Completing its second decade of renewed independence, Latvia continues to play an increasingly prominent role in Europe and the world. Together with the EU and NATO, Latvia is helping shape the 21st century.
Latvia today is renewing the old, creating the new and proudly displaying a revitalised national presence on the European scene. The rest of the world is rediscovering Latvia as well. It is discovering a country that has been a sovereign state since 1918, but a national state of mind for centuries. A country that survived two world wars and 50 years behind the Iron Curtain, now even more committed to the principles of freedom, democracy and international co-operation. A country with a language, culture and attitude all its own - yet with a national identity shaped by its dynamic Baltic Sea region and woven through with diverse historical influences. Latvia is a Baltic country, a Baltic Sea country, a European country. In 2004 it became a NATO and EU country and is actively developing its special role in a rapidly changing, increasingly globalised world community.
Latvia is a keystone of Northern Europe's prosperous Baltic Sea region. A country of 2.2 million people who are eagerly exploring what it means to live, work and raise their families in a natural environment they can shape themselves. It is a place where young national, business, social and cultural leaders have good reasons to be optimistic about their future. A future where Latvia is free to preserve, protect and develop its very special place in the world.
A tradition of democracy
The Republic of Latvia was established as a parliamentary democracy in 1918, and elected four Saeimas (parliaments) before the onset of World War II. It was a member of the League of Nations and a visible part of Europe's political and cultural life. By the 1930's it too was affected by pre-war Europe's political and social turmoil, yet established a strong economy and a prosperous standard of living comparable to its Baltic Sea neighbours, Finland and Denmark.
Because of its key position in the important Baltic Sea region, the Soviet Union occupied Latvia, and its strategic capital of Rīga, in 1940. It was illegally annexed it to the USSR, where it remained, a Captive Nation and de facto Soviet Republic for 50 years. Soviet rule brutally suppressed Latvia's democratic traditions and free market economy through mass deportations, forced collectivization and cultural censorship. But the idea of independence remained strong even under Soviet rule. In 1990, the people of Latvia elected a majority of pro-independence deputies to what was then the ruling Soviet parliamentary body, the Supreme Council of Latvia.
On May 4, 1990 - 50 years after the Soviet seizure of Latvia - the new Supreme Council voted to begin the political process of removing Soviet rule and restoring full independence to Latvia. The Soviet government in Moscow refused to recognise this declaration, and in 1991 tried to suppress the pro-independence government with armed force. Among the casualties were some of Latvia's best known journalists and filmmakers.
In response, the people of Latvia initiated a massive campaign of passive resistance and organized ever larger peaceful demonstrations, demanding an end to the Soviet occupation and full restoration of national independence. During the ‘Days of the Barricades' in early 1991, tens of thousands of farmers, workers and patriots from around the country came to Riga to build barricades around the state buildings and defend the government and parliament from further Soviet attacks.
On March 3, 1991, 87 percent of all residents of Latvia (ethnic Latvians, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and others) participated in a referendum on independence, and 73 percent voted in favour. Since ethnic Latvians represented just 53% of the total population at the time, the high vote among all residents indicated that a large number of all ethnic groups had voted with a majority of Latvians to restore national independence.
On August 21, 1991, following the collapse of Soviet Union, the Latvian Supreme Council adopted a resolution for the full restoration of Latvian independence. In late 1992 the Soviet-era Supreme Council relinquished all authority by proclaiming new elections for the first post-independence Latvian parliament, to be held on June 5-6, 1993. The elections led to the convening of the 5th Saeima, continuing a link with the parliamentary bodies of pre-war Latvia. The 5th Saeima elected Guntis Ulmanis President of the Republic of Latvia in 1993.
Subsequent parliamentary elections have been held in 1995, 1998, 2002, and 2006. President Guntis Ulmanis was re-elected to a second term in 1996; Dr. Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga was elected President by the 7th Saeima in 1999 and re-elected by the 8th Saeima in 2003. In 2007 the 9th Saeima elected Valdis Zatlers as president. Parliamentary and presidential elections are now held every four years.
