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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Historical development


1.Political, social and economic background and trends

1.1Historical development

Last update: 7 January 2024

Connection with the past

The historical overview of Latvia cannot be started without saying a few words about historical territory of Livonia, the first state formation in the territory of Latvia.  Through economic exchange, migration and conquest Livonia established the basis and ties for current integration processes by providing a common sense of structures, institutions, values and meanings which are revitalized by a regional memory. According to Dr. hist. Kaspars Kļaviņš:

The Republic of Latvia, founded in 1918 and existing today as a member state of the European Union, is in many aspects the heir of the ancient Livonia and continues its history. Existing from the 13th Century to the second half of the 16th Century, Livonia united several Baltic peoples which exactly at that time created the Latvian people together with the Finno-Ugrian Livs (Līvi). 

Livonia marked the territorial borders of Latvia (and also Estonia) by uniting the present-day territories of Latvia and Estonia under the protective wing of Roman Catholicism. Livonia was created in the same way as the Medieval England after the Norman Conquest, with the local peoples integrating in the new structures brought there from the centre of Europe. But unlike Anglo-Saxons, the ancient Latvian peoples – Livs and especially Latgallians or Letts on whose name the word “Latvians” is based – cooperated with the newcomers (in the particular case – from German states) from the very beginning both in join fighting, trading and in construction of fortresses and towns. 

The red-white-red “Latvian flag” which is presently the standard of the independent Republic of Latvia appeared during the Livonian times (13th Cent.) and taken from this aspect it is one of the oldest flags in Europe marked in written sources and existing as the national standard today.
During the Livonian period the city of Rīga established itself as one of the centres of the Baltic and it is largely due to this that it exists today as the capital of Latvia.

And finally, the European identity of Latvia also is the achievement of the Livonian era. The Livonians of both German and Latvian origin were able to protect this land over centuries by fighting simultaneously at several fronts. Unfortunately, in the Latvian minds crowded with ideologemes and stereotypes the Livonian period has not yet been given serious evaluation and therefore history textbooks and popular writings speak about “foreign bondage” and the like.  

During the next centuries various powers have fought for the territory of Latvia. After the Livonian War (1558-1583) territory of Latvia was under Polish-Lithuanian rule. And the dukedoms of Kurzeme and Pārdaugava was formed. The Polish-Swedish War (1600-1629) led to Swedish rule over Vidzeme and Rīga, but with the Great Northern War (1700-1721) Vidzeme and Rīga came under Russian rule. During the course of this century Latgale and the dukedom of Kurzeme were annexed to Russia as well.

 More about historical Livonia from Alexander Drost (pdf).

The Republic of Latvia

Latvia proclaimed independence shortly after the end of World War I – on November 18, 1918. Its first legislative institution, the People’s Council, was established, as a result of an agreement among eight democratic political parties and in cooperation with a representative of Latgale (one of the four historical regions of Latvia) Land Council.

The Constitutional Assembly was Latvia’s first elected legislative body which drafted the basic law of the state — the Satversme — as  well as other laws. The international community recognized Latvia’s independence on January 26, 1921. In this year Latvia also became a member of the League of Nations and fully participated in the activities of democratic nations. During the time Latvia became known worldwide as a country that cared for the rights of minorities. Latvia enjoyed its sovereignty from 1918 to 1940.

After signing of the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop pact on August 23, 1939, Latvia became a place of strategic interest to the USSR. In concordance with this secret agreement the Soviet army occupied Latvia in June 17, 1940. The newly elected Soviet marionette parliament voted to have Latvia become a part of the USSR. The sovietisation of Latvia was rapidly begun. Unlawful resolutions were adopted regarding the nationalization of land, buildings, banks, and various types of commercial and industrial enterprises. June 14, 1941, thousands of the citizens of Latvia were deported to Siberia in cattle cars, and most of them perished.

With the beginning of WW II, Latvia was taken by German occupation forces. During this time 90 percent of Latvia’s Jewish population were murdered. In 1944, heavy fighting took place in Latvia between German and Soviet troops, the USSR gained the upper hand. During the course of the war, both occupying forces conscripted Latvians into their armies. Latvia's population perished not only on the battlefield. During the years of Nazi occupation special campaigns exterminated 18,000 Latvians, approximately 70,000 Jews and 2,000 Gypsies – in total about 90,000 people.  In 1944, part of the Latvian territory once more came under Soviet occupation.

The post war Soviet occupation implemented repression and genocide against people of Latvia. 120 000 Latvian inhabitants were imprisoned or deported to Soviet concentration (GULAG) camps. 130 000 took refuge from the Soviet army by fleeing to the West. On March 25, 1949, 43 000 rural residents were deported to Siberia in a sweeping repressive action.

