Latvia is a country of medieval castles, spectacular historical towns and breathtaking natural beauty. Situated on the eastern part of Europe, Latvia is one of the prominent territories of the Baltic region. It is bordered by the Baltic Sea, Estonia, Russia, Belarus and Lithuania. Riga is the capital city and main port. After losing the brief period of independence between the two World Wars, Latvia regained its freedom from USSR domination in 1991, following the fall of the later.
Latvia might be a new independent entrant in the world political scenario, but it promises to be a land of immense possibilities. Latvia had been witness to numerous reigns and every ruler left behind a trace of their opulence and luxury. A stay in one of the magnificent castles and palaces or elegant old manor houses brings an “out of the world” experience for tourists. Or else one can go for leisure strolls around the world heritage site of Riga or pay homage at the famous Anglona Basilica. A treasure trove of rich traditions and avant-garde ethics, the Latvian calendar is jam-packed with different festivals, concerts and parties round the year. All these activities reflect the keenness of Latvia to preserve the tried and true traditional values as they step into the fast-paced, high-tech world of globalisation.
The Latvian multiethnic population is estimated at a little less than 2.5 million people. While original natives of Latvia constitute up to 58% of the total population, the Russians at 29% strength are the most prominent among minorities. The population is mostly Christian. Latvian is the official language of the Republic of Latvia but Russian, English and German are often spoken as well.
The Republic of Latvia is situated on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, sharing borders with Lithuania to the south, Estonia to the north, Russia to the east and Belarus to the southeast. The Gulf of Riga, a narrow inlet of the Baltic Sea, is situated in the northwest of the country. The country is spread over 64,000 square kilometres of land area with 500 kilometres of coastline.
Latvia offers nature and its elements in abundance. Over forty percent of Latvia is forested, while another ten percent consists of wetlands. There are as many as 12,000 small rivers and nearly 3,000 lakes all over the country. The longest rivers are the Agama and the Ganja. The rest of the country's terrain is mostly flat and fertile. The mountains are on the eastern side of Latvia and Gaizinkalns, at 312 m above sea level, near Cesvaine is Latvia's highest point.
Apart from the capital city of Riga, Daugavpils, Liepaja, Jelgava, Jurmala and Ventspils are other important cities of Latvia. The country's wetlands attract numerous birds and the authorities are very cautious to preserve and protect the natural environment. Overall Latvia is divided into four historical and cultural regions of Vidzeme, Kurzeme, Latgale and Zemgale.
The climate in Latvia is moderate with distinct seasons. Summers are generally warm and short. Autumn and spring are relatively mild and rainy. Winter weather is cold and fluctuates a great deal, with some years snowier and colder than others.
Throughout history, Latvia has always attracted attention of invaders due to its strategic Location at the center of major European trade routes. In world history, Latvia is also known as Lovania and Lettland, named after the "Letts" or Lettish people. It has been inhabited since the Ice age. The Balt tribes or Scandinavian Vikings were the first among the prominent ones but it is the German who made the deepest mark. The influence of the German Sword Brethren is considered to be the most impacting as during this time Bishop Albert founded the city of Riga.
Riga became one of the most important members of the Hanseatic League that controlled trade on the bustling Baltic Sea in the 14 and 15 centuries. But as a result of the Livonian War, the Latvian territory came under Polish-Lithuanian rule. Eventually, it became part of Sweden after the Polish-Swedish War. Sweden lost Latvia to Russia during the Great Northern War. So, in 1795, Russia finally gained Latvia, its "Window to the West" and ruled over for decades.
But taking advantage of the devastations of First World War, Latvia managed to free itself from the Russian clutches on November 18, 1918. In 1920, after two years of the ‘Struggle of Independence’, Soviet Russia finally recognised Latvia's right to exist as a separate republic. During the 1920s and early 1930s, Latvia opted for an elected, republican government and adopted a constitution on February 15th, 1922. It acknowledged sovereignty for the Latvians and provided voting rights through proportional elections.
However, the pleasure of independence was short lived. At the beginning of the Second World, Latvia was annexed to the USSR. In 1941 Nazi Germany pushed them out and took control of Latvia. But Soviet Russia reclaimed the country in 1944 and Latvia became a Republic of the USSR. Latvia was finally freed with the break-up of the Soviet Republics at the beginning of the 1990s. It declared independence on 21 August 1991 and the Russian troops left in 1994. In April of 2004 Latvia became a member of NATO and in May of 2004, a member of the European Union. Latvia is also a member of the WTO.
After a series of invasions and periodic breaks of freedom when Latvia finally declared independence, it didn’t emerge with a healthy economy as a back up. It somehow managed to gather the pieces but suffered a major setback with the 1998 Russian financial crisis. A this time round the Latvian government stepped in with stringent economic policies to compensate the loss. It also thrived to explore other European export opportunities to break away from the Russian dependency. Gradually, the process of the privatisation of state-run businesses also began, though the government still holds majority shares in important enterprises.
Latvia officially joined the World Trade Organization in February 1999. The economic rejuvenation became evident in the year 2000 when Latvia emerged with one of the highest GDP growth rates in Europe. Further, it joined the EU in 2004 and that brought along more foreign exposure. Consequently, in 2004, annual GDP growth was 8.5% and inflation was 6.2%.
As far as the domestic part is concerned, agricultural sector is an important sector of Latvia. The manufacturing industry employs more than double the work force employed in agriculture. Other key primary industries are fishing and timber. Latvia is also expanding its services sector and the country is widening its market for the eco-tourism industry on basis of its vast natural treasure. However Latvian economy depends heavily on imports of energy and some raw materials that are needed for manufacturing industry. Despite being a full EU Member State, the Russian Federation is still a significant market for Latvia.
Vansu Bridge, Riga
Latvia is a democratic republic. The 100-seat unicameral Latvian parliament is known as the Saeima. The members of the parliament, who form the legislative branch, are elected for four years through a countrywide election. The law in Latvia comes into force, or becomes valid after the 100 members of the Parliament approve it. The President is considered to be the Head of State, who is elected by the Saeima for four years. The President enjoys the authority to choose the Prime Minister, but with prior approval of the Saeima. The Prime Minister governs the Cabinet that consists of 18 ministers and thus forms the executive.
The Constitution (Satversme) of the Republic of Latvia was adopted in 1922, but after the Soviet Occupation in 1940 it had been cancelled. It has been renewed and is in force again. The constitution supports equal human rights and other policies for all citizens of Latvia. But there is one strange aspect of Latvian citizenship that is popularly known as ‘Aliens in Latvia’. This concept comes from the fact that Latvians who had no ancestors in the country prior to the Second World War will have to pass a basic Latvian-language exam to get Latvian citizenship. People under this circumstances, approximately 19% of the population, have no right to vote during municipal and state elections and are not allowed to work in state institutions. This has become a subject of discontent between Latvia and Russia as the later considers the issue as an unfair mean to discriminate Russians, who moved to Latvia during Soviet times.
Latvia is still at loggerheads with Russia regarding some territorial distribution and compensation issues for the loss incurred during the Russian reign.