Freedom in the World
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In the October 2002 parliamentary elections, a new political party led by former central bank chairman, Einars Repse, captured the most seats to lead the country's ninth government since the reestablishment of independence 11 years earlier. Along with three other political parties, Repse's New Era Party formed a center-right coalition government with a majority of seats in parliament. Efforts to privatize one of the country's remaining state-owned industries, the Latvian Shipping Company, finally succeeded in June with the sale of 51 percent of the company. Both the European Union (EU) and NATO extended invitations to Latvia for membership in 2004.
After having been ruled for centuries by Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Russia, Latvia gained its independence in 1918, only to be 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.
In the October 1998 parliamentary elections, the newly created People's Party, led by former agriculture minister, Adris Skele, 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 coalition government led by Vilis Kristopans. It consisted of his center-right Latvia's Way, the right-wing nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK (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, whose brief term had been plagued by various policy defeats and political crises, stepped down in July 1999, precipitating the collapse of his government. 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, the government collapsed and Prime Minister Skele resigned in April 2000. On May 5, Riga mayor Andris Berzins of Latvia's Way was chosen prime minister to lead the new government, which included the previous coalition's three parties.
In parliamentary elections held on October 5, 2002, six parties passed the 5 percent threshold to enter the legislature: the new center-right New Era Party, led by Einars Repse, captured 26 seats; the center-left For Human Rights in a United Latvia, which represents many of the country's Russian-speakers, secured 25 seats; the People's Party won 20 seats; the new center-right Latvia First Party captured 10 seats; the new Union of Greens and Farmers took 12 seats; and FF/LNNK secured 7 seats. Latvia's Way, the longest-serving party in parliament, failed to win enough votes to enter parliament. Repse was named the new prime minister to lead a majority coalition government consisting of the New Era Party, Union of Greens and Farmers, Latvia First Party, and FF/LNNK. Voter turnout was estimated at more than 70 percent.
After several failed attempts to privatize the Latvian Shipping Company (LASCO), 51 percent of the company was successfully sold in June. Latvian investors purchased some 61 percent of the shares, while international investors bought the remaining 39 percent.
Near the end of the year, Latvia achieved two of its long-standing foreign policy objectives when it received formal invitations in November from NATO and in December from the EU to join their organizations in 2004. On December 27, parliament approved a September 20, 2003, national referendum to vote on Latvia's entering the EU.
Latvians can change their government democratically. 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 2002 were free and fair. 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 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 Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox Russian. An education law stipulating that secondary-school classes be conducted in Latvian will go into effect in 2004; some 120,000 students attend Russian-language schools throughout Latvia.
Freedom of assembly and association is protected by law, and gatherings occur without governmental interference. Workers have the right to establish trade unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining. Thousands of health care workers took part in strikes during 2002 to protest low wages and the level of state spending on health services. Latvia has adopted various anticorruption measures, including laws in 2002 to establish a corruption prevention bureau and to prevent conflict of interest among state officials. However, corruption among some government officials remains a recognized problem. Berlin-based Transparency International ranked Latvia 52 out of 102 countries surveyed in its 2002 Corruption Perceptions Index.
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. 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 regarding his lengthy incarceration with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which ruled in November 2002 that both his pretrial detention period and the court proceedings had been too long. The opinion of the ECHR, which awarded him 15,000 Euros to cover trial expenses in Strasbourg, did not order his release from prison. Lavent's case was pending appeal in Latvia at year's end. Prison facilities remain severely overcrowded and suffer from inadequate sanitary conditions.
Nearly one-fifth of Latvia's residents are noncitizens, who are barred from participating in state and local elections and from holding some civil service jobs. On April 30, 2002, parliament adopted constitutional amendments making Latvian the sole official language in national legislative and local councils. Just nine days later, in a move some critics charged as being largely symbolic, parliament abolished a provision in the country's election law requiring candidates for parliament and local elections to be fluent in Latvian. The change had been proposed by President Vaira Vike-Freiberga in late 2001 and had been mentioned at times as a condition for Latvia's membership to NATO.
Women possess the same legal rights as men, although they frequently face hiring and pay discrimination and are underrepresented in senior-level business and governmental positions.