Latvia, which was occupied and annexed by the U.S.S.R. in June 1940, declared its independence on August 21, 1991. The U.S.S.R. recognized its sovereignty on September 6, and United Nations membership followed shortly thereafter. Latvia was admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) in 2004. The capital and chief city is Riga.
Latvia lies along the shores of the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga, and it is bounded by Estonia to the north, Russia to the east, Belarus to the southeast, and Lithuania to the south.
The climate is influenced by the prevailing southwesterly winds coming from the Atlantic. Humidity is high, and the skies are usually cloudy; there are only about 30 to 40 days of sunshine per year. Average precipitation usually exceeds 20 inches (about 500 mm) on the lowlands and may approach or exceed 30 inches (about 760 mm) on the uplands. The frost-free season lasts about 125 to 155 days. Summers are often cool and rainy. The mean temperature in June is in the mid-60s F (about 17 °C), with occasional jumps into the mid-90s F (about 34 °C). Winter sets in slowly and lasts from the middle of December to the middle of March. The mean January temperature ranges from the upper 20s F (near −2 °C) on the coast to the lower 20s F (about −7 °C) in the east. There are occasional extreme temperature drops into the −40s F (about −40 °C).
Latvia’s fauna consists of squirrels, foxes, hare, lynx, and badgers. Somewhat less common are ermines and weasels. Conservation measures have resulted in an increase in the number of deer and elk, and beavers have been reintroduced to Latvia. The country’s bird population includes the nightingale, oriole, blackbird, woodpecker, owl, grouse, partridge, finch, tomtit, quail, and lark. Storks and herons are usually found in the marshes and meadows.
Before Soviet occupation in 1940, ethnic Latvians constituted about three-fourths of the country’s population. Today they make up about three-fifths of the population, and Russians account for about one-fourth. There are small groups of Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians, and others. The official language of Latvia is Latvian; however, nearly one-third of the population speaks Russian. Smaller numbers speak Romany, the Indo-Aryan language of the Roma (Gypsies), and Yiddish, a Germanic language. The majority of Latvians adhere to Christianity—mainly Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. About one-fourth of Latvians consider themselves nonreligious.
Latvia had a significant Jewish population—estimated at more than 90,000 in the 1930s—until the Soviet and German occupations during World War II, when tens of thousands of Latvian Jews fled the country, were deported to prison camps or concentration camps, or were killed. Nazi forces were responsible for between 65,000 and 75,000 of these deaths. By war’s end, only several thousand Latvian Jews remained.
Industrialization in Latvia began in the latter part of the 19th century, and by the late 20th century the country was the most heavily industrialized of the Baltic states. Substantial economic changes occurred following Latvia’s independence in 1991, as the country transitioned to a market economy. Starting in the mid-1990s, the economy diversified, and by the early 21st century most industry in Latvia had been privatized.
About one-third of agricultural land in Latvia is used for crop cultivation, and about one-tenth is dedicated to pasture for livestock. Of the crops, grain (mainly rye) is the most important. Wheat, oats, flax, and barley are also significant. Potatoes, onions, carrots, and sugar beets are the main crops produced for export.
Collectivization of agriculture was accomplished, against resistance, in 1947–50. Up to the time of independence, in 1991, there were collective farms (engaged mainly in the cultivation of grain crops and mixed farming) and state farms (usually specializing in the cultivation and processing of a particular crop). Decollectivization became a goal of the newly independent government. During the Soviet period Latvia was a net importer of agricultural products, albeit on a small scale. After independence it was hoped that the privatization of agriculture would lead to higher levels of production and a favourable balance of trade in agricultural commodities, but, as a result of the economic hardships of adjusting to a market economy and of the high cost of equipment required, agriculture contributed only a small percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) in the early 1990s. By the early 21st century, agriculture had been completely privatized.
Latvia’s fishing industry accounts for only a tiny percentage of the GDP, and fish products for export have decreased in importance. In general, sportfishing has contributed more to Latvia’s annual catch from inland waters than has commercial fishing. Much of the catch from the Baltic is consumed domestically as a source of protein, most notably codfish and herring (sprats). The most common species of fish found in inland waters are pike, bream, carp, perch, eel, and lamprey. Some salmon and trout are bred artificially in nurseries and then released into rivers. Crayfish and carp have been raised successfully in ponds.
The principal mineral resources found in Latvia are sand, dolomite, limestone, gypsum, clay, and peat. Oil has been discovered in the Kurzeme Peninsula, and exploration of reserves has been undertaken. Latvia has hydropower plants on the Western Dvina River. Nonetheless, the country is highly dependent on imported sources of energy. Electric energy is supplied primarily by Estonia and Lithuania, and petroleum products are supplied by Russia and Lithuania. Beginning in the early 21st century, Latvia has attempted to diversify its domestic energy sources to reduce its dependence on foreign supply.
Under Soviet rule, Latvia used the Russian ruble as its monetary unit, but by 1993 the country had adopted its own currency, the lats. On January 1, 2014, Latvia adopted the euro as its official currency. The Central Bank of the Republic of Latvia is the centre of the banking system. There is a stock exchange in Riga. In the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, foreign direct investment, which came mainly from other EU countries, accounted for about one-third of GDP.
By the early 21st century the service sector accounted for the largest percentage of Latvia’s GDP and employed about one-fifth of the country’s workforce. Latvia’s tourist infrastructure, which was virtually nonexistent in the early 1990s, contributed a small percentage to the GDP. Major tourist attractions include the historic centre of Riga, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997; the country’s picturesque castles and monasteries; and its coastline and lakes. Improvements were made in the quality of tourist accommodations in the early 2000s, but Latvia’s infrastructure was still not fully
The telecommunications sector of Latvia is partially nationalized. The number of Internet users increased significantly from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s; however, it is still somewhat lower than the average for the European Union. Cellular phone usage in Latvia is much higher than fixed-line phone usage.
General literacy was achieved in Latvia in the 1890s. Education is free and compulsory until age 16. A 1998 education law ensured that a certain amount of instruction be provided in the Latvian language in the country’s minority schools. However, state financing is provided for minority schools that teach classes in Belarusian, Estonian, Hebrew, Lithuanian, Polish, Romany, Russian, and Ukrainian, to preserve each minority’s heritage and culture. Notable institutions of higher learning include the University of Latvia (1919), the Latvia University of Agriculture (1939), and Riga Technical University (1990). The Stockholm School of Economics in Riga opened in 1994. The Latvian Academy of Sciences (1946) in Riga is one of the top research institutes in the country.
Because it has been invaded and occupied by neighbouring powers for much of its history, Latvia has had to struggle to preserve its distinctive language, folklore, and customs. The country’s loss of political independence in the 13th century effectively halted the development of Latvian culture for centuries. Indeed, it is only since the end of the 19th century that Latvians have been able to openly and actively celebrate their cultural heritage.
Religious and folkloric festivals, which were banned under Soviet rule, are celebrated again in traditional style. The festivals, complete with dance, music, and song, are usually performed in colourful costumes that are typical of specific regions of the country. The most important annual festival is Jāņi, a midsummer tradition based on an ancient pagan ceremony that celebrates the summer solstice. It is considered bad luck to fall asleep before dawn during Jāņi. Huge bonfires are lit, and special foods and beverages are prepared. Staples of Latvian cuisine include ķimeņu siers (caraway cheese), bacon, berries, potatoes, sausages, soups, and rye bread. Smoked or salted herring is also a common dish. Berry pies and tarts served with sour cream are favourite desserts.
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