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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Latvia : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Latvia : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 30 August 2015]
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.


The Republic of Latvia lies on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. To the north it borders Estonia, to the south and south-west Lithuania, to the east the Russian Federation, and to the south-east Belarus.


Main languages: Latvian (official), Russian.

Main religions: Lutheran Church, Roman Catholicism, Russian Orthodox Christianity, Old Believers, Baptist Church, Judaism.

Latvian government population statistics for 2004 show the presence of over one hundred ethnic groups. Of the total population of 2,309,339, Latvians constituted 58.7%, an increase of 4.5% since 1994. The largest minorities are Russians664,092 (28.8%), Belarusians 88,998 (3.9%), Ukrainians 59,403 (2.6%), Poles 56,798 (2.5%), Lithuanians 31,840 (1.4%), Jews, Roma, Germans, Tatars, Estonians and Armenians. Latvia is also home to dozens of much smaller ethnic groups, including Moldovans, Azeris, Chuvash and Georgians and Livs (Livonians). There is in the country a high rate of ethnic intermarriage.

Poles have been present on Latvia's territory since the Middle Ages when eastern Latvia was under the influence of Poland. This encouraged the immigration of Poles as well as the 'Polification' of Latvian farmers in south-east Latvia. Many Polish farmworkers came to live in Latvia in the 1930s.

Lithuanians are, like the Poles, one of several historic minorities in Latvia. Other historic minorities include Jews. Less than one-third of the pre-war Jewish population survived the Nazi genocide. Jews registered the highest rate of emigration from the late 1980s, and the Jewish population was declining by 2 per cent a year during the early 1990s as a result of intermarriage and assimilation.

Livs (also referred to as Livonians), alongside Latvians, are considered an indigenous people of Latvia. During the Soviet era a ban on access and fishing in coastal areas accelerated the assimilation of Livs. In their ethnic territory on the Baltic shores of the Talsi and Ventspils districts (an area with a Liv majority before the Second World War), there were less than 100 Livs by the 1990s. The Latvian authorities designated part of this area Livöd Randa (Liv Coast), hoping to renew and develop the traditional Liv way of life. Only a small number of Livs, almost all elderly, still know their native language.

Baltic Germans have played an important role within Latvia's territory, both politically and economically, since the thirteenth century. In the 1930s Germans were the fourth largest ethnic group, but most left the country during the Second World War.


The origins of the Latvian state go back to the thirteenth century when a political union of several Baltic tribes was established under the Livonian Order of Knights on the territory of present-day Latvia and Estonia. This union included the Finno-Ugrians (Estonians and Livs). The Livonian War of 1558-82, which began as a Russian attempt to gain access to the Baltic Sea, led to the division of the territory of the Livonian Order between Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. From 1600 to 1629, there was a war between Poland and Sweden with its main battlefields around Riga. As the result of this war, Sweden took control of central and north part of Latvia, Swedish Livonia. Poland controlled the eastern part of Duchy of Livonia. As a result of the Northern War between Sweden and Russia (1700-21) the central part of what is now Latvia was controlled by Russia from about 1710. In 1795 the last Duke of Courland ceded the territory to the Russia Empire, and the German aristocracy which retained its estates in Latvia henceforth served the Tsar. There has been a Russian population in Latvia since the 18th century. Latvians began to consider themselves a separate nation in the first part of the nineteenth century, when the first Latvian-language newspapers were published. Latvia remained part of the Tsarist empire until the end of the First World War. It declared independence in November 1918, although this was not recognized by Soviet Russia until the signing of the Peace Treaty of Riga in August 1920. The republic's first constitution was proclaimed two years later.

Like the other two Baltic states, Latvia was occupied by the Red Army as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and was incorporated into the Soviet Union in August 1940. Soviet legislation and judiciary were introduced with retroactive effect, resulting in the deportation of tens of thousands of individuals. A resistance movement against Soviet control continued for several years after the Second World War. By 1953, about 120,000 people had been killed, imprisoned or deported to labour camps in Siberia. The policy of intensive industrialization, combined with deliberate Russification, resulted in the influx of some 750,000 eastern Slav immigrants into Latvia. The proportion of indigenous Latvians in the country declined from 77 per cent in 1935 to 52 per cent in 1989.

