Latvia

Consolidated Democracy
80
100
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 79.76 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 5.79 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
80 100 Consolidated Democracy
The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0-100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic.

header1 Score changes in 2022

  • Judicial Framework and Independence rating declined from 6.25 to 6.00 due to the state’s failure to protect human rights in managing the crisis on Latvia’s border with Belarus by preventing irregular migrants from applying for asylum.

header2 As a result, Latvia’s Democracy Score declined from 5.82 to 5.79.

In 2021, Latvia remained a stable democracy with a well-developed and trusted electoral system, active civil society, independent media, and well-functioning local governance structures. However, the country faced two major crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and irregular migration at its border with Belarus. Moreover, the fight against political corruption remained a serious challenge for authorities and the state prosecution in particular, with the most extensive corruption scandals taking years to be investigated and tried. Nevertheless, one such scandal, after 12 years in court, reached a first-instance verdict: the former mayor of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs, was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for large-scale bribery, money laundering, and other crimes. Journalists and wider society generally view Latvia’s fight against corruption not as worsening but stagnating.

The protection of human rights at Latvia’s borders became a major concern in 2021 after neighboring Belarus began flying in groups of migrants, mostly from Middle Eastern countries, and then forcing them to enter Latvia as well as nearby Lithuania and Poland. Latvia’s capacity to receive large numbers of migrants was limited, and in order to stop the flow, the government introduced a three-month state of emergency in districts near the border with Belarus that allowed border guards to use force to turn back migrants, denying them the opportunity to apply for asylum. Calls by civil society organizations to uphold international human rights standards were disregarded on the grounds of national security. Public authorities called Belarus’s behavior a “hybrid war” with the aim to destabilize the internal situation in Latvia in retaliation for the government’s support for the democratic Belarusian opposition. The migration crisis brought to Latvia’s border more than 1,700 migrants, and only just over 50 persons were allowed to enter the country on humanitarian grounds. Activists and civil society organizations expressed concerns about the conditions for migrants as well as the need for a procedure to identify special needs at the border.

The government was largely capable of deliberating draft laws and developing and implementing policies as well as cooperating with the Saeima (Latvia’s unicameral parliament), except regarding COVID-19. To limit the spread of the virus, the government struggled to procure and distribute vaccines, especially to the elderly. At the same time, it had to contend with widespread public fatigue as well as vocal anti-vaccination groups. Long hours of negotiation were required to reach agreement among members of the government and the parliament when joint decisions and coordinated actions were urgently needed. The main burden of crisis management was placed on the Ministry of Health, which coordinated among a number of institutions with different roles despite lacking human resources, analytical capacity, and sufficient support from other sectors. Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš attempted to reach consensus among his coalition partners on government positions rather than to manage the crisis directly. Consequently, Latvia’s COVID-19 response reflected political compromises rather than targeted, proactive, data-based decision-making, and these weak measures were further delayed and poorly communicated, causing even greater public dissatisfaction.

No other alternatives to the current coalition government are realistic; therefore, after several “cosmetic” improvements—like excluding the weakest partner, KPV LV, from the coalition and redistributing its ministerial portfolios to other coalition parties—the government managed to avoid any governmental crises.

With the next parliamentary elections scheduled for October 1, 2022, several new political parties emerged and prepared to participate. Among these, “Law and Order” and “Latvia in First Place” oriented towards protest voters, organizing demonstrations against vaccination mandates and other public measures to fight COVID-19.

During the year, major changes faced Latvia’s regional governance. After the municipal elections in June, the administrative-territorial reform came into force in July. The number of municipalities was decreased from 119 to 43 for the stated purpose of addressing economic development disparities among municipalities as well as improving the quality of services. Since municipalities are rather autonomous institutions, a number of local politicians and voters resisted the reform, and 21 municipalities questioned the reform law before the Constitutional Court. Although a majority of the contested changes were declared constitutional, the court decided on the need to change the regulations in three cases. As a result, a community located on the border between two regional centers managed to temporarily remain a separate municipality until its inhabitants decide which of the centers to join. Although the court’s decision came just eight days before the elections, the Central Election Commission managed to adapt by postponing the polls in this municipality as well as in another it was slated to combine with. The two other cases proved complicated since the court’s decision was delivered after the elections. The court decided that the parliament must amend the reform accordingly by the end of 2021.

