Capital: Riga
Population: 2.1 million
GNI/capita, PPP: US$19,090

Source: The data above are drawn from The World Bank, World Development Indicators 2013.

2013 Scores

Democracy Score: 2.07
Regime Classification: Consolidated Democracy
National Democratic Governance: 2.25
Electoral Process: 1.75
Civil Society: 1.75
Independent Media: 1.75
Local Democratic Governance: 2.25
Judicial Framework and Independence: 1.75
Corruption: 3.00

*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:

Latvia was hit hard in the early days of the global economic crisis, experiencing a greater decline in growth than any other member of the European Union (EU). The economy has since stabilized, thanks largely to a package of austerity measures introduced by successive governments. While some economists and politicians have praised Latvia's recovery model, citing strong growth of the past two years, others believe Latvia may have sacrificed more than it gained, pointing to still-high unemployment, painful cutbacks to the public sector, and other social impacts of government policies.

Latvia's current government came to power after snap elections in the fall of 2011. For the first time in recent memory, parties associated with Latvia's so-called "oligarchs" – a handful of powerful businessmen who have exerted influence on the country's politics for many years – have extremely limited representation in the parliament. At the same time, the rhetoric and actions of one of the governmental coalition partners, the National Alliance, and the largely Russophone opposition party, Harmony Center, have increased the polarization levels between the country's ethnic Latvian and Russian populations.

The ruling coalition weathered several political tests with relative ease in 2012 and continued to pursue policies aimed at cutting public spending and securing economic growth. The parliament enacted important policy reforms, including public funding for political parties and tax breaks for some civil society groups. The state also introduced new mechanisms for combatting corruption in areas ranging from asset ownership to public purchasing to political appointments.

National Democratic Governance. The three-party ruling coalition formed after the elections of September 2011 continued to implement austerity policies, which have improved Latvia's economic growth but also exacted a social toll, resulting in an exodus of young people from the country and polls showing public discontent. The coalition grappled with Latvia's persistent ethnic polarization, including the rejection via referendum of Russian as a second official language, and will likely face new challenges as it endeavors to adopt the euro and raise the pension age in the face of popular opposition. Potential fault lines also appeared within the government over a government minister's suspension of oligarch Aivars Lembergs as mayor of Ventspils and the balance of power among coalition members. Latvia's national democratic governance rating remains unchanged at 2.25.

Electoral Process. In January, the government introduced public funding for political parties that pass a 2 percent threshold of votes in parliamentary elections. Parties also agreed that in future elections, no television advertising will be allowed 30 days prior to voting. The year saw the successful conclusion of a drawn-out case against Lembergs's Union of Greens and Farmers pertaining to campaign finance transgressions in Latvia's 2006 elections. Municipal elections are scheduled for 2013, and parliamentary (Saeima) elections for 2014. Latvia's electoral process rating remains unchanged at 1.75.

Civil Society. Politicians showed increasing interest in the work of nongovernmental organization (NGOs), asking them for input in public policy and offering some NGOs tax breaks and other financial support. Meanwhile, civil society provided a foundation upon which citizens could protest government and EU policy. Latvia's rating for civil society remains unchanged at 1.75.

Independent Media. Though a wide array of media is available in both Latvian and Russian, news outlets are struggling economically. In 2012, declining advertising revenues propelled new ownership and consolidation among newspapers, including the country's three main Russian-language dailies. The Swedish holding company Modern Times Group (MTG) acquired one of Latvia's main TV channels, adding it to a growing list of MTG's holdings in the country. The popularity of the internet continued to grow, as evidenced by advertising revenues and users, but an access divide remained between urban and rural areas. An attack on an investigative journalist, reportedly for his sensitive work, drew criticism from media freedom advocates. Moreover, tensions between ethnic Latvians and Russians played out in debates over political programming. Latvia's rating for independent media remains unchanged at 1.75.

Local Democratic Governance. Despite lobbying, local governments were not successful in raising their share of Latvia's income tax receipts from 80 to 85 percent. This strained relations within the Association of Local and Regional Governments (LPS) – a powerful organization with the authority to represent municipalities in negotiations with the Cabinet of Ministers – as well as interactions between local bodies and the central government ministry tasked with overseeing regional affairs. This same ministry made more news by proposing to reduce the number of elected municipal officials in an effort to improve local efficiency and accountability. Populations also began preparing for the next local elections, scheduled for June 2013. Latvia's rating for local democratic governance remains unchanged at 2.25.

Judicial Framework and Independence. Latvia's court system is slowly modernizing. However, it has not resolved its backlog of cases, which is the product of inefficient procedures, funding shortfalls, and the growing popularity of litigation. Although competition for judgeships has increased, corruption cases against some judges have tarnished the prestige of the courts. Although the ombudsman's office is becoming increasingly visible, human rights violations remain a problem in the judicial system. Conditions in the country's old and inefficient prison network are inhumane, and the system is criticized for not promoting rehabilitation. Latvia's rating for judicial framework and independence remains unchanged at 1.75.

Corruption. With support from several anticorruption advocates in the Saeima and other institutions, the government introduced policies and directives to enhance transparency and accountability in wealth acquisition, public procurement, campaign finance, and appointment procedures. The Corruption Prevention and Combatting Bureau (KNAB) uncovered several high-profile scandals and recommended prosecution against business figures and public officials implicated in the wrongdoing. Owing to the enhancement of anticorruption mechanisms, Latvia's rating for corruption improves from 3.25 to 3.00.

