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The public’s deep distrust of Latvia’s government in the face of a deepening economic crisis was underscored by a major protest in January 2009 which turned violent and resulted in more than two dozen injuries. In response, President Valdis Zatlers issued an ultimatum that the government pass certain reforms or he would call for a referendum to dissolve Parliament. After the government collapsed in February and a new coalition led by the New Era Party was formed the following month, several key reforms were adopted. The new government spent much of the rest of 2009 imposing budget cuts in the midst of an extremely severe contraction of Latvia’s economy.

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.
Prime Minister Einars Repse’s coalition government—including 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)—collapsed in 2004. 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.
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 formed a new government, with Kalvitis remaining prime minister. Valdis Zatlers, an orthopedic surgeon, was elected president by Parliament in May 2007.
Kalvitis sparked a political crisis in September 2007by 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 senior government officials. Parliament’s planned vote on the issue in October was postponed after several thousand people gathered outside the building to support Loskutovs and demand Kalvitis’s resignation. In a second major rally in November, protesters denounced corruption and called for new elections.
In December, Kalvitis announced that his government would resign, Loskutovs was reinstated, and 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 for inadequate oversight following revelations that two KNAB employees had stolen funds seized by the bureau over several years.

In the face of a deepening economic crisis, thousands of Latvians marched on the Parliament building in January 2009. The protest began as a peaceful demand for the government’s resignation, but it escalated into the most violent protest the country had experienced since independence after several hundred people threw stones at the Parliament building and looted stores. More than two dozen people were injured, and more than 100 were detained by police. The following day, President Zatlers issued an ultimatum that the government adopt key reforms, including constitutional amendments which would provide for the appointment of a head of the KNAB, allow the public to dismiss Parliament by referendum, and increase oversight of economic development. If the reforms were not passed by the end of March, Zatlers said he would call for a referendum to dissolve Parliament.
On February 20, the four-party ruling coalition collapsed after two coalition partners withdrew their support. A new government was formed shortly thereafter, composed of the New Era Party, the People’s Party, ZZS, TB/LNNK, and the Civic Union. New Era’s Valdis Dombrovskis, a former finance minister and member of the European Parliament, was appointed prime minister. In March,Zatlers chose not to follow through with his threats to dissolve Parliament, citing progress on several of his reform demands, including strengthening oversight of international funding and the appointment of Normunds Vilitus as the new director of the KNAB. Subsequently, constitutional amendments were approved allowing voters to initiate a national referendum to dissolve Parliament.

The new government spent the rest of 2009 enacting spending cuts as Latvia suffered one of the deepest economic recessions in the world. Real GDP declined by about 18 percent at the end of the year, and unemployment had reached around 20 percent. Meanwhile, public dissatisfaction with the country’s dominant parties continued to increase; the new Civic Union party and Harmony Center led in June European Parliament elections, and Harmony Center also won a majority in Riga’s June municipal elections.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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. As a result of growing popular discontent with the parties associated with the previous ruling coalition, voters in 2009 began to favor lesser-known parties, including the center-left Harmony Center, which derives much of its support from the ethnic Russian population, and the Civic Union, a center-right group founded in 2008 on a platform of ending the country’s often very close connections between business and politicians.
The government has adopted various anticorruption measures and made some progress against corruption in 2009. In March, the director of the KNAB—which had been without a leader since mid-2008—was finally appointed, and Parliament approved a law allowing plea bargaining by informants that is anticipated to help in the investigation of corruption cases. Meanwhile, the high-profile corruption case of the former mayor of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs, continued at year’s end. Latvia was ranked 56 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 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. Complete information on media ownership is not easily obtainable, although many newspapers are believed to be associated with business interests and political figures. In July, the highly-respected newspaper Diena was suddenly sold to a foreign owner, although the true identity of the new owner remained a subject of dispute and controversy. Many of the paper’s leading journalists and editors resigned in protest, and observers expressed concerns that the new owner would limit the newspaper’s editorial independence. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
Freedom of religion is generally respected. However, so-called traditional religious groups enjoy certain rights, such as teaching religion to public school students, 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. There were numerous unrestricted gatherings in 2009, including by teachers and scientists against proposed pay cuts. A major antigovernment protest in January organized by opposition parties and labor unions began peacefully but turned violent, resulting in scores of arrests and a number of injuries. While the City Council tried to ban a gay pride parade in Riga in May on the grounds that it posed a security risk, it was ultimately held after a court decision restored the parade’s permit. 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 15 percent of the workforce is unionized.
While judicial independence is generally respected, inefficiency and corruption continue to be problems. In February 2009, two district court judges were sentenced to eight years in prison for bribery. Also in February, a new law entered into force requiring information on court decisions to be published on the internet. 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 and pass a Latvian language test. Only about 2,000 people were granted citizenship in 2009; some noncitizens have cited resentment at not having been granted citizenship automatically at independence in 1991 as a reason for not applying. An ombudsman responsible for protecting the rights of individuals in relation to the government was appointed by Parliament in 2007; however, the ombudsman’s office has faced sharp budget cuts during the last two years, and some rights groups have criticized it for not responding adequately to human rights problems. Latvia is a party to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol. A new law adopted in June 2009 on the treatment of asylum seekers includes provisions on detention procedures and appeals.

Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, but they often face employment and wage discrimination. There are 22 women in the 100-member Parliament. Domestic violence is reportedly a serious problem. Latvia is a source for women trafficked for the purpose of prostitution, mostly to Western Europe. In 2009, the government initiated a five-year antitrafficking program in conjunction with domestic NGOs and international organizations.