Since 9,000 BC ancient peoples of unknown origin had inhabited Latvia,
but by 3,000 BC the ancestors of the Finns had settled the region. A millennium
later, pre-Baltic tribes had arrived and within time evolved into the Baltic
Couranian, Latgallian, Selonian, and Semigallian groups. These tribes eventually
formed local governments independently from the Finno-Ugric Livian tribe
until the 13th century when they were conquered by the Germans, who renamed
the territory Livonia.
German sailors shipwrecked on the Daugava River in 1054 had inhabited
the area, which led to increasing German influence. Founded by the Germanic
Bishop Alberth of Livonia in 1201, Riga joined the Hanseatic League in
1285 and shared important cultural and economic ties to the rest of Europe.
However, the new German nobility enserfed the peasantry and accorded non-Germanic
peoples only limited trading and property rights.
Subsequent wars and treaties ensured Livonia's partition and colonization
for centuries. The Commonwealth's successes during the Livonian Wars (1558-83)
united the Latvian-populated duchies of Pardaugava, Kurzeme, and Zemgale,
but the Polish-Swedish War (1600-29) granted Sweden acquisition of Riga
and the Duchy of Pardaugava, minus Latgale, leaving Latvia again split
ethnically. In turn, victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War (1700-21)
gave Russia control over the Latvian territories. From 1804 onward, a series
of local decrees gradually weakened the grip of German nobility over peasant
society, and in 1849 a law granted a legal basis for the creation of peasant-owned
Until the 1860s, there still was little sense of a Latvian national
identity, as both serfdom and institutional controls to migration and social
mobility limited the boundaries of the peasants' intellectual and social
geography. The large baronic estates caused a lack of available farmland
for an increasing population, creating a large landless, urban class comprising
about 60% of the population. Also in the face of stricter Russification
policies, the Baltic German clergy and literati began to take a more benevolent
interest in the distinctive language and culture of the Latvian peasantry.
These patrons--with such Lettish names as Alunans, Barons, Krastins, Kronvalds,
Tomsons, and Valdemars--soon formed the Young Latvian Movement, whose aim
was to promote the indigenous language and to publicize and counteract
the socioeconomic oppression of Latvians.
By 1901, "Jauna Strava" had evolved into the Latvian Social Democratic
Party. Following the lead of the Austrian Marxists, the LSDP advocated
the transformation of the Russian Empire into a federation of democratic
states (to include Latvia) and the adoption of cultural autonomy policy
for extraterritorial ethnic communities. In 1903, the LSDP split into the
more radically internationalist Latvian Social Democratic Worker's Party
and the more influential Latvian Social Democratic Union (LSDU), which
continued to champion national interests and Latvia's national self-determination,
especially during the failed 1905 Revolution in Russia.
The onset of WWI brought German occupation of the western coastal province
of Kurzeme, and Latvians heroically countered the invasion with the establishment
of several regiments of riflemen commanded by Czarist generals. As a defensive
measure, Russia dismantled more than 500 local Latvian industries, along
with technological equipment, and relocated them to central Russia. The
sagging military campaign generally increased Latvian and LSDU support
for the Bolsheviks' successful October Revolution in 1917, in the hopes
of a "free Latvia within free Russia." These circumstances led to the formation
of the Soviet "Iskolat Republic" in the unoccupied section of Latvia. In
opposition to this government and to the landed barons' German sympathies
stood primarily the Latvian Provisional National Council and the Riga Democratic
Bloc. These and other political parties formed the Latvian People's Council
which on November 18, 1918 declared Latvia's independence and formed an
The new Latvian Army faced rogue elements of the retreating German Army
and squared off in civil war against the Soviet Red Army, comprised greatly
of the former Latvian Riflemen. Soviet power resumed in Latvia one month
later on December 17 by order of the Latvian SSR, which forcefully collectivized
all land and nationalized all industries and property. By May 22, 1919,
the resurgent German Army occupied and devastated Riga for several days.
In response, the Latvian Army managed to win a decisive battle over the
combined German-Red Army forces and thereafter consolidated its success
on the eastern Latgale front. These developments led to the dissolution
of the Soviet Latvian government on January 13, 1920, and to a peace treaty
between Latvia and Soviet Russia on August 11 later that year. By September
22, 1921, Latvia was admitted to the League of Nations.
Having obtained independent statehood in which Latvians were an absolute
majority, the government headed by Prime Minister Ulmanis declared a democratic,
parliamentary republic. It recognized Latvian as the official language,
granted cultural autonomy to the country's sizeable minorities, and introduced
an electoral system into the Latvian constitution, which was adopted in
1922. The decade witnessed sweeping economic reform, as war had devastated
Latvian agriculture, and most Russian factories had been evacuated to Russia.
Economic depression heightened political turmoil, and on May 15, 1934,
Prime Minister Ulmanis dismissed the parliament, banned outspoken and left-wing
political parties, and tightened authoritarian state control over Latvian
social life and the economy.
The effects of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement of 1939 steadily
forced Latvia under Soviet influence until August 5, 1940, when the Soviet
Union finally annexed Latvia. On June 14 of the following year, 15,000
Latvian citizens were forcibly deported and a large number of army officers
shot. The subsequent German occupation witnessed the mobilization of many
Latvians into Waffen SS legions, while some Latvians joined the Red Army
and formed resistance groups; others fled to the West and East. By 1945,
Latvia's population dropped by one-third.
