrimination for LGBT+ people.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
Citizens and noncitizens may travel freely within the country and internationally. Movement restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 were generally seen as legitimate responses to the evolving public health threat.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4.004 4.004|
The legal and regulatory framework supports an environment in which property rights are respected and people may freely operate businesses, though corruption can impede business activities.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
Individual freedom regarding personal status matters such as marriage and divorce is generally upheld, but a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was adopted in 2005. While lawmakers have repeatedly declined to recognize same-sex partnerships, most recently in October 2020, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of parental leave for same-sex couples in November, finding that the constitution required the state to protect the rights of such families.
Laws on domestic violence encompass various forms of abuse and provide for protection orders and criminal charges. However, police do not always take meaningful action when cases are reported. Latvia had not ratified the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on violence against women as of 2020.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
Legal protections against exploitative working conditions are generally upheld, though enforcement is uneven in the large informal sector of the economy. Informal workers are more vulnerable to labor abuses and recruitment into criminal enterprises. About 27 percent of Latvia’s population was at risk of social exclusion or poverty as of 2019, according to Eurostat.
The US State Department reports that Latvians are subject to trafficking for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and forced labor abroad, while a growing number of foreign migrant workers in Latvia are exposed to labor exploitation. Latvia maintains an assistance mechanism for trafficking survivors, but prosecutors have had relatively little success in convicting alleged perpetrators.
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