Outlook for 2013. Latvia's economic recovery will continue, despite the persistence of high unemployment. The flow of outmigration has slowed, but remains a source of concern. Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization may expand the market for Latvian products. The oligarchs, who have recently seen their power diminished, will seek to regain their previous political standing. However, strong forces of anticorruption in state institutions may help keep them at bay.

National Democratic Governance:

October 2012 marked the end of one full year in power for Latvia's new government. Contrary to widespread expectations, the ruling coalition remained stable in 2012, despite disagreements over the balance of power among coalition members. Unemployment remained high throughout the year, and the government continued to implement austerity measures on the heels of painful cuts to a wide range of state services, employment, and salaries in 2009-10.

Latvia's new government came to power after President Valdis Zatlers dissolved the Saeima (parliament) in May 2011 – the first parliamentary dissolution in the country's history. The Saeima voted Zatlers out of power in June, but a popular referendum the following month confirmed the parliament's dissolution. In the ensuing elections, the predominantly Russophone Harmony Centre won more seats than any other party, but proved unable to build a governing coalition. The right to do so fell to ex-president Zatlers' center-right party (Zatlers' Reform Party, ZRP), in tandem with Unity, the center-right party of incumbent prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis. Ultimately, ZRP and Unity formed a coalition with National Alliance, a party with a strong ethnonationalist lean. The parties of powerful businessmen Andris Šķēle, a former prime minister, and Ainars Šlesers, received no seats in the Saeima, while the Union of Greens and Farmers, associated with oligarch Aivars Lembergs, was relegated to the opposition.

Ongoing efforts to reduce government spending and encourage growth yielded some notable results in 2012. For the second consecutive year, gross domestic product (GDP) growth exceeded 5 percent in 2012, reaching 5.6 percent, the highest rate in the European Union (EU).[1] According to numbers published in the fall, the number of state workers had declined by 26 percent and wage expenditures by 34 percent since 2008.[2] Such numbers facilitated the approval of the 2013 state budget without seriously disrupting the ruling coalition. Moreover, Latvia's credit ratings improved, and government-issued bonds allowed the country to repay its debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in December, ahead of schedule.[3]

Other indicators were less rosy. Unemployment hovered above 13 percent throughout 2012.[4] The outmigration of Latvia's working-age population was smaller than in 2011, but still considerable. The economy ministry has projected that the country's population, which is among the oldest in the world, could shrink from approximately 2 million in 2012 to 1.6 million by 2030.[5] Eurostat data released in December also found that 31 percent of people in the country were "severely materially deprived."[6] Critics have argued that the government should have devalued Latvia's currency and taken a gradual approach to fiscal consolidation, rather than making across-the-board cuts.

Issues of ethnic polarization were highly visible in 2012, brought to the forefront by an initiative on language. In late 2011, a group of Latvian ethnonationalists from the new ruling coalition attempted to call a referendum on Latvian as the sole language of instruction in all publicly financed school, arguing that this would entrench the national language and unify the country. The initiative did not gather enough signatures to move forward. In 2012, a Russophone advocacy group demanded a counter-referendum to make Russian the country's official second language and collected enough signatures to bring the matter to a national vote in February, despite open opposition from Prime Minister Dombrovskis and President Andris Bērziņš. A total of 70.7 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots, and nearly 75 percent voted against the proposition.[7] It is estimated that 27 percent of Latvia's residents speak Russian as their first language, and that around half of those do not speak fluent Latvian.

Meanwhile, approximately 15 percent of Latvia's residents are noncitizens, ineligible to vote or hold public office. In September, the parliament voted to approve amendments to the country's citizenship law, sponsored by the Unity bloc. The amendments would grant noncitizen and stateless children born after August 1991 Latvian citizenship only if they were already permanent residents and if their parents pledged to help them learn the Latvian language – conditions that were criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The proposed amendments, which were still awaiting final approval at year's end, also allowed some Latvians living abroad to apply for dual citizenship and mandated that newborns be granted Latvian citizenship if at least one parent was a Latvian citizen, even if the child was not born in Latvia.

Russophone activists tried to stage a referendum on automatic citizenship in 2012 but the government rejected their initiative in early November.[8] A few days later, over the objections of the political opposition, the Saeima adopted amendments to the country's referendum law requiring 154,000 signatures to introduce a referendum. The changes included a requirement for gathering an initial 30,000 signatures for referendums proposed before the amendments go into full effect in 2015. The venues of signature collections were also expanded to include an electronic option.[9]

The current coalition government will face more challenges in the near future, as evidenced by popular discontent with pending policy changes. Among these policies is the adoption of the euro, planned for January 2014. However, only 13 percent of Latvians polled in August 2012 supported the move, a record low. In December, a separate poll found that only 10 percent of respondents were for a speedy introduction of the euro, while another 25 percent wanted the currency but "not in the near future."[10] There was another disconnect between the population and the government on raising the pension age from 62 to 65 in coming years. The public is against the move, while the government is for it.[11]

Edmunds Sprūdžs, a member of Zatlers' party. The cause of the suspension was reported corruption and conflicts of interest in Lembergs' tenure. This move, in addition to garnering resistance from Lembergs and his supporters in Ventspils, strained relations within the center-right Unity Party, whose youth membership criticized party leaders for their "unclear position" on the Lembergs case.[12] Moreover, six renegades from the Reform Party (the ZRP's new name since April 2012) have created a new right-wing group called Free Democrats. If they bolt from the ruling coalition and join the opposition, each side could wield 50 deputies in the 100-seat Saeima, creating the potential for gridlock.[13] The National Alliance also signaled its discontent with its two ministerial positions in the government, in comparison to the Reform Party's five.

