Latvia’s centenary

ZOiS Spotlight 40/2018 by Eva-Clarita Pettai (21 November 2018)

The Freedom Monument in Riga was built in the 1930s during Latvia’s first independence. It is considered a symbol of national sovereignty. © Nikita Roytman / Alamy Stock Foto

On 18 November 2018, the Republic of Latvia celebrated its centenary. One hundred years, and yet for much of that time – around five decades – the Latvian state did not exist on the map of Europe, making only a brief appearance between the two world wars and featuring again since 1991. Throughout the fifty years of Soviet rule, interrupted only by four years of German occupation during the Second World War, 18 November remained a locus of many Latvians’ subversive memory of lost national self-determination. Nowadays, almost thirty years after the Singing Revolution, this date, like no other, symbolises the narrative of the state continuity under international law that began in 1918 and was restored in 1991 after decades of occupation, oppression and attempted Russification.

There is now a general consensus that the change of regime in the Baltics marked the restoration of independence, not the emergence of new sovereign states. This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that the Soviet Union’s annexation of the three Baltic republics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – in 1940 was never fully recognised by the international community. Notwithstanding its historical and legal merits, this interpretation – now the official doctrine of the Latvian state – had profound implications for the country’s later social and foreign policy course. Let’s take just one example: the issue of Latvia’s territorial borders, which was left unresolved at first. According to the logic of state continuity, the region around Abrene (Pytalovo in Russian) – once part of the independent Republic of Latvia but transferred to the Russian SFSR after 1945 – should have reverted to Latvia after the disintegration of the USSR. Although very few Latvians had any real interest in the destiny of this largely Russian-populated territory, nationalists in both countries repeatedly fanned the flames of this border dispute, injecting another fractious note into Latvian-Russian relations. The border dispute was not resolved until 2007, with the region remaining part of Russia.

Dealing with the past and citizenship

The continuity doctrine has played a major role in criminal prosecutions and other areas of transitional justice (such as the restitution of property) as well. Latvia’s occupation by the Red Army and subsequent annexation were deemed to contravene international law, which meant that the atrocities committed under Stalin – the mass deportations of the civilian population in 1941 and 1949 and the persecution of anti-Soviet partisans after the war – could be classified and prosecuted as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes according to various international conventions. This led to an (admittedly small) number of judicially contentious verdicts against former officials of the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs in Latvia. But outside the justice system, too, the narrative of state continuity, foreign domination and oppression of the Latvian people has become deeply embedded in the collective memory of Latvian society since 1991, mediated through schools and remembrance days, political resolutions, museums and memorial sites.

A further logical, if not inevitable, consequence of the state continuity doctrine concerns the issue of Latvian citizenship. After 1990, all persons who were citizens of Latvia before 1940 and their descendants – but not persons who migrated to the Latvian SSR from other parts of the Soviet Union after 1940 – were eligible for Latvian citizenship. The exclusion of around 27 per cent of the population from participation in the country’s democratic processes was a key point of criticism by Western governments and organisations such as the OSCE and remained a deeply divisive issue in foreign and domestic policy even after various reforms of the citizenship laws. Inter-ethnic relations within Latvia were fractured right from the start, with much of the goodwill initially felt by many non-Latvians towards an independent Latvia instantly gambled away. This is borne out by the fact that substantial numbers of Latvia’s long-term residents (around 11 per cent of the population) are still officially registered as “non-citizens”; it becomes also evident in often acrimonious debates over integration, language policy and loyalty.

Although some semblance of normality was restored after Latvia’s accession to the EU in 2004, these highly charged debates have flared up again in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A growing number of Latvians regard Latvia’s Russian minority as primarily a security risk, especially since Putin’s Russia styles itself the protector of “oppressed compatriots” in the Baltics. A more nuanced view of the reality of social relations reveals that “the Russians” do not exist as a homogeneous group and that most younger Russians are integrated and actively participate in Latvia’s economic, social and political life, but this often goes unheard amidst the mutual recriminations and hybrid attacks by Russia.

Latvia and the EU

As an EU member, Latvia has a say in all the key policy decisions at the European level. However, the 2008-2009 economic and financial crisis hit the country particularly hard. The effects of considerable cuts in public spending can still be felt today, although Latvia’s accession to the eurozone in 2014 seemed to mark the end of the immediate crisis. In Latvia, as elsewhere, political forces that blame social inequality, relatively low wages and the mass out-migration on the system or established elites – variably described as too liberal or too corrupt – are gaining traction. Even so, the brand of open hostility to the EU that can be observed in Hungary and Poland is rare among Latvian politicians. Although a populist anti-establishment party hit the ground running and won 14 per cent of the vote in the October 2018 elections, whichever coalition takes over the reins of government in the near future is certain to adopt a pro-European stance. Cynics would say that the growing security threat from Putin’s Russia rules out other options. But that falls short of the mark. Latvia’s policy course today is largely determined by a generation that was politically socialised in the turbulent 1990s and has a firm belief in the benefits of democratic and liberal governance. With luck, Latvia will continue in this positive direction for another one hundred years.


Dr Eva-Clarita Pettai is a political scientist and research associate at the Imre Kertész Kolleg in Jena. Her main areas of research are democracy, comparative politics of history and transitional justice in the Baltics and Central and Eastern Europe.