May 24, 2012, 1:45 pm
Source: CIA World Factbook
Content Cover Image

View from atop the tower of Gaizinkalns, Latvia. Source: Juris Neikens

Latvia is a nation in eastern Europe of two-and-a-fifth million people, bordering the Baltic Sea, between Estonia and Lithuania. Most of the country is composed of fertile low-lying plains with some hills in the east

Latvia's environment has benefited from a shift to service industries after the country regained independence. The main environmental priorities are improvement of drinking water quality and sewage system, household, and hazardous waste management, as well as reduction of air pollution. In 2001, Latvia closed the EU accession negotiation chapter on environment committing to full enforcement of European Union environmental directives by 2010.

The name "Latvia" originates from the ancient Latgalians, one of four eastern Baltic tribes that formed the ethnic core of the Latvian people (ca. 8th-12th centuries A.D.).

The region subsequently came under the control of Germans, Poles, Swedes, and finally, Russians.

A Latvian republic emerged following World War I, but it was annexed by the USSR in 1940 - an action never recognized by the US and many other countries.

Latvia reestablished its independence in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Although the last Russian troops left in 1994, the status of the Russian minority (some 30% of the population) remains of concern to Moscow. Russia demands better Latvian treatment of ethnic Russians in Latvia.

Boundary demarcated with Latvia and Lithuania is an issue. The Latvian parliament has not ratified its 1998 maritime boundary treaty with Lithuania, primarily due to concerns over oil exploration rights. As a member state that forms part of the EU's external border, Latvia has implemented the strict Schengen border rules with Russia

Latvia joined both NATO and the EU in the spring of 2004.


Location: Eastern Europe, bordering the Baltic Sea, between Estonia and Lithuania

Geographic Coordinates: 57 00 N, 25 00 E

Area: 64,589 sq km (land: 62,249 sq km; water: 2,340 sq km)

Land Boundaries: 1,382 km (Belarus 171 km, Estonia 343 km, Lithuania 576 km, Russia 292 km)

Coastline: 498 km

Maritime Claims:

territorial sea: 12 nm
exclusive economic zone: 200 nm
continental shelf: 200 m depth or to the depth of exploitation

Terrain: low plain.  The highest point is Gaizina Kalns (312 m)

Climate: maritime; wet, moderate winters

Ecology and Biodiversity

Ecologically, Latvia is within the Sarmatic mixed forests ecoregion which covers a sizable portion of northern Europe and the Ural area of Russia. In the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, there are some tracts of intact native forest, although the greater extent of the landscape has been converted to field crops and the grazing of domesticated livestock.

People and Society

Population: 2,191,580 (July 2012 est.)

Latvia reflects the strong cultural and religious influences of centuries-long Germanic and Scandinavian colonization and settlement. Eastern Latvia (Latgale) retains strong Polish and Russian cultural influences. This highly literate society places a strong emphasis upon education, which is free and compulsory until age 16.

Ergelu Cliffs on Gauja River in Gauja National Park. Source: Gatis Pāvils
Great Kemeri Bog in Ķemeri National Park. Source: Gatis Pāvils
Gauja River valley in Sigulda, Gauja National Park. Source: Gatis Pāvils
SPOT Satellite of Riga. Source: Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES)

Traumatic wartime events, postwar emigration, deportations, and Soviet Russification policies from 1939 to 1989 reduced the percentage of ethnic Latvians in Latvia from 73% to 52%. In an attempt to preserve the Latvian language and prevent ethnic Latvians from becoming a minority in their own country, Latvia enacted language, education, and citizenship laws which require a working proficiency in the Latvian language in order to acquire citizenship as an adult. Such legislation has caused concern among many Russophone non-citizen residents, despite Latvian legal guarantees of universal human and civil rights regardless of citizenship.

Written with the Latin alphabet, Latvian is the language of the Latvian people and the official language of the country. It is an inflective language with several analytical forms, three dialects, and German syntactical influence. The oldest known examples of written Latvian are from a 1585 catechism. Latvian and Lithuanian are the only surviving direct descendents of the Baltic languages of the Indo-European family. While Latvia was a component of the U.S.S.R., Russian was the official language, so many Latvians also speak Russian, and the resident Slavic populace generally speaks Russian as a first language.

Ethnic Groups: Latvian 59.3%, Russian 27.8%, Belarusian 3.6%, Ukrainian 2.5%, Polish 2.4%, Lithuanian 1.3%, other 3.1% (2009)

Age Structure:

0-14 years: 13.5% (male 152,706/female 145,756)
15-64 years: 69.5% (male 747,044/female 785,521)
65 years and over: 16.9% (male 121,570/female 252,111) (2011 est.)