After the war, the U.S.S.R. subjected the Latvian republic to a scale
of social and economic reorganization which rapidly transformed the rural
economy to heavy industry, the strongly ethnically Latvian population into
a more multiethnic structure, and the predominantly peasant class into
a fully urbanized industrial worker class. As part of the goal to more
fully integrate Latvia into the Soviet Union, on March 25, 1949, Stalin
again deported another 42,000 Latvians and continued to promote the policy
of encouraging Soviet immigration to Latvia. The brief "Krushchev thaw"
of the 1950s ended in 1959, when the Soviets dismissed Latvian Communist
Party and government leaders on charges of "bourgeois nationalism" and
replaced them with more aggressive hardliners, mostly from Russia.
"Perestroika" enabled Latvians to pursue a bolder nationalistic program,
particularly through such general issues as environmental protection. In
July 1989, the Latvian Supreme Soviet adopted a "Declaration of Sovereignty"
and amended the Constitution to assert the supremacy of its laws over those
of the U.S.S.R. Pro-independence Latvian Popular Front candidates gained
a two-thirds majority in the Supreme Council in the March 1990 democratic
elections. On May 4, the Council declared its intention to restore full
Latvian independence after a "transitional" period; 3 days later, Ivars
Godmanis was chosen Council of Ministers Chairman, or Prime Minister.
In January 1991, Soviet political and military forces tried unsuccessfully
to overthrow the legitimate Latvian authorities by occupying the central
publishing house in Riga and establishing a "Committee of National Salvation"
to usurp governmental functions. Seventy-three percent of all Latvian residents
confirmed their strong support for independence March 3 in a nonbinding
"advisory" referendum. A large number of ethnic Russians also voted for
Latvia claimed de facto independence on August 21, 1991 in the aftermath
of the failed Soviet coup attempt. International recognition, including
the U.S.S.R., followed. The United States, which had never recognized Latvia's
forcible annexation by the U.S.S.R., resumed full diplomatic relations
with Latvia on September 2.
In autumn 1991 Latvia reimplemented significant portions of its 1922
constitution, and in spring 1993 the government took a census to determine
eligibility for citizenship. After almost 3 years of deliberations, Latvia
finalized a citizenship and naturalization law in summer 1994, which was
further liberalized in 1998. By law, those who were Latvian citizens in
1940, and their descendants (regardless of ethnicity), could claim citizenship.
Forty-one percent of Latvia's population is ethnically non-Latvian, yet
almost three-fourths of all residents are citizens of Latvia Naturalization
criteria include a conversational knowledge of Latvian, a loyalty oath,
renunciation of former citizenship, a 5-year residency requirement, and
a basic knowledge of the Latvian history. Dual citizenship is allowed for
those who were forced to leave Latvia during the Soviet occupation and
adopted another citizenship. Convicted criminals, agents of Soviet intelligence
services, and certain other groups also are excluded from becoming citizens.
On March 19, 1991 the Supreme Council passed a law explicitly guaranteeing
"equal rights to all nationalities and ethnic groups" and "guarantees to
all permanent residents in the Republic regardless of their nationality,
equal rights to work and wages." The law also prohibits "any activity directed
toward nationality discrimination or the promotion of national superiority
In the June 5-6, 1993 elections wherein more than 90% of the electorate
participated, eight of Latvia's 23 registered political parties passed
the 5% threshold to enter parliament. The Popular Front, which spearheaded
the drive for independence with a 75% majority in the parliamentary elections
in 1990, did not qualify for representation. The centrist "Latvia's Way"
party received a 33% plurality of votes and joined with the Farmer's Union
to head a center-right wing coalition government.
Through a U.S. initiative, on April 30, 1994 Latvia and Russia signed
a troop withdrawal agreement. Russia withdrew its troops by August 31,
1994, and maintained several hundred technical specialists to staff an
OSCE-monitored phased-array ABM radar station at Skrunda until the facility
was destroyed in 1995.
The September 30-October 1, 1995 elections brought forth a deeply fragmented
parliament with nine parties represented and the largest party commanding
only 18 of 100 seats. Attempts to form right-of-center and leftist governments
failed; 7 weeks after the election, a broad but fractious coalition government
of six of the nine parties was voted into office under Prime Minister Andris
Skele, a widely popular, nonpartisan businessman.
In the 1998 elections, the Latvian party structure began to consolidate
with only six parties obtaining seats in the Saeima. Andris Skele's newly
formed People's Party garnered a plurality with 24 seats. Though the election
represented a victory for the center-right, personality conflicts and scandals
within the two largest right of center parties--Latvia's Way and the People's
Party--prevented stable coalitions from forming. Two shaky governments
under Vilis Kristopans and Andris Skele quickly collapsed in less than
a year. In May 2000, a compromise candidate was found in the form of Andris
Berzins, the then Latvia's Way mayor of Riga. His four-party coalition
lasted until parliamentary elections in October 2002. Those elections left
Latvia's Way, for the first time since 1993, with no seats in parliament.
Einars Repse's New Era Party, which ran on an anti-corruption platform,
gained the most seats, and Repse headed a four-party coalition government
until his abrupt resignation in February 2004 over issues relating to personalities
and management of the ruling coalition. A minority government led
by Greens and Farmers Union leader Indulis Emsis, including the People's
Party and the First Party and with the tacit support of leftist parties,
took office on March 9, 2004. The new government was focused on smoothing
Latvia's entry into NATO and the European Union. Latvia officially became
a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on March 29, 2004 after
depositing its instruments of treaty ratification in Washington, DC. Latvia
joined the European Union on May 1, 2004.
In 1999, the Saeima elected Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a compromise candidate
with no party affiliation, to the presidency. Though born in Riga in 1937,
she settled in Canada during the years of the Soviet occupation, becoming
a well-respected academic in the subject of Latvian culture and psychology.
Since her election, she has become one of the most popular political figures
in Latvia. She was overwhelming re-elected by parliament for another 4-year
term in June 2003.