In Latvia's parliamentary democracy, the President appoints a prime minister (who must be approved by the Saeima) and signs laws into power. The President can send legislation back for revision and amendment. Latvia's modern-day presidents have effectively used their offices to promote Latvia's foreign policy objectives, and have been active and influential in international diplomacy, particularly in achieving Latvia's membership in NATO and the EU.
Immediately following the full restoration of independence in 1991, Latvia's yearning for democracy, free speech and free enterprise rapidly expanded beyond politics. Most state-run newspapers were either privatised or closed, and new, independent daily, weekly and monthly publications proliferated. Public television (LTV1 and LTV7) and radio (4 channels) were supplemented by dynamic new, commercial TV and radio stations in a highly competitive media market. Commercial TV continues to grow in Latvia, while a large number of private and public radio stations serve a wide variety of geographic, ethnic, and cultural audiences across the country.
The State educational system continues to reform and restructure itself and over 30 private colleges, technical schools and secondary schools have been established since 1991. The English literacy rate is over 90%, and proficiency in European and other global languages is growing dramatically. While courses in business, management and information technology are attracting the largest number of new students, the arts and sciences remain extremely popular.
Civic participation in democracy-building has blossomed, as thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGO's) have formed across the country. They are engaged in social welfare, education, culture, community action and other activities, and are developing partnerships with government structures in addressing local and national issues.
In 2008 Latvia celebrated the 90th anniversary of the founding of the democratic Republic of Latvia. While much still needs to be done to overcome the consequences of a tragic Cold War legacy, the enthusiasm with which the people of Latvia have embraced democratic values and institutions is one of Latvia's strongest assets in the 21st century.
Growth and Stability
THROUGHOUT ITS HISTORY LATVIA HAS ENJOYED THE ECONOMIC ADVANTAGES OF ITS STRATEGIC BALTIC SEA LOCATION ON MAJOR TRADING ROUTES BETWEEN NORTH AND SOUTH, EAST AND WEST.
With the restoration of independence in the early 90's Latvian governments moved quickly to restore a free market economy, encourage privatisation, stabilise the currency and diversify import and export flow. As a result, Latvia rapidly emerged as one of the economic success stories of the post Cold War period. Today, as a full member both of NATO and the European Union, Latvia has had one of the most dynamic and fastest-growing economies in all of Europe.
Latvia's highly successful price and trade liberalisation, small and large-scale privatisation and financial sector reform have resulted in an economy that has grown by an average of 6,4% percent yearly since 1995. This has come about through a liberal approach toward economic policy under a rigorous macroeconomic framework. Market mechanisms were used to obtain the best possible allocation of resources, new laws were written to promote economic development, and new institutions were created to assure a transparent system of civil justice.
From its inception the Latvian currency, the lat, has been one of the most stable currencies in Europe. In 2005, after joining the EU and developing a strategy to join the European Monetary Union, the lat was pegged to the euro.
Integration into the EU has been just one step in the process of an economic transformation that has been driven by two underlying forces: structural reforms and the removal of barriers to trade and the movement of capital. Upon joining the EU, Latvia's internal market has skyrocketed from 2.3 million to 450 million. This rapid expansion of the internal market has enabled the government to create a level playing field for all companies, boosting competitiveness in all sectors of the economy.
Latvia's financial system has been built on sound macroeconomic fundamentals, a highly successful monetary policy and a firm commitment to fiscal conservatism. This has enabled Latvia to meet EU standards and ensure all the modern financial instruments necessary to operate in a global economy. More importantly, it has made Latvia extremely competitive at all levels of international business.
Confidence in Latvia's economy has attracted foreign investors, representing 78% of Latvia's bank capital. The largest investors come from North Europe, expanding Latvia's role as an emerging keystone in trade, business, transport logistics and finance in the prosperous Baltic Sea region.
With its prime location as a transit hub for east-west trade, Latvia has become one of the most favourable countries for foreign investment. With a corporate tax rate of a flat 15%, and individual taxes at a flat 25%, Latvia has one of the lowest total tax burdens in Europe. Accumulated FDI stock has doubled every 3-4 years since the early 1990's. At the end of 2005 the FDI stock in Latvia exceeded 4 billion US dollars. International credit rating agencies have granted Latvia investment grade credit ratings.
