Freedom in the World
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In September 2012, the parliament provisionally approved amendments to the country’s citizenship law, including one allowing some ethnic Latvians abroad to become dual citizens. Voters in February overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to adopt Russian as Latvia’s second language. Meanwhile, the results of the 2011 census, which were made public in January 2012, showed that the country’s population has decreased by about 13 percent since 2000, partly as a result of the emigration of educated young people.
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 ethnic 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 developed during the 1990s. Following independence, residents who did not speak Latvian were required to learn the language in order to gain citizenship. Many Russian speakers refused, and as a result the country is still home to some 300,000 noncitizens, most of them ethnic Russians. Latvia joined both the European Union (EU) and NATO in 2004.
A center-right coalition government headed by Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis collapsed in 2009, following violent protests sparked by a deepening economic crisis. A new center-right coalition government was formed, with Valdis Dombrovskis of the New Era Party as prime minister. Sharp spending cuts enacted to counter a severe recession caused the gross domestic product (GDP) to contract by about a quarter over 2008 and 2009.
The center-right Unity coalition, composed of New Era, the Civic Union, and the Society for Other Politics, won parliamentary elections in 2010 and subsequently formed an unstable coalition with the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), a party beset by corruption allegations and which was closely linked to Aivars Lembergs, a powerful businessman and the mayor of Ventspils. Dombrovskis returned as prime minister.
In May 2011, the parliament blocked the lifting of immunity for parliament member Ainārs Šlesers, thereby impeding a corruption investigation by the Bureau for the Prevention and Combating of Corruption. Exasperated, President Valdis Zatlers called for the dissolution of the parliament. Days afterward, Zatlers lost a presidential election to ZZS candidate Andris Bērziņš, a multimillionaire former banker. A July 2011 referendum on Zatlers’s proposal to dissolve the parliament passed with 94 percent of the vote.
In the run-up to the September 2011 snap elections, which focused largely on corruption issues, Zatlers formed the center-right, pro-transparency Zatlers Reform Party (ZRP). Harmony Center, a party largely backed by ethnic Russians, captured the majority of votes for the first time ever, winning 31 of the 100 legislative seats. The ZRP won 22 seats, the Unity coalition secured 20, the National Alliance won 14, and the ZZS captured 13. Šlesers’s Latvia’s First Party/Latvian Way, afterward renamed the Šlesers Reform Party, did not win any seats. Despite its first-place finish, Harmony Center was not included in the new government. Instead, the ZRP, Unity, and the conservative National Alliance formed a 56-seat governing coalition, with Dombrovskis returning as prime minister.
Latvia in 2012 continued its economic recovery, though unemployment remained high, hovering around 13.5 percent in the fall after topping out at 20.5 percent in 2010. In May, the parliament voted to approve a new EU fiscal stability treaty, which required signatories to balance their budgets and penalized EU nations that ran large deficits. Dombrovskis in September said Latvia would adopt the euro at the start of 2014; it would become the second Baltic state to do so, following Estonia in 2011. In September, Dombrovskis signed a measure that decreased social welfare payments for the unemployed and those otherwise without income, against the advice of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which said the measure could result in decreased economic growth.
In a February 2012 referendum initiated by a Russophone advocacy group, Latvians overwhelmingly rejected a proposal, publicly opposed by Dombrovskis and Bērziņš, to make Russian the country’s second official language.
The parliament in September voted to approve amendments to the country’s citizenship law, sponsored by the Unity bloc, granting noncitizen and stateless children born after August 1991 Latvian citizenship if they were already permanent residents and if their parents pledged to help them learn the Latvian language. However, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized those conditions. The amendments also allowed some Latvians living abroad to apply for dual citizenship, and mandated that newborns be granted Latvian citizenship if at least one parent was a Latvian citizen, even if the child was not born in Latvia. The amendment had not been approved in a final reading by the end of 2012.
The results of a 2011 census, released in January 2012, showed that Latvia lost some 13 percent of its population between 2000 and 2011, as many educated young people left to find work abroad. The economy ministry has projected that the country’s population, which is among the oldest in the world, could shrink from approximately 2 million in 2012 to 1.6 million by 2030.
Latvia is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for a unicameral, 100-seat parliament (Saeima), whose members are elected to four-year terms. The parliament elects the president, who serves up to two four-year terms. The prime minister is nominated by the president and approved by the parliament. Latvian political candidates cannot run as independents. Political parties may generally organize and compete freely.
Approximately 15 percent 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. Residents who do not hold Latvian citizenship cannot vote, hold public office, or work in government offices. Noncitizen residents may join political parties, as long as the party does not count more noncitizens than citizens as members.
Corruption is a serious problem and exists at every government level. In October 2012, Environmental Protection and Regional Development Minister Edmunds Sprūdžs of the ZRP signed a decree suspending powerful businessman Aivars Lembergs as mayor of Ventspils; Sprūdžs said he had received “shocking” information from the prosecutor general’s office about decisions Lembergs had made as Ventspils city council chairman. Lembergs argued that Sprūdžs did not have the authority to fire him; the city council reaffirmed that Lembergs was the mayor and asked Sprūdžs for proof of his claims. Lembergs in 2007 had been charged with bribery, money laundering, and tax evasion; legal proceedings against him were ongoing at the end of 2012. Latvia was ranked 54 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of the press. Journalist Leonids Jakobsons was detained for two days in late 2011 after publishing purportedly private e-mails between the mayor of Riga and a foreign diplomat. In March 2012, at least two men attacked Jakobsons in the stairwell of his apartment building; he was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries. Jakobsons, who was known for writing about sensitive topics, later said he thought the attack was connected to his work. Private television and radio stations broadcast programs in both Latvian and Russian. However, by law, 65 percent of both national and regional broadcasts must either be in Latvian or subtitled or dubbed in Latvian. While newspapers publish a wide range of political viewpoints, there has been evidence of increasing business and political influence on the media, including by Lembergs and former parliament member Ainārs Šlesers.
Freedom of religion and academic freedom are generally respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are protected by law and in practice. The government does not restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Workers may establish trade unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining. Roughly 15 percent of the workforce is unionized, though union membership appears to be decreasing.
While judicial independence is generally respected, inefficiency, politicization, and corruption continue to be problems. Lengthy pretrial detention remains a concern, and law enforcement officials have allegedly abused persons in custody. Prisons continue to suffer from overcrowding, and many prisoners have poor access to health care.
The IMF in February 2012 reported that income inequality in Latvia was among the highest in the EU, with the wealthiest 20 percent of the population earning seven times more than the poorest 20 percent.
In a February 2012 report, the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance said that Latvia had made some improvements in combatting hate crimes, implementing nondiscrimination training for police, providing education for the children of ethnic minorities, and increasing the participation of minorities in political life. However, it said few racially motivated crimes were investigated or prosecuted, and added that ethnic Roma faced particularly severe discrimination. In March 2012, some 1,500 people took part in an annual parade honoring Latvian Legion of the Waffen-SS, sparking a smaller counterprotest attended mainly by ethnic Russians, who held banners depicting Holocaust victims. In July, a Baltic Pride march took place peacefully in Riga, with several Latvian politicians participating. The country banned same-sex marriage in 2005.
Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, but they often face employment and wage discrimination, as well as domestic violence. There are 23 women in the parliament and 4 in the 13-member cabinet. Latvia is both a source and destination country for women and girls trafficked for the purpose of forced prostitution.