The implementation of Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika allowed Latvia to declare its sovereignty (priority of local legislation over all-Union legislation) in July 1989. Thereafter, despite objections from the Soviet authorities, Latvia declared the renewal of its independence in May 1990 and embarked on a period of transition, completed in August 1991 with a declaration of the full restoration of Latvian state authority. Both the 1990 declaration of restored Latvian independence and the declaration of de facto independence proclaimed the authority of the 1922 constitution, thus stressing the continuity of independence. Virtually all forces stationed by the Soviet Union in Latvia, with the exception of some 600 personnel operating the Skrunda naval nuclear station in western Latvia, had left the country by 31 August 1994. However, several thousand demobilized Red Army officers and soldiers are thought to have remained illegally.


One of Latvia's most important future domestic policy tasks centres on issues related to the large number of non-citizens in the country, reckoned in 2004 to total some 450,000 people or about 29 per cent of the population), the overwhelming majority of whom are ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. Constitutional law provides that only citizens may occupy state positions, establish political parties, own land or 'choose a place of abode on Latvian territory'. Under the constitution, all residents of Latvia enjoy equal rights under the law, but the majority of non-ethnic Latvians who are not citizens of Latvia cannot fully participate in the civic life of the country.

Citizenship laws

In October 1991, citizenship was restored to those who were citizens of pre-war Latvia and their direct descendants. According to a new law on citizenship adopted by the Latvian parliament (the Saeima) in July 1994, a large portion of the remaining inhabitants of Latvia may qualify for citizenship through naturalization between 1996 and 2003.

The main requirements are five years of permanent residence, command of the Latvian language, knowledge of Latvian history and constitution, legal source of income, renunciation of previous citizenship and a pledge of loyalty to Latvia. Citizenship shall not be granted to individuals decreed by the court to have acted anti-constitutionally against the republic after May 1990, or to have propagated fascist, chauvinist, national-socialist, communist or totalitarian ideas, or to have stirred up ethnic or racial hatred, or to those who are officials of a foreign government, have served in the armed forces or security services of a foreign state or have been convicted of a crime with a sentence of one year or longer.

Latvia does not allow for dual citizenship in a naturalization process. Some non-citizens, particularly ethnic Russians, have criticized the law. The Council of Europe, the OSCE and the United Nations worked hard to secure modifications of the drafts of this legislation to improve consistency with international human rights standards. Latvia, like Estonia in the same situation, made some modifications, but the law remains an imperfect compromise.

The Latvian language law requires employees of the state and of all 'institutions, enterprises, and institutes' to know sufficient Latvian to carry out their profession. Some non-Latvians believe that they have been disenfranchised and that the language law discriminates against them, although there have been no reports of widespread dismissals of non-Latvian-speakers.

Ratification of the FCNM

Some 15 years after independence, the lack of a comprehensive legal framework and other policy measures for the protection and promotion of minority rights remains a concern in Latvia. This may of course be alleviated by the fact that Latvia finally ratified the FCNM on 6 June 2005. Latvia initiated in 2001 a comprehensive Integration Programme that did not address minority issues per se but was nevertheless adopted as the result of a public debate on ethnic integration.

The Programme focused on civic participation and political integration; social and regional integration; education, language and culture as well as information; and states that the protection of minorities is one of its objectives. But the fact that several minority rights claimed by civil society and minorities (such as greater access to education in the first language, participation in mass media, greater promotion of a dialogue between minorities and the state, public participation of minorities, and the promotion of minority languages) were not addressed or are insufficiently addressed in the Integration Programme rendered it ineffective. It has also been noted that protracted delays and low levels of financial support from the state hindered the rapid adoption and implementation of the Integration Programme.

