Freedom in the World
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In 2004, Latvia accomplished two long-standing goals by joining the European Union (EU) on May 1 and NATO on April 2. The year was marked by significant political turbulence, as two coalition governments collapsed in an eight-month period. Elections to the European Parliament, held on July 13, drew only 41 percent of Latvian citizens to the polls and resulted in a resounding defeat for the governing coalition. In February, the parliament passed a law mandating Latvian as the primary language of instruction in all public schools; the ethnic Russian community protested the law. Relations with Moscow continued to deteriorate.
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 parliamentary elections held on October 5, 2002, the newly formed center-right New Era party, led by Einars Repse, garnered the most votes. Repse was named the new prime minister to lead a majority coalition government composed of the New Era party, Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), Latvia First Party (LFP), and For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK (FF/LNNK). Latvia's Way, the longest-serving party in parliament, failed to win enough votes to enter the legislature. Voter turnout was estimated at more than 70 percent. Running unopposed, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was reelected to a second four-year term in June 2003 by an overwhelming majority in the Latvian parliament.
Almost 73 percent of Latvian voters participated in a September 2003 referendum on EU accession, with 67 percent voting to join the body. Repse hailed the vote as one of the three most important events in the country's history, along with the brief spate of independence between the two world wars and the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. Shortly after referendum polling stations closed, however, deep fissures were exposed in Repse's coalition, most conspicuously over the appointment of the head of the new Corruption Prevention Bureau. Latvia became a member of NATO in April 2004 and the EU the following month.
Political tensions continued to fester in 2004, and in February, Repse and his ruling coalition resigned after the LFP withdrew its support of the government. Repse had sacked LFP leader and deputy prime minister Ainars Slesers a week earlier, after Slesers backed the establishment of a parliamentary committee to probe Repse's allegedly corrupt real estate purchases. In March, parliament voted in a new coalition government led by ZZS head Indulis Emsis, who become Europe's first ever Green prime minister. The coalition included the LFP, the People's Party, and one rebel New Era deputy. However, Emsis's government was forced to resign in October after parliament's rejection of its draft 2005 budget, regarded as a no-confidence vote by parliamentary rules. President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was scheduled to nominate a new prime minister in December 2004.
Only 41 percent of Latvian voters turned out for the country's first-ever elections to the European Parliament. Those that did vote issued a stern rebuke to the then-governing coalition by voting overwhelmingly for the conservative opposition. FF/LNNK garnered 29.8 percent of the vote and 4 of Latvia's 9 seats in the European Parliament, while New Era picked up 2 seats (19.7 percent) and Latvia's Way, 1 seat (6.5 percent). The People's Party, with 6.6 percent of the vote, was the only governing party to earn a seat. For Human Rights in a United Latvia, a leftist party supported by Latvia's ethnic Russian minority, also earned a seat, with 10.7 percent.
Latvian relations with Russia worsened in 2004, a situation exacerbated by the debate over the status of ethnic Russians in Latvia. In December 2003, a Latvia court decision finding 82-year-old former Soviet security agent Nikolai Tess guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity elicited condemnations from Moscow. Russian officials have repeatedly expressed their opposition to the new Latvian education language law and raised the issue with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU, and the Council of Europe. Moscow has also considered economic sanctions and has already stopped sending crude oil through Latvia's pipeline system. In April, Riga expelled a Russian diplomat for allegedly trying to access NATO military secrets. The next month, the parliament voted to make public thousands of KGB files left in the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a controversial decision vociferously opposed by the Russian minority. Also in May, Repse joined the Estonian prime minister, Juhan Parts, in signing a declaration calling for the European Parliament to condemn the totalitarian Communist regimes of the Soviet era.
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. The prime minister is nominated by the president and must be approved by an absolute parliamentary majority. According to international observers, the most recent national legislative elections in 2002 and the European Parliament elections on July 13, 2004, were free and fair.
Transparency International (TI) regularly cites Latvia as the most corrupt of the Baltic states. Latvia was ranked 57 out of 146 countries surveyed in TI's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. The government, however, has adopted various anticorruption measures, including the establishment of a Corruption Prevention Bureau (KNAB) and laws to prevent conflict of interest among state officials.. In January, parliament established a commission to investigate a series of then prime minister Repse's real estate purchases in 2003, allegedly financed by loans with artificially low interest rates. (LFP support for this investigation led to the resignation of Repse and his governing coalition.) In February, parliament voted unanimously to amend the political party funding law, disallowing corporate donations for politicians, setting a tight spending limit for preelection campaigns, and restricting private donations to funds acquired in the past three years. Nevertheless, in March the KNAB found 12 political parties guilty of finance violations and ordered them to transfer all dubious funds to the state treasury. After an almost two-year search fraught with political infighting, the parliament approved Alexei Loskutov as the head of the KNAB in May.
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, a recent survey by the Public Opinion Research Center revealed that only 24 percent of Latvians polled believed the press to be free, while 47 percent believed the Latvian press to be partially free and 10 percent considered it not free. Internet access is unrestricted.
Freedom of worship and academic freedom are generally respected. In February, the parliament passed the controversial Education Law mandating that at least 60 percent of public school classes be taught in Latvian, even in schools that cater to the approximately 120,000 ethnic Russian students. Having already provoked widespread protests from the Russian community when it was proposed, passage of the law sparked the largest demonstrations in Latvia since independence. On May 1, the day of Latvian accession to the EU, at least 20,000 ethnic Russians marched peacefully through Riga in opposition to the law.
Freedom of assembly and association is protected by law, and gatherings occur without governmental interference. Generally, the government does not restrict the activities of non-governmental organizations. Workers have the right to establish trade unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining. However, only 17 percent of the workforce is unionized.
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 lengthy pretrial detention for large numbers of persons. However, the government has taken significant steps to address these problems. According to the US State Department's 2004 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, a clear majority of criminal cases were adjudicated within three months, and 80.5 percent were adjudicated within six months. Incarceration facilities remain severely overcrowded, and cases of excessive force by security officials have been reported. A reformed criminal code is awaiting parliamentary approval.
Naturalization applications have increased significantly since accession to the EU, and the government has actively promoted the process by reducing financial and lingual requirements. Nearly one-fifth of Latvia's residents are noncitizens. 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, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians. Noncitizens are barred from participating in state and local elections and from holding some civil service jobs. They are also not allowed to hold some private sector jobs; for example, jobs as lawyers, notaries, and commercial pilots. Alleged political, social, and economic discrimination suffered by the Russian-speaking community is a subject of much debate both in Latvia and the wider region. In December 2003, the European Court of Human Rights charged Riga with restricting the rights of an ethnic Russian family and ordered the state to pay compensation of 20,000 euros, forcing the Supreme Court to review a previous expulsion order.
Women possess the same legal rights as men, although they frequently face hiring and pay discrimination. Trafficking in persons, mostly women in the sex industry, is a problem, and the government has undertaken an increasingly robust effort to address it.