Location: Eastern Europe, bordering the Baltic Sea, between
Estonia and Lithuania
Geographic coordinates: 57 00 N, 25 00 E
Map references: Europe
total: 64,589 sq km
land: 64,589 sq km
water: 0 sq km
Area - comparative: slightly larger than West Virginia
total: 1,150 km
border countries: Belarus 141 km, Estonia 339 km, Lithuania
453 km, Russia 217 km
Coastline: 531 km
continental shelf: 200-m depth or to the depth of exploitation
exclusive economic zone: 200 nm
territorial sea: 12 nm
Climate: maritime; wet, moderate winters
Terrain: low plain
lowest point: Baltic Sea 0 m
highest point: Gaizinkalns 312 m
Natural resources: minimal; amber, peat, limestone, dolomite,
hydropower, arable land
arable land: 27%
permanent crops: 0%
permanent pastures: 13%
forests and woodland: 46%
other: 14% (1993 est.)
Irrigated land: 160 sq km (1993 est.)
Natural hazards: NA
Environment - current issues: air and water pollution because
of a lack of waste conversion equipment; Gulf of Riga and Daugava
River heavily polluted; contamination of soil and groundwater with
chemicals and petroleum products at military bases
Environment - international agreements:
party to: Air Pollution, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Endangered
Species, Hazardous Wastes, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution,
signed, but not ratified: Air Pollution-Persistent Organic
Pollutants, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol
Latvia is situated on the Baltic coast and borders Estonia in the
north, Lithuania in the south, the Russian Federation in the east
and Belarus in the southeast.
The coastal plain is mostly flat, but inland to the east the land
is hilly with forests and lakes. There are about 12,000 rivers in
Latvia, the biggest being the River Daugava. The ports of Riga and
Ventspils never freeze over during the winter.
Latvias climate is generally dominated by marine influences. More
continental conditions exist in the eastern portion of the republic.
Near the sea, summers are cool and winters are mild. Snow covers
the ground from two to more than four months of the year. Summers
are usually warm, with average daily temperatures exceeding 25°
C (exceeding 77° F).
Background: Along with most of the other small nations of
Europe, Latvia shares a history of invasion by a succession of expansionist
nations, e.g., Sweden, Poland, Germany, and Russia.
After a brief period of independence between the two World Wars,
Latvia was annexed by the USSR in 1940 under the Molotov-Ribbentrop
Pact. The USSR recaptured Latvia from its German occupiers in 1944.
Latvia reestablished its independence in August 1991, a few months
prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union; the last Russian troops
left in 1994.
The status of ethnic Russians, who make up 30% of the population,
is an issue of concern to Moscow. Unemployment has become a growing
problem and Latvia hopes to receive an invitation to begin EU accession
talks by the end of 1999.
Latvia is a European nation that regained its independence in 1991,
after more than 50 years of forced annexation to the Soviet Union.
Latvia lies on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea.
It had been independent from 1918 to 1940, when the Soviet Union
occupied it and made it one of the 15 republics of the Soviet Union.
Formal Name: Republic of Latvia (Latvijas Republika).
Short Form: Latvia (Latvija).
Term for Citizen(s): Latvian(s).
Date of Independence: During abortive Soviet coup,
declared immediate full independence August 21, 1991; Soviet Union
recognized it September 6, 1991. November 18, Independence Day,
national holiday; on this day in 1918, independent Republic of Latvia
Size: 64,589 square kilometers, slightly larger
than West Virginia.
Topography: Undulating plains cover 75 percent
of country. Forest 42 percent; cultivable land 27 percent; meadows
and pastureland 13 percent; peat bog, swamp, and marsh 10 percent;
and other 8 percent. Highest elevation 300 meters.
Climate: Temperate, with mild winters and cool
summers. Average January temperatures range from -2.8°C in Liepaja
to -6.6°C in Daugavpils; average July temperatures range from
16.7°C in Liepaja to 17.6°C in Daugavpils. Frequent precipita-tion,
averaging 180 days per year in Riga. Annual precipitation 500 to
Data as of January 1995
The Pursuit of Independence, 1987-91
The national awakening came about in large measure as a result
of Gorbachev's loosening of the reins of repression and his public
stress on truth and freedom of expression. When open demonstrations
started in 1987, Latvians were no longer lacking in social cohesion.
The purpose of these "calendar" demonstrations was to publicly commemorate
the events of June 13-14, 1941 (the mass deportations of Latvians
to the Soviet Union); August 23, 1939 (the signing of the Nazi-Soviet
Nonaggression Pact); and November 18, 1918 (the proclamation of
Latvian independence). During the several years leading up to the
first demonstrations by Helsinki '86 on June 14, 1987, several groups
had labored with missionary zeal to inspire Latvians to work for
a number of social and political causes.
