1999 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.5
Civil Liberties: 2
Political Rights: 1


The collapse of the ruling coalition in April following the resignation of Prime Minister Andris Skele over disagreements within the government on privatization policies ushered in Latvia's ninth government since independence in 1991. Former Riga mayor Andris Berzins was chosen to lead the new 69-seat majority coalition consisting of the same center-right political forces joined by the small New Party. In the midst of the government crisis, Latvia was rocked by a sensational pedophilia scandal involving accusations of involvement of several high-level government officials.

After having been ruled for centuries by Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Russia, Latvia gained its independence in 1918, but was annexed by the U.S.S.R. during World War II. More than 50 years of Soviet occupation saw a massive influx of Russians and the deportation, execution, and emigration of tens of thousands of ethnic Latvians. In 1991, Latvia regained its independence in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Following the October 1995 parliamentary elections, nonparty businessman and former agriculture minister Andris Skele was chosen to lead a tenuous six-party coalition government in December. The year 1997 was marked by continual government instability, with Skele surrendering the premiership to Guntars Krasts of the right-wing nationalist Fatherland and Freedom Party in July-August.

In the October 1998 parliamentary elections, Skele's newly created People's Party received the most votes, capturing 24 seats. However, Skele remained unpopular among many political forces for his authoritarian and abrasive style. The People's Party and Vilis Kristopans' Latvia's Way, although similar in political orientation, found their leadership at odds over personality conflicts and various business interests. After nearly two months of negotiations, parliament finally approved a new 46-seat minority government led by Kristopans and consisting of the center-right Latvia's Way, Fatherland and Freedom, and the center-left New Party, along with the tacit support of the left-wing Alliance of Social Democrats. The People's Party was excluded from the ruling coalition, which most observers predicted would not survive for long because of the ideological diversity of its members and its minority status in parliament.

On June 17, 1999, Latvian-Canadian academic and virtual political unknown Vaira Vike-Freiberga was elected by parliament as the country's first female president. Vike-Freiberga had no formal party affiliation but was supported by the People's Party, Fatherland and Freedom, and the Social Democrats. Incumbent President Guntis Ulmanis, who had served as head of state since 1993, was prevented by law from seeking a third term.

After only nine months in office, Prime Minister Kristopans stepped down on July 5, 1999, precipitating the collapse of his minority coalition government. His resignation followed the signing of a cooperation agreement two days earlier between coalition partner Fatherland and Freedom and the People's Party. Kristopan's brief term had been plagued by various policy defeats and political crises, culminating in the virtual isolation of the prime minister's party in its opposition to Vike-Freiberga's candidacy for president. Latvia's Way, the People's Party, and Fatherland and Freedom put aside enough of their differences to agree to form a new 62-seat majority coalition led by Kristopan's rival, Andris Skele, as prime minister.

A political firestorm erupted in February 2000 when Social Democrat member of parliament Janis Adamsons, the head of a parliamentary commission investigating a pedophilia case, announced that Prime Minister Skele, Justice Minister Valdis Birkavs, and State Revenue Service Director Andrejs Sonciks were linked to the scandal. The three officials, all of whom vigorously denied any involvement, were cleared of charges in August after prosecutors found no evidence to support the accusations.

Following months of growing strains within the ruling coalition over privatization issues and personality conflicts, Prime Minister Skele stepped down on April 12 after the collapse of his government. In early April, Economics Minister Vladmirs Makarovs, a member of Fatherland and Freedom, revoked the signatory rights of privatization agency head and Latvia's Way member Janis Naglis; the two had clashed over matters including the setting of sale prices for state firms to be privatized. Skele responded by firing Makarovs and reappointing his long-time ally Naglis as head of the privatization agency, prompting Fatherland and Freedom to withdraw its support of Skele's leadership. The following day, Latvia's Way also pulled out of the coalition, citing the inability of the government to continue under its current leadership. On May 5, Riga mayor Andris Berzins of Latvia's Way was chosen prime minister. While the new government, which included the previous coalition's three parties along with the small New Party, increased its majority in parliament from 61 to 70 seats, the future stability of the ruling coalition remains in question.

