Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Latvia’s political rights rating declined from 1 to 2 due to a series of corruption-related scandals implicating high-level government officials.
Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis’s September 2007 decision to suspend the head of the anticorruption agency sparked a political crisis, including two of Latvia’s largest public protests since 1991. The action ultimately led to the resignation of Kalvitis and the formation of a new government in December. Earlier in the year, outgoing president Vaira Vike-Freiberga confronted the government over controversial amendments to the National Security Law. Meanwhile, a number of corruption scandals implicated high-level officials, including the powerful mayor of Ventspils.
After centuries of foreign domination, Latvia gained its independence in 1918, only to be annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II. The long Soviet occupation featured a massive influx of Russians and the deportation, execution, and emigration of tens of thousands of ethnic Latvians. In 1991, Latvia regained its independence as the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Following parliamentary elections in 2002, former central bank chairman Einars Repse was chosen to lead a majority coalition government of his center-right New Era Party, Latvia’s First Party (LPP), the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), and For Fatherland and Freedom/Latvian National Independence Movement (TB/LNNK). Running unopposed, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga was reelected for a second four-year term in 2003.
Repse’s government collapsed in February 2004 after he dismissed LPP leader Ainars Slesers as deputy prime minister and the LPP withdrew its support. Slesers had backed the establishment of a parliamentary committee to probe Repse’s allegedly corrupt real-estate purchases. A subsequent Green Party-led government survived for just seven months and was replaced in December by a coalition of the New Era Party, the People’s Party, LPP, and ZZS; Aigars Kalvitis of the People’s Party was named prime minister. However, New Era withdrew in April 2006 after an economic crimes probe was launched against one of its leaders, Economy Minister Krisjanis Karins. The unit investigating Karins was controlled by LPP.
In the October 2006 parliamentary polls, the People’s Party led with 23 seats, followed by the ZZS and New Era with 18 each, the Harmony Center with 17, LPP/Latvia’s Way with 10, TB/LNNK with 8, and For Human Rights in a United Latvia with 6. The People’s Party, LPP/Latvia’s Way, ZZS, and TB/LNNK agreed to form a new government, with Kalvitis remaining prime minister. The voter turnout of 62 percent was one of the lowest in years.
Vike-Freiberga in March 2007 suspended the promulgation of controversial amendments to the National Security Law, which would have given lawmakers greater access to information about the activities of the security and intelligence services. Critics charged that the amendments could lead to political interference in corruption investigations. A referendum on the changes in July was declared invalid due to low turnout, and Parliament ultimately withdrew them. Meanwhile, Valdis Zatlers, an orthopedic surgeon, was elected president by Parliament in May to replace Vike-Freiberga, who was unable to run again due to term limits.
Kalvitis sparked a political crisis in September by suspending the head of the Bureau for the Prevention and Combating of Corruption (KNAB), Aleksejs Loskutovs, over alleged irregularities in KNAB’s accounting. Opponents of the decision said it was politically motivated and legally dubious, noting that KNAB had become increasingly active in pursuing political corruption cases, including against members of the ruling coalition. Critics also argued that the prosecutor-general, not the prime minister, had the power to suspend the head of KNAB, and only if he is arrested or charged with a crime, which Loskutovs was not; only Parliament had the authority to dismiss him outright.
In one of the country’s largest demonstrations since independence, several thousand people gathered on October 18 outside Parliament, which was preparing to vote on the dismissal of Loskutovs, to show their support for him and demand Kalvitis’s resignation. The vote was then postponed, and several cabinet ministers left the government. On November 3, a second major rally—which was organized by the Latvian branch of Transparency International and included prominent academics, journalists, and human rights activists—protested against corruption and called for the dissolution of Parliament. Kalvitis announced that his government would resign on December 5 and signed an order reinstating Loskutovs. On December 20, Parliament approved a new government, which—despite the public’s call for political change—included the same four parties as its predecessor. Ivars Godmanis, a veteran politician from LPP/Latvia’s Way who had served as prime minister in the early 1990s, was selected to replace Kalvitis.
