|Background: After a brief period of independence between the two
World Wars, Latvia was annexed by the USSR in 1940. It reestablished its
independence in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Although
the last Russian troops left in 1994, the status of the Russian minority
(some 30% of the population) remains of concern to Moscow. Latvia
continues to revamp its economy for eventual integration into various
Western European political and economic institutions.
Government type: parliamentary democracy
Currency: 1 Latvian lat (LVL) = 100 santims
Geography of Latvia
Location: Eastern Europe, bordering the Baltic Sea, between Estonia and
People of Latvia
Latvians occasionally refer to themselves by the ancient name of "Latviji," which may have originated from a "Latve" river that presumably flowed through what is now eastern Latvia. A small Finno-Ugric tribe known as the Livs settled among the Latvians and modulated the name to "Latvis," meaning "forest-clearers," which is how medieval German settlers also referred to these peoples. The German colonizers changed this name to "Lette" and called their initially small colony "Livland." The Latin form, "Livonia," gradually referred to the whole of modern-day Latvia as well as southern Estonia, which had fallen under German dominion. Latvians and Lithuanians are the only directly surviving members of the Baltic peoples and languages of the Indo-European family.
Latvians look like and consider themselves Nordics, evidenced through the strong cultural and religious influences gained over centuries during Germanic and Scandinavian colonization and settlement. Eastern Latvia (Latgale), however, retains a strong Polish and Russian cultural and linguistic influence. This highly literate society places strong emphasis upon education, which is free and compulsory until age 16. Most Latvians belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, a sizable minority are Russian Orthodox, and Eastern Latvia is predominantly Roman Catholic.
Historically, Latvia always has had a fairly large Russian, Jewish, German and Polish minority, but postwar emigration, deportations and Soviet Russification policies from 1939-89 dropped the percentage of ethnic Latvians in Latvia from 73% to 52%. In an attempt to preserve the Latvian language and avoid ethnic Latvians becoming a minority in their own country, Latvia's strict language law and draft citizenship law have caused many non-citizen resident Russians concern over their ability to assimilate, despite Latvian legal guarantees of universal human and civil rights regardless of citizenship.
Written with the Latin alphabet, Latvian is the language of the Latvian people and the official language of the country. It is an inflective language with several analytical forms, three dialects, and German syntactical influence. The oldest known examples of written Latvian are from a 1585 catechism. The Soviets imposed the official use of Russian, so most Latvians speak Russian as a second or first language while the resident Slavic populace generally speaks Russian as a first language.
Population: 2,290,237 (July 2005 est.)
SOURCES: The World Factbook, U.S. Department of State
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