Latvia falls into four historic regions: North of the Western Dvina (Daugava) River are Vidzeme and Latgale, which were parts of Livonia; south of the Dvina are Kurzeme and Zemgale, which belonged to the former duchy of Courland. Latvia is largely a fertile lowland, drained by the Western Dvina, the Venta, the Gauja, and the Lielupe. There are numerous lakes and swamps, and morainic hills rise to the east. In addition to the capital, Liepaja, Daugavpils, Cesis, and Jelgava are the chief cities.
About 58% of the population consists of Letts and of the closely related Latgalians (both widely known as Latvians). About 30% of the people are Russians, and there are Belarusian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Lithuanian minorities. Latvian is the official language; Russian and other languages are also spoken. The predominant religions are Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, and the Russian Orthodox Church.
After independence (1991), Latvia sought to limit citizenship in order to favor Latvians and other Balts over ethnic Russians and other minorities. In 1998 the laws were eased, granting citizenship to all children born in Latvia after Aug. 21, 1991, and making it easier for Russian-speakers to become naturalized. Nonetheless, about a fifth of all residents remained noncitizens in 2005, and the Latvian language requirement for naturalization was tightened in 2006.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.