Electoral Process:

Latvia holds popular elections for national, local, and European parliaments. The president is elected in the Saeima by secret ballot. There were no elections in 2012, but a policy introducing public funding for political parties took effect that will affect campaigning for municipal elections in June 2013. The next Saeima elections are planned for 2014.

Starting in January, political parties began receiving LVL 0.5 (about $1) annually for every vote obtained if they surpassed a 2 percent threshold in the most recent parliamentary elections.[14] The intended effect of this funding is to limit dependence on outside donations by wealthy individuals with private agendas. In March, all parties also agreed to prohibit paid advertising on television 30 days prior to elections.[15]

The year witnessed the successful conclusion of a drawn-out case pertaining to illegal campaign financing by a party closely tied to Latvia's most infamous "oligarch," Aivars Lembergs. In August, after many court challenges, the Union of Greens and Farmers was fined for campaign funding it acquired illegally in 2006 when Latvia's Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of a lower administrative court.[16] A party led by Ainars Šlesers, which received 2.4 percent of votes in 2011, dissolved at the end of 2011 to avoid paying a large fine for its own campaign finance transgressions.[17] Fellow oligarch Andris Šķēle, dissolved his party for similar reasons in July 2011.

Civil Society:

Latvians are increasingly interested in organized public opinion and action. As of February 2012, there were 15,324 registered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the country, indicating a growth of over 2,000 from the previous year. Sixty-two percent were located in Riga and the surrounding region,[18] but the powerful Association of Local and Regional Governments (LPS) and Latvian Rural Forum (LLF) have worked to improve the access small groups in other regions have to decision-makers. In 2012, politicians signaled growing interest in the health and work of civil society groups. Meanwhile, civil society groups banded together to protest government and EU policies.

Latvia boasts a sound foundation for civil society development, thanks to government, foreign, and private support. In 2012, the government bolstered this infrastructure by limiting property taxes for many NGO headquarters. Seeking greater collaboration with independent groups, Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkēvičs asked civil society for input on the development of the EU budget, and the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB) asked NGOs for help in its anti-graft activities. Still, public support for additional governmental aid to NGOs stood at 63 percent in June.[19] In response to public demand and civil society's growing importance, the Ministry of Culture allotted more than €10 million to strengthen NGO activities and programs over three years.[20]

The NGO umbrella organization Civic Alliance (eLPA) continued to dedicate substantial effort to educating and mobilizing civil society groups and their leaders. eLPA conducts research, holds trainings, provides information about EU legislation and funding, and offers legal and financial advice. It is also active in EU-wide and international organizations, including the global civil society network CIVICUS, of which eLPA's director became a board member in August.[21]

NGOs have fully embraced internet technology. They use websites to circulate and sign proposals for parliamentary deputies and to criticize bureaucratic transgressions or unnecessary, burdensome demands the government might place on civil society groups. Registered NGOs are also required to provide annual electronic reports on their activities, which are made available to the public. It was reported in April that Microsoft Latvia had provided free software to some NGOs and also installed internet for free in 900 libraries.[22]

Civil society mobilized for various protests in 2012. Among these was a demonstration organized by farmers discontented with disparities in EU agricultural subsidies. Latvian farmers, many of whom are active in the Latvian Farmers' Organization Cooperation Council (LOSP), were receiving the smallest subsidy in the EU – €90 (about $117) per hectare – compared to an EU average of almost $350. In response, farmers joined their counterparts from Lithuania and Estonia in demanding a minimum of 80 percent of the average EU payment. On top of a petition, they drove an old Soviet tractor to Brussels as a symbol of protest.[23]

In September, 54 groups, including Moral Revolution, the Evangelical Alliance, and various church organizations, demanded that Minister for Welfare Ilze Vinkele resign for supporting the publication of a children's book on the equality and interchangeability of gender roles. Religious critics said the book promoted homosexuality and undermined traditional morals.[24] However, it was reviewed and found acceptable by the country's ombudsman. Riga activists hosted a pride parade in June to support the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, despite opposition protests. Only 15 percent of respondents to a public poll in March had said the city should allow the celebration.[25]

A 2011 poll indicated that about one-third of Russians in Latvia feel themselves "territorially attached" to Russia, and questions of national loyalty are often fodder for disagreement and protest.[26] Many Latvians oppose the activities of foreign NGOs like Russky MIR, which donates books to Latvian schools. Such activities, while seemingly benign, are considered by some to be exertions of Russia's "soft power."[27] Mutual recriminations also arose over a suggestion by Catholic Archbishop Zbigniew Stankevičs that Latvian legionnaires, who on March 16 commemorate their comrades who died fighting the Red Army in World War II, share a remembrance with Russian veterans, who celebrate Soviet Victory Day on May 9. The proposal brought forth a volley of criticisms, including from Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Independent Media:

Latvia's laws protect media freedom, and the country has a wide selection of print and electronic sources of information in two languages, Latvian and Russian. Internet access and use continues to expand, providing Latvians with increasingly diverse news and networking websites. Yet many outlets, especially newspapers, are still reeling from the effects of the economic crisis, including declines in advertising revenues and readership. Many media also remain under the influence of oligarchs, both domestic and foreign, and in 2012, Latvian-Russian ethnic tensions manifested in debates over political programming.