Three ports and corridors of motor transport with high cargo throughput serve all strategically important directions, linking Central, Western and Northern Europe, Russia and CIS countries. With a specialised, high capacity railway corridor carrying oil and oil products, Latvia joins Russian and other former USSR energy sources and markets with Western customers. Rīga International Airport is rapidly emerging as a multi-functional hub for international tourist, business and other travel far beyond the Baltic Sea region.
The European Union is the main trading partner of Latvia, constituting 80% of total exports and imports. The strengthening of the Latvian market economy and integration with the Baltic Sea region and EU have had a significant impact on foreign trade flows. In recent years, Latvia's largest export markets have been Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Russia and the neighbouring Baltic countries of Lithuania and Estonia.
Latvia has demonstrated one of the highest economic growth rates in the EU. In the period between 2001 and 2003, GDP grew by 7.3% a year, and increased to 12% in 2006. Although accession to the EU, harmonization of indirect taxes, and high oil prices have increased inflation, good growth rates are expected to continue due to increases in all major branches of the national economy. This is especially true in the service sector, as well as the trade, transport and communications sectors.
Key sectors that are attracting global investors include manufacturing, forestry and woodworking, metal processing and engineering, textiles, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, logistics and transit, construction and real estate. The strategically important sector of Information Technologies, which stimulates development in all other sectors, is especially promising. Latvia's innovative, integrated Information Systems cluster strategy has spurred growth in software development, IT consultation, hardware development and data transmissions solutions.
Latvia's current economic policies have been developed in line with the EU's Lisbon strategy, which seeks ‘a competitive knowledge-based economy capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs, greater social cohesion and respect for the environment." The keystone of this policy for Latvia is innovation, not just in the high-tech sector. The government is committed to helping businesses make the changeover from low to value-added production. Multiple projects have been started to increase innovative enterprises and stimulate highly productive enterprise clusters. As a result, traditional businesses are successfully developing new ways to produce existing products more efficiently. There is every indication that Latvia will jump a generation in terms of overall technological capacity in the coming years.
Latvia's long term development strategy is based on building a modern, knowledge-centred and highly educated society that is productively and innovatively engaged with a globalised world economy.
As it moves into the 21st century, Latvia has become a thriving partner in Europe's vision of a safe and prosperous future.
A FOREIGN POLICY BASED ON COOPERATION AND CONSTRUCTIVE ENGAGEMENT
When Latvia joined the United Nations in 1991, it came as a country that recognised that its return to a global community carried with it new global responsibilities and challenges. It was an historic opportunity to close one chapter in world history, and open a new one based on constructive international engagement, broad-based co-operation and common values.
Latvia's foreign policy principles and priorities have been clear from the outset and have remained constant since the restoration of independence. They include co-operation with strategic partners and the countries of Latvia's Baltic Sea region, integration into unified European and transatlantic security structures, and active involvement in international organisations and projects.
Developed in accordance with principles that are defined by the government and adopted by the Latvian parliament, Latvia's foreign policy, like its economic policy, has been one of the success stories of the post-Cold War era. Active membership in the Council of Europe, OSCE and EBRD enabled Latvia to achieve the major strategic goals of EU and NATO membership in 2004, much earlier than had been expected. The political, economic and social achievements that led to compliance with EU and NATO standards in such a short time has opened a new chapter in Latvia's political development.
Historically, Latvia has always had close cultural, economic and political ties with Western Europe, particularly the Baltic Sea region countries. In building a modern Latvian state, these EU and NATO countries have served as Latvia's most active and influential partners. Latvia would like to see a vital, active, and effective Council of Baltic Sea States (CBSS), and has formed special ties with Lithuania and Estonia through the Baltic Council of Ministers and the parliamentary Baltic Assembly. Given Latvia's central geographic location, linking Scandinavia with the Continent, and east with west, Latvia is well positioned to expand its historical role as a keystone of the Baltic Sea region.
Simultaneously, Latvia has sought to establish constructive relationships with its non-EU neighbours, including Russia, Belorus and Ukraine. A shared history, longstanding business and cultural contacts, and a common interest in trade and cooperation with the states of the former USSR have put Latvia on the leading edge of the EU's ‘European Neighbourhood Policy'. Latvia's neighbours are also EU and NATO neighbours, so by taking a key role in promoting regional cooperation, Latvia can better serve the common interests of all its alliance members.