Russian-Latvian relations remained tense during the year, with Moscow continuing to accuse Riga of discriminating against the country's nearly 700,000 Russian speakers. The Russian government criticized the war crimes trials of former Soviet partisan leader Vasily Kononov and former Soviet security official Yevgeny Savenko as persecution of opponents of fascism.

In late 2000, the government approved new regulations to the country's often controversial language law stipulating the level of Latvian required for employees in certain private sector jobs. Among the professions covered under one of the regulation's six language categories are lawyers, certain medical personnel, telephone operators, and taxi drivers. Some human rights campaigners and politicians expressed concern over the selection of language categories for certain professions and the potential for problems in enforcement by state language inspectors.

Latvia's economy, which fell into recession throughout most of 1999 after the 1998 Russian financial crisis, showed increasing signs of recovery in 2000. However, the privatization of the few remaining large state enterprises, including Latvian Shipping Company and the oil shipping firm Ventspils Nafta, continued to be delayed as politicians sought to protect their vested interests in certain sectors of the economy. In August, parliament approved a bill removing the power utility Latvenergo from the country's privatization list. The decision came after more than 300,000 voter signatures were collected in support of state control of the energy company.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Latvians can change their government democratically. However, 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 constitution provides for a unicameral, 100-seat parliament (Saeima), whose members are elected for four-year terms by proportional representation, and who in turn select the country's president. According to international observers, the most recent national legislative elections in 1998 were free and fair.

The government respects freedom of speech and the press. Private television and radio stations broadcast programs in both Latvian and Russian, and newspapers publish a wide range of political viewpoints. However, many media outlets routinely report rumors and accusations as fact without benefit of hard evidence. Freedom of worship is generally respected in this country in which the three largest denominations are Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Orthodoxy.

Freedom of assembly and association is protected by law, and gatherings occur without government interference. Communist, Nazi, and other organizations whose activities would contravene the constitution are banned. Workers have the right to establish trade unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining. However, some private sector employees fear dismissal if they strike, as the government is limited in its ability to protect their rights.

Although the government generally respects constitutional provisions for an independent judiciary, reform of the courts has been slow and judges continue to be inadequately trained and prone to corruption. The legal system has been criticized for being slow to charge accused Nazi war criminals, including Konrads Kalejs and Karlis Ozols, against whom criminal investigations were launched in 2000. In mid-December, Kalejs was arrested in his adopted home of Australia after a request for his extradition was made by Latvia's prosecutor-general. Severe backlogs in the court system have led to lengthy delays in reviewing cases and to large numbers of persons being held in pretrial detention. In one prominent case, former banker Alexander Lavent, who was arrested in connection with the 1994 collapse of Banka Baltija, has been held in detention for more than five years without a conviction. Lavent's lengthy incarceration, which former justice minister Valdis Birkavs called a violation of human rights, has attracted widespread local and international criticism. There have been credible reports of police using excessive force against suspects and detainees, and prison facilities remain severely overcrowded.

Amendments adopted in 1998 to the Law on Citizenship, which were designed to ease and accelerate the naturalization process, came into effect in 1999. The amendments eliminate the so-called "naturalization windows," or specific periods during which noncitizens may apply for citizenship, and offer citizenship to noncitizens' children born after August 21, 1991, at their parents' request and without a Latvian language test. In March 2000, parliament adopted amendments to a law governing the legal status of Latvia's stateless population, which represents about 25 percent of the population. The amendments reaffirmed the rights of noncitizens to preserve their language and culture, and to enjoy the basic human rights guaranteed by the constitution.

Women possess the same legal rights as men, although they frequently face hiring and pay discrimination. While women are underrepresented in senior-level business and government positions, Vaira Vike-Freiberga became Latvia's first female head of state in June 1999.

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