Freedom in the World
Following a series of high-level government corruption scandals, Latvians voted for the first time to dissolve Parliament in a July 2011 referendum, triggering a snap parliamentary election on September 17. A center-right governing coalition emerged, with incumbent Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis remaining in office. Andris Berzins defeated incumbent Valdis Zatlers in the June 2 presidential election.
After centuries of foreign domination, Latvia gained its independence in 1918, only to be annexed by the Soviet Union during World War II. The long Soviet occupation featured a massive influx of Russians and the deportation, execution, and emigration of tens of thousands of ethnic Latvians. In 1991, Latvia regained its independence as the Soviet Union disintegrated, and a multiparty system took root during the 1990s. The country joined both the European Union (EU) and NATO in 2004.
In the face of a deepening economic crisis, thousands of Latvians marched on the Parliament building in January 2009, and their peaceful demands for the government’s resignation escalated into violent protests. The ruling coalition collapsed in February, and a new government was formed, with Valdis Dombrovskis of the New Era Party becoming prime minister. The government spent the rest of the year enacting spending cuts as Latvia suffered a deep economic recession.
In October 2010 parliamentary elections, Unity—a center-right electoral bloc composed of New Era, Civic Union, and the Society for Political Change—won 33 seats. Unity subsequently formed an unstable 55-seat coalition with the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), a party led by powerful businessman and Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs and beset by allegations of corruption and subservience to business interests.
In early 2011, the new governing coalition was strained by a lack of agreement on fiscal measures. By May, corruption had become a dominant political issue; that month, Parliament blocked the lifting of immunity for member of parliament Ainars Slesers, thereby preventing the Bureau for the Prevention and Combating of Corruption (KNAB) from searching his home in connection with a major corruption investigation. President Valdis Zatlers responded by calling for the dissolution of Parliament for the first time in Latvia’s independent history. A July 23 referendum on the issue passed with 94 percent of the vote.
In the run-up to the snap September 17 elections, which focused largely on corruption issues, Zatlers formed the center-right, pro-transparency Zatlers Reform Party (ZRP). Two right-wing nationalist parties, For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK and All for Latvia, officially merged into the National Alliance party. Harmony Center, a party largely backed by ethnic Russians, captured the greatest share of votes for the first time, winning 31 seats. The newly formed ZRP won 22 seats, Unity secured 20 seats, the National Alliance won 14 seats, and the ZZS captured 13 seats. Slesers’ Latvia’s First Party-Latvian Way, which was renamed the Slesers Reform Party, failed to cross the electoral threshold. Despite its first-place finish, Harmony Center was not included in the new government. Instead, ZRP, Unity, and the National Alliance formed a 56-seat governing coalition, with Dombrovskis returning as prime minister.
Latvia is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for a unicameral, 100-seat Parliament (Saeima), whose members are elected for four-year terms. Parliament elects the president, who serves up to two four-year terms. Incumbent Valdis Zatlers, who took office in 2007, lost reelection to ZZS candidate Andris Berzins on June 2. The prime minister is nominated by the president and must be approved by Parliament.
Noncitizen residents may organize political parties, but only if the party counts an equal number of Latvian citizens as members. The political landscape remained fractured and party alliances proved largely unstable in 2011. During the year, former prime minister Andris Skele announced his retirement from politics and dissolved his People’s Party, which had been the leader of three governments in the 2000s. In June, the Parliament passed legislation capping political parties’ election spending at half of its 2010 limit.
Corruption continued to be a major issue in Latvia in 2011. In 2010, KNAB director Normunds Vilnitis had proposed a sweeping reorganization that many, including KNAB employees, argued would reduce the institution’s effectiveness. While Vilnitis was abroad on holiday in May 2011, KNAB launched a major case on bribery, money laundering, and misuse of power involving Ainars Slesers, Andris Skele, and Aivars Lembergs. In June, Vilnitis was dismissed by Parliament after the release of a government commission report critical of his job performance. In November, Parliament unanimously supported the election of Jaroslavs Strelcenoks to head KNAB. In June, a Riga district court recognized an English court decision to freeze $135 million of Lembergs’ assets in connection to a case involving the embezzlement of funds from Ventspils Nafta, a major petroleum shipment company; the case was ongoing at year’s end. In March, three former Riga City Council officials were sentenced to between three and eight years in prison for bribery. Parliament passed an anticorruption law in December—nearly 15 years after the bill was first debated in the legislature—requiring citizens to declare assets worth more than US$19,000.
The government generally respects freedom of the press. Private television and radio stations broadcast programs in both Latvian and Russian. While newspapers publish a wide range of political viewpoints, there has been evidence of increasing business and political influence on the media. Observers of the 2010 and 2011 elections noted that political parties often made payments to news outlets for favorable coverage. In 2009, the highly respected independent newspaper Diena was sold to an undisclosed foreign owner; many of the paper’s leading journalists and editors resigned in protest. In 2010, two former public relations experts with political ties to Slesers and Skele were appointed as editor in chief and deputy editor. Viesturs Koziols, a wealthy businessman with similar ties bought a controlling stake in the Diena Media Group in August 2010. In 2011, KNAB revealed that it believed Slesers, Skele, Lembergs, and another business partner to be Diena’s true owners. In a move to promote media transparency and editorial independence, the Law on the Press and other Mass Media was amended on September 22 to require mass media outlets to reveal their beneficial owners. The government does not restrict access to the internet.
Freedom of religion is generally respected. However, so-called traditional religious groups enjoy certain privileges, such as the ability to provide religious instruction to public school students, which are unavailable to newer groups. There are no government restrictions on academic freedom.
Freedoms of assembly and association are protected by law and in practice. In June 2011, nearly 8,000 people attended an “Oligarch Funeral” protest to denounce political corruption and the perceived concentration of power in the hands of Latvia’s supposed oligarchs. The government does not restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations. Workers enjoy the right to establish trade unions, strike, and engage in collective bargaining. Union members comprise roughly 15 percent of the workforce.
While judicial independence is generally respected, inefficiency, politicization, and corruption continue to be problems. In October 2011, Constitutional Court judge Vineta Muizniece’s immunity was lifted so that charges could be brought against her in December for the 2009 falsification of the minutes of Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee. A January 2011 shootout between police officers and a gang robbing a casino left one officer dead and others injured; four out of the five gang members were former or serving policemen, and two of them were members of the elite “Alfa” force. The Alfa members had only recently rejoined the squad following allegations of bribery and extortion. Interior Minister Linda Murniece resigned over the matter, and only days later another elite police officer was arrested on drug dealing charges. Lengthy pretrial detention remains a concern, and law enforcement officials have allegedly abused persons in custody. Prisons continue to suffer from overcrowding and poor access to health care.
Approximately 15 percent of Latvia’s residents are noncitizens. Those who immigrated during the Soviet period, the majority of whom are ethnic Russians, must apply for citizenship and pass a Latvian language test. In April, dueling signature drives were held by Latvian and ethnic Russian nationalist groups with the goal of putting linguistic issues to a referendum; the former group aimed to eliminate all instruction in languages other than Latvian in publicly-funded schools, while the latter advocated granting Russian official second language status. Both initiatives failed, but another signature drive was held in November, again with the goal of putting the question of Russian as an official language to referendum. On December 19, the Central Election Commission announced that enough signatures had been collected to hold a referendum on making Russian an official second language; the referendum was scheduled for February 2012.
Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, but they often face employment and wage discrimination. There are 23 women in the newly elected Parliament and 4 in the 14-member cabinet. Domestic violence continues to be a serious problem. Latvia continues to be a source for women trafficked for the purpose of prostitution, mostly to Western Europe.