Due to the pandemic, preelection campaigns were less visible. Even though (or perhaps because) the reform brought significant local changes, people in general felt apathy towards politics, among other issues. As a result, the municipal elections showed historically low turnout, with only 34 percent of eligible voters participating, although several improvements had been introduced to boost participation, such as postal voting for citizens living abroad and a new electronic voter register.

In 2021, important changes came to Latvia’s media environment, especially in strengthening the public service broadcasters. A new supervisory body, the Public Electronic Mass Media Council, was elected to oversee public media and improve public interest representation as well as editorial independence. Additionally, the public media exited the commercial market, which should improve their capacity to serve in the public interest. To fill the void of credible information in languages other than Latvian, a new multimedia platform for minorities was established, although it is too early to say whether it will gain interest among the country’s largest minority, Russian speakers, who have numerous other sources of information among the widely available Russian propaganda outlets.

Looking ahead, since the COVID-19 pandemic was on the rise in Latvia at the end of 2021 and had yet to reach its highest point, the coming years are expected to be difficult in terms of both economic and public health recovery—and especially challenging next year with the parliamentary elections.

header3 At a Glance

National governance in Latvia is democratic, but the country’s executive capacity and strategic leadership in managing the COVID-19 crisis are insufficient. Elections are generally free and fair, election administration is trusted, and election procedures have improved. The civil sector plays an active role in public life, and funding to strengthen its capacities has increased. The media are independent and several improvements to strengthen the public service media have been implemented, but attacks on journalists have also increased. In local self-governance, necessary administrative-territorial reforms have been implemented, but the elections for new municipal councils had historically low turnout. The country’s judicial framework is well established, although international human rights protections have not been respected during the recent migration crises. Corruption remains a serious problem overall and investigations have stagnated, although some steps have been taken to prioritize cases of largescale political corruption.

National Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the democratic character of the governmental system; and the independence, effectiveness, and accountability of the legislative and executive branches. 6.006 7.007
  • Over the course of 2021, political fragmentation increased in the Saeima, Latvia’s 100-seat, unicameral parliament. Out of 16 elected members (MPs) representing the populist party KPV LV, a majority exited for various reasons. At the end of the summer, with only three MPs left, KPV LV rebranded itself “For a Humane Latvia” and, along with three independent MPs, established a new parliamentary group, “The Independents,” in order to remain a parliamentary group (which requires at least five MPs).1 Other parliamentary groups were stable, although some MPs also left for various reasons. For example, the largest opposition party, Harmony, lost its long-term member Jānis Ādamsons, suspected of spying for Russia and now in custody.2 In total, by the end of 2021, an unusually high proportion—about one fifth of all MPs—were independent deputies.
  • Several new political parties emerged and plan to run in the general elections on October 1, 2022: “Law and Order” is led by former KPV LV leader Aldis Gobzems. “Latvia in First Place” is led by former minister Ainārs Šlesers, who returned to politics shortly after being charged in connection with alleged irregularities in Latvia’s introduction of digital TV (see “Corruption”). Both formations are oriented towards a similar electorate, protesters against COVID-19 public measures and mandatory vaccination. Less visible was the new centrist party “Republic,” established by Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis, formerly of Harmony.3
  • During the year, the four-party government coalition (New Unity, New Conservative Party, National Alliance, and Development/For! [D/F]) overcame several political crises. First, it weathered a conflict between Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš (New Unity) and D/F that saw the latter’s Minister of Health replaced.4 Second, with the exit of KPV LV, the rest of the coalition agreed on the government’s main tasks until the next elections and redistributed KPV LV’s ministerial portfolios among the remaining parties.5
  • As the country’s main executive body, the government, was generally able to deliberate draft laws and develop and implement policies as well as cooperate with the Saeima, with the exception of decision-making around COVID-19. Various coalition members expressed polarized views on the necessary steps to combat the pandemic. In April, the parliamentary majority, including some coalition parties, voted against the government’s proposal to keep bars and restaurants closed, even for outdoor catering; the parliament ultimately voted to allow outdoor service.6 In September, the parliament canceled a vote on the government’s initiative to introduce mandatory vaccination for certain professions, since several coalition members refused to support it.7 Later in September, under critical public-health circumstances, the coalition agreed that the government had the necessary power to require obligatory vaccination in certain professions.8
  • Mistrust of the government as well as disinformation contributed to Latvia’s relatively low vaccination rate: by year’s end, around 67 percent of the population had taken a full vaccine regimen despite the wide availability of free vaccines since the summer.9 On the government’s response to the pandemic, Latvians were among the most dissatisfied (64 percent) among EU countries, citing the government’s poorly justified and changing preventive measures, weak communication, and prioritization of lobbying interests, among other criticisms.10 Towards the end of the year, Latvia faced a third wave of coronavirus, more difficult than the previous two, and was forced to implement a three-month state of emergency beginning on October 11.11
  • Although the fight against COVID-19 was shared among many institutions, including the specially created Vaccination Bureau (later incorporated into the National Health Service),12 the nation’s cross-sectoral coordination was weak. A consultation mechanism using an advisory committee of academics failed to help the situation, with experts citing a lack of government cooperation or officials heeding their advice. After the government’s decision to introduce much softer public measures to restrain the third wave of the virus instead of the lockdown that epidemiologists and the advisory committee recommended, the committee decided to suspend its work on October 11.13
  • A special parliamentary commission was established to investigate the government’s mistakes in responding to COVID-19, led by the prime minister’s party colleague Rihards Kozlovskis (New Unity), thereby breaking the Saeima’s unwritten rule that such committees are usually led by opposition parties. Yet there were no signs by year’s end that this breach of protocol had undermined the inquiry. The law governing parliamentary commissions limits the participation of independent MPs, therefore, almost one fifth of the Saeima was excluded. Meanwhile, an initiative to open the commission to independent MPs was voted down.14
Electoral Process 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines national executive and legislative elections, the electoral framework, the functioning of multiparty systems, and popular participation in the political process. 6.256 7.007
  • Municipal elections held on June 5, 2021, were conducted fairly, and citizens of Latvia or the European Union (EU) age 18 and over could vote in the district of their residence or where they own an immovable property. Citizens could register to vote at their residence if unable to cast their ballot in person due to health reasons. Early voting was provided during the three days prior to Election Day. Overall, Latvians trust the electoral procedures organized by the Central Election Commission (CEC), and 89 percent of voters surveyed trust that the results were counted fairly.1