Both Latvian- and Russian-language newspapers have faced growing economic pressures and losses in the last several years. Although overall advertising revenue across media increased slightly (3 percent) in 2012, it declined by 13 percent for newspapers.[28] Such downward trends have prompted changes to ownership patterns and a trend toward consolidation. In April 2012, however, the Latvian-language newspaper Diena – widely believed to have been controlled by oligarchs Šlesers, Šķēle, and Lembergs – was taken over by its major creditor, the Riga Commercial Port.[29] Another major paper, Neatkariga Rita Avize, was sold by the company Mediju Nams to three of the newspaper's leading executives for a minimal sum in 2010.[30] Meanwhile, two major Russian-language dailies, Vesti Segodnija and Chas, merged in December.[31]

Although the ad market for television rebounded slightly in 2012, general losses during the economic crisis were catalysts for the buyout of Latvian National Television (LNT) by Swedish holding company Modern Times Group (MTG), which was announced in early 2012. The move bolstered MTG's position in Latvia's TV market; the company already owned other major channels, including TV3 and TV6.[32] Meanwhile, the popular Russian-language First Baltic Channel (PBK) continued to minimize its costs by broadcasting Moscow-produced programs.

The popularity of online media continued to grow in 2012, evidenced by increasing advertising revenues and user numbers. At the beginning of 2012, just over 70 percent of the population reported being regular internet users, a 4 percent increase from the previous year. Eighty-eight percent of users said they got online to access news, newspapers, and magazines.[33] Daily newspapers provide digital content, and there are also several popular online-only news portals, many of which are owned by foreign proprietors. These include,, and Also popular is the social networking website, which receives more daily visits than Facebook.[34]

Although the majority of households in the country have computers, researchers have reported a "digital divide" between cities and other areas. A 2012 survey found that 91 percent of urban residents described their internet service as "good," while only 31 percent of rural residents reported the same.[35] The Latvian government is proceeding with plans to expand connectivity, with support from EU structural funds.

Latvia generally permits media investigations and criticism of the government. For instance, journalist Lato Lapsa's website has published material embarrassing to many politicians, bureaucrats, and business leaders. However, journalist Leonids Jakobsons, known for writing about sensitive topics, was attacked in his apartment building and hospitalized in March 2012. He believed the attack was connected to his work.[36] The previous year, he had been detained for two days after publishing purportedly private e-mails between the mayor of Riga and a foreign diplomat.

A major source of discontent among many Latvians is the political orientation of Russian media, some of which are local and others of which are based abroad. Critics consider these media to be agitators and propagandists rather than sources of news. In 2012, the British media company Ofcon criticized REN TV Baltic and Mir Baltic, two Russian-language TV channels with Ofcon licenses, for using programming to promote a political agenda – a violation of the company's rules. A short segment, which Ofcon concluded was not sponsored advertising, had encouraged viewers to vote for Russian as an official language in the February referendum.[37]

Local Democratic Governance:

Local governments are slowly adjusting to a 2009 restructuring policy, which blended 530 local units into 109 municipalities and 9 cities in order to enhance efficiency and service capacity. Responsibilities of local authorities and institutions, which received higher trust ratings than the central government in a 2012 poll,[38] include overseeing primary and secondary education, social assistance (except pensions and family care benefits), health care, water supply and sewage works, and a portion of the country's housing. Due in large part to the economic crisis, challenges in fulfilling these responsibilities include the stress of high unemployment, the outmigration of young people to urban centers and other EU states, and a lack of specialized labor. In 2012, local authorities clashed with the central government over income taxes and other funding sources, even as the country's president asserted the need to empower municipal and regional governments.

The interests of local governments are represented by LPS, the Association of the Large Cities of Latvia, and the Alliance of Regions. There is close coordination among these organizations, individual municipalities, and the Environment Protection and Regional Development (EPRD). In 2012, EPRD Minister Sprūdžs boasted that he had the phone numbers of "all leaders of self-governments stored in my phone."[39]

However, the relationships among these entities are not without strain. Local budgets are funded with shares of the country's income tax receipts, along with property taxes and, in poorer locations, contributions from a municipal equalization fund and other state subsidies. In 2012, a dispute arose between local governments and the EPRD regarding income taxes, with the LPS demanding that its constituents receive 85 percent of all receipts. However, in September, LPS signed an agreement limiting the share to 80 percent; in return, the EPRD promised to provide LVL 11.5 million ($21.5 million) in grants for the poorest municipalities and cities. The accord was challenged by 23 local governments, which demanded additional funding of LVL 49 million ($91.5 million) to pay for roads and kindergarten teachers.[40] The city of Riga, which would have benefited substantially from the share increase, reacted by cancelling its membership in LPS, claiming the organization had buckled under government pressure. The longtime leader of the LPS, Andris Jaunsleinis, in turn blamed the central government for splitting the solidarity of local governments.[41]

Sprūdžs proved himself an activist minister throughout the year. He spurred additional questions about relations between national authorities and local governments by suspending Lembergs, the elected mayor of Ventspils, for reported corruption. Both Lembergs, who said the EPRD minister did not have the authority to dismiss him, and the Ventspils city council, which backed Lembergs, challenged Sprūdžs's decision.[42] Moreover, Sprūdžs openly criticized the 2009 structural reforms, claiming they had not achieved their purported goals. In July, he described the disparities among local economic capacities, which affects the level and quality of public services, as a "real mess."[43] Later in the year, he proposed reducing the number of officials that can be elected at municipal and Riga city council elections, citing a need to improve government transparency and effectiveness. According to a public poll, 72 percent of respondents strongly or moderately supported the reduction.[44]

