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Latvia’s governing coalition was reduced to three parties after the largest party withdrew in April 2006. In the October legislative elections, the People’s Party secured the largest number of votes and formed a majority four-party coalition government. Meanwhile, the country witnessed a number of corruption scandals implicating high-level government officials.
After having been ruled for centuries by Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Russia, Latvia gained its independence in 1918, only to be annexed by the USSR 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 in October 2002, the newly formed center-right New Era Party, led by former central bank chairman Einars Repse, received the largest number of votes. Repse was named prime minister to lead a majority coalition government consisting of the New Era Party, Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), Latvia’s First Party (LPP), and For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK (FF/LNNK). Running unopposed, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was reelected to a second four-year term in June 2003 by an overwhelming majority of members of Parliament.
Almost 73 percent of Latvian voters participated in a September 2003 referendum on European Union (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 period of independence between the two world wars and the collapse of the USSR. Latvia achieved two of its major foreign policy objectives when it became a member of NATO in April 2004 and of the EU the following month.
Repse and his ruling coalition resigned in February 2004 after the LPP withdrew its support of the government. Repse had dismissed LPP 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 Latvian Green Party head Indulis Emsis and including the LPP, the People’s Party, and one New Era deputy. However, Emsis’s government was forced to resign in October following Parliament’s rejection of its draft 2005 budget, which was regarded as a no-confidence vote by parliamentary rules. In December 2004, Aigars Kalvitis of the People’s Party was approved as the new prime minister to lead a four-party majority coalition of the New Era, People’s Party, LPP, and ZZS.
The months preceding the October 7, 2006, parliamentary elections saw more political turmoil, corruption scandals, and tensions among members of the ruling coalition. Repse resigned as defense minister in December 2005 after the country’s anticorruption bureau launched an investigation into his business practices. In March 2006, Slesers, then transport minister, was forced to resign in the wake of a vote-buying scandal in the town of Jurmala during local elections in 2005; a television program aired telephone conversations indicating that Slesers had played a role in the affair. In April, New Era pulled out of the ruling coalition after the opening of an economic crimes investigation against one of the party’s leaders, Economy Minister Krisjanis Karins; the unit investigating Karins was controlled by coalition member LPP. The withdrawal of New Era left the coalition with a minority of seats in Parliament, although it enjoyed the support of two other parties, FF/LNNK and Harmony Center.
In the October parliamentary poll, the People’s Party secured the largest number of seats, 23, followed by the ZZS and New Era with 18 seats each, the Harmony Center with 17, LPP/Latvia’s Way with 10, FF/LNNK with 8, and For Human Rights in a United Latvia with 6. The People’s Party, LPP/Latvia’s Way, ZZS, and FF/LNNK agreed to form the new majority government, with Kalvitis remaining prime minister. Voter turnout of 62 percent was one of the lowest in years. Although the cabinet saw few changes from the previous administration, Slesers was reinstated as transport minister just months after having been forced to resign.
On the international front, in September, the three Baltic countries proposed Vike-Freiberga as next secretary-general of the United Nations. After the South Korean foreign minister emerged as the front-runner for the post, Latvia’s president withdrew her candidacy the following month. Meanwhile, Latvian relations with Russia continued to show signs of tension during the year, as the countries’ border treaty remained unsigned over disagreements regarding the status of territory transferred to Russia after the USSR annexed Latvia in World War II.
Latvia is an electoral democracy. 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. The October 2006 national legislative elections were free and fair. Twenty-two members of minorities are represented in the Parliament.
The country’s major parties include the People’s Party, the ZZS, New Era, Harmony Center, LPP/Latvia’s Way, FF/LNNK, and For Human Rights in a United Latvia. Noncitizen residents may form and join political parties.