One group that organized in 1976 committed itself to the revival
of folk culture and, in spite of harassment, succeeded in rekindling
interest in Latvian traditions and in awakening pride in being Latvian.
Parallel to the folk culture group, another movement focused on
the repair of old churches and monuments and the protection of the
environment. The founder of this movement, the Environmental Protection
Club (EPC), acknowledged that its primary goal was to raise the
consciousness of the general public. Indeed, the EPC became the
organization within which many individuals opposed to various aspects
of Sovietization and Russification could unite. Under the seemingly
nonpolitical umbrella of the EPC, they could organize far more radical
bodies, such as the Latvian National Independence Movement.
A dynamic group of young theologians within Latvia's moribund
Evangelical Lutheran Church also began a campaign to reactivate
their congregations and the structure of the church itself. The
Rebirth and Renewal (Atdzimsana un Atjaunosana) group did not have
many members, but its activism and confrontation with communist
party officials and policies energized people within the growing
religious communities as well as in the wider society. Indeed, several
individuals from this group served as catalysts for the creation
of the Popular Front of Latvia (Latvijas Tautas Fronte--LTF).
The mobilization of a larger constituency of Latvians occurred
as a result of the successful campaign to stop the construction
of a hydroelectric dam on the Daugava River in 1987. The initiator
of this campaign, journalist Dainis Ivans, was later elected the
first president of the LTF.
The "calendar" demonstrations, led by Helsinki '86 during 1987,
electrified the Latvian population. Most people expected the authorities
to mete out swift and ruthless retribution. When they did not, even
more people joined in. In 1988 this grassroots protest was joined
by the Latvian intelligentsia, whose demands for decentralization
and democratization were forcefully articulated at the June 1-2
plenum of the Latvian Writers Union. Several months later, the idea
of a popular front was brought to fruition, with a formal first
congress organized on October 8-9, 1988.
The LTF had more than 100,000 dues-paying members and chapters
in almost every locality in Latvia. These members slowly took the
initiative in politics and became a de facto second government,
pushing the Latvian Supreme Soviet to adopt a declaration of sovereignty
and economic independence in July 1989. They also helped elect a
majority of their approved candidates for the all-union Congress
of People's Deputies in the spring of 1989; for the municipal local
elections in December of that year; and for the critical parliamentary
elections of March-April 1990. Slightly more than two-thirds of
the delegates in the new parliament, now known as the Supreme Council,
voted in favor of a transition to a democratic and independent Latvia
on May 4, 1990. This process was marred by several instances of
Soviet aggression, most notably in January 1991, when five people
were killed during an attack on the Latvian Ministry of Interior
in Riga by units of the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs Special
Forces Detachment (Otryad militsii osobogo naznacheniya--OMON),
commonly known as the Black Berets. The transition turned out to
be much briefer than anyone could have expected, however, because
of the failed Soviet coup of August 1991. Latvia declared independence
on August 21, 1991. Soon thereafter, the Soviet Union recognized
Latvia's independence, and once again Latvia was able to join the
world community of nations.
Latvia is traditionally seen as a tiny country. In terms of its
population of about 2.6 million, it deserves this designation. Geographically,
however, Latvia encompasses 64,589 square kilometers, a size surpassing
that of better-known European states such as Belgium, the Netherlands,
Switzerland, and Denmark. Seen from the air, Latvia is an extension
of the East European Plain. Its flat terrain differs little from
that of its surrounding neighbors. Latvia's only distinct border
is the Baltic Sea coast, which extends for 531 kilometers. Its neighbors
include Estonia on the north (267 kilometers of common border),
Lithuania on the south (453 kilometers), Belarus on the southeast
(141 kilometers), and Russia on the east (217 kilometers). Prior
to World War II, Latvia bordered eastern Poland, but as a result
of boundary changes by the Soviet Union, this territory was attached
to Belorussia. Also, in 1944 Russia annexed the northeastern border
district of Latvia, known as Abrene, including the town of Pytalovo
(see fig. 2).
Data as of January 1995
The physiography of Latvia and its neighboring areas was formed,
to a large degree, during the Quartenary period and the Pleistocene
ice age, when soil and debris were pushed by glaciers into mounds
and hills. Undulating plains cover 75 percent of Latvia's territory
and provide the main areas for farming; 25 percent of the territory
lies in uplands of moderate-sized hills. About 27 percent of the
total territory is cultivable, with the central Zemgale Plain south
of Riga being the most fertile and profitable. The three main upland
areas--in the provinces of Kurzeme (western Latvia), Vidzeme (central
Latvia), and Latgale (eastern Latvia)--provide a picturesque pattern
of fields interspersed with forests and numerous lakes and rivers.
In this area, the extensive glacial moraines, eskers, and drumlins
have limited the profitability of agriculture by fragmenting fields
and presenting serious erosion problems.