Ethnic tensions continue to simmer at the local level, though political compromises and strong leadership have in some cases eased them. A longstanding demand by many Russophone citizens, who form majorities or large proportions of populations in certain municipalities and cities, is the increased use of Russian in public debates, consultations, and documentation. While Latvian remains the only official state language, in practice, many jurisdictions accommodate linguistic differences. This is especially true in the eastern province of Latgale, which has many Russian speakers. Meanwhile, Riga's Russophone mayor has been able to maintain his ethnic constituency while also attracting Latvian supporters.

The next local elections will be held 1 June 2013. One contentious issue associated with local elections is whether people who are not Latvian citizens but live in the country should be allowed to cast ballots. Former Latvian cabinet minister Nils Muižnieks, now the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said in 2012 that he supports the extension of local voting rights to all permanent residents.[45] A poll conducted in October revealed that such a measure would be supported by over 78 percent non-citizens, but just 28.1 percent of citizens.[46]

Judicial Framework and Independence:

Latvia's constitution and legislation provide a framework for strengthening justice and the rule of law. In recent years, innovations have helped modernize the court system and enhance competition for judgeships. A 2011 survey found that 79 percent of people who have had direct dealings with the courts trust the judiciary.[47] Still, a backlog of cases has created frustration among those for whom justice has been delayed. Moreover, corruption is a problem among some judges, and the country's prisons remain in poor condition.

The country's judiciary includes courts of first instance, regional courts, the Supreme Court, and the Constitutional Court. In addition, there is an ombudsman's office, which provides a venue for public complaints regarding human rights violations. The current ombudsman, Juris Jansons, has raised the profile of the office's work, speaking out on issues such as raising the retirement age and granting automatic citizenship. Latvia also has a Judicial Council, established in 2010 to encourage collective problem-solving among judicial officers. The council has taken steps to improve courts' functioning and decrease the line of cases awaiting adjudication: Notaries may settle uncontested divorces, small court claims can be processed by correspondence, and requirements for proof of sickness among litigants are now more stringent to decrease absence rates and speed up court procedures.

Notwithstanding these improvements, the judicial system still faces a large accumulation of cases, which on average languish for close to two years. The backlog exists because of inefficient procedures, funding issues, and the growing popularity of litigation. New reforms are underway or in discussion to deal with the problem. Innovations planned for the coming year include an electronic calendar of lawyer engagements to avoid conflicts in setting court dates, and standardized working hours for all courts.[48]

In 2012, several judges were charged for various corruption offenses and reprimanded by the Judicial Disciplinary Committee. The head of the Zemgale Suburb Court, Ziedonis Strazds, and an accomplice were found to have collected income from non-existent employees. In October, Constitutional Court Justice Vineta Muižniece was found guilty of forging a document when she had been an elected deputy of the Saeima several years earlier.[49] These incidents cast a negative light on a profession that is still in the process of garnering public trust and respect.

The European Court of Human Rights receives several hundred complaints from Latvia each year, the vast majority of which are dismissed. Nevertheless, in 2012, the court issued 14 judgments on Latvia, 10 of which found violations of the European Convention on Human Rights.[50] Since Latvia came under the court's jurisdiction in 1997, many of the decisions against the country have related to abuses in the judiciary, including failures to guarantee detainees' rights.[51]

The Latvian prison system is dilapidated and inefficient, with widespread crowding and poor rehabilitation achievements. The low wages for prison employees have created a high turnover rate (258 employees left in 2011), many job vacancies (179 in early 2012), and the need for some employees to seek other sources of income to supplement the average monthly salary of LVL 230 ($430).[52] Inadequate supervision has promoted the circulation of drugs, physical abuse, and even rape among prisoners. According to one NGO, almost 30 percent of the country's inmates have HIV/AIDS.[53] The head of incarceration institutions, Visvaldis Puķīte, wants to follow Estonia's lead, building new prisons and developing electronic surveillance methods to track individuals convicted of crimes. According to him, Latvia each day on average spends only €10 ($13) per inmate compared to 500 ($655) in Germany and 300 ($393) in Norway.[54] In October, the Ministry of Justice announced plans to build several new prisons.


Corruption remains a problem in Latvia. However, recent developments have helped curb its impact on politics and the country's economy. The parliamentary elections in September 2011 reduced the power of oligarchs Šlesers, Šķēle, and Lembergs, whose political parties have also faced recent charges and fines for various legal transgressions. One Saeima deputy said of the oligarchs' relative absence from the parliament, "It doesn't mean all politicians have become honest, but the situation is more open and responsive to citizens' demand for a certain decency in politics."[55] In 2012, the new government successfully pursued several officials engaged in graft, halted corrupt business deals, and introduced new regulations and directives to improve transparency and accountability. In a March report, the Latvian chapter of Transparency International (also called Delna) said that while challenges remain, the "Latvian integrity framework is in good legal shape."[56]

