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Although moves to suspend the director of the country’s anticorruption agency had led to widespread protests and the collapse of the government in 2007, he was dismissed in June 2008 due to revelations of theft by two of his subordinates. In August, low voter turnout thwarted referendums on proposals to increase pensions and allow the dismissal of Parliament by popular vote. However, the large percentage of participating voters who supported the proposals illustrated the public’s growing dissatisfaction with existing government policies.
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, and a multiparty system took root during the 1990s.
Following parliamentary elections in 2002, former central bank chairman Einars Repse was chosen to lead a 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 LLP withdrew its support. Slesers had backed the establishment of a parliamentary committee to probe Repse’s allegedly corrupt real-estate purchases. A subsequent ZZS-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. Valdis Zatlers, an orthopedic surgeon, was elected president by Parliament in May 2007 to replace Vike-Freiberga, who was unable to run again due to term limits.
Kalvitis sparked a political crisis in September by suspending the director of the Bureau for the Prevention and Combating of Corruption (KNAB), Aleksejs Loskutovs, over alleged irregularities in the KNAB’s accounting. Opponents of the decision characterized it as a politically motivated attack on an agency that had become increasingly active in pursuing 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 the 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.
Parliament’s planned vote on the issue in October was postponed after several thousand people gathered outside the building to show support for Loskutovs and demand Kalvitis’s resignation, prompting several ministers to quit the cabinet. In a second major rally in November, protesters denounced corruption and called for new elections. Kalvitis announced that his government would resign on December 5 and reinstated 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. Former prime minister Ivars Godmanis (1990–93) of LPP/Latvia’s Way was selected to replace Kalvitis.
In June 2008, Loskutovs was finally dismissed by Parliament following revelations that two KNAB employees had stolen nearly $300,000 in funds seized by the bureau over several years. A special government commission had faulted Loskutovs’s oversight and recommended his dismissal. In contrast to the previous year, only a few hundred people protested his removal. Due to disagreements over the procedure for selecting a new director, Loskutovs’s replacement had not been chosen by year’s end.
Low voter turnout scuttled two referendums in August; the proposals in question would have significantly increased pensions and amended the constitution to allow the public to dissolve Parliament by popular vote. More than 90 percent of participating voters supported each proposal, indicating ongoing popular frustration with the government.
On the international front, Russia’s August invasion of Georgia increased concerns in Latvia that Moscow would try to extend its influence over other post-Soviet states. President Zatlers, along with the leaders of Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland, issued a declaration condemning Russia’s actions in the conflict.
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. 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. In 2008, the Society for a Different Politics was founded by two former members of the People’s Party, and the Democratic Patriot Association was established by former members of New Era and TB/LNNK; both parties sought to capitalize on growing popular discontent with the government and ruling parties. Noncitizen residents may join political parties, although at least half the members of a party must be citizens.
The government has adopted various anticorruption measures, but Latvia continued to suffer high-profile corruption scandals during 2008. The powerful mayor of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs, was arrested in 2007 on charges including bribery, money laundering, and tax evasion; his trial was scheduled to begin in early 2009. In March 2008,the entire Kekava city council was dismissed over allegations of widespread corruption, including the issuing of illegal building permits. An ongoing KNAB investigation into corruption on the Riga city council, which the bureau says is systemic, continued during the year. Latvia was ranked 52 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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, although complete information on media ownership is not easily obtainable. The government does not restrict access to the internet. In May 2008, local media reported that the country’s National Security Committee had met with the director of Latvian State Television (LTV) to complain of bias against the government; some journalists characterized the meeting as a government attempt to pressure LTV. In November, police briefly detained a university lecturer and a musician for questioning the stability of the country’s banks, citing a law that criminalizes spreading false information about the financial system; the move prompted concerns about freedom of speech.
Freedom of religion is generally respected. However, so-called traditional religious groups enjoy certain rights, such as teaching religion to public school students who request such classes, which are unavailable to newer groups. There are no government restrictions on academic freedom.
Freedoms of assembly and association are protected by law and in practice. In April 2007, the government complied with a 2006 Constitutional Court ruling by removing a legal requirement that organizers seek permission to hold demonstrations. 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. Workers enjoy the right to establish trade unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining. About 15 percent of the workforce is unionized.
While judicial independence is generally respected, corruption continues to be a problem. In January 2008, two district court judges were sentenced to eight years in prison for accepting bribes. A special parliamentary commission investigating alleged corruption among prominent judges and politicians in the 1990s issued an inconclusive report in September 2008; although three judges resigned over the allegations, none were charged with a crime as of 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 a concern. Law enforcement officials have reportedly used excessive force against detainees, and prison inmates suffer from overcrowding and inadequate medical care.
Nearly one-fifth of Latvia’s residents are noncitizens. Those who immigrated during the Soviet period, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians, must apply for citizenship though a process that includes a Latvian language test. In July 2008, the country’s language law was amended to increase the number of professions in which employees must possess a minimum level of Latvian proficiency; among those affected will be electricians, accountants, and postmen. Some members of the Russian-speaking community continue to allege discrimination, including in employment and political life. An ombudsman responsible for protecting the rights of individuals in relation to the government was appointed by Parliament in 2007. 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 21 women in the 100-member Parliament and 4 women in the 19-member cabinet. Domestic violence and sexual harassment of women in the workplace are reportedly common. Latvia is a source, transit point, and destination for women trafficked for the purpose of prostitution. The government funds assistance services for trafficking victims and provides educational services on trafficking issues for schoolchildren and law enforcement officials.