Latvia borders Estonia in the north, Lithuania in the south, the Baltic Sea with the Gulf of Riga in the west, Russia in the east, and Belarus in the southeast. Latvia is largely a fertile lowland with numerous lakes and hills to the east.
Baltic tribespeople settled along the Baltic Sea and, lacking a centralized government, fell prey to more powerful peoples. In the 13th century, they were overcome by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, a German order of knights whose mission was to conquer and Christianize the Baltic region. The land became part of the state of Livonia until 1561. Germans composed the ruling class of Livonia and Baltic tribes made up the peasantry. German was the official language of the region.
Poland conquered the territory in 1562 and occupied it until Sweden took over the land in 1629, ruling until 1721. The land then passed to Russia. From 1721 until 1918, the Latvians remained Russian subjects, although they preserved their language, customs, and folklore.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 gave Latvia the opportunity for freedom, and the Latvian republic was proclaimed on Nov. 18, 1918. The republic lasted little more than 20 years. Plagued by political instability, Latvia essentially became a dictatorship under President Karlis Ulmanis. The country was occupied by Russian troops in 1939 and incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940. German armies occupied the nation from 1941 to 1944. Of the 70,000 Jews living in Latvia during World War II, 95% were massacred. In 1944, Russia again took control.
Latvia Declares Independence and Seeks to Protect Its Ethnic Identity
Latvia was one of the most economically well-off and industrialized parts of the Soviet Union. When a coup against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev failed in 1991, the Baltic nations saw an opportunity to free themselves from Soviet domination and, following the actions of Lithuania and Estonia, Latvia declared its independence on Aug. 21, 1991. Most other nations quickly recognized their independence, and on Sept. 2, 1991, President Bush announced full diplomatic recognition for Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. The Soviet Union recognized Latvia's independence on Sept. 6, and UN membership followed on Sept. 17, 1991.
Because Latvians' ethnic identity had been quashed by foreign rulers throughout its history, the new Latvian republic set up strict citizenship laws, limiting citizenship to ethnic Latvians and to those who had lived in the region before Soviet rule in 1940. This denied about 452,000 of the country's 740,000 ethnic Russians of citizenship. But in 1998, a referendum passed easing the citizenship rules.
In June 2003, President Vike-Freiberga easily won reelection. In Dec. 2004, Aigars Kalvitis became prime minister, forming the twelfth government since Latvia's independence from Russia. The nation became a member of both the EU and NATO in 2004.Valdis Zatlers, a medical doctor, was elected president by Parliament in May 2007, defeating former constitutional court judge Aivars Endzins.
Political Unrest Grows As the Economy Falters
Prime Minister Kalvitis resigned in Dec. 2007, following a series of widespread protests over his attempts to fire anti corruption investigator Aleksejs Loskutovs.
A series of riots sparked by political grievances and a worsening economy broke out in the capital, Riga, during Jan. 2009. Dozens were injured and more than 100 people were arrested in the violence.
Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis resigned in Feb. 2009, when the Latvian economy began to shrink at an alarming rate, a result of the global financial crisis. His government had become unpopular in 2008, when it was forced to increase taxes and cut public spending after the country's banking system collapsed. Valdis Dombrovskis of the center-right New Era party took over as prime minister in March, leading a six-party coalition government.
Latvia sunk deeper into a financial morass in 2009, with soaring unemployment that reached 22.3% in November—the highest rate in the EU—and heavy debt that prompted the government to implement steep budget cuts and turn to the IMF and the EU for a bailout. Dombrovskis lost his majority in parliament in March 2010 when his largest coalition partner bolted from the government in protest of the austerity measures. He resumed a majority after his coalition won 58.6% of the vote in October 2010 elections. His Unity party took 33 out of 100 seats, and his coalition partner, the Greens and Farmers Union, earned 22 seats.
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