The government currently contains a number of strong anticorruption advocates. Among these are three Saeima deputies: former KNAB Director Aleksejs Loskutovs, corruption specialist Rasma Kņrkliņa, and Lolita Cigane, former head of Delna. Kņrkliņa reinstituted the anticorruption subcommittee that was disbanded in 2006, and named Loskutovs its new chair. In late 2011, the Saeima appointed a new director of the KNAB, Jaroslav Strelcenoks, in a transparent and competitive process that has since become formalized in law. EPRD Minister Sprūdžs, who took over his position from a member of Lembergs' Union of Greens and Farmers, has also emerged as a strong anticorruption activist. In 2012, he halted a scheme to secure a monopoly in the waste management market – namely, an allocation of LVL 9 million ($16.7 million) that his predecessor had made from the EU Cohesion Fund for the firm Ekodoktrina, which is owned by Šlesers and Šķēle.[57]

Similarly, the KNAB exposed several deals throughout the year involving complicated kickback schemes. In September, after a lengthy investigation, the agency intervened and recommended indictments in a procurement scandal involving 17 management personnel, including the president, of the energy company Latvenergo. The case, the largest the KNAB had ever uncovered, involved a complex investigative network spreading over 14 countries. The research materials – 262 files when delivered to the prosecutor – revealed that Latvenergo officials had accepted €8 million ($10.5 million) and were slated to receive another €11 million ($14.4 million) in exchange for contracts awarded to foreign companies chosen to reconstruct the Plavinas hydroelectric power station and Riga's Thermo Electric Station 2.[58] The KNAB also suspended a multi-layered corruption scandal involving roughly €4 million ($5.2 million) in bribes that the German car manufacturer Daimler AG paid to Riga officials for the purchase of 117 Mercedes Benz buses between 2002 and 2006.[59] In the fall, the agency opened a criminal case against several officials of the Riga City Council's Housing and Environment Department accused of accepting bribes in exchange for the distribution of municipal apartments.[60]

Not all high-profile corruption cases made progress during the year. Questions concerning cancelled orders, and thus potential contract violations, for new passenger trains and the disappearance of LVL 100 million ($186 million) from Latvijas Krajbanka (Latvian Credit Union) around the time that it began bankruptcy proceedings remained unanswered. According to KNAB Deputy Director Juta Strīķe, part of the problem in investigating corruption is that the culture has evolved from open demands for bribes into more refined, secret arrangements: "No one demands bribes from strangers anymore." Nevertheless, an increasing number of people are willing to provide leads, in the form of documents or personal testimonies, to the authorities.[61] In 2012, the KNAB also launched a confidential hotline for reporting corruption.[62]

During the year, the government introduced several regulations aimed at improving transparency and accountability. As of 1 June, the Act on Initial Asset Declaration required all individuals to declare assets valued over LVL 10,000 ($18,625), including offshore accounts and properties, to the State Revenue Service. More than 130,000 individuals had filled out the required forms by the summer.[63] The state plans to use the information obtained to monitor wealth acquisition and prevent illegal enrichment. In January, the government also passed regulations requiring open voting in the Saeima for appointments to state offices, except the presidency and seats on the Constitutional Court.[64] The Saeima broadened transparency further by requiring all Parliamentary Commission Session protocols to be published on the body's website within 10 days. Moreover, state institutions must now publish on their website information about any conflict-of-interest transgressions identified among officials.[65] Lastly, in an effort to diminish corruption at the municipal level, the government introduced more stringent rules on public procurement and heavier penalties for violations; these rules will go into effect in April 2013.[66]

Although more limited than before, the presence of oligarchs is still felt in Latvia. The results of an opinion poll published in June found that 69 percent of respondents believe Šlesers, Šķēle, and Lembergs still influence politics and the economy.[67] Reports in 2012 linked Šķēle to Russian billionaire Vladimir Antonov's machinations to control shares in airBaltic.[68] Moreover, the oligarch trio allegedly met in March to plot strategies for regaining political power by exploiting weaknesses in the ruling government coalition. This included the possibility of forming a new "economically-oriented" configuration with some of the coalition's disillusioned members.[69]


Juris Dreifelds

Juris Dreifelds teaches political science at Brock University in Ontaria, Canada. He is the author of many chapters and articles on the Baltic area. His book Latvia in Transition was published by Cambridge University in 1996.


1 Aaron Eglitis, "Latvia's Vilks Sees GDP Growth at About 5 Percent in 3rd Quarter," Bloomberg, 4 October 2012,….

2 "Valsts iestades cetru gadu laika par 26% mazak darbinieku" [In state institutions over four years, 26% fewer workers],, 19 October 2012,….

3 "Latvia's credit rating improves," The Baltic Times, 14 November 2012,; "Bond issue pays back IMF in full," The Baltic Times, 12 December 2012,

4 "Latvia's Official Unemployment Rate Drops to 13.5%," Agence France-Presse, 14 November 2012,….

5 "Latvia struggles with 'demographic disaster,'" Agence France-Presse, 22 May 2012,….

6 Eurostat, "In 2011, 24% of the population were at risk of poverty or social exclusion; Corresponding to around 120 million persons," news release, 3 December 2012,….

7 Andris Straumanis, "Voters slam Russian as state language: Referendum turnout sets records,", 18 February 2012,

8 "Aptur referendumu par pilsonibu visiem" [The referendum about citizenship for all is stopped],, 2 November 2012,….

9 Until 2015, the initial threshold for referendums on dissolving the Saeima will remain at 10,000 signatures. "Nosaka 150 000 parakstu slieksni referendumu rosinasanai" [A threshold of 150 000 signatures was set for the initiation of a referendum],, 8 November, 2012,….

