Latvia developed into a democracy after regaining independence in 1991. Elections are regarded as free and fair, and freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected in practice. However, corruption remains a major problem affecting politics, the judiciary, and the wider criminal justice system. The country’s ethnic Russians face discrimination.
Key Developments in 2018:
- In October, Latvians voted for a new parliament (Saeima). About two-thirds of incumbent lawmakers failed to win reelection, while a number of newly founded right- and left-wing parties entered the chamber. The new, highly fragmented Saeima had yet to form a ruling coalition at year’s end.
- Authorities passed two laws aimed at reducing or eliminating instruction in Russian and other minority languages at the country’s public and private schools and universities.
- In June, anticorruption officers charged Latvia’s longtime central bank governor with accepting a bribe, and he was suspended from the office.
- Continued economic growth has improved opportunity and reduced hardships associated with the 2009 financial crisis.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 35 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The Saeima elects the president, who may serve up to two four-year terms. The prime minister is nominated by the president and approved by the parliament. Both the 2016 parliamentary confirmation of the current prime minister, Māris Kučinskis of the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), and the 2015 election of president Raimonds Vējonis, a former ZZS leader, took place according to legal requirements. Kučinskis stayed on as a caretaker prime minister after inconclusive October 2018 legislative elections, while coalition talks took place.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The Latvian constitution provides for a unicameral, 100-seat Saeima, whose members are elected to four-year terms. The parliamentary elections in October 2018 were viewed as competitive and credible, and stakeholders accepted the results. An Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission noted that some polling stations were too small to adequately accommodate the number of voters that turned out, and encouraged a number of relatively minor refinements to the electoral process.
The 2018 polls saw a significant loss by all three governing parties—the ZZS, the right-center Unity party, and the conservative National Alliance—which jointly took only 32 seats. The opposition Harmony party, which mainly defends the interests of Latvia’s ethnic Russians, took 23 seats, one fewer than in the previous election. Newly founded movements took the remaining 45 mandates: the populist Who Owns the State? (KPV LV) and the right-wing New Conservative Party (JKP) each took 16 seats, and the liberal coalition Development/For! (LA/KP) took the remaining 13. Coalition talks were ongoing at year’s end.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
In general, the electoral framework is implemented fairly by the Central Election Commission (CEC) and regional and local election administrations.
The president has traditionally been elected through a closed vote, but in October 2018, the outgoing Saeima amended the constitution to make future balloting open.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 14 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
Latvia’s political parties organize and compete freely. However, Latvian political candidates cannot run as independents, and those who belonged to communist or pro-Soviet organizations after 1991 may not hold public office. Parliamentary elections usually result in the entry of new political parties to the Saeima.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
Opposition parties compete freely and have a realistic chance of increasing their power through elections. However, Harmony and its predecessors, mostly supported by Latvia’s Russian-speaking population, have never been invited to participate in forming a government.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4
In the summer of 2017, the political scene was shaken by the so-called Oligarch Talks scandal—the release of transcripts of talks between politically influential businesspeople and their associates that took place from 2009–11. The conversations included discussions of efforts to replace the general prosecutor and other officials, and influence media outlets and strategic Latvian companies. In response, the Saeima created a special parliamentary commission to investigate the matter. However, it has been widely criticized as deliberately vague, and its investigation has been marred with controversy.
Authorities and other observers continue to express concern about the presence of disinformation and Russian propaganda in Latvian media, and other attempts by Russia to influence domestic politics.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
Approximately 240,000 of Latvia’s registered residents are stateless persons, most of whom are ethnic Russians. They may not vote, hold public office, work in government offices, or establish political parties. Children of non-citizens born after August 1991 can gain Latvian citizenship if they reside in Latvia permanently and have never acquired citizenship in another state. Lawmakers in September 2017 rejected legislation that would have granted citizenship to Latvian-born children of noncitizens automatically.
Women hold 31 percent of seats in the new Saeima that was elected in October 2018, up from 19 percent previously.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 9 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4
While elections are held on time and elected representative duly seated, Latvian governments are fragmented and often short-lived. Although the government is generally capable of developing and implementing policies, certain business groups have tended to exploit the fragility of government coalitions to influence government decisions.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4
In recent years, the Latvian government has taken efforts to fight corruption and money laundering. Latvia’s admission to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2016 has raised its international credibility. However, investigative and auditing bodies have seen only limited results in efforts to tame the corrupt behavior of politicians, due in part to institutions’ inability to consolidate power within their own fields of competence.