About 10 percent of Latvian territory consists of peat bogs, swamps,
and marshes, some of which are covered by stunted forest growth.
Forests are the outstanding feature of Latvia, claiming 42 percent
of the territory. Lumber and wood products are among the country's
most important exports. Two-thirds of the forests consist of Scotch
pine or Norway spruce. Latvian forests differ from those of North
America primarily because of their relatively brush-free understory.
The forest floor, however, is far from a biological desert, as is
often the case in tree plantations. Indeed, one of the most widespread
pastimes of the population is picking blueberries, mushrooms, cranberries,
and other bounties of the natural environment.
Few of the forests are fully mature because of previous overcutting
and also because of several violent storms during the 1960s, which
snapped or uprooted millions of trees. As a consequence, most of
the wood today is derived from thinning and improvement cuts, forming
50 percent of the annual total growth increment of 8 million cubic
meters of wood.
For a long time, wood has been a basic source of energy. The utilization
of wood as fuel has increased dramatically in the 1990s, even in
cities, because of the numbing price hikes on other forms of energy.
Local wood is also an important resource for the pulp and paper
industry and for specialized plywood and furniture manufacturers.
A great concern today is the unregulated cutting of timber for the
foreign market. Prices paid by European wood buyers are phenomenally
high by local standards, and there is much pressure to utilize this
opportunity for cash accumulation, even without legal permits. By
1992 the problem had become so serious that Latvian forestry officials
were given the right to carry firearms.
Not all forests are productive. Many areas, especially abandoned,
formerly private farms, have become overgrown with low-value alders
and other scrub trees. With the return of private farming, these
areas are once again being reclaimed for agriculture. In the process,
however, there is a danger that these areas, which are ideal for
wildlife, will become threatened. The decades-long neglect of extensive
areas of marginal farmland was a boon for the establishment of unique
ecological conditions favorable for the survival of animal species
rarely found in other parts of Europe. According to a World Wildlife
Fund study in 1992, Latvia has unusual populations of black storks,
small eagles, otters, beaver, lynx, and wolves. There are also great
concentrations of deer (86,000), wild boar (32,000), elk (25,000),
moose (13,000), and fox (13,000). Many Latvians today are planning
to exploit this resource by catering to foreign hunters.
The variegated and rapidly changing physiography of glacial moraines
and lowlands has also allowed temperate flora, such as oaks, to
grow within a few hundred meters of northern flora, such as bog
cotton and cloudberries. This variety and the rapid change in natural
ecosystems are among the unique features of the republic.
The Soviet system left behind another windfall for naturalists.
The Latvian western seacoast was a carefully guarded border region.
Almost all houses near the sea were razed or evacuated. As a result,
about 300 kilometers of undeveloped seashore are graced only by
forests of pine and spruce and ecologically unique sand dunes. The
temptation for fast profit, however, may foster violation of laws
that clearly forbid any construction within one kilometer of the
sea. Unless the government takes vigorous action, one of the last
remaining wild shorelines in Europe may become just a memory.
The seashore adjoining the population centers around Riga was
a major focus of tourism during the Soviet era. Jurmala, with its
many sanatoriums and tourist accommodations, its tall pines, sandy
beaches, and antique architecture, is now experiencing a wrenching
readjustment. East European tourists can no longer afford to come
here, and Western tourists have not yet discovered the area and
its relatively low prices. West Europeans may be loath to come,
however, because excessive pollution has closed Jurmala beaches
to swimming since 1988. Moreover, facilities and accommodations
adequate for Soviet tastes fall far short of minimal standards expected
in the West.
Latvia has an abundant network of rivers, contributing to the
visual beauty and the economy of the country. The largest river
is the Daugava, which has been an important route for several thousand
years. It has been used by local tribes as well as by Vikings, Russians,
and other Europeans for trade, war, and conquest. With a total length
of 1,020 kilometers, the Daugava (or Zapadnaya Dvina in its upper
reaches) originates in the Valday Hills in Russia's Tver' Oblast,
meanders through northern Belarus, and then winds through Latvia
for 370 kilometers before emptying into the Gulf of Riga. It is
about 200 meters wide when it enters Latvia, increasing to between
650 and 750 meters at Riga and to 1.5 kilometers at its mouth.
The river carries an average annual flow of twenty-one cubic kilometers.