  • No serious misconduct in the municipal elections was reported, and the majority of possible irregularities during the preelection period and on Election Day were not confirmed.2
  • In 2021, important improvements in Latvia’s electoral process were introduced. For the first time, an electronic voter register was used in polling stations.3 As a result, voters were given the opportunity to vote in any polling station in their municipality and to use an electronic ID instead of their passport. Also for the first time, citizens abroad were eligible to participate in the local elections through postal voting.4 No special measures were introduced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • After the Saeima adopted the new administrative-territorial reform and made related amendments to the law governing local elections in 2020, voter associations were no longer eligible to participate in local elections; only registered political parties, which enjoy little trust in Latvian society, are allowed to field candidates.5 This move has decreased opportunities for local activism, since candidates are now forced to form a political party (more burdensome than forming a voter association) in order to run in elections.6 After the 2021 municipal elections, 58 percent of voters supported the idea of retaining the right to vote for voter associations.7
  • The municipal elections were the first to be held after the administrative-territorial reform, which decreased the number of local governments from 119 to 43 and the overall number of city council deputies by almost half.8 No elections were held in the capital city Rīga since its city council was elected in extraordinary elections in 2020 and will continue to work until the 2025 elections. After interventions from the Constitutional Court, elections were canceled in the Rēzekne and Varakļāni municipalities and rescheduled in September (see “Local Democratic Governance”).
  • Only 34 percent of eligible voters participated in the municipal elections, the lowest turnout for local elections since the restoration of Latvia’s independence. Reasons for this include the pandemic effect, which made campaigning less visible; the administrative-territorial reform, which disoriented voters;9 and lower visibility for the elections overall since the capital city itself was not holding a vote and driving wider news coverage. However, the most decisive reported reason was voters’ general apathy towards politics and lack of belief that anything could be influenced by voting.10
Civil Society 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses the organizational capacity and financial sustainability of the civic sector; the legal and political environment in which it operates; the functioning of trade unions; interest group participation in the policy process; and the threat posed by antidemocratic extremist groups. 6.006 7.007
  • The registration process for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Latvia is easy and accessible, and the legal framework for the civic sector is stable. During 2021, the number of associations and foundations continued to grow; in October, there were 25,380 registered NGOs, including more than 700 new ones, but not all groups are active. The sector is concentrated in the capital Rīga, where 42 percent of all NGOs are registered.1 Although activism in the regions is gradually increasing, it is focused mainly on territorial planning to protect cultural or natural heritage.2
  • Only a small number of NGOs participate in political decision-making (4 percent), and the top ten among them are business and municipal associations.3 The social dialogue among trade unions, employers, and the government is institutionalized on the governmental level, while the civic dialogue over issues, policies, and decisions about individuals communities, and society at large is still underdeveloped. The main governmental framework for the NGO sector is the Cooperation Memorandum, which is implemented through monthly meetings between NGOs and state secretaries in the civil service.
  • Organizational capacity and financial viability in the sector have slightly improved in the last few years due to support from the public National NGO Fund and the Active Citizens Fund, a program of the European Economic Area (EEA)/Norway Finance Mechanism. Local civil society organizations (CSOs) received significant public support for activities responding to social needs, especially organizations working with social or healthcare issues. Watchdog, anticorruption, or human rights organizations have fewer sources of funding.4
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, CSOs were involved in mitigating negative effects on the most vulnerable groups. As with other sectors, civil society was affected by the pandemic, which reduced operating incomes, forced the pause or cancellation of services and projects, and led to staff layoffs. According to the Civic Alliance of Latvia, an umbrella organization of NGOs, at least 277 associations and foundations, mainly from the culture and sport sectors, received state financial support during the pandemic.5
  • COVID-19 restrictions had an impact on the size of public gatherings; nevertheless, people were able to realize their political rights as long as restrictions were respected. Most protests, the largest of which brought nearly 4,000 people to the streets in August, were mobilized by the politicians Aldis Gobzems and Ainārs Šlesers (see “National Democratic Governance”) against mandatory vaccination.6 Public protests and demonstrations were forbidden during the autumn lockdown, when the spread of coronavirus was nearing its peak.
  • During the pandemic, the issue of vaccination divided society. While the most active protesters during the summer were vaccination deniers, in September, when the country was approaching its third COVID-19 wave—and it was clear that because of the low vaccination rate, the country would have to return to strict measures—both vaccinated and unvaccinated people started to protest. Using the public petitions portal Manabalss.lv, people signed various COVID-19-related initiatives. Among these, the most controversial proposed that adults who refuse to vaccinate and become infected should cover at least part of their hospital costs.7 The Saeima discussed such petitions near the end of October but had not taken any action by year’s end.
