Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Republic of Latvia

In March I've got a week planned in the Baltics.  The first stop will be Latvia which will be the 50th country I've visited since moving to Euroland.  So here's a bit about Latvija.

The Republic of Latvia sits on the Baltic Sea and borders Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, and Belarus.  The country is a bit larger than West Virginia and has a population of 2.165 million people.  The capital, and largest city, is Riga.

Like Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia gained independence after WWI in 1918 when it broke away from the Russian Empire.  In 1940 it was forcibly incorporated into the USSR as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic.  In 1941 the Germans invaded and the Soviet Red Army returned in 1944.  Although many countries never acknowledged the annexation, Latvia remained under Soviet control for almost 50 years.  When the Soviet Union broke up Latvia declared independence in 1991.  The last Russian troops left in 1994.

Today Latvia is a parliamentary democracy.  In 2004 it joined NATO and the European Union.  It is also part of the Schengen area.  On 1 January 2014 the country adopted the Euro as its currency.

Latvian alphabet
Latvian is the country's official language.  Although +35% of the population speaks Russian it is not an official language.

Latvian €1 coin

Latvian Passport
When Latvia gained independence it did not automatically grant citizenship to everyone living there.  People who were Latvian citizens prior to 1940 were granted citizenship (and their descendants too).  Non-Latvians from other Soviet republics were allowed to gain citizenship if they had been permanent residents for at least five years, could pass a history test, knew the words of the national anthem and could speak Latvian.

Non-Citizen Passport
About 13% of the population still doesn't have Latvian citizenship.  Mostly from ethnic Russians who can't speak Latvian.  These are non-citizens and they can't vote, are ineligible for some government jobs and are exempt from military service.  They can travel within Schengen but only for up to 90 days every six months.  Like the other Baltic countries Latvia does not permit dual citizenship.

Given Russia's annexation of Crimea and the terrible fighting in Ukraine all of the Baltic countries are nervous about further Russian aggression.  Russian involvement in Ukraine has been under the guise of wanting to support ethnic Russians.  Ukraine's ethnic Russian population is about 17% but in Latvia it is around 26%.  I'm sure that Latvia is glad that it is a NATO member.

© Radio Free Europe

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