Freedom in the World
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Left-of-center parties, led by the Latvian Social Democratic Workers' Party (LSDWP), swept to victory in the March 2001 local elections. Ongoing economic problems, particularly in rural areas, were credited with helping to secure their wins in a number of city councils, including the most influential one in the capital city of Riga. Privatization of the remaining large-scale enterprises, including the Latvian Shipping Company, continued to be delayed throughout the year.
After having been ruled for centuries by Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Russia, Latvia gained its independence in 1918, but was annexed by the U.S.S.R. during World War II. More than 50 years of Soviet occupation saw a massive influx of Russians and the deportation, execution, and emigration of tens of thousands of ethnic Latvians. In 1991, Latvia regained its independence in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Following the October 1995 parliamentary elections, nonparty businessman and former Agriculture Minister Andris Skele was chosen to lead a tenuous six-party coalition government in December. The year 1997 was marked by continual government instability, with Skele surrendering the premiership to Guntars Krasts of the right-wing nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom /LNNK (FF/LNNK) in July-August.
In the October 1998 parliamentary elections, Skele's newly created People's Party received the most votes, although Skele remained unpopular among many political forces for his often authoritarian and abrasive style. After nearly two months of negotiations, parliament finally approved a new 46-seat minority government led by Vilis Kristopans and consisting of his center-right Latvia's Way, FF/LNNK, and the center-left New Party, along with the tacit support of the left-wing Alliance of Social Democrats. The People's Party was excluded from the ruling coalition, which most observers predicted would not survive for long because of the ideological diversity of its members and its minority status in parliament. In June 1999, Latvian-Canadian academic Vaira Vike-Freiberga was elected the country's first female president, succeeding Guntis Ulmanis, who had served as head of state for six years.
After only nine months in office, Prime Minister Kristopans stepped down in July 1999, precipitating the collapse of his minority coalition government. Kristopans' brief term had been plagued by various policy defeats and political crises, culminating in the virtual isolation of the prime minister's party in its opposition to Vike-Freiberga's candidacy for president. Latvia's Way, the People's Party, and FF/LNNK put aside enough of their differences to agree to form a new 62-seat majority coalition led by Kristopans' political rival, Andris Skele, as prime minister. Following months of growing strains within the ruling coalition over privatization issues and personality conflicts, Prime Minister Skele resigned in April 2000 after the collapse of his government. On May 5, Riga Mayor Andris Berzins of Latvia's Way was chosen prime minister. The new government, the ninth since independence in 1991, included the previous coalition's three parties.
In the March 2001 municipal elections, left-of-center political parties scored victories in Riga and several other cities, largely by capitalizing on the public's discontent with the national government's handling of economic and social issues, including high rural unemployment. Voter turnout was 62 percent of the country's 1.3 million eligible voters. In Riga's 60-seat city council, the LSDWP secured 14 seats, followed closely by the leftist For Human Rights in a United Latvia with 13, FF/LNNK with 11, the People's Party with 6, and Latvia's Way with 5; several other parties captured 1 or 2 seats each. Gundars Bojars of the LSDWP - and son of LSDWP chairman Juris Bojars - was chosen mayor of Riga. In May, the LSDWP signed an unlikely coalition agreement with FF/LNNK, which refused to include For Human Rights in a United Latvia. With the addition of six smaller parties, the coalition had a slim majority of 34 seats. However, FF/LNNK withdrew from the unstable coalition just three months later.
Problems surrounding the privatization of Latvia's remaining state-owned industries continued in 2001. The third attempt to privatize the Latvian Shipping Company (LASCO) failed in April when no bidders paid the required $5 million security deposit by the deadline. In December, the government adopted new guidelines for LASCO's sale, with 51 percent of the company to be sold on the stock exchange. The director of the Latvian Privatization Agency, Janis Naglis, was dismissed in November for alleged procedural violations; several earlier attempts to oust him from office had contributed to crises at the national government level.
Latvians can change their government democratically. However, Latvia's citizenship laws have been criticized for disenfranchising those who immigrated to Latvia during the Soviet period and who must now apply for citizenship. Moscow continues to accuse Riga of discriminating against the country's 700,000 Russian speakers, mostly ethnic Russian. The constitution provides for a unicameral, 100-seat parliament (Saeima), whose members are elected for four-year terms by proportional representation, and who in turn select the country's president. According to international observers, the most recent national legislative elections in 1998 were free and fair.
The government respects freedom of speech and the press. Private television and radio stations broadcast programs in both Latvian and Russian, and newspapers publish a wide range of political viewpoints. However, many media outlets routinely report rumors and accusations as fact without benefit of hard evidence. Freedom of worship is generally respected in this country in which the three largest denominations are Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Orthodoxy.
Freedom of assembly and association is protected by law, and gatherings occur without government interference. Workers have the right to establish trade unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining. Although Latvia has adopted various anticorruption measures, a lack of transparency in political party financing and corruption among some government officials remain problems.
While the government generally respects constitutional provisions for an independent judiciary, reform of the courts has been slow and judges continue to be inadequately trained and prone to corruption. In October 2001, Judge Janis Laukroze was shot dead near his apartment building in the first murder of a judge in the history of independent Latvia. The legal system has been criticized for being slow to charge accused Nazi war criminals, including Konrads Kalejs, whom his adopted home of Australia agreed in May 2001 to extradite to Latvia. However, Kalejs died in November at an Australian nursing home at the age of 88. Severe backlogs in the court system have led to lengthy delays in reviewing cases and to large numbers of persons being held in pretrial detention. In one prominent case, former chairman of Banka Baltija, Alexander Lavent, who was arrested in connection with the bank's collapse in the mid-1990s, was held in detention for several years before his conviction on fraud charges in December 2001. Lavent filed complaints with the European Court of Human Rights regarding his lengthy incarceration. Prison facilities remain severely overcrowded and suffer from inadequate sanitary conditions.
Out of the country's nearly 700,000 Russian speakers, some 550,000 are registered noncitizens, most of whom are ethnic Russians. Noncitizens are barred from running in state and local elections and from holding some civil service jobs. In early December 2001, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga called for the abolition of a provision in the country's election law requiring candidates for parliament and local elections to be fluent in Latvian; possible amendments to the law could be presented to parliament in early 2002. Less than two weeks later, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) announced that it would end its nine-year mission in Latvia at the end of 2001, noting that the country was in full compliance with OSCE standards, including those regarding the rights of ethnic minorities.
Women possess the same legal rights as men, although they frequently face hiring and pay discrimination and are underrepresented in senior-level business and government positions.