Independent Media 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines the current state of press freedom, including libel laws, harassment of journalists, and editorial independence; the operation of a financially viable and independent private press; and the functioning of the public media. 6.006 7.007
  • As of 2021, the new Public Electronic Mass Media Council is the chief oversight and management body for public service media, namely, Latvian Television, Latvian Radio, and the internet platform LSM.lv. The law that regulates this body’s work also strengthened the public media’s editorial independence through a new mechanism for appointing chief editors as well as a public media ombudsman. With this step, the two conflicting functions of the National Electronic Mass Media Council—that is, the oversight of all electronic media in Latvia as well as holding shares of public media—are finally divided, handing the latter function over to the new Public Electronic Mass Media Council.1
  • Starting from January 1, after a three-year delay, public media exited the commercial advertising market. Private media are expected to benefit from this move as income from commercials increases. To compensate public media for the lost income and to help reorient them towards ad-free operations, the government allocated €13.8 million to public media over the next two years.2 Yet unsolved is the problem of how to provide stable, predictable public-media financing that is not directly decided by politicians or risks political interference.3
  • As a response to the divided information space in Latvia, a new multimedia public platform was launched combining the content of Latvian Television, LSM.lv, and Latvian Radio 4 in Russian. This new platform provides an alternative to Russian propaganda, especially after sanctions levied against Baltic Media Alliance and closure of multiple Russia-based TV channels, including the news service of Baltic Media Alliance’s First Baltic Channel.4 On October 21, due to repeated violations of the electronic media law, First Baltic Channel’s license was revoked.5 The National Electronic Mass Media Council’s decision provided that, beginning January 1, all Russian language content from public TV Chanel LTV7 would be moved to the internet platform due to its low ratings and poor journalistic quality as well as changing patterns of media consumption.6 After facing criticism that such a move would block the segment of the Russian-speaking minority that prefers linear TV from receiving local news, it was decided that LTV7’s Russian language news would continue broadcasting through the end of 2021.7
  • Legal guarantees of the right to access information and protections for journalists were in place during the year. Nevertheless, the remote work of government decision makers and civil servants forced media to depend on official information provided through press conferences or via e-mails, with hardly any opportunities for in-person Q&As.8 The situation improved after the parliament and the government returned to office work by the end of the summer. Similarly, during the migrant crisis on the border with Belarus, information was limited mostly to official reports provided by border guards. Due to security reasons, journalists had limited opportunities to visit the border and only when accompanied by border guards.
  • Latvian citizens have a mixed though predominantly negative opinion of the media; 42 percent trust the media, while 58 percent distrust it.9 During the pandemic, the media regularly reported information on COVID-19. This coverage was misused by the leader of the newly established party “Law and Order,” Aldis Gobzems, who regularly tried to frame the work of journalists as untrustworthy and favoring the government through his posts on social media and public interviews. In August, during an anti-vaccine protest, the politician incited demonstrators to move against journalists who were livestreaming or reporting the event, with several protesters aggressively interfering in their work.10 The nongovernmental Council of Media Ethics noted that journalists increasingly face personal attacks online as well as during such events and called on Latvian society to respect press freedom.11
Local Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the decentralization of power; the responsibilities, election, and capacity of local governmental bodies; and the transparency and accountability of local authorities. 5.756 7.007
  • Local elections took place on June 5 across most of Latvia, with exceptions in the capital city and two other municipalities. (In Rīga, extraordinary elections were held in 2020, while the elections in Varakļāni and Rēzekne were postponed until September by order of the Constitutional Court.) These were significant elections since they were the first to be held after the administrative-territorial reform came into force.
  • The redrawing of municipal borders in the administrative-territorial reform brought some changes in party representation. The biggest opposition party, Harmony, remained in power in the country’s second-largest city, Daugavpils, and in Rēzekne; but Harmony lost power in two other communities that were merged into larger municipalities. Overall, the opposition Greens and Farmers Union, traditionally well represented in local government, was again one of the winners in the elections, followed by the Latvian Regional Alliance (currently unrepresented in the parliament) and two governing parties, “For the Development of Latvia” (part of D/F) and National Alliance. A few regional parties managed to stay in power after the reform, and several local leaders managed to hold on albeit changing their political party affiliation.1