Its total descent within Latvia of ninety-eight meters has made
it an attractive source of hydroelectric power production. The first
hydroelectric station, at Kegums, was built during Latvia's independence
period. The second dam, at Plavinas, aroused an unusual wave of
protest in 1958. Most Latvians opposed the flooding of historical
sites and a particularly scenic gorge with rare plants and natural
features, such as the Staburags, a cliff comparable in cultural
significance to the Lorelei in Germany. The construction of the
dam was endorsed in 1959, however, after the purge of relatively
liberal and nationally oriented leaders under Berklavs and their
replacement by Moscow-oriented, ideologically conservative cadres
led by Pelse. The third dam, just above Riga, did not provoke much
protest because of the seeming hopelessness of the cause. The proposed
fourth dam, at the town of Daugavpils on the Daugava River, became
the rallying point for protest in 1986-87 by hundreds of thousands
of Latvians. This dam was not constructed, in spite of the vast
expenditures already poured into the project.
Smaller rivers include the Lielupe, in central Latvia, with an
average annual flow of 3.6 cubic kilometers; the Venta, in the west,
with 2.9 cubic kilometers; the Gauja, in the northeast, with 2.5
cubic kilometers; and the Aiviekste, in the east, with 2.1 cubic
kilometers. Very little hydroelectric power is generated by their
waters, although planners are now thinking of reactivating some
of the abandoned older dams and turbines. The Gauja is one of Latvia's
most attractive, relatively clean rivers and has an adjoining large
national park along both of its banks as one of its notable features.
Its cold waters attract trout and salmon, and its sandstone cliff
and forest setting are increasingly a magnet for tourists interested
in the environment.
More than 60 percent of the annual water volume of Latvia's six
largest rivers comes from neighboring countries, mainly from Belarus
and Lithuania. These adjoining resources create obvious needs for
cooperation, especially in pollution control. The dangers from a
lack of cooperation were brought home to Latvians in November 1990,
when a polymer complex in Navapolatsk, Belarus, accidentally spilled
128 tons of cyanide derivatives into the Daugava River with no warning
to downstream users in Latvia. Only the presence of numerous dead
fish alerted Latvian inhabitants to the danger.
Data as of January 1995
Latvia's northern location matches Labrador's latitude. In the
summer, daylight hours are much longer and in the winter much shorter
than in New York City, for example. In December it is still pitch
dark at 9:00 A.M., and daylight disappears before 4:00 P.M. This
light deprivation may be an important ingredient in deciphering
certain aspects of Latvian collective behavior. It may account for
the general exuberance and joie de vivre in spring and summer, and
the relative taciturnity and melancholy the rest of the year. The
climate is far different from that of Labrador, however, because
of the effect of the Gulf Stream flowing across the Atlantic Ocean
from Mexico. Average temperatures in winter are reasonably mild,
ranging in January from -2.8°C in Liepaja, on the western coast,
to -6.6°C in the southeastern town of Daugavpils. July temperatures
range from 16.7°C in Liepaja to 17.6°C in Daugavpils. Latvia's
proximity to the sea brings high levels of humidity and precipitation,
with average annual precipitation of 566 millimeters in Riga. There,
an average of 180 days per year have precipitation, forty-four days
have fog, and only seventy-two days are sunny. Continuous snow cover
lasts eighty-two days, and the frost-free period lasts 177 days.
This precipitation has helped provide the abundant water for Latvia's
many rivers and lakes, but it has created many problems as well.
A large part of agricultural land requires drainage. Much money
has been spent for amelioration projects involving the installation
of drainage pipes, the straightening and deepening of natural streams,
the digging of drainage ditches, and the construction of polder
dams. During the 1960s and 1970s, drainage work absorbed about one-third
of all agricultural investments in Latvia. Although accounting for
only one-third of 1 percent of the territory, Latvia was responsible
for 11 percent of all artificially drained land in the Soviet Union.
An additional problem associated with precipitation is the difficulty
of early mechanized sowing and harvesting because of waterlogged
fields. Heavy precipitation occurs, especially during harvest time
in August and September, requiring heavy investment outlays in grain-drying
structures and ventilation systems. In 1992, ironically, Latvia
experienced the driest summer in recorded weather history, but unusually
heavy rains in the preceding spring kept crop damage below the extent
expected. The moist climate has been a major factor orienting Latvian
agriculture toward animal husbandry and dairying. Even most of the
field crops, such as barley, oats, and potatoes, are grown for animal
Latvia cannot claim valuable natural resources. Nevertheless,
the abundant presence of such materials as limestone for cement
(6 billion cubic meters), gypsum (165 million cubic meters), high-quality
clay (375 million cubic meters), dolomite (615 million cubic meters),
peat (480 million tons), and construction materials, including gravel
and sand, satisfy local needs. Fish from the Baltic Sea is another
potential export resource export. Amber, million-year-old chunks
of petrified pine pitch, is often found on the beaches of the Baltic
Sea and is in high demand for jewelry. It has also had a symbolic
impact on the country, which is often called Dzimtarzeme, or Amberland.
The future may hold potentially more valuable resources if oil fields
are discovered in Latvian territorial waters, as some geologists
Data as of January 1995