Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 1
Life Expectancy: 72
Religious Groups: Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox
Ethnic Groups: Latvian (57 percent), Russian (30 percent), (4 percent), Ukrainian (3 percent), Polish (3 percent), other (3 percent)
Latvia's civil liberties rating improved from 2 to 1 due to an increase in the activity and visibility of the nongovernmental sector.
Aigars Kalvitis of the People's Party became the new prime minister of Latvia in December 2004. Right-wing parties won the most seats in local elections held in March 2005. On the international front, the long-awaited border treaty with Russia remained unsigned after the Latvian government insisted on leaving open the possibility for future compensation for 46 years under Soviet occupation. Meanwhile, increased state support for the nongovernmental sector mirrored a general strengthening of Latvian civil society.
After having been ruled for centuries by Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Russia, Latvia gained its independence in 1918, only to be annexed by the USSR 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.
Almost 73 percent of Latvian voters participated in a September 2003 referendum on European Union (EU) accession, with 67 percent voting to join the body. Prime Minister Einars Repse hailed the vote as one of the three most important events in the country's history; the others were the brief period of independence between the two world wars and the collapse of the USSR. Latvia became a member of NATO in April 2004 and of the EU the following month.
Political tensions festered throughout 2004. In February, Repse and his ruling coalition resigned after the Latvia First Party (LPP) withdrew its support of the government. Repse had sacked LPP leader and deputy prime minister Ainars Slesers a week earlier, after Slesers backed the establishment of a parliamentary committee to probe Repse's allegedly corrupt real estate purchases. In March, parliament voted in a new coalition government led by Latvian Green Party (ZZS) head Indulis Emsis, who become Europe's first ever Green prime minister. The coalition included the LPP, the People's Party, and one New Era (JL) deputy. However, Emsis's government was forced to resign in October following parliament's rejection of its draft 2005 budget, regarded as a no-confidence vote by parliamentary rules.
In December 2004, Aigars Kalvitis of the People's Party (TP) was approved as the new prime minister of Latvia. His government received more support than any coalition government in the country's past, obtaining the votes of 75 of the 100 members of parliament. The governing coalition is composed of the four largest right-wing parties – JL, TP, LPP, and the Latvian Alliance of the Green Party and Farmers Union.
Latvia's usual solidarity with its Baltic neighbors cooled down in January 2005 after President Vaira Vike-Freiberga broke an agreement with Estonia and Lithuania and decided to attend the sixtieth anniversary of the Soviet defeat over Nazi Germany. Some analysts perceived this unilateral move as a sign that the three countries – which must now compete for everything from farm subsidies to diplomacy within the EU context – are developing different interests.
Tensions surrounding the events celebrating the end of World War II escalated on the local level on March 16, when Latvian nationalist groups clashed with pro-Russian and anti-fascist crowds during marches to commemorate Latvians who served in the German Waffen-SS brigades. Some 35 people were detained for disorderly conduct. Approximately 146,000 Latvians fought in Nazi German ranks during World War II, and another 130,000 Latvians fought in the Soviet army.
The nongovernmental (NGO) sector in Latvia continued to grow and diversify during the year. In February, the state introduced a comprehensive proposal supporting the expansion of NGO activities. In June, the government signed a memorandum of cooperation with 50 NGOs, while allowing other groups an option to join in. A growing number of Latvians appears willing to join civic groups in order to lobby for various issues of interest. Moreover, the prospect of new EU funding has inspired many NGOs to better identify their goals and seek cooperation with other regional groups.
In elections for city, district, and pagasts (smallest rural units) councils held in mid-March, the ruling right-of-center parties captured more than 80 percent of votes. Voter turnout was close to 53 percent. More than 450,000 Russians, many of whom have lived in Latvia for their entire lives, were not allowed to vote because they failed to pass the Latvian language and history test, which became a prerequisite for Latvian citizenship in 1995.