However, in June 2018, anticorruption officers charged Ilmārs Rimšēvičs, Latvia’s longtime central bank governor, with taking a bribe, and authorities suspended him from the office. Separately, at the end of the year, a corruption scandal related to public procurement in municipal transport shook Riga’s local government and forced its deputy mayor to resign.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4
The legislative framework for ensuring openness and transparency of the government is extensive. However, there is a notable lack of transparency in functioning of state companies, and in public procurement processes.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 52 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 14 / 16 (−1)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
While Latvian media outlets publicize a wide range of political views in both Latvian and Russian, government offices and courts sometimes interfere with media outlets’ and reporters’ work. The “Oligarch Talks” recordings released in 2017 revealed influence on Latvian media by politically powerful businesspeople.
Libel remains a criminal offense.
Authorities have occasionally restricted Russian radio and news websites, citing concerns about propaganda.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
Freedom of religion is generally respected. However, in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis, social pressure on the country’s roughly 1,000 Muslims has increased.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4 (−1)
Recent years have seen lawmakers begin to place some limitations on academic instruction. In 2015, parliament adopted a law mandating that schools provide children a “moral education” that coincides with the values of the constitution, including traditional views of marriage and family life. A law that came into effect in January 2017 enabled the firing of teachers found to be “disloyal to the state.”
Authorities in 2018 ramped up a drive to discourage or eliminate the use of minority languages in schools and universities, with the measures generally viewed as targeting Russian-language instruction. In March, the parliament passed amendments to the Education Law that would phase out the use of minority languages in public and private high schools, and significantly reduce their use in primary schools. In June, lawmakers approved a measure that prevented private and public higher education institutions from offering programs conducted in Russian and other minority languages, with an exception granted for philology. At the start of the year, approximately one-third of students at private colleges were enrolled in programs conducted in Russian.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to efforts by the government to restrict the use of Russian and other minority languages in schools and universities.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
Private discussion is generally open and free. The public display of Soviet and Nazi symbols is banned.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 12 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Freedom of assembly is protected by law and generally respected in practice.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
The government does not restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). However, advocacy by NGOs is increasingly viewed as partisan activity.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4
Workers may establish trade unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining.
F. RULE OF LAW: 12 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 3 / 4
While judicial independence is generally respected, inefficiency, politicization, and corruption within the judicial system persist. European Union (EU) polling has shown significant distrust of the courts among the general public and companies alike. In a 2016 survey conducted by European Network of Councils for the Judiciary, 30 percent of polled judges in Latvia agreed that individual judges accept bribes.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 3 / 4
The legal system is overburdened and hampered by corruption and inefficiency. By law, legal aid must be provided to people who cannot retain their own, but this is inconsistently enforced. Suspects are sometimes interrogated without the presence of a lawyer. Lengthy pretrial detention remains a concern.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
Latvia has one of the highest prison population rates in the EU. Prisons continue to suffer from overcrowding, and abuses of detainees and prisoners by law enforcement agents has been reported.
The rate of intentional homicides in Latvia was among the highest in the EU, according to data from Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, for 2016.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
Latvia has no specific gender equality law. While there are some associated protections in the country’s labor laws, women often face employment and wage discrimination. Members of the country’s Roma minority face discrimination in schools and workplaces. Latvian laws do not offer specific protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (except in employment) or gender identity.
According to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the country’s strict language policies have set the stage for discrimination against minorities in the public and private spheres.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 14 / 16 (+1)
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
Citizens and noncitizens may travel freely within the country and internationally.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4
Years of reform efforts have created an environment in which people may freely establish businesses and own property, though corruption can impede business activities.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
Domestic violence is not frequently reported, and police do not always take meaningful action when it is. Same-sex marriage was banned in 2005, and Latvia is one of six remaining countries in the EU that does not recognize same-sex partnerships.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4 (+1)
Around 28 percent of Latvia’s population was at risk of social exclusion or poverty in 2018, per Eurostat. The shadow economy is extensive, and informal workers are vulnerable to labor abuses and being drawn into criminal operations.
However, the Latvian economy has rebounded since the 2008–09 financial crisis, which inflicted severe economic hardship. Unemployment declined to 7.4 percent in 2018, from 17.3 percent in 2009, and a record high of 21.3 percent in 2010. GDP per capita reached 67 percent of the EU average in 2017, from 52 percent in 2009. A 2017 measure boosted the monthly minimum wage by €50 ($57), to €430 ($490), starting in 2018.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because economic growth over the past several years has improved opportunity and reduced hardships associated with the 2008–09 financial crisis.