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Freedom in the World 2011 - Latvia

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 7 July 2011
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2011 - Latvia, 7 July 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e16b8fcc.html [accessed 23 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Capital: Riga
Population: 2,256,000

Political Rights Score: 2 *
Civil Liberties Score: 2 *
Status: Free

Ratings Change

Latvia's civil liberties rating declined from 1 to 2 due to negative developments for press freedom, including threats to editorial independence following the sale of an influential newspaper under less-than-transparent circumstances.

Overview

An electoral bloc led by incumbent prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis led the October 2010 parliamentary elections and went on to form a governing majority with another party. Unlike in 2009, the government's fiscal austerity policies did not provoke violent protests. Also during the year, the appointment of new editors at the prominent Diena newspaper and the purchase of a controlling stake by a businessman linked to a conservative political bloc raised concerns about media independence.

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. The country joined both the European Union (EU) and NATO in 2004.

A coalition government headed by Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis of the People's Party, who had been in office since 2004, announced its resignation in December 2007, after Kalvitis's attempt to remove the head of the Bureau for the Prevention and Combating of Corruption (KNAB) triggered street protests. However, the new government approved by Parliament included the same four parties as its predecessor. Former prime minister Ivars Godmanis of Latvia's First Party-Latvian Way (LPP-LC) was selected to replace Kalvitis. The KNAB director, Aleksejs Loskutovs, was eventually dismissed by Parliament in June 2008 for inadequate oversight, following revelations that two KNAB employees had stolen funds over several years.

In the face of a deepening economic crisis, thousands of Latvians marched on the Parliament building in January 2009, and their peaceful demands for the government's resignation escalated into violent protests. President Valdis Zatlers then demanded that the government adopt key reforms or face a referendum on dissolving Parliament. The ruling coalition collapsed in February, and a new government was formed by the New Era Party, the People's Party, the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), For Fatherland and Freedom/Latvian National Independence Movement (TB/LNNK), and the Civic Union. New Era's Valdis Dombrovskis was appointed prime minister. Zatlers did not follow through on his threats to dissolve Parliament, citing positive steps including strengthened oversight of international funds and the belated appointment of a new KNAB director to replace Loskutovs. The new government spent the rest of 2009 enacting spending cuts as Latvia suffered one of the deepest economic recessions in the world.

The unemployment rate ranged from 16.9 to 20.5 percent during 2010, and the number of people living in poverty nearly doubled – to 200,000 – by the end of the year. In January, the government was forced to renegotiate terms with its international creditors after the Constitutional Court ruled that 2009 pension cuts were unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Latvia won praise from the International Monetary Fund, the EU, and the World Bank for implementing their economic recommendations. Despite widespread outcry against spending cuts in 2009, austerity measures did not provoke protests in 2010.

The People's Party withdrew from the government in March, leaving it with 44 of the 100 seats in Parliament. The move was seen as an effort by the party to distance itself from unpopular fiscal policies ahead of the October parliamentary elections. In May, the People's Party joined the LPP-LC to form a conservative electoral bloc called For a Good Latvia (PLL). Meanwhile, New Era, the Civic Union, and the Society for Political Change (SCP) formed the center-right Unity bloc, and the TB/LNNK joined the far-right Everything for Latvia party to form the National Alliance.

The election campaign, which officially began in June, was dominated by personalities rather than party programs. The Unity bloc secured the largest number of seats in the October balloting, 33, followed by the Harmony Center – backed largely by the ethnic Russian community – with 29, the ZZS with 22, and PLL and the National Alliance with 8 each. After extensive postelection talks, Unity and the ZZS formed a governing majority, and Dombrovskis retained the premiership. Voter turnout was just over 63 percent.

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; incumbent Valdis Zatlers, who took office in 2007, is eligible for reelection in July 2011. The prime minister is nominated by the president and must be approved by Parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found that the October 2010 parliamentary elections met all international standards, though it expressed concern that nearly 17 percent of residents of voting age could not participate, as they were noncitizens. However, prisoners were able to vote for the first time.

Noncitizen residents may organize political parties, but only if the party counts an equal number of Latvian citizens as members. The political landscape remained fractured and personality driven in 2010, and parties continued to suffer from very low levels of public confidence. A Eurobarometer poll during the year showed that 95 percent of Latvians do not trust political parties.

Latvia's efforts to combat corruption were hampered in 2010 by internal divisions at the KNAB. The bureau's director, Normunds Vilnitis, proposed a sweeping reorganization that many argued would reduce the KNAB's effectiveness. The prime minister opposed the restructuring, and a number of high-ranking KNAB employees released a public letter casting doubt on Vilnitis's commitment to the body's mission. Three major bribery cases broke in June, implicating the mayor of Jurmala, the director of the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia, and five executives at the national electricity monopoly. A high-profile corruption case against the former mayor of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs, was ongoing at year's end. Latvia was ranked 59 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The government generally respects freedom of the press. Private television and radio stations broadcast programs in both Latvian and Russian. While newspapers publish a wide range of political viewpoints, there has been evidence of increasing business and political influence on the media. In 2009, the highly respected independent newspaper Diena was sold to a foreign owner whose identity was not disclosed; many of the paper's leading journalists and editors resigned in protest. In July 2010, two former public relations experts with close ties to the conservative PLL electoral bloc were appointed as editor in chief and deputy editor. Viesturs Koziols, a wealthy businessman who was also linked to PLL, bought a controlling stake in the Diena media group in August. Separately, police in May raided the home of a television journalist and seized her computer and documents after she reported on the case of a hacker who had exposed the inflated salaries of executives at state firms. Her subsequent lawsuit against the police was dismissed. Violence against journalists is rare, but Grigorijs Nemcovs – the publisher of Million, a Russian-language newspaper focusing on political corruption – was shot at close range in April in an apparent contract killing. His murder remained unsolved at year's end. The government does not restrict access to the internet, and 68.2 percent of Latvians had access in 2010.

Freedom of religion is generally respected. However, so-called traditional religious groups enjoy certain privileges, such as the ability to provide religious instruction 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. A controversial March 2010 parade in honor of Latvians who served in German-led units during World War II proceeded peacefully after a court overturned the city of Riga's ban, with riot police keeping counterdemonstrators away from the marchers. The government does not restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Workers enjoy the right to establish trade unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining. Union members make up roughly 15 percent of the workforce.

While judicial independence is generally respected, inefficiency, politicization, and corruption continue to be problems. In April 2010, Prosecutor General Janis Maizitis, a popular anticorruption figure, unexpectedly lost a bid for reelection by Parliament. The vote, which employed secret balloting, suggested that many lawmakers were uncomfortable with his office's far-reaching corruption investigations yet unwilling to say so publicly. In May, a number of organizations warned of politicization of the judiciary when the head of the People's Party faction was appointed to the Supreme Court without any prior judicial experience. Lengthy pretrial detention remains a concern; detainees may be held for up to 18 months. Law enforcement officials have allegedly abused persons in custody. Many prisons fail to meet international standards, and continue to suffer from overcrowding, seriously inadequate facilities, and poor access to health care.

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. Some noncitizens have cited resentment at not having been granted citizenship automatically as a reason for not applying.

Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, but they often face employment and wage discrimination. There are 20 women in the newly elected Parliament, and three women in the 14-member cabinet. Domestic violence continues to be a serious problem. Amendments to the criminal code in October 2010 added domestic violence as an aggravating factor in criminal offenses; previously, there had been no legal definition of domestic violence. Latvia continues to be a source for women trafficked for the purpose of prostitution, mostly to Western Europe.

* Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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