Latvian relations with Russia in 2005 remained tense. In May, the two countries were expected to sign a border treaty; however, these plans were abandoned in late April after Latvia insisted on maintaining the right to sue for losses incurred during Soviet rule. The treatment of Latvia's sizable Russian minority remained one of the most contentious bilateral issues, with Russian officials criticizing Latvia for preventing ethnic Russians from voting in Latvia's elections.
In June, Latvia ratified the European Constitution; members of parliament supported the constitution by an overwhelming 71 votes to 5.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Citizens of Latvia can change their government democratically. 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. The prime minister is nominated by the president and must be approved by an absolute parliamentary majority. According to international observers, the most recent national legislative elections in 2002 and the March 2005 local elections were both free and fair. Residents of Latvia who are citizens of any country of the EU are now permitted to vote in Latvia's local elections.
Eight political parties are currently represented in the parliament: the JL (24 seats), the TP (20 seats), the LPP (14 seats), the ZZS (12 seats), the People's Harmony Party (8 seats), the For Fatherland and Freedom/Latvian National Independence Movement (7 seats), the For Human Rights in United Latvia (6 seats), and the Latvian Socialist Party (5 seats).
Transparency International (TI) regularly cites Latvia as the most corrupt of the Baltic states. Latvia was ranked 51 out of 159 countries surveyed in TI's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index. In recent years, however, the government has adopted various anticorruption measures. In September 2005, the government approved personal income declarations for all citizens and residents.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and of the press. Private television and radio stations broadcast programs in both Latvian and Russian, and newspapers publish a wide range of political viewpoints. In March 2005, however, the government brought a criminal legal action against the influential Russian-language newspaper Chas for allegedly inciting ethnic hatred by publishing articles of Waffen-SS crimes and for calling for a halt to the annual SS veteran marches. Several sources suggested that this proceeding might be part of a government harassment campaign against Chas, whose publishing house, Petits, faced more than 20 tax and financial inspections in a 10-month period. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
Freedom of worship and academic freedom are generally respected. In May, the constitutional court upheld the controversial Education Law mandating that at least 60 percent of public school classes be taught in Latvian, even in schools that cater mainly to the approximately 120,000 ethnic Russian students. The court's opinion was that the education law does not violate an individual's right to education and does not diminish the rights of ethnic minorities to preserve their identity and culture. The law was strongly criticized by Moscow, as well as by the Russian community and some left-wing parties within Latvia.
Freedom of assembly is protected by law, and gatherings occur without governmental interference. The government does not restrict the activities of NGOs organizations and has recently supported the expansion of the nongovernmental sector. Workers have the right to establish trade unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining. However, only 17 percent of the workforce is unionized.
While the government generally respects constitutional provisions for an independent judiciary, some judges continue to be inadequately trained and prone to corruption. However, the government has taken steps to address these problems. According to the U.S. State Department's 2004 human rights report, a majority of criminal cases were adjudicated within three months, and 80.5 percent were adjudicated within six months. Prison remain severely overcrowded, and there have been reports of security officials using excessive force.
Nearly one-fifth of Latvia's residents are noncitizens. 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. Most noncitizens are barred from participating in state and local elections, from holding some civil service jobs, and from holding some private sector jobs (including as lawyers, notaries, and commercial pilots). Alleged political, social, and economic discrimination suffered by the Russian-speaking community is a subject of much debate both in Latvia and in the wider region. In May, the Latvian parliament passed the Council of Europe's framework convention for the protection of national minorities in a slightly modified version: the parliament defined the term "ethnic minority" as persons of different culture, religion, or language who have lived in Latvia for generations, thereby excluding ethnic Russians, who settled in the country following World War II, from the special status.
Women possess the same legal rights as men, but they often face hiring and pay discrimination. Although the president of Latvia and the speaker of the parliament are women, there are only 21 women in the 100-member parliament and 4 women in the 18-member cabinet. Violence against women is widespread and often goes unreported. Trafficking in persons, mostly of women for the purposes of prostitution, is a problem, which the government has made efforts to address.
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