  • The administrative-territorial reform redrew the map of Latvia, creating larger municipalities (reduced from 119 to 43) with the aim of equalizing regional disparities in population size and financial ability to fulfill local self-governance functions. The reform was designed and implemented over a short period of time, and it faced certain resistance from local politicians and 21 local governments that challenged the constitutional compliance of the reform law. The Constitutional Court ruled that the majority of these contested provisions (16 out of 21) were compatible with the reform’s aims and criteria. Cases regarding two contested provisions were rejected, but in the three remaining cases, the court decided that the parliamentary decisions on particular municipalities did not comply with the constitution. The main argument in two of the three cases was that the parliament did not fulfill one of the reform’s decisive criteria: the new administrative territories did not have any center (city) of regional or national significance to serve as a driving force for development. The court’s decisions were made after the municipal elections and obliged the parliament to address these shortcomings by the end of 2021. The Saeima managed to agree not only on changes to the two particular municipalities—Ilūkstes and Ozolnieku—but also on others with the same potential problem, deciding that these municipalities would join with the closest respective regional development center by the 2029 municipal elections (therefore, the total number of local municipalities will decrease even further in seven years).2
  • More complicated was the third case of Varakļāni municipality in which the court rendered a judgment only eight days before the elections. The court acknowledged that the addition of Varakļāni to Rēzekne was unconstitutional. After the decision, Varakļāni temporarily remained a separate municipality, and the CEC decided to postpone the elections in the two municipalities until September 11. In Rēzekne municipality, 26 percent of voters participated; in Varakļāni, the participation was 59 percent, the highest turnout among all municipalities in the local elections.3
  • During the year, the Saeima discussed a new draft law on municipalities that would differ from the current legislation in containing a special section on public participation, including encouragement to introduce participatory budgeting and local civic councils—namely, voluntary citizen councils in local parishes to represent local interests. The parliament is expected to approve the new law in 2022.4
Judicial Framework and Independence 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Assesses constitutional and human rights protections, judicial independence, the status of ethnic minority rights, guarantees of equality before the law, treatment of suspects and prisoners, and compliance with judicial decisions. 6.006 7.007
  • Latvia’s judiciary remained largely independent in 2021. The perceived level of independence of the courts has improved during the last four years: 57 percent (a 12 percent increase from 2016) of the general population and 53 percent (a 6 percent increase) of companies consider the level of independence of the courts as “fairly or very good.”1 These gains in public support could be driven by such factors as structural improvements, change in heads of courts, or important judgments like the Constitutional Court decision in 2020 on social security that increased financial support for certain social groups.2
  • Throughout the year, institutional improvements were made towards strengthening the quality of the courts as well as judicial governance and ethics. In February, a new code of ethics for judges was adopted3 since the previous code, in force since 1995, was outdated. The new code sets out broad principles of ethical conduct rather than the previous version’s detailed rules, and it leaves out situations already regulated by law. In March, the Judicial Council approved its strategy for 2021–25 with the aim to increase judicial independence.4 In April, the Judicial Council improved its procedure for selecting candidates for district and regional court judges.5
  • Latvia, together with Lithuania and Poland—the EU countries sharing borders with Belarus—faced a serious migration crisis in 2021. This was dubbed a “hybrid attack,” or revenge, by the authoritarian regime of President Aliaksandr Lukashenka for EU sanctions on Belarus. During the summer, Belarus began to shuffle migrants (mainly from Afghanistan and Iraq) to its EU borders, forcing the migrants to cross. As irregular migration into Latvia intensified in the beginning of August, the government declared a three-month state of emergency in four municipalities on the border.6 The state-of-emergency regulations allowed border guards to use physical force to return migrants to the country whose state border they had crossed illegally. The decision also barred applications to grant migrants refugee or alternative status in the territory of the state of emergency.7
  • Local human rights activists strongly criticized this move, appealing to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights, since this decision denied any chance of applying for asylum, and migrants were treated not as individuals with human dignity and special circumstances but as an abstract group.8
  • Migrants from Poland and Latvia applied to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), and on August 25, the ECtHR imposed interim measures on both countries. The court requested that countries provide applicants with food, water, clothing, adequate medical care, and, if possible, temporary shelter. The ECtHR, however, did not request that countries let migrants enter their territories. The measure was applied for a fixed term, August 25–September 15, 2021.9