The 50 year Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries left a number of difficult issues that have required special attention in Latvian-Russian relations. Foremost among them was the removal of all Russian (formerly Soviet) troops and military bases from Latvia. This was achieved in 1994. In cooperation with the OSCE, EU and other international organizations, Latvia's naturalization, education and social integration policies have addressed the needs of former Soviet citizens still residing in Latvia. Latvia believes that the political and social legacies of history must be addressed openly and honestly in order for neighbours to also become friends. In 2007, Latvia signed a border agreement with Russia, opening the way for greater stability, trust and cooperation between the EU, NATO and Russia.
Special ties have always existed with the United States, which never recognised the legitimacy of Soviet rule in Latvia following the Second World War. Latvia's first diplomatic mission in the U.S. was established in 1922 and continued to function in Washington, D.C. throughout the 50 years of Soviet occupation. President George H.W. Bush welcomed pro-independence Latvian leaders to the White House in 1990 and renewed full diplomatic ties with Latvia in 1991. President Bill Clinton launched an active partnership with Latvia, helped negotiate Russian troop withdrawals and visited Rīga with Mrs. Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1994. Clinton also signed the US Baltic Charter of 1998 which set the stage for active US support of Latvia's NATO candidacy. President G.W. Bush played a key role in bringing Latvia into NATO in 2004 and came to Riga on May 7, 2005 where he met with President Vaira Vīķe- Feriberga and gave a major foreign policy speech on the future of Europe. Like President Clinton's visit in 1994, President G.W. Bush's presence in Riga in 2005 once again underlined Latvia's important strategic role in the region in a transatlantic context. President Bush returned to Rīga in 2006 to join 25 other world leaders in the Rīga NATO Summit.
Latvia's commitment to global co-operation has meant membership in the World Trade Organisation, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Health Organisation, as well as many other international bodies.
By the year 2005, Latvia had established over 40 diplomatic missions around the world, including embassies in most of the EU countries, as well as China, Turkey, Japan and Israel. New embassies continue to open and Latvian trade and tourism representatives are establishing offices in major cities. As the world responds to the challenges and opportunities of globalization, Latvia is steadily expanding its ties with all regions of the global community. From its keystone position in the Baltic Sea region, Latvia continues to look North and South, East and West, committed to protecting its national interests through the strengthening of democracy, stability and trust the world over.
STRENGTHENING A TRANSATLANTIC SECURITY SYSTEM
When Latvia restored its independence in 1991, many viewed this as the beginning of Latvia's return to Europe. Latvia, however, has been an integral part of European political, economic and cultural life for eight centuries. With the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War, Europe has returned with enthusiasm to Latvia. For Latvia, membership in the European Union and NATO are not ends in themselves, but simply means to accomplish a greater goal - the building of a united Europe that is stable and secure, whole and free.
Latvia sought membership in NATO in order to add its contribution to the formation of a fully integrated Euro Atlantic security policy. In the development of a national security policy, Latvia's governments have focused on regional co-operation and European integration. At the same time, Latvia has built a special relationship with the United States in order to strengthen the transatlantic dimension of its security policy.
For Latvia, membership in NATO means a commitment to the basic principles of the North Atlantic Treaty, with an emphasis on democracy, rule of law, political stability and economic growth. By designing the Latvian National Armed Forces according to NATO standards and policies, Latvia has successfully optimised expenditures and resources for defence.
Latvia sought active engagement with NATO even before it applied for membership. In 1991 Latvia participated in the inaugural meeting of the Northern Atlantic Co-operation Council (NACC), now the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC). In 1994 Latvia signed the Partnership for Peace (PFP) framework document and became an active PFP participant. Latvia was named as a NATO aspirant country in 1999 at the NATO Summit in Washington and became fully engaged in the Membership Action Plan (MAP) process. During the Prague Summit on 21 November 2002 NATO Heads of State and Governments officially invited Latvia to start accession talks to join NATO. Latvia joined the Alliance on 29 March 2004, obtaining security guarantees it had never had before, based on its full participation in the collective defence system. Two years later Latvia hosted the 2006 Rīga NATO Summit.
