A former Soviet state which grew massively before the eurozone crisis, Latvia remains committed to the single currency and greater EU ties. By Bilquees Daud
Situated in the northeast of Europe, Latvia is a country geographically located on the Baltic Sea coast. It shares borders with Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania and Russia. Its capital Riga, founded in 1201, is the largest city among the three Baltic States (other two being Estonia and Lithuania) that are members of the European Union (EU).
Latvia’s population is estimated to be 2.3 million, of which 59% are classified as ethnic Latvians and the remaining 29% are of Russian origin. Latvia has a linguistic link to Lithuania and religious ties with Estonia. Historically, Latvia experienced long era of foreign rule lasting from the 13th to the 20th Century, including 51 years of Soviet rule. Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in late 1991, Latvia claimed its independence and the last Russian troops left the country in 1994. This was also the time at which the country became a member of United Nations.
However, during the long years of Soviet occupation many Russians immigrated to Latvia, which is perceived in some sections of the country as a hindrance towards achieving greater national coherence. Though Latvia has very liberal laws, 16% of its permanent residents who are Russian origin and cannot speak the Latvian language and as a consequence they do not have the right to vote. Human rights activists consider this to be a discriminatory law towards a minority group. The political structure of the country consists of a 100-seat unicameral Latvian Parliament called the Saeima which is elected directly by the people each four years. The elected parliament in turn elects the President also for each four years. Following its independence, Latvia held its first democratic parliamentary election in 1993 in which Guntis Ulmanis was elected the new president. Subsequently in 1999, Vaira Vike-Freiberga became took power, being the first woman president in Eastern Europe. She ruled the country for two terms.
It is noteworthy that political parties in Latvia are predominantly based on ethnicity and business relations rather than ideology. There are several reasons behind this. Firstly, the Russian minorities left behind after the Soviet collapse are not yet recognized as Latvians. Secondly, the country’s democratic structure is still very young and immature. Finally, a few wealthy entities dominate the political system. There are two kinds of parties that are formed on ethnic lines: “Latvian”, which covers 75% of vote, and “Russian”, which covers 25%. There are also some extreme forms of both these groups, which can be classified as “radical Latvian nationalists” (Tēvzemei un Brīvībai or “For Fatherland and Freedom” [TB]) and “radical neo-Kremlinists” (“Saskaņas Centrs” [SC]) respectively. The Russian-speaking party has always been in opposition at the national level except in 2009 when they won the election in the capital Riga.
Economically, soon after becoming a member of the European Union and NATO in 2004 Latvia made a complete transition from a planned to a market economy. Between 2004 and 2007 Latvia’s economy expanded rapidly by 50%, as the country has a rich forest cover and a well-developed paper industry. However, in 2008-2009 the country faced a huge economic crisis that resulted in very high unemployment rate of 20% – the highest in the EU. Nevertheless, Latvia has worked hard to restore its economy by decreasing public expenditure through 2011-2012, enabling them to join the eurozone in 2014. Latvia is the fourth ex-communist country to have done so, which on the one hand proves the country’s efforts to overcome its economic challenges and hence impress upon other European countries, particularly from the former Soviet bloc, to draw lessons from its experiences. On the other hand, a considerable number of Latvians, particularly the Russian-speaking minorities, are not happy with the single currency, as they fear a loss of their national sovereignty.
Finally, owing to its valuable geographical location that joins the eastern coast with the Baltic Sea, Latvia is an important country for the EU. Moreover, the Latvian’s government still sees Russia as a threat, especially after Ukraine crisis; therefore, the current perception in Riga is that closer ties to the EU are better for Latvia’s autonomy. In order to demonstrate how much it values its membership with the EU, Latvia must learn from its experience of the 2009 elections to the EU parliament, which saw low voter turnout, and encourage its citizens to use their right to vote. The upcoming elections will be crucial for reiterating Latvia’s ties to the EU and giving voice and direction to its European interest.
Image: ‘Latvia’ courtesy of jamie.silva via Flickr, released under Creative Commons.