Naturalization applications have increased significantly since Latvia's accession to the EU, and the government has actively promoted the process by reducing financial and linguistic requirements. Nearly one-fifth of Latvia's residents are non-citizens. Latvia's citizenship laws have been criticized for disenfranchising those who immigrated to Latvia during the Soviet period and who must now apply for citizenship, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians. Non-citizens are barred from participating in state and local elections and from holding certain civil service jobs. They are also not allowed to hold some private sector jobs.

Discrimination against Russian-speaking Community

Political, social and economic discrimination of the Russian-speaking community continues and in April 2002 the European Court of Human Rights decided that the Latvian Government had violated the right to stand for election of a Latvian citizen who was an ethnic Russian; and in December 2003, Court decided that the Latvian government had violated the rights of an ethnic Russian family and ordered the state to pay compensation. Nonetheless the reported success rate in the elementary language and civic knowledge exam required for naturalization in the period 1995-2005 was 85 per cent.

Under the Education Law, the Latvian government continues to implement a bilingual education programme at the elementary school level, with the goal of providing more than half of the course content in Russian-language secondary schools in Latvian. However, although all non-Latvian-speaking students in public schools are supposed to learn Latvian and to study a minimum number of subjects in Latvian, there is a shortage of qualified teachers. State-funded university education is in Latvian, and incoming students whose native language is not Latvian must pass a language entrance examination.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Latvia ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities on 6 June 2005, but at the same time, and contrary to the spirit of the FCNM, introduced two amendments requiring local government to function and street signs to be written in the Latvian language only. No specific arrangements were made to allow for areas compactly settled by national minorities to communicate with local government in their own language. The ratification law also added a definition of national minorities as 'citizens of Latvia who differ from Latvians in terms of their culture, religion, or language, [whose families] have traditionally lived in Latvia for several generations, regard themselves as identifying with the state of Latvia and its society, and wish to maintain and develop their culture, religion or language.' The addition of a specific definition is not unusual practice for states ratifying the Convention, nor is the non-recognition of non-citizens as separate national minorities. However, this definition in effect discounted Russians as a national minority, defining them instead as migrants. Russia condemned the definition and amendments as curtailing the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Latvia. Nonetheless the rate of citizenship applicants continued to rise since Latvia's EU accession, reaching a rate of some 2,000 applications per month in 2005.

Latvian politicians have defended the country's citizenship policy by pointing out that over half of Latvia's Russians possessed citizenship by the end of 2004. However, the proportions of other Slavic groups having achieved citizenship were significantly lower: only 30 per cent of Belarusians and 21 per cent of Ukrainians held citizenship at the same date. According to official data of the Department of Population Registration as of January 2006, 80.1 per cent of the total population of Latvia were citizens, 18.3 per cent were non-citizens and 1.6 per cent aliens and stateless persons. Russians accounted for 66.5 per cent of the non-citizens. Official data confirm that the rate of applications for naturalization since Latvia's EU accession continued to rise in 2006.

Latvian leaders have suggested that there is an increasing 'value divergence' between Latvian Russians and Russians in Russia. Survey data would appear to confirm this perception, reporting that a large majority of Russians in Latvia think of themselves as Russian-Latvians or Latvian-Russians. This data points to the conclusion that social integration is working in Latvia, and open conflict or the migration of Russians out of Latvia are unlikely. Survey data from late 2004 also indicate a very high adherence to principles of respect for other ethnic groups and cultures in Latvia among Latvian and Russophone constituencies, suggesting an important reserve of goodwill between communities. However, the projected goal of reducing the importance of Russian to other Slavic groups by raising the status of their own national languages does not appear to have been successful. Bilingualism in the 'native language' and Latvian among Latvia's Belarusians, Ukrainians and Poles is hampered by limited or no state sponsorship of the Belarusian, Ukrainian or Polish languages. Most representatives of these groups continue to depend first and foremost on Russian.

Apart from Latvia's Slavic groups, there are reportedly some 15 Jewish organizations in Riga, including a school, museum, veterans' association, youth centre and library, all affiliated to the Riga Jewish Association. There are also a reported 85 non-traditional confessional groups, including the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and Hare Krishnas.

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