For Latvia, contributing to international security means more than military preparedness and interoperability. In keeping with other NATO members, Latvia has re-established democratic institutions, placed the Ministry of Defence under civilian control and developed a fully transparent defence budget.
Since Latvia did not have a national defence force during the Soviet occupation, Latvia's national defence system was built practically from scratch. The LNAF were established in 1991, and tailored to meet Latvia's security needs and NATO standards.
Latvia's force structure plans have been revised substantially in order to ensure that future plans are realistic and affordable. In light of NATO membership and the need to develop joint military capabilities as well as its own armed forces, a new National Defence Concept was approved by the Parliament in 2003. Participation in the collective defence, establishment of professional armed forces, co-operation between the armed forces and society, and international military co-operation are defined as the basic principles of Latvia's defence.
As a member NATO and EU, Latvia has developed its security assistance outreach policy towards South Caucasus, Southeast Europe, Moldova and Ukraine. Latvia's security sector reform experience, and lessons learned during the NATO integration process, have enabled Latvia to make valuable contributions that strengthen NATO's partnership in a wider Euro Atlantic area. Since one of the main tasks of NATO and the EU is to strengthen international security and stability, Latvia has actively participated in both NATO and EU-led international operations. Latvian troops and specialised personnel have participated in peace-keeping operations in Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, as well as an OSCE-led observer mission in Georgia. Since 2003, Latvia has joined other NATO and EU states in the multinational Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in Iraq. In 2004, 373 Latvian soldiers were deployed as a contingent of infantry company, explosive ordnance disposal unit and staff officers in Iraq. By 2007, around two thousand Latvian soldiers have been deployed to international missions.
Joint defence projects of the Baltic States have contributed to strengthening the co-operation within the Baltic region, facilitated the integration of the Baltic States into NATO, as well as become a good example of regional co-operation for other countries.
Baltic Defence College (BALTDEFCOL) is a joint military educational institution for senior staff officers training. The college's main objective is to establish and continuously improve the training and development of senior staff officers of the defence forces of the Baltic countries. The founding of BALTDEFCOL has been a most effective way to educate NATO-interoperable staff-level officers in the Baltic countries. The Latvian Navy has contributed to the development of the Baltic Naval Squadron (BALTRON), with special emphasis on minesweeping, sea surveillance and coastal defence. The key objective of the Latvian Air Force is to develop air defence as well as air surveillance capabilities within the scope of Joint Baltic Airspace Surveillance Network (BALTNET), and is already contributing to search-and-rescue missions in the Baltic Sea region. While air-policing missions in the Baltic air space have been undertaken by the Alliance since 2004, Latvia plans to set up an Air Operation Centre, develop the infrastructure for a new military air base, and carry out other functions of host-nation support.
Being a member of NATO and through various peace support operations, Latvia's armed forces have already established themselves as ready and reliable partners and allies throughout Europe. Latvia has contributed to stability and co-operation within the region through participation in various initiatives which have included all countries around the Baltic Sea, including Russia.
Simultaneously, Latvia's military has built confidence and support within Latvia. The Ministry of Defence, in co-operation with non-governmental organisations has carried out multiple informational and educational programs in Latvia. Members of the military have assisted local governments during disasters such as forest fires and floods, and in the deactivation and destruction of explosive objects.
Latvia realises that no single country can be self-sufficient in ensuring its security. The 21st century has brought with it new threats to European, transatlantic and global security. Whether it is international terrorism or regional conflicts, Latvia is ready to do its share to promote stability and security in Europe and beyond.
THE BENEFITS OF AN INTEGRATED SOCIETY
The forefathers of the Latvian people first arrived in the Baltic region in the first half of 2000 B.C. In the 9th century AD the ancient Balts began to establish specific tribal realms. The territory of modern Latvia was inhabited by four major Baltic tribal cultures - the Couronians, Latgallians, Selonians and Semigallians - and a Finno Ugric tribe, the Livs. In the 13th century Latvia was invaded by Germanic Crusaders, who founded Rīga and established control over the indigenous people and territory. Over ensuing centuries, traders and invaders from Germany, Poland, Sweden and Russia established a presence in Latvia, alongside the local Latvian and Liv inhabitants.