Latvia is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for a unicameral, 100-seat Parliament (Saeima), whose members are elected for four-year terms. Parliament elects the president, who serves up to two four-year terms. The prime minister is nominated by the president and must be approved by Parliament. The October 2006 legislative elections were free and fair. Twenty-two members of ethnic minorities are represented in Parliament. Resident noncitizens may not vote in either national or local elections.
The country’s major parties include the People’s Party, ZZS, New Era, LPP/Latvia’s Way, TB/LNNK, and For Human Rights in a United Latvia. Noncitizen residents may join political parties, although at least half the members of a party must be citizens.
Although the government has adopted various anticorruption measures, Latvia continued to suffer high-profile corruption scandals during 2007. The powerful mayor of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs, was arrested in March 2007 on charges including bribery, money laundering, and tax evasion; an official investigation continued at year’s end. Also in March, a former Jurmala mayor was convicted of bribery in connection with the 2005 mayoral election and sentenced to five years in prison. The affair had led to the 2006 resignation of Transport Minister Ainars Slesers, who was implicated in the scandal. In October 2007, former speaker of Parliament Indulis Emsis was fined over 7,000 euros for providing false evidence in the Lembergs case. Latvia was ranked 51 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 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. Latvian State Television (LTV) journalist Ilze Jaunalksne, who had written about official corruption, was awarded $47,000 in damages after a court ruled in February 2007 that the financial police had invaded her privacy by tapping her mobile telephone conversations and leaking transcripts to the newspaper Neatkariga Rita Avize. The paper is suspected of being controlled by Lembergs. In June, LTV management dismissed the director of the influential news program De Facto, which has run stories critical of the government. The dismissal came shortly before the referendum on national security amendments. LTV’s general director resigned in December after a documentary critical of Russian president Vladimir Putin was abruptly postponed until after Russia’s parliamentary elections, allegedly as a result of pressure from the government and the Russian embassy.
Freedom of religion is generally respected, although so-called traditional religious groups enjoy certain rights, such as conducting official marriages, that are unavailable to newer ones. Academic freedom is respected in law and in practice.
Freedoms of assembly and association are protected by law and in practice. In April 2007, the government removed a legal requirement that organizers seek permission to hold demonstrations; a 2006 constitutional court ruling had found that the rule violated the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. The year’s numerous, unrestricted gatherings included a relatively peaceful gay-pride parade in Riga in June. The government does not restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Workers enjoy the right to establish trade unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining. About 20 percent of the workforce is unionized.
While the constitutional guarantee of judicial independence is generally respected, corruption in the judicial and law enforcement systems continues to be a problem. In August 2007, journalist Lato Lapsa published transcripts of alleged telephone conversations in the 1990s among a prominent lawyer, judges, and politicians, indicating possible corruption in judicial decisions. The prosecutor’s office was investigating the matter at year’s end. Legal prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and the right to a fair trial are largely observed in practice. However, lengthy pretrial detention remains an issue of concern. Security officials have been reported to use excessive force against detainees, and prisons continue to suffer from overcrowding and inadequate medical care.
Nearly one-fifth of Latvia’s residents are noncitizens. Those who immigrated to Latvia during the Soviet period, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians, must apply for Latvian citizenship though a process including a Latvian language test; more than 120,000 have been granted citizenship through naturalization since 1995. Alleged discrimination suffered by the Russian-speaking community continues to be debated. As required under a 2006 law, Parliament in March 2007 appointed an ombudsman responsible for protecting the rights of individuals in relation to the government. Two men were sentenced to prison terms in January 2007 for attacking a Rwandan citizen; the case marked the first sentencing under a law prohibiting instigation of racial hatred. There are legal provisions for granting asylum or refugee status in accordance with the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol.
Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, but they often face employment discrimination. There are only 20 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 funds rehabilitation services for trafficking victims and, sometimes in cooperation with local NGOs and international organizations, training on trafficking issues for law enforcement officials, judges, teachers, and social workers.