Population Growth Rate: -0.598% (2012 est.)

Birthrate: 9.97 births/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Death Rate: 13.6 deaths/1,000 population (July 2012 est.)

Net Migration Rate: -2.34 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Life Expectancy at Birth: 72.93 years 

male: 67.84 years
female: 78.3 years (2012 est.)

Total Fertility Rate: 1.33 children born/woman (2012 est.)

Languages: Latvian (official) 58.2%, Russian 37.5%, Lithuanian and other 4.3% (2000 census)

Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write):   99.7% (2000 census)

Urbanization: 68% of total population (2010) declining at an annual rate of change of 0.4% (2010-15 est.)


By the 10th century, the area that is today Latvia was inhabited by several Baltic tribes who had formed their own local governments. In 1054, German sailors who shipwrecked on the Daugava River inhabited the area, which initiated a period of increasing Germanic influence. The Germans named the territory Livonia. In 1201, Riga, the current capital of Latvia, was founded by the Germanic Bishop Albert of Livonia; the city joined the Hanseatic League in 1285 and began to form important cultural and economic relationships with the rest of Europe. However, the new German nobility enserfed the indigenous people and accorded them only limited trading and property rights.

Subsequent wars and treaties led to Livonia's partition and colonization for centuries. In 1721 Russia took control over the Latvian territories as a result of its victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War. During this time there was little sense of a Latvian national identity, as both serfdom and institutional controls to migration and social mobility limited the boundaries of the indigenous people's intellectual and social geography. However, in the 1860s, the Young Latvian Movement was formed in order to promote the indigenous language against Russification policies and to publicize and counteract the socioeconomic oppression of Latvians, 60% of whom belonged to the landless, urban class. This growing proletariat base became fertile ground for the ideas of western European socialism and supported the creation in 1903 of the Latvian Social Democratic Union (LSDU), which championed national interests and Latvia's national self-determination, especially during the failed 1905 Revolution in Russia.

The onset of World War I brought German occupation of the western coastal province of Kurzeme, which Latvians heroically countered with several regiments of riflemen commanded by Czarist generals. The 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 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 army. The new Latvian Army won a decisive battle over the German forces and consolidated that success against Red Army forces 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. On September 22, 1921, an independent Latvia was admitted to the League of Nations.

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 ensuing decade witnessed sweeping economic reform, as the war had devastated Latvian agriculture, and most Russian factories had been evacuated to Russia. However, economic depression heightened political turmoil, and, on May 15, 1934, the Prime Minister dismissed the parliament, banned outspoken and left-wing political parties, and tightened authoritarian state control over Latvian social life and the economy.

The German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939 steadily forced Latvia under Soviet influence, culminating in Latvia's annexation by the Soviet Union on August 5, 1940. 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, and others fled to the West and East.

An estimated 70,000, or 89.5%, of Latvian Jews were killed in Latvia under Nazi occupation. Up to one-third of Latvia's pre-war population (approximately 630,000 residents) was lost between 1940 and 1954 due to the Holocaust and the Soviet and Nazi occupations.

After World War II, the U.S.S.R. subjected the Latvian republic to a social and economic reorganization which rapidly changed the rural economy to one based on heavy industry, transformed the predominantly ethnic Latvian population into a more multiethnic populace, and promoted urbanization. As part of the goal to more fully integrate Latvia into the Soviet Union, Stalin deported another 42,000 Latvians and continued to promote the policy of encouraging Soviet immigration to Latvia.

Source: NASA

In July 1989, following the dramatic events in East Germany, 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. Candidates from the pro-independence party Latvian Popular Front 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, a Latvian was chosen Prime Minister. Soviet political and military forces tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the Latvian Government. On August 21, 1991, Latvia claimed de facto independence. International recognition, including that of the U.S.S.R., followed. The United States, which had never recognized Latvia's forcible annexation by the U.S.S.R. and continued to accredit a Latvian Ambassador in Washington, recognized Latvia's renewed independence on September 2.

In the autumn of 1991 Latvia re-implemented significant portions of its 1922 constitution, and in the spring of 1993 the government took a nationwide registration to determine eligibility for citizenship. Latvia finalized a citizenship and naturalization law in the summer of 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. About 83% of Latvia's population possesses Latvian citizenship. Requirements for adult naturalization include a conversational knowledge of Latvian, a loyalty oath, renunciation of former citizenship, 5 years of residency in Latvia, and a basic knowledge of Latvian history. Children born in Latvia to non-citizen parents may acquire citizenship at birth upon completion of an application by the parents. 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 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 "to all permanent residents in the Republic regardless of their nationality, equal rights to work and wages." In addition, the law prohibits "any activity directed toward nationality discrimination or the promotion of national superiority or hatred."

In the June 5-6, 1993 elections, in which more than 90% of the electorate participated, eight of Latvia's 23 registered political parties passed the 5% threshold to enter parliament. The centrist party Latvia's Way received a 33% plurality of votes and joined the Farmer's Union to head a center-right-wing coalition government.

The September 30-October 1, 1995 elections resulted in 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 popular, nonpartisan businessman.

Since regaining its independence, Latvia has rapidly moved away from the political-economic structures and socio-cultural patterns which underlay the Soviet Union. Latvia has maintained and strengthened the democratic, parliamentary republic that it revived in 1990. Through a U.S. initiative, on April 30, 1994, Latvia and Russia signed a troop withdrawal agreement; Russia withdrew the bulk of its troops by August 31 of that year. Except for some large state-owned utilities, Latvia has privatized most sectors of its economy, which enjoyed years of rapid development before slowing down in 2007.

In the 1998 elections, the Latvian party structure began to consolidate, with only six parties obtaining seats in the Saeima.

Latvia became a member of the United Nations (UN) on September 18, 1991, and is a signatory to a number of UN organizations and other international agreements, including the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank. It is also a member of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and officially became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on March 29, 2004. On May 1, 2004 Latvia joined the European Union (EU).

Since 2004, Latvia has emerged as a significant player in foreign affairs, standing out as a successful post-Soviet transition society. Strong memories of occupation and oppression motivate Latvia to reach out to countries struggling to move beyond authoritarian politics and state-controlled economies. It has worked closely with the U.S. and the EU to promote democracy in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Georgia. Latvia also supports pro-market, pro-free-trade policies in European and international organizations.

Latvia has developed a policy of international security cooperation through participation in crisis management and peacekeeping operations. In 2006, Latvia deployed over 10% of its active duty military to support UN, NATO, and coalition military operations. That percentage is well above the European average in terms of per capita contributions. In 2008, Latvia increased its participation in the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan to 170 soldiers and maintained the number in 2009 and 2010. Despite major economic challenges, in 2011 Latvia again increased its NATO ISAF participation to 185. While Latvia was active in the Balkans, budget cuts forced the end of its operations there in 2009. Latvia supported the NATO mission in Kosovo with peacekeepers, and the European Union Force (EUFOR) mission in Bosnia with liaison officers. Latvia also contributed to the EU and OSCE missions to Georgia. In November 2006, Latvia hosted a NATO Summit in its capital, Riga, and in May 2010, it hosted a NATO Parliamentary Assembly.


Government Type: parliamentary democracy

The highest organ of state authority in Latvia is the Saeima, a unicameral legislative body (parliament) of 100 members who are elected by direct popular vote to serve 4-year terms. The Saeima initiates and approves legislation sponsored by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is the head of government and has full responsibility and control over the Cabinet. The President, who is elected every 4 years by a majority vote in the Saeima, holds a primarily ceremonial role as head of state, though the President must sign each law into force and has the power to return laws to the Saeima twice for review and revision. The President also has the power to call for a referendum on legislation that the Saeima refuses to change after twice being sent back.

Capital: Riga - 711,000 (2009)

View of Riga, Latvia from a height of 72 metres. Photo taken at St. Peter Church. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Administrative divisions:  109 municipalities (novadi, singular-novads) and 9 cities

Administrative divisions of Latvia 2009. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Independence Date: 4 May 1990 (declared); 6 September 1991 (recognized by the Soviet Union). However, Independence Day, as a holiday is recognized as 18 November 1918,  the date Latvia declared independence from Soviet Russia.

Legal System:   accepts compulsory International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction; and accepts International criminal court (ICCt) jurisdiction

International Environmental Agreements

Latvia is party to international agrements on: Air Pollution, Air Pollution-Persistent Organic Pollutants, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, and Wetlands.


