The Republic of Latvia (Latvian: Latvijas Republika), or Latvia (Latvian: Latvija), is a country in Northern Europe. Latvia has land borders with its two fellow Baltic states — Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south — and Russia and Belarus to the east. In the west Latvia shares a maritime border with Sweden.
Main article: History of Latvia
Known for the most part as Livonia, the area that now constitutes Latvia was under the influence of the German Sword Brethren from the 13th century onward. However, in the 18th and 19th century, Russia gained control over Latvia and neighbouring regions. With Russia devastated by revolution and World War I, Latvia declared its independence on November 18 1918.
From 1934 Latvia was an authoritarian state. This period of independence lasted only briefly, as the Soviet Union annexed the country on 17 June 1940 in accordance to the Soviet-Nazi agreement (Ribbentrop-Molotov pact) of 1939.
Except for a brief period of German occupation during World War II, Latvia remained a Soviet territory until reforms in Soviet communism such as glasnost stimulated the Latvian independence movement, and the country regained its independence on 21 August 1991. It has since recovered its links with the West and in 2004 became a member of both NATO and the European Union.
Main article: Politics of Latvia
The 100-seat unicameral Latvian parliament, the Saeima, is elected by direct, popular vote every four years. The president is elected by the Saeima in a separate election also every four years. The president invites a prime minister who, together with his cabinet, forms the executive branch of the government, which has to receive a confidence vote by the Saeima.
On 20 September 2003 in a nationwide referendum 66.9% of the Latvians voted in favour of joining the European Union. Latvia's EU membership took effect on 1 May 2004. Latvia is a NATO member since March 29 2004.
Main article: Counties of Latvia
Latvia is divided into 26 counties called rajons. 7 cities have a separate status.
Main article: Geography of Latvia
Large parts of Latvia are covered by forests, and the country has over 12,000 small rivers and over 3,000 lakes. Most of the country consists of fertile, low-lying plains with some hills in the east, the highest point being the Gaiziņkalns at 312 m.
An inlet of the Baltic Sea, the shallow Gulf of Riga is situated in the northwest of the country. The capital city Riga is located on the shores of this inlet, where the Daugava river flows into it. Other major cities include Daugavpils further upriver and Liepāja along the Baltic coast.
The Latvian climate is maritime and temperate in nature, with cool summers and wet, moderate winters.
Main article: Economy of Latvia
Since year 2000 Latvia has had one of the highest GDP growth rates in Europe. In 2003, GDP growth was 7.5% and inflation was 2.9%. Unemployment was 8.8% in 2003, almost unchanged compared to the previous two years. Privatization is mostly complete, except for some of the large state-owned utilities. Latvia is a member of the World Trade Organisation (1999) and the European Union (2004).
The population is mostly Christian (majority being Lutheran, Catholic and Russian Orthodox). Another religion is Dievturi (The Godkeepers), which has historical roots based on prechristian era mythology.
Main article: Demographics of Latvia
Latvians are the indigenous people of Latvia. Only around 60% of the population are ethnic Latvians. Almost 29% are Russian which is the largest national minority in Latvia. In some cities (e.g. Daugavpils and Rēzekne) Latvians are even outnumbered by Russians. Minorities from other countries such as Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania etc. also live in Latvia. The ethnic mix of the population of Latvia is largely the result of massive immigration during the years of Soviet occupation, which resulted in a decline of the share of ethnic Latvians from around 80% in 1935 to 52% in 1989.
The state language of the Republic of Latvia is Latvian. The Latvian language belongs to the Baltic language group of the Indo-European language family and is neither Germanic or Slavic. Russian is widely spoken among the Russian community.