Nations in Transit 2009 - Latvia

  • Author: Juris Dreifelds
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    30 June 2009

by Juris Dreifelds

Capital: Riga
Population: 2.3 million
GNI/capita: US$15,790

The data above was provided by The World Bank, World Bank Indicators 2009.

Nations in Transit Ratings and Averaged Scores

Electoral Process1.751.751.751.751.751.751.752.002.002.00
Civil Society2.
Independent Media1.751.751.751.751.501.501.501.501.751.75
National Democratic Governancen/an/an/an/an/a2.
Local Democratic Governancen/an/an/an/an/a2.502.502.502.252.25
Judicial Framework and Independence2.
Democracy Score2.

* Starting with the 2005 edition, Freedom House introduced separate analysis and ratings for national democratic governance and local democratic governance to provide readers with more detailed and nuanced analysis of these two important subjects.

NOTE: The ratings reflect the consensus of Freedom House, its academic advisers, and the author(s) of this report. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the author(s). The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year.

Executive Summary

In Latvia, a full generation has grown up without any firsthand knowledge of Soviet life. As this Soviet experience retreats in the memories of even the older generations, independence and membership in the European Union (EU) and NATO have become an unquestioned daily reality. The Russia-Georgia confrontation in August 2005, brought home to many the possible vulnerabilities involved in having a resurgent and economically expansive neighbor. NATO leaders were dispatched to the capital, Riga, to reiterate the seriousness of Baltic protection, and at the same time provide a signal to Russia of NATO's determination to stand by each and every member. The Georgian events also created further rifts between Latvians and the large Russian-speaking population, epitomized in small part by the divergent display of Georgian and Russian flags decorating many Riga transportation vehicles.

Latvia's economy was a major concern even before the worldwide economic meltdown, but high inflation, especially the steep rise in the price of necessities in 2008 such as food, energy, heat, and shelter, brought about widespread discontent. The lifting of visa requirements to travel to Canada, Australia, and the United States was a positive signal to the country. The celebration of the 90th anniversary of Latvia's declaration of independence on November 18 offered wide opportunities for nation building and increased cohesion in a population generally beset by anomie and cynicism.

National Democratic Governance. In 2008, two referendums, the president's efforts to mobilize Parliament, and the precarious majority of the coalition parties have circumscribed the amplitude of executive freedom. In 2008, while the parliamentary opposition remained largely ignored by decision makers, the Latvian Federation of Free Trade Unions launched a campaign to extend the power of the general electorate by allowing a recall of Parliament between elections. The referendum failed but demonstrated the low levels of trust accorded to democratic institutions in Latvia. Serious discontent and concerns were voiced over the radical actions taken to reorganize Latvia's governmental ministries, taxation levels, and institution of drastic economic salvation plans – including the government's overly secretive takeover of the Parex Banka. As a result, the rating for national democratic government worsens from 2.00 to 2.50.

Electoral Process. Latvia is a parliamentary democracy, with elections to the 100-member Parliament held every four years. The most recent parliamentary elections took place in October 2006 and were considered by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to have been free and fair. Voting turnout has declined over four years from 71 percent to 62 percent. Most parties in Parliament are positioning themselves to prepare for municipal and European Parliamentary elections to be held concurrently on June 6, 2009. The rating for electoral process remains at 2.00.

Civil Society. Nongovernmental organization (NGO) activity is in a state of flux owing to the loss of financing from foreign donors and reorientation to selfsustainability. Government funding, and especially seed money to access EU funds, has provided some relief. In spite of the decreased rate of participation in various organizations, the number of NGOs is increasing at a rate of 3 a day, totaling roughly 10,000 in 2008. Of these, only 1,000 are certified and have tax-deductible status. The mounting mobilization of impressive numbers of voters for two referendums in the summer of 2008, in spite of governmental opposition, highlighted the viability of civil society. The rating for civil society remains at 1.75.

Independent Media. There is almost no governmental interference in Latvian media. As in most countries of the world, the increase in Internet use has precipitated a significant drop in newspaper readership. Nevertheless, people in Latvia have a broad choice of dailies, weeklies, regional press, journals, television, and radio. Moreover, many people have access to European and Russian television programs. Journalism remains a prestigious occupation in spite of the low pay and high personnel turnover. Many Latvians have criticized the increased presence of Russian serials on Latvian TV and their possible impact on the Latvian language, and politics. Latvia's rating for independent media holds steady at 1.75.

Local Democratic Governance. Latvian municipal governments remained active in 2008. The planned reorganization of 530 municipalities into 109 new territorial districts and 9 republic cities by early 2009 passed on December 18, 2008, and has created discontent and even opposition from over three dozen districts and one of the four ruling coalition parties. Latvia's rating for local democratic governance remains at 2.25.

Judicial Framework and Independence. The status, pay, and number of judges in Latvia's 42 courts continue to increase. Modernization of the court system is progressing rapidly, yet public trust in these institutions remains relatively low. Funding for the Ministry of Justice and especially its court administration sector has more than doubled since 2004. The rating for judicial framework and independence remains at 1.75.

Corruption. While all signs indicate relatively limited corruption in the middle and lower levels of administration and courts, the pinnacle of politics appears tainted. Latvia's anticorruption organization, the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB), is becoming more sophisticated and has accelerated its investigations, increasingly catching "big fish" in its net. As a result, this organization has become one of the most trusted in Latvia, and more and more individuals are willing to inform officials about observed corruptive activities. Ironically, in spite of this achievement, the leader of KNAB, Aleksejs Loskutovs, was dismissed from his position in June after an unsuccessful attempt (due to large public protests) to fire him in the fall of 2007. The official reason for the dismissal concerned the theft of large sums of money, yet many have speculated that his overzealous fight against corruption led to his dismissal. Latvia's rating for corruption worsens from 3.00 to 3.25.

Outlook for 2009. The widespread anger and cynicism stemming from the economic downturn may result in major parties in government losing out in municipal and European Parliament elections slated for June 2009. Furthermore, the restructuring of municipal district boundaries may result in realignment of political parties. Worries stemming from the economic crisis may place ideological issues and concerns regarding the relations between Latvians and the Russian-speaking community on the back burner in order to pursuit increased trade. At the same time, many Latvians working abroad may return following cuts in employment in Ireland and the United Kingdom.

This 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.