10 Public Opinion Research Center (SKDS), "Atbalsts Latvijas parejai uz eiro ir sasniedzis rekordzemu limeni" [Support for Latvia's transition to the Euro has reached a record low level], news release, August 2012,; and TNS Latvia, "Eiro ieviesanu atbalsta tresdala Latvijas iedzivotaju" [One third of Latvia's inhabitants support the introduction of the Euro], news release, 20 December 2012,

11 "Iedzivotaji neatbalsta pensionesanas vecuma paaugstinasanu" [People do not support the raising of pension age],, 8 February 2012,…-.

12 "Unity's youth criticizes the party for its unclear position in the 'Lembergs case,'" Baltic News Network (BNN), 24 October 2012,

13 "'Olsteina grupa' nodibina biedribu 'Brivie demokrati'" [The Olstein Group establishes the "Free Democrats Society"],, 23 March 2012,….

14 "Visas partijas pieteikusas sanemt valsts budzeta finansejumu" [All parties have registered to receive state budget financing],, 31 October 2011,….

15 "Televizija prieksvelesanu laika aizliegs politiskas reklamas" [Political advertising on TV will be forbidden before the elections],, 26 March 2012,….

16 "Greens and Farmers' Union to pay back the illegally acquired 11,626 LVL to the State," BNN, 31 August 2012,….

17 "Шлесерс покидает свой пост и ликвидирует ЛПП/ЛЦ" [Šlesers leaves his post and liquidates LPP/LC],, 1 December 2011,….

18 Inta Simanska, Pņrskats par NVO sektoru Latvijņ [Review of the NGO sector in Latvia] (Riga: Latvijas Pilsoniska Alianse, 2012), 3.

19 TNS Latvia, "63% Latvijas ekonomiski aktivo iedzivotaju atbalsta papildus finansejuma pieskirsanu dazadam sabiedribas grupam no valdibas puses" [63% of the economically active population supports additional funds for different social groups from the government], news release, 21 June 2012,….

20 Latvijas Republikas Kulturas Ministrija, "14.novembri notiks programmas 'NVO fonds' atklasanas pasakums" [On November 14, there will be an "NGO Fund" opening event], 13 November 2012,

21 CIVICUS, "Global civil society network CIVICUS welcomes new Directors to its Board," news release, 3 August 2012,….

22 "'Microsoft Latvia' atbalstu izmantojusas 70 sabiedriska labuma organizacijas" [Microsoft Latvia support has been used by 70 social benefit organizations],, http://14 April 2012,….

23 "Agriculture Minister: Baltic farmer protests attract attention in Brussels," BNN, 29 June 2012, "Farmers protest: Soviet tractor vs. Brussels," BNN, September 2012,

24 ILGA Europe, "54 NGOs demand Welfare Minister Vinkele's resignation over 'gender-bender' books for children," news release, 28 September 2012,….

25 "15% of interviewed residents support pride parade in Riga," BNN, 23 March 2012,….

26 "Petijums: Tresdala Latvija mitoso krievu izjut piederibu krievijai" ,, 30 November 2011,….

27 "Krievijas 'maiga vara' – ari Latvijas skolas" [Russia's "mild power" – also present in Latvia schools], Latvijas Avize, 10 September 2012,….

28 TNS Latvia, "Latvijas mediju reklņmas tirgus apjoms 2012. gadņ palielinņjies par 3%" [Media advertising market grew by 3% in 2012], news release, 26 March 2013,

29 The Competition Council allowed the takeover at the end of March. "KP atļauj 'Rīgas tirdzniecības ostai' pņrņemt 'Dienas' īpašnieku."[The Competition Council allows the Riga Commercial port to take over "Diena"],, 30 March 2012,….

30 "'Mediju nama' pņrdošanas cena ir bijusi zem 60 000 latu" [The sales price for Mediju Nama was under 60 000 Lats],, 15 January 2010,….

31 "Latvian paper discusses possible merger of Russian-language newspapers," BBC Monitoring International Reports, 12 July 2012,…; and "Apvienojas divas Latvijas krievu avizes" [Two Russian newspapers in Latvia merge], 26 November 2013,

32 "Sweden's Modern Times Group to Buy Latvia's LNT Commercial TV Channel," Baltic Review, 12 January 2012,…

33 "Latvija internetu regulari lieto 70,3% iedzivotaju" [In Latvia, the internet is used regularly by 70.3% of residents],, 20 October 2012,…; and "Latvija visbiezak internetu lieto zinu un avizu lasisanai" [In Latvia, the internet is most often used for news and newspaper reading],, 16 October 2012,….

34 "Top 20: Favourite websites of Latvian residents," BNN, 26 July 2012,

35 "Survey: There is 'digital divide' between cities and rural areas in Latvia," BNN, 2 October 2012,

36 Committee to Protect Journalists, "Latvian journalist assaulted in Riga," news release, 30 March 2012,

37 "Ierobezo Krievijas kanalu visatlautibu" [Russian channel unconstraint is circumscribed], Latvijas Avize, 1 October 2012,….