In recent years, the government has adopted various anticorruption measures. However, Latvia witnessed a number of high-profile corruption scandals throughout 2006. In March, former health minister Aris Auders was fined nearly 20,000 euros for cheating his patients out of money, as well as embezzling money from insurance companies. In July, the state prosecutor’s office brought charges against the powerful mayor of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs, for various corruption-related offenses, including bribe-taking and money laundering during the 1990s. Among the most high-profile corruption cases during the year was the revelation that a number of senior political figures had attempted to rig the 2005 mayoral election in the town of Jurmala; the affair led to the March 2006 resignation of Transport Minister Ainars Slesers, who was implicated in the scandal. Latvia was ranked 49 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and of the press. Private television and radio stations broadcast programs in both Latvian and Russian, and newspapers publish a wide range of political viewpoints. The government does not restrict access to the internet. However, in September 2006, the daily newspaper Neatkariga Rita Avize published transcripts of private mobile-telephone conversations of Latvian State Television journalist Ilze Jaunalksne. A criminal investigation subsequently launched by the prosecutor’s office revealed that a Supreme Court judge had given permission for the wiretapping to the financial police, who had leaked the transcripts. Meanwhile, Neatkariga Rita Avize is suspected of being controlled by Lembergs, Ventspils’s mayor.
Freedom of religion is generally respected. Academic freedom is also generally respected. In May 2005, the constitutional court upheld a controversial Education Law mandating that at least 60 percent of public school classes be taught in Latvian, even in schools that cater mainly to ethnic Russian students. The law was criticized by Moscow, as well as by the Russian community and some left-wing parties within Latvia.
Freedom of assembly is protected by law, and numerous gatherings occurred during the year without government interference. The government does not restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In February 2005, the government had approved a national program to strengthen civil society and increase cooperation between NGOs and the government. However, Slesers, then transport minister, proposed legislation in January 2006 limiting the scope of operation for NGOs that receive foreign funding; most Latvian politicians were quick to denounce the proposal, which was not enacted. In July 2006, authorities refused to provide a permit for a gay pride parade, citing security concerns. Workers have the right to establish trade unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining. However, only 16 percent of the workforce is unionized.
While the government generally respects constitutional provisions for an independent judiciary, corruption in the judicial and law enforcement systems continues to be a problem. Legal prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention are largely observed in practice. Prisons suffer from overcrowding and inadequate medical care, and there have been reports of security officials using excessive force against detainees.
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. Alleged political, social, and economic discrimination suffered by the Russian-speaking community is a subject of debate both in Latvia and in the wider region. In May 2006, a Latvian court ruled in favor of a woman who had filed an employment discrimination suit; the woman claimed that a retail store refused to hire her because she is an ethnic Roma. The case marked the first time in the country’s postindependence history that a plaintiff had won an employment discrimination suit based on ethnicity.
A gay pride parade planned for July 22 was cancelled when the Riga city council refused to grant permission for the event supposedly as a result of security-related concerns, although details were not made public. The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis and President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, denounced the ban for limiting freedom of expression and assembly. Antigay protestors physically attacked and verbally insulted participants at other gay pride events held on the same day. As a result, 14 individuals were arrested; 7 faced prosecution for inciting public disorder, and their cases were pending at year’s end. However, according to gay pride participants, the police response was inadequate, with law enforcement officials failing to provide protection to those requesting it during the day’s events.
In December 2005, Parliament effectively banned same-sex marriages when it adopted a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. The amendment, which was introduced by the LPP, was supported by 65 members of Parliament. In a controversial postelection move, Janis Smits of the LPP was appointed the head of Parliament’s human rights committee in December 2006; Smits had drawn fire for making various antigay comments, including saying that homosexuality is a sin. In September 2006, Parliament adopted amendments to the labor law banning job discrimination based on sexual orientation; the amendments bring Latvia’s laws in line with EU directives.
Women possess the same legal rights as men, but they often face employment discrimination. Although the president of Latvia is a woman, there are only 19 women in the 100-member Parliament and 4 women in the 18-member cabinet. Domestic violence and sexual harassment of women in the workplace are reportedly common. Latvia is a source and transit point for women trafficked for the purpose of prostitution. The government provides shelter and funding for rehabilitation services to victims of trafficking and, along with local NGOs and international organizations, provides financial resources to the National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons.