The Republic of Latvia (Latvijas Republika) is a relatively small country at the Baltic Sea in the north-east of Europe that shares borders with Estonia in the north, Lithunia in the south, Belarus in the south-east and the Russian Federation in the east. Its western border is formed by the coast of the Baltic Sea, sharing so a maritime border with Sweden. The Republic of Latvia is only 64,589 km2 /24,938m2 large, has a low population density of 34/km2 or 89/m2 and therefor a total population of just over 2 million people. It has, due to the moderating effect of the sea, a temperate seasonal climate and, due to the fact that it is located in the east European time zone (EET), a time difference of GMT+2 (+3 in summer). Its sole official language is Latvian, but Russian is still widely spoken, and its national anthem is 'Dievs, svÄtÄ« Latviju!' which translates to 'God bless Latvia!' The seat of the democratic-parliamentarian government is in Riga, the capital and largest city of the country with 700,000 inhabitants. Ethnic Latvians make up just 60% of the population, Russians are the next strongest ethnic group with just short of 30% and the rest of the population consists of Belorussians, Ukrainians, Poles, Roma and other minority groups. Latvia is currently one of the poorest countries in Europe, with an average wage of under $10,000/year. The currency of the country is called 'lats', but Latvia is aiming at adopting the Euro soon, but its current economical situation makes it unlikely that this happens before 2013. The lats (pl. Lati) is divided into 100 santimi.
The first historic evidence of human settlements in the area that is now called the Republic of Latvia, dates back to 3000BC and was located at the Baltic Sea coast. Thanks to rich deposits of amber found there, these first Latvians became traders in this, much sought after, gemstone and soon opened trade routes that reached Rome and Byzantium. In the early medieval ages, Christian missionaries started to arrive in what is Latvia today, one of the orders most involved in this were the Teutonic Knights (Deutschordens Ritter) which later founded the State of the Teutonic Knights in the same area. In the 13th century Riga became part of the Hanseatic League and the importance of it as a European sea trading center increased because of this dramatically. Apart of amber, also valuable furs from Russia, like mink, were traded via this port. From the 15th century onwards, the military power of the Teutonic Knights decreased and their lands were divided subsequently between other countries like Poland, Prussia and Russia. Latvia came under the rule of Poland and Lithunia and then finally became a, semi-independent vassal state, under the name of Courland (Kurland), to Poland alone. With the advent of the reformation in the 16th century, and especially during the following two centuries, the region was under continuos dispute between Poland, Sweden, Lithuania and Russia. When Sweden ruled over parts of nowadays Latvia in the early 17th century, Lutheranism became the predominant Christian confession and important social reforms in the fields of education and easing the conditions of the serfs (unfree peasants) were carried out. This time saw also the end of the tribal culture and the forming of a national identity as Latvians, together with the development of one language instead of several tribal dialects. It is important to note that until then, no historic borders of Latvia where ever defined, as the original culture was a tribal one, that assigned lands and powers to regions inhabited by a certain tribe and not to the nation as a whole. There was no Latvian king or similar in the past and the real national revival didn't took place until the 19th century.
In the 18th century the region fell to Russia, becoming one of the autonomous provinces of the empire, but also leading to more oppression for the lower classes whilst strengthening the powers of the land possessing classes. The 19th century saw the emerging of a, land possessing or merchant, middle-class, a resurfacing of social reforms but also that of a poor, urban working class.
Whilst a lot of the landowners were of German origin (Baltendeutsche), the working class, as well as the newly developing intelligentsia, were mostly Latvian and the administration, military and foreign relations were dominated by the Russians.
During World War I and the Russian Revolution, Latvia experienced a short time of independence (1918-1940) together with all the suffering and hardship that comes with war.
After World War I, and especially after the social shifts caused by the Russian Revolution, Latvia became wealthy again, but this declined as the effects of the Great Depression hit the country, but it re-established itself by 1940 as the second richest country in Europe.
Early during WWII, Russia, now called the Soviet Union, and Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was basically a non-aggression pact between the two countries. A secret clause also included the, planned, division of parts of Europe between the two powers. For Latvia this meant that the Soviet Union included it into their 'sphere of influence' and, in 1940, incorporated it, by petition of the then puppet government, as 'The Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic', (Latvian SSR). Estonia and Lithuania, the other two Baltic states, suffered the same fate.
Because of this many Baltic Germans (Baltendeutsche) fled the country until the end of 1939, feeling betrayed by the German government for not coming to their defense, but without knowing about the secret clause of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was later by Baltic Germans referred to as the 'Verrat' (betrayal).
The area was, again, shortly occupied by the German forces (1941-45) until being retaken by the Soviet forces in 1945. Both occupations caused an immense lost of life, especially amongst Jews and dissidents. Sources state that more than 200,000 Latvians died, both from German as from Soviet hands, during WWII. And up to 300,000 fled the country, either to Sweden or Germany.
From 1945 onwards Latvia, now called 'The Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic' (Latvian SSR), was firmly incorporated into the structure of the Soviet Union. This led to mass deportations of Latvian citizens (up to 200,000 are quoted) into other parts of the SU (especially Siberia), forced collectivization of farms and factories, as well as forced immigration of citizens of other Soviet Republics into Latvia. The first and the later led to an all time low of Latvians living in the country, in 1959 only 62% of the population were Latvians by origin. Russian become an official language and Latvian was pushed back on place two, both in schools as well as in daily life.
With the begin of Glasnost and Perestroika in the 80s of the last century, Latvia soon strived to be an independent state again, and, in fact, was one of the first countries to leave the SU in 1991, after a short time of resistance by Moscow.
One problem that came out of this, is the question how the newly independent state would treat the large number of ethnic Russians living in the country, often already in the second or even third generation. Many of them had in fact supported, and voted for, the Latvian independence, but suddenly found themselves living as non-citizens in the country they regarded as their home. By now, many of them are naturalized Latvians, after having had to pass a language and other citizen tests. Today 72% of all Latvian citizens are ethnic Latvians and 20% are ethnic Russians.
Other problems, left behind by the SU, included environmental pollution and damage, problems Latvia still struggles to solve. Especially bringing up the industry to the environmental standard of the EU wouldn't have been possible without the help of the same. Consequently Latvia reoriented itself towards the west, joining the United Nations in 1991 and the EU and NATO in 2004.
The new, democratic government has re-privatized property confiscated during the Soviet occupation, returned it, where possible, to its original owners and also privatized most of the state companies. Shortly after the newly won independence, Latvia experienced a major economical growth until the current recession hit the country and throw it in a financial crisis that makes it, at the moment, one of the poorest countries in the EU.
As said before, nowadays Latvia was originally inhabited by several Baltic tribes and therefor the Latvian language is a Baltic one. It is closely related to Lithuanian, both are Indo-European languages, of the Baltic language group. The name Latvia itself comes from the ancient Latvian
word ' Latvji', which takes its root from the name of the river 'Latuva'. 'Latvia' could be therefor interpreted as meaning 'land around the river called Latuva'.
Two other languages are protected by law in Latvia, Livonian and Latgalian, both nearly extinct due to the long time of foreign occupation.
Geography, Fauna and Flora
Latvia lies on the east European plain, but also on the coast, this makes for a humid and moderate climate with warm summers, mild springs and autumns / falls, but also harsh winters, especially farer away from the coast and / or when the wind blows from the north-east.The highest 'mountain' in Latvia is called GaiziÅkalns (311m / 1,022 ft).
Its vegetation is diverse and includes large forests, pine as well as mixed one, that can stretch up to the beaches. The two national trees are the oak and the linden, whilst the national bird is the White Wagtail and the national flower is the Oxeye Daisy.
Latvia enjoys a very diverse wildlife with includes all sorts of deers, wild boars, wolves, lynx, bears as well as more common ones such as foxes and beavers. Remarkable is also its bird life, with many species passing through on their migration routes.
As already mentioned, Latvia is a parliamentary democracy with the parliament 'Saeima' being voted directly by the people. Said parliament then elects the president who, in turn, appoints the prime minister. After the prime minister has formed its cabinet, this has to be approved, by vote of confidence, by the ' Saeima'. This is an old system, that was already used during the first independence of the country.
Relations with the big neighbor Russia are stable and the borders have been defined and ratified in 2007 by a mutual treaty. The maritime borders, especially those with Lithuania, are still under dispute because of fishing and mining rights involved.
The predominant religion is Christianity, with the main denominations being Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia and Latvian Orthodox, but like in many other former communist countries, church attendance is rather low. In a recent poll 10% of all Latvians asked stated that they don't believe in any higher being of any sort, i.e. that they are atheists. Other religious minorities are Jews, Muslims and Neopagans.
Culture and Sport
Like in many other European countries, soccer (European football) is a favorite, Latvians also enjoy playing and watching ice hockey, tennis, basketball and cycling.
Folk music and dance was one of the ways to conserve the cultural and national identity during the times of occupation and are still enjoyed today. Collecting old folk tunes, dances, poems and tales, and preserving them is very high on the list of many cultural institutions of the country. But they are not only preserved, they are also regularly performed in major cultural festivals, both nationally as well as internationally.
Travel Facts and Tips
Latvia is part of the Schengen zone, therefor the same visa regulations apply. Meaning, if the traveler is a citizen of one of the other Schengen countries, he or she can stay up to 90 days per 6 months period in the country provided they can show a valid travel ID like a passport. Citizens from outside the Schengen zone have to apply for a Schengen visa and can then travel to Latvia, independently on where the original Schengen visa was issued.
An interesting, new development is that Latvia now offers EU / Schengen residency rights to property rights, even if they are citizens of a non-EU / Schengen country. This was done to improve the severally impacted, by the financial crisis, real estate market, but has also let to critique. Many people fear that it develop into a backdoor for criminals wanting to settle in the EU. Positive voices state, that the buyers still get vetted before receiving residency rights and that the whole system will improve the stagnant economy of the country.
And last, but not least, you should know that Latvia, like most European countries, drives on the right side of the road, that the country's calling code is 00371 and that its internet TLD (Top Level Domain) is .lv