  • Responding to the ECtHR, Latvia’s Minister of Interior said the country was already acting in line with the measures.10 Since the state of emergency was declared, at least 50 persons were let into Latvia on humanitarian grounds, due mainly to health reasons. With the help of NGOs, humanitarian aid was provided to migrants on the border, but access to the border zone was limited. In total, as of October, more than 1,700 people had been deterred from crossing the state border illegally.11 The number of attempts to cross the border fell as the year progressed; media reported that 10–20 attempts were made daily in September–October.12 A 37-kilometer barbed-wire fence was scheduled to be erected along the border with Belarus beginning in September.13
Corruption 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Looks at public perceptions of corruption, the business interests of top policymakers, laws on financial disclosure and conflict of interest, and the efficacy of anticorruption initiatives. 4.505 7.007
  • Corruption in Latvia neither worsened nor improved in 2021. According to available data from 2020, around 55 percent of Latvians think that the level of corruption remained the same in the last 12 months, while those who believe the level of corruption had increased are divided equally with those who believe the opposite (about 20 percent each).1 As for personal experiences with bribery, 9 percent of public-service users acknowledged that during the last 12 months they had paid bribes, whereas around 21 percent of the population and 19 percent of entrepreneurs surveyed in spring 2021 allowed the possibility of giving a bribe to a state official.2
  • The excessive length of investigations and trials of political corruption, as well as the inability to prioritize these cases, are some of the justice system’s prosecutorial weaknesses, despite the fact that the overall number of prosecutors in Latvia ranks among the highest in Europe.3 New Prosecutor General Juris Stukāns took an active start to his duties and responded to these weaknesses with several internal reforms, including establishing a new division to probe crimes by public officials that might speed up the investigation phase. Stukāns joined with journalists and NGOs in criticizing the stagnation of the country’s fight against corruption.4 The investigation and prosecution of corruption is a shared task among different authorities, but in the case of political corruption, the main authority is the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB), an independent institution dealing also with conflicts of interests and controlling political party financing. During the last few years, KNAB has been largely unsuccessful in unearthing high-level political corruption, and several scandals were left unprosecuted because pretrial investigations were terminated for lack of proof.
  • Although KNAB has managed to improve its reputation, just 26 percent of citizens in 2021 assessed it as honest (up from 19.5 percent in 2016). This is similar to the public view of the courts.5 However, a third of Latvian citizens felt unable to assess the work of KNAB at all.6 The term of the bureau’s current head, Jēkabs Straume, expires in 2022, when the Saeima will have the difficult task of selecting his replacement, a perennial opportunity for political figures to interfere in the work of the independent institution.
  • On March 31, a specialized Economic Court was opened to speed up the processing of money laundering and other economic crimes as well as corruption and certain types of civil cases. From the planned ten judges, nine jurists took an oath and started their work, along with specially trained court staff.7
  • After 12 years of hearings, a first-instance court decision was finally announced in the criminal case against Aivars Lembergs, the mayor of Ventspils for over 20 years, one of the leaders of the opposition Greens and Farmers Union, and a so-called oligarch. The court delivered a judgment in February; Lembergs was found guilty on charges related to bribery and money laundering and sentenced to five years in prison. The court also confiscated his property and imposed a €20,000 fine.8 After the decision, more details were disclosed explaining the longevity of the pretrial investigation, in which Lembergs tracked a prosecutor assigned to the case, tried to influence witnesses, organized public campaigns to damage reputations, and deliberately hindered court proceedings in order to avoid criminal liability.9 These revelations also showed Lembergs’s influence on law enforcement officials. The court’s judgment was appealed; meanwhile, Lembergs was allowed to participate in the municipal elections on June 5 as a leader of the “For Latvia and Ventspils” party. He won a spot on the city council but was not re-elected mayor.10
  • In 2021, KNAB terminated for lack of evidence several proceedings in a 2018 corruption case involving collusion in public procurement bids where construction companies had allegedly bribed state officials. The bureau nevertheless found enough evidence to hand the case over to the State Competition Council, which imposed a fine on the builders totaling more than €16.5 million as well as banning their participation in public procurements for a year.11
  • An important turn occurred in March when former prime minister and one of Latvia’s richest individuals, Andris Šķēle, was accused of fraud and money laundering, and another former politician, Ainārs Šlesers, was charged with possible irregularities connected to Latvia’s introduction of digital TV.12 Nine individuals are currently facing criminal charges related to the digital TV probe, which was brought to the newly established Economic Court.13 At the same time, a 14-year-long corruption case in the digital TV scandal continues its harrowing path through the courts.14

Author: Liga Stafecka is senior political researcher at the Center for Public Policy Providus. Previously, she worked as a freelance consultant in 2004–12 and was senior policy analyst at Transparency International Latvia. Stafecka holds a master’s degree in political science from the University of Latvia.

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