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The New Face of Latvia

by Natalia Loseva, Jan.25, 2000


 I was very young then, but this memory clings to my  mind like it just happened yesterday.  On a cold, snowy day, a public bus I was on makes a stop to pick up an old man.  He gets up on the bus and asks the driver if the bus goes to Lenin square.  The driver said no, and the man went back to stand in the snow.  The driver did not tell him that where we were going was Lenin square, but the name has changed like everything else in the country.  The bus driver represented the new face of Latvia which emerged in the early 1990s: highly nationalistic and intolerant of any ties with the old system of the country.

 People must look at Latvia's history in order to understand why the events which led to independence happened.  Latvia became a part of the Russian empire at the beginning of the 18th century.  It was a vital piece of territory because the capital, Riga, had a booming economy which was linked to the rest of Europe and because Latvia gave Russia additional access to the Baltic sea.  By the end of the century, Latvia became Russia's most developed province.  By the middle of the 1800s, Latvia and the rest of Europe lived in a time of extreme nationalism.  The Latvian language was used in schools and newspapers, and a group called the New-Latvians (jaunlatviesi) started demanding equal rights as Russians.  These demands became more serious as Russia entered World War I, where the Latvians fought with the Russians.  Independence was declared in 1918, and Soviet Russia was the first to recognize the new country, followed by the rest of the world in 1921.  During this time of independence, Latvia was recognized for paying attention to the rights of minorities and also for its economic boom, which resulted in one of the highest living standards in Europe.


 This all changed in 1939 when Stalin signed a treaty with Hitler.  Latvia was of strategic interest to the USSR, and the Russians occupied the country in 1940 and made it a part of their country against the wishes of the Latvian people.  Democratic Latvia was quickly turned into Soviet territory, with 35,000 sent to Siberia in the first year of the Russian occupation.  Germany also occupied Latvia during the war, but when the Russians won, they took control again.  Under their rule, thousands were sent to Gulags and the process known as Russification began where many aspects of Latvian culture and language were destroyed by forcing the Russian language in schools and government as well as bringing ethnic Russians to the country, where the made up 50% of the population by the 1980s.  Before that, Latvians made up 75% of the population.

The brief history of independence makes Latvia unique in that people remember it, not like other countries such as Ukraine who have not experienced independence.  This made Latvia one of the first Soviets to want to break away from Russia.  The leaders in 1987 formed the Popular Front (Tautas Fronte) in order to oppose the Nazi-Soviet treaty and its results.  When other Soviets started calling for independence in 1990-1, Gorbachev invited them to meetings in order to try to keep the Soviet Union.  Latvia refused to go to any of the meetings, and declared a period of transition in August 1991 that would eventually lead to independence from Russia.  The USSR recognized Latvia as an independent country in September of 1991.  The process was bloodless.


 The new face of Latvia wanted to bring back democracy and Latvian cultural identity.  The people welcomed this because the government now, instead of pushing Marxist ideology, is pushing the idea of nationalism.  Most things that are Russian had to be removed to keep the people united behind the goals of the new nation. Such goals were to join the European Union.  This did not happen yet, but Latvia is being considered. Latvia did join the World Trade Organization, though, and has signed a friendship treaty with NATO.  It was not easy at the beginning of independence to maintain a healthy economy since the Russians drained most Lativian resources.  Latvia depends on cooperation with the former Soviet states.  But because of its geographical position, Latvia and the Baltic countries is a tie between Russia and the rest of Europe.  Pipelines run through the country, as well as many smuggling acts.  The International Monetary Fund gives loans to Latvia, and this has helped to bring down inflation from 67% in 1992 to 4.2% in 1993.

Despite many problems which are normal during a period of transition, Latvia's main success is probably social.  The government has been stable, enjoying the support of the people.  In order to limit the problems of ethnic diversity, Latvia has developed a very liberal approach to nationality.  The laws require that you be a descendant of independent Latvia citizen or that you lived in the country for 16 years.  This allows 93% of Latvia's 2.4 million people to enjoy full citizenship.

 In conclusion, the new face of Latvia is based on nationalism and not ideology.  The goals of Latvia, both internally and internationally, is to secure a place for the country amongst world nations.  The key is to bring out a unique Latvian identity independent from Russia.  This is difficult, though, since Latvia is tied to Russia ethnically, economically and historically.  The people have learned to adopt this new face, and unlike other nationalities, they do not miss the old days of the Soviet Union.  Latvia is doing better than most other former Soviet countries, and the future holds more benefits as Europe welcomes Latvia into its community.[1]


[1] Statistical Sources: Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parott, Russia and the New States of Eurasia: The Politics of Upheaval (Cambridge University Press, 1994)



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