In the late 19th century Latvia was politically ruled by Russia and economically controlled by Baltic Germans, yet the majority of Latvia's inhabitants - farmers, workers and fishermen - were ethnic Latvians, and descendants of the original Baltic and Liv tribes. The Latvian people finally established a Latvian state in 1918 with citizenship for all the residents, regardless of ethnicity. Between 1918 and 1939, ethnic Latvians comprised about 75% of the population; Russians, Jews, Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Estonians and other minorities represented the remainder of the population.
During World War II Latvia suffered three invasions and occupations. One hundred and twenty thousand Latvians were deported to Soviet concentration camps in Siberia, one hundred forty thousand fled to the West, and tens of thousands more disappeared or perished in the conflict. As a result of Hitler's policies, the majority of Baltic Germans were resettled in Germany and 90% of the Jewish population was brutally annihilated during the Holocaust. Nearly one third of the ethnic Latvian population had been killed, deported or relocated. Latvia's prosperous society had been decimated. The greatest toll was among the wealthy and educated - those who had shaped Latvia's social, economic and intellectual life following the First World War. During Soviet rule between 1944 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Soviets of various nationalities were brought into Latvia, reducing the indigenous ethnic Latvian population to nearly 50%.
With the restoration of Latvian independence in 1991, Latvia also re-established its original citizenship laws and policies. This enabled all former (pre-1940) citizens of Latvia and their descendants to restore their citizenship, regardless of ethnicity. Citizens of the former Soviet Union acquired permanent resident status and the prospect of applying for Latvian or other citizenship.
A new law on citizenship was passed in 1994, making nearly all of the former Soviet residents of Latvia eligible for naturalisation, irrespective of nationality.
According to the Declaration on the Renewal of Independence of Latvia in 1990,
"Citizens of the Republic of Latvia and citizens of other countries with permanent residence in the territories of Latvia are guaranteed the enjoyment of social, economic, and cultural rights, as well as political freedoms, in accordance with generally recognised norms of human rights. This clause applies fully to those citizens of the Soviet Union that express their interest to live in Latvia while not obtaining Latvian citizenship."
Since 1991 Latvia has established State-funded minority education serving 8 ethnic groups: Russian, Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, Estonian, Lithuanian, Belarussian and Roma. Many ethnic schools also serve as cultural centres. In 1991 the Latvian Government began to implement a bilingual education program, designed to provide ethnic minorities with an opportunity to learn in Latvian, as well as their native tongues.
In 2001 the 7th Saeima passed a law on Social Integration, designed to encourage and promote Latvian citizenship among all the country's permanent residents.
In 2002 a Special Ministry for Social Integration was created to promote dialogue on integration issues, foster Latvian language training, and increase understanding of Latvian culture among the minorities. The Ministry also supports multicultural education and awareness within the ethnic Latvian community. The aim of integration is to build a consolidated civic society with common values. In 2004 educational reform was implemented in the school system to increase the knowledge of the Latvian language among all schoolchildren. By increasing Latvian language proficiency among all residents, the government hopes to accelerate the naturalization process and expand advanced educational and employment opportunities for everyone.
There are nearly 1.4 million native speakers of Latvian in Latvia, and over 200,000 abroad. As one of 250 major languages in world (spoken by more than a million people), the Latvian language is also one of the oldest. It was established as a State language in order to preserve this unique cultural heritage. English and Russian are also widely spoken throughout Latvia, and the knowledge of other languages is rapidly increasing, enabling Latvia to retain its special national identity, while moving toward fuller integration with Europe and the globalised world at large.
AN ANCIENT CULTURE IN A DYNAMIC EUROPEAN SETTING
The contemporary Latvian poet Imants Ziedonis has described culture as something "which is, lives, wants to live and flourish". In Latvia, this spiritual desire to live and flourish developed a distinctive national identity over a period of 3,000 years.