An extensive Russification campaign began in Latvia; many administrative obstacles were implemented to hinder the use of the Latvian language. In the post war period Latvia was forced to adopt Soviet-farming methods, and the economic infrastructure developed in the 1920s and 1930s was purposefully destroyed. Rural areas were forced into collectivization.

However, Latvia had still maintained a well-developed infrastructure and educated specialists, therefore it was decided in Moscow that some of the Soviet Union’s most advanced manufacturing factories were to be based in Latvia. Later, in order to run these factories, Russian workers were flooded into the country, their numbers noticeably decreasing the proportion of Latvian nationals. By the end of the 1980s, the Latvians comprised 50 percent of the population, although before World War II, the corresponding percentage was 75. Liberalization within the communist regime in the USSR began in the mid 1980s. In Latvia there immediately appeared a few mass socio-political organizations that made use of this opportunity and were for the reinstatement of national independence.

A notable step towards renewal of independence was taken on May 4, 1990. The Latvian Soviet Socialistic Republic Supreme Council adopted a declaration restoring independence that included a transition period. On the August 21, 1991 parliament voted for an end to the transition period, thus restoring Latvia’s pre-war independence. In September 1991, Latvian independence was recognized by the USSR.

Soon after reinstating independence, Latvia became a member of the United Nations. In 1992, Latvia became eligible for the International Monetary Fund. In 1994, Latvia took part in the NATO "Partnership for Peace" program as well as signed the free trade agreement with the European Union. Latvia became an associate member of Western European Union in 1994 and a member state of the European Council in 1995, and was the first of the Baltic States to be accepted into the World Trade Organization in 1998.

Last decade is characterized by the movement towards accession in the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Latvia applied to EU membership in October 1995, and in October 1999 the Commission recommended to open negotiations with Latvia.  Negotiations were concluded with 10 candidate countries Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia in December 2002 and the date for EU accession has been set as 1 May 2004. In September 2003 Latvia's citizens voted for Latvia's membership in the European Union in the referendum and in October Saeima (the Parliament) of the Republic of Latvia ratified the Treaty of Accession to the European Union.

Latvia became a full-fledged member state of both EU and NATO in May 2004. New policy document, Latvia’s Foreign Policy Guidelines 2006-2010 was adopted setting out the country's international outlook, foreign policy interests, planned activities and expected results for next five years. It underlines such courses of action as advocacy of Latvian interests in the European Union, common development of EU policy and strengthening of national security. Several new aspects are included as well – strengthening of Latvian Diaspora and popularization of the country image.

Elections of the 5th Saeima (the Parliament) – the first after restoration of independence - were held on June 5 and 6, 1993. The 5th Saeima reinstated the Satversme and the 1925 Law on the Structure of the Cabinet of Ministers; it adopted the Citizenship Law and the Anti-Corruption Law, implemented local government reform, and ratified the agreement on the complete withdrawal of the Russian armed forces from Latvia.

The removal of Russian armed forces (former USSR occupation forces) from Latvian territory was completed on August 31, 1994. The last remaining Russian military object in Latvia and the Baltic countries, the Skrunda radar station, ceased operations on August 31, 1998, and was turned over to the jurisdiction of Latvian authorities October 21, 1999.

In the period of Soviet rule local authorities did not in effect exist. Although the councils of representatives of the people were duly elected, they were in actual fact rigidly incorporated into the centralized system of state administration. After the re-establishment of the independence in 1990, democratization and decentralization of the state administration system was carried out. It was closely tied in with the establishment and development of a system for local governance.

After joining the European Union in 2004, Latvia recorded impressive economic growth. The labor market tightened significantly with the unemployment rate declining steadily. Since Latvia's accession to the EU, out-migration increased considerably, adding to labor shortages and pushing up wages. These developments led to major external and internal imbalances with significant threats to the stability of the financial system. After a period of overheating, the economy started to slide into recession. In 2008 government approved an economic stabilization programme, and in the begginning of 2009 the programme action plan for Latvia, which envisaged stringent restrictions on expenditures and raising taxes. The main measures for optimizing and limiting expenditures in the 2009 national budget included reducing the workforce in the government sector and the budget spending on salaries. The measures taken to consolidate the budget, to establish the economic stabilization program and to adopt the 2010 budget have again given the political and economical confidence in Latvia and in the second half of 2010, Latvia returned to economic growth with joining the Eurozone in January 1, 2014.