38 Municipalities received a 45 percent positive and 46 percent negative trust rating in the fall of 2012. The Latvian government was trusted by only 17 percent, the Saeima by 13 percent, and political parties by 6 percent. European Commission, Eurobarometer 78: Public Opinion in the European Union (Brussels: European Commission, December 2012),

39 "Minister: A ministry is not a trade union of municipal governments," BNN, 27 September 2012,

40 "'Top 10': 23 pašvaldības iesniegušas protestu pret LPS un valdības vienošanos par 2013.gada budžetu" ['Top 10': 23 municipal governments have handed in their protest against the agreement between LPS and the government about the 2013 budget],, 7 October 2012,….

41 "Jaunsleinis: Valsts atbalsta politika skel pasvaldibas" ,, 28 September 2012,….

42 "Lembergs sacked as Ventspils' mayor – again," The Baltic Times, 31 October 2012,

43 "Regional reform has not achieved the desired effect – Sprudzs," The Baltic Course, 18 July 2012,

44 TNS Latvia, "72% Latvijas ekonomiski aktivo iedzivotaju atbalsta deputatu skaita samazinasanu pasvaldibas," [72% of Latvia's economically active residents support the lowering of the number of deputies in municipal governments], news release, 3 August 2012,….

45 "Muiznieks uztas uz iespejam nepilsoniem piedalities pasvaldibu velesanas" [Muiznieks will stand for the rights of non-citizens to participate in municipal elections],, 27 February 2012,….

46 "Aptauja: pilsonibu pieskirsanu nepilsoniem atbalsta 78.4% nepilsonu un 28.1% pilsonu" ,, 1 November 2012.

47 "Survey: People with court experience trust judicial systems more," BNN, 21 March 2011,….

48 "Tiesņm no 1.jūlija ir vienots darba laiks" [From July 1 courts have joint working hours], 2 July 2012,….

49 "Disciplinary Commission offers to dismiss Judge Strazds," BNN, 26 October 2012, "Latvian Constitutional Court cannot dismiss Judge Muizniece yet," The Baltic Course, 3 November 2012,

50 European Court of Human Rights, "Press country profile: Latvia," January 2013,

51 "Eiropu var parpludinat sudzibas no Latvijas" [Europe can be flooded by complaints from Latvia],, 21 March 2012,….

52 "'Delfi' intervija ar Visvaldi Pukiti: Sabiedribai jasaprot – koncentracijas nometne cilvekus neparaudzinasi" ['Delfi' interview of Visvaldis Pukitis: Society must understand – one cannot rehabilitate people in concentration camps],, 9 March 2011; and "Pern dienestu atstajusas 258 Ieslodzijuma vietu parvaldes amatpersonas" [Last year, 258 officials left their employment in prisons],, 2 February 2012,….

53 "'Gara speks': galvena problema ir ta, ka noziegumus cietumos izmekle IeVP" ["Soul Power": the main problem is that crimes in prisons are investigated by the Board of Prisons],, 12 July 2012,….

54 "Delfi intervija ar Visvaldi Pukiti" [Delfi interview of Visvaldis Pukitis],, 9 March 2011,….

55 Gabriel Kuris, Surmounting State Capture: Latvia's Anti-Corruption Agency Spurs Reforms, 2002-2011 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Innovations for Successful Societies, October 2012),….

56 Transparency International, "Latvian integrity framework in good legal shape, yet challenges remain in implementation," news release, 9 March 2012,….

57 "The oligarch-related Ekodoktrina Project is halted," BNN, 15 August 2012,

58 "Seifs jau tukss nestav" [The safe does not remain empty],, 19 September 2012,; "Authorities: former Latvenergo executives bribed with millions of euros," Baltic Business News (BBN), 12 September 2012,….

59 Richard L. Cassin, "Latvia prosecuting officials in Daimler bribery case," The FCPA Blog, 19 February 2013,….

60 "Corruption watchdog detains several Riga City Council officials," BNN, 18 September 2012,….

61 "Pa KNAB uzticības tņlruni saņem teju uz pusi vairņk zvanu kņ pērn" [Almost 50% more calls received on the KNAB confidential phone as the previous year],, 19 August 2012,….

62 "Jo aktivak apkaro korupciju, jo vairak ta lien pagride" [The more one fights corruption, the more it goes underground], Latvijas Avize, 10 October 2012,….

63 "VID lidz sim registrejis 130198 'nulles deklaracijas'" [The State Revenue Agency up to now has registered 130,198 initial declarations],, 8 July 2012,….

64 "Saeima amatpersonas turpmak veles atklati" [Saeima will vote openly for office holders in the future],, 19 January 2012,….

65 "Sabiedriba bus jainforme par amatpersonas parkapumiem" [Society will have to be informed about any transgressions by office holders],, 18 April 2012,….

66 "IUB vaditaja: Iepirkumos visnegodpratigakas ir pasvaldibas" [The Purchasing Surveillance Bureau: the most dishonest in purchases are municipal governments],, 25 October 2012,….

67 TNS Latvia, "1/2 Latvijas ekonomiski aktīvo iedzīvotņju uzskata, ka pēdējņ gada laikņ Latvijas politikņ nav radušies jauni oligarhi" [1/2 of Latvia residents consider that in the last year no new oligarchs have appeared in Latvian politics], news release, 6 June 2012,

68 Ieva Martina and Ramunas Bogdanas, "Inside Vladimir Antonov's reckless gamble with the Baltic banks," The Baltic Times, 13 June 2012,

69 "'Vecie oligarhi' satikusies lai apspriestu valdibas gasanu" [The "old oligarchs" have met to discuss the overthrow of the government],, 27 March 2012,….

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