Like other cultures, Latvians developed traditions, customs, decorative designs and a world view that were uniquely their own, closely tied to the Northern European land and nature that they depended on for survival. Ironically, the period when the Latvian language and culture began to coalesce, was also the period when it faced its greatest threat, for the 13th century marked the beginning of a series of foreign incursions, invasions and occupations. German, Swedish and Polish warriors and traders brought European culture to Latvia, at times threatening the existence of the Latvian culture, at times strengthening it through adversity, and eventually co-existing along side it.
Latvian culture was both preserved and manifested in folklore that displayed the collective wisdom and beliefs of the Latvians' ancient tribal ancestors. A uniquely Latvian cultural phenomenon, folk songs, or dainas, date back well over one thousand years. Rich with tradition, literature and symbolism, the dainas serve as an oral record of Latvian culture. Their subjects encompass the entire course of human life, from childbirth, youth, marriage and work, to old age and death. By the 19th century, more than 1.2 million texts and 30,000 melodies were identified. In the 21st century, these songs continue to live as an essential part of Latvian contemporary holiday celebrations and social life.
This powerful tradition of song played a central role in Latvia's National Awakening in the second half of the 19th century and led to the first Latvian Song Celebration in 1873. The Song Celebration, involving massed choirs of tens of thousands of participants, was a central focus of national identity during Latvia's years of independence from 1918 until 1940, survived through the Soviet occupation, and spearheaded Latvia's "singing revolution" in the late 1980s.
Latvian traditions still play a central role in the Latvian identity today. This uniquely "Latvian" culture is woven through its literature, music, dance, theatre and the visual arts. Yet, the legacy of foreign rule has also given Latvia a classical ‘European' culture as well. As a distinctive Latvian identity emerged during the National Awakening in the 19th century, so did an appreciation for the achievements of other cultures. Latvians enthusiastically embraced all the classical arts - literature, painting, theatre, symphonic music, architecture, opera, ballet and film. Latvia's National Opera - the "White House" of Rīga - was one of the first buildings to be renovated after the restoration of independence in 1991 and is the centrepiece of a flourishing cultural life.
Latvia's home-grown, world class opera singers, such as Inese Galante, Sonora Vaice, Egils Siliņš and Elīna Garanca, today perform in opera houses throughout Europe. Pēteris Vasks is considered one of the finest contemporary composers in the world, while Rīga-born violinist Gidons Kremers and his Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra won a Grammy in 2002. Violinist Baiba Skride took First Prize in the Queen Elizabeth International Music Competition in Brussels in 2001 and is considered one of the most outstanding violinists in all of Europe. Latvia also took centre stage in the pop music world in 2002, when Marie N (Marija Naumova) won the Eurovision Song Contest, bringing this uniquely European musical event to Rīga in 2003. Latvia's premier pop band Brainstorm continues to be one of Latvia's most popular musical exports.
The rapid renovation of Rīga's centre has revealed hundreds of examples of distinctive Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) architecture, leading some to assert that Rīga may be the Art Nouveau capital of the world. Interestingly enough, over 60% of the buildings displaying this very European Art Nouveau style of the turn-of-the-century, were designed by Latvian architects. In the 1920s and 30s Latvian painters, known as the "Rīga group" also established an international following.
A hundred years ago Rīga was known as the "Paris of the North". As it moves into the 21st century, Rīga is blossoming as a creative centre for the arts once again. Local and visiting art exhibits and the opera, theatre and ballet, compete with night clubs and discos that rock with jazz, blues and the latest electronic fusions of hip hop and dance music.
800 years young, Rīga has been called "The City of Inspiration", "The Second City that Never Sleeps", and "The Hottest City in the North".
The vibrancy of cultural life in Latvia is a product of talented artists, performers and writers that honed and developed their skills in cities and regions throughout Latvia. Many continue to live and work in their home towns or rural settings, blending the influences of traditional roots with the modern, cosmopolitan influences of the nation's flourishing capital.
THIS SPIRITUAL DESIRE TO LIVE AND FLOURISH AS LATVIANS, AS BALTS, AS EUROPEANS, AND AS THE SHAPERS OF THE 21ST CENTURY, IS A NATIONAL TRAIT THAT CONTINUES TO SHAPE LATVIA'S MULTI-FACETED DYNAMIC CULTURE.