Total Renewable Water Resources:  49.9 cu km (2005)

Freshwater Withdrawal0.25 cu km/yr (55% domestic, 33% industrial, 12% agricultural)

Per Capita Freshwater Withdrawal: 108 cu m/yr (2003)

See: Water profile of Latvia


Agricultural products: grain, rapeseed, potatoes, vegetables; pork, poultry, milk, eggs; fish

Irrigated Land: 8 sq km. Note: land in Latvia is often too wet and in need of drainage not irrigation; approximately 16,000 sq km or 85% of agricultural land has been improved by drainage (2008)


Natural Resources:  peat, limestone, dolomite, amber, hydropower, timber, arable land

Land Use:

arable land: 28.19%
permanent crops: 0.45%
other: 71.36% (2005)


When Latvia emerged from Soviet occupation in 1991, its centrally planned economy faced the dual challenges of reinventing itself to face private sector competition and cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit. Latvia’s economy contracted sharply in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, including a 32% decline in 1992 alone. Since reestablishing its independence, however, Latvia has developed a diverse market-oriented economy with the potential to serve as an East-West services and trade hub. Latvia’s real economic growth averaged a steady 5.5% between 1994 and 2005 following the introduction of reforms and the establishment of the country’s national currency, the lat, in 1993. Real per capita income nearly doubled over the course of the decade and the prospects for Latvia’s economy seemed bright as the country joined the European Union in May 2004 and set its sights on adopting the euro (EUR) as its national currency. Initially, it seemed like there was cause to celebrate as the next 3 years (2005-2007) brought on average economic growth of nearly 11% per year.

As in much of the rest of Europe and the United States, Latvia’s growth during this time was fueled by a credit boom that bolstered domestic demand, drove prices and wages up unsustainably, and resulted in a massive housing bubble. Government spending also rose rapidly during this period, further fueling the price and asset bubbles. Inflation topped out at 15.3% in 2008 and delayed the country’s entry into the euro zone common currency area. (The lat is pegged to the euro; Latvia has reset 2014 as its new target year for acceding to the euro.) When the credit boom went bust in 2008, the economy fell into a recession, shrinking by 4.6% in 2008 and by 18% in 2009. It resulted in skyrocketing levels of unemployment (EU harmonized rate of 19.3% in June 2010--the second-highest in the European Union) and a collapse in government revenue leading to a rapid rise in the government’s fiscal deficit. With the economy breaking down and the banking system weakened by the collapse of the country’s second-largest bank, Parex Banka, the government turned to the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund for assistance in late 2008.

The assistance package, totaling approximately EUR 7.5 billion ($10.5 billion), is centered on restoring competitiveness through structural economic adjustment, fiscal prudence, and factor price deflation. The program’s goal or exit strategy calls for Latvia to reduce the country’s budget deficit to 3% of GDP by 2012 in order to pave the way for euro adoption in 2014. Annual deficit targets were agreed with the European Commission and the IMF to help Latvia achieve its goal, and the Government of Latvia has enacted a series of tough fiscal austerity budgets that have already reduced the deficit by 13% of GDP. Additional fiscal consolidation will be necessary to achieve the country’s goal and complete its “internal devaluation.” Recently, here have been a series of positive developments. For example, Latvia's current account balance has improved markedly. From 2006 through 2008, it experienced a deficit ranging from 12.6% to 22.5% of GDP, but since early 2009 Latvia’s exports have outnumbered its imports. Industrial production and exports were both up nearly 25% in the year ending October 2010. The country received a boost when Standard & Poor’s upgraded the country’s sovereign credit rating in early December 2010. Latvia’s GDP growth rate is estimated at around 4.0% for 2011.

Latvia is a small, open economy with exports contributing significantly to its GDP. Due to its geographical location, transit services are highly-developed, along with timber and wood-processing, agriculture and food products, and manufacturing of machinery and electronic devices. The bulk of the country's economic activity, however, is in the services sector.

Corruption continues to be an impediment to attracting FDI flows and Latvia's low birth rate and decreasing population are major challenges to its long-term economic vitality.

The majority of companies, banks, and real estate have been privatized, although the state still holds sizable stakes in a few large enterprises.

Latvia officially joined the World Trade Organization in February, 1999. Latvia's current major financial policy goal, entrance into the euro zone, is targeted for 2014.

GDP: (Purchasing Power Parity): $34.58 billion (2011 est.)

GDP: (Official Exchange Rate): $27.4 billion (2011 est.)

GDP- per capita (PPP): $15,400 (2011 est.)

GDP- composition by sector:

agriculture: 4.1%
industry: 21%
services: 74.9% (2011 est.)

Industries: processed foods, processed wood products, textiles, processed metals, pharmaceuticals, railroad cars, synthetic fibers, electronics

Currency: Lati (LVL)




Agency, C., & Department, U. (2012). Latvia. Retrieved from


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