The ancestors of today's Latvians first appeared in what is now Latvia around 2000 bc. Beginning in the 13th century, Latvia was successively dominated by Germany, Poland, and Russia. German Crusaders began the forcible conversion of the Baltic peoples to Christianity early in the 13th century. By 1290 the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights, a German crusading order, had completed its conquest of Latvia, which along with southern Estonia was then known as Livonia.
The Baltic coast was a prized possession for its trade opportunities, and in an attempt to conquer it, Russian tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich (Ivan the Terrible) attacked Livonia in 1558, thereby instigating the Livonian War. Unable to withstand the Russian incursions, the Livonian Order disbanded, and Livonia was partitioned in 1561. The dynastic union of Poland and Lithuania absorbed the provinces of Latgale and Vidzeme to the north of the Daugava River. Kurzeme and Zemgale provinces to the west and south became Kurland (Courland), an autonomous duchy under the Polish-Lithuanian sovereign. In 1581 the free city of Riga was incorporated into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a political union formed in 1569. Meanwhile, the Livonian War continued, ravaging eastern Latvia and most of mainland Estonia, until Russia's defeat in 1583. Sweden conquered Riga in 1621 and acquired Vidzeme in 1629 but lost both to Russia in the Great Northern War (1700-1721). By 1795, after the partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795, Russia controlled all of Latvia.
Although serfdom in Latvia—prevalent since German domination—was abolished by the Russians in the early 19th century, German and Russian landowners in Latvia continued to hold political power. Despite this, the Latvians came together to form political and cultural associations, and a Latvian independence movement arose. In 1917 Russia's monarchy was overthrown in the February Revolution. Political destabilization accompanying the Russian Civil War that followed the revolution gave the Latvians their desired opportunity, and in November 1918, just after the end of World War I, Latvia proclaimed itself an independent republic. By February 1919, however, Latvia was overrun by Red Army troops of Soviet Russia, led by the Bolsheviks (later Communists), who sought to establish a Soviet regime. A newly formed Latvian army, with some assistance from German army units still in the country, drove back the Bolshevik forces. The German army then supported a coup d'etat against the Latvian government, replacing it with one controlled by Baltic Germans. Aided by Estonian troops, Latvian forces successfully overthrew the Baltic German government. The independent nationalist Latvian government was reinstalled in early July, although Red Army troops were not completely expelled until January 1920. In August a Latvian-Russian treaty stipulated that Russia would respect Latvia's sovereignty. In December 1922 the Communists founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which bordered Latvia to the east.
In May 1920 the people of Latvia elected the country's first president, Janis Cakste. Latvia's first constitution, promulgated in 1922, introduced a democratic system of government. In September of that year the Saeima (parliament) passed an agrarian reform bill that initiated land reform in favor of farm workers; the old landed estates were promptly expropriated and distributed to landless peasants. Political instability ensued in the years that followed, however, in large part because many parties were vying for seats in parliament.
In 1934 Latvian prime minister Karlis Ulmanis claimed he had discovered a Communist plot to overthrow the government. He instituted martial law by declaring a state of emergency, suspending parliament, and banning all political parties. Most Latvians tacitly accepted Ulmanis's argument that he needed additional powers to maintain Latvian democracy, and Ulmanis secured authoritarian rule without noticeable opposition. In 1936 he assumed the title of president in addition to that of prime minister.
On August 23, 1939, about a week before World War II broke out, Germany and the USSR signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. The treaty contained a secret protocol that sanctioned the USSR to annex Latvia and its Baltic neighbors. Latvia adopted a neutral position after the outbreak of the war. However, in June 1940 the USSR accused Latvia of forming a secret anti-Soviet military alliance with neighboring Estonia and forced the Latvian government to resign. The same month Soviet forces occupied Latvia. Latvian elections were held under Soviet supervision (only one, Soviet-appointed, candidate was allowed to run for each position), and a Communist regime was installed. In August Latvia officially became the 15th constituent republic of the USSR and was thereafter known as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).
More than 30,000 Latvians were deported or executed in the first year of Soviet occupation. Nazi German forces attacked the USSR in June 1941 and invaded Latvia the following month, suspending Soviet control in the region. Latvians initially hoped the invasion would bring renewed independence, but it soon became clear that Germany intended to annex Latvia. On July 28 Germany set up a puppet government and created a new territorial unit, called Ostland, out of the Baltics and Belorussia (now Belarus). Latvia's Jewish population was systematically exterminated during the Nazi occupation. In 1944 Soviet forces expelled most of the German forces from Latvia (Germany retained southwestern Latvia until the war ended in 1945), and Latvia was officially reinstated as part of the USSR. By the end of the war, an estimated 180,000 Latvians had died. At least 100,000 more had fled to Sweden and Germany before Soviet forces arrived.
After the war, a patriotic guerrilla movement arose to oppose Soviet rule, but the movement received no outside assistance and was eventually crushed. Latvian residents suspected of opposing the Communist regime were subject to arrests, executions, and deportations to the gulags (Soviet concentration camps) in Siberia and Central Asia. The deportations reached a massive scale in 1949. Altogether at least 100,000 Latvians were sent to the gulags, where many perished due to harsh conditions. In a process known as Sovietization, the country's cultural and political institutions were reorganized to conform with Soviet models. Latvian language and culture were suppressed, and all non-Communist social and political organizations were prohibited. The Communist Party of Latvia, a branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), held exclusive political power. Russian immigrants and Russified Latvians dominated the party.
By the early 1950s almost all of Latvia's privately owned farms had been collectivized, or combined, and taken over by the state. The Communist government implemented a process of rapid industrialization, leading to a continuous influx of immigrants from Russia and other Soviet republics to work in new industries in Latvia's urban areas. Latvia became one of the most urbanized republics in the USSR, with about 70 percent of the population residing in cities. It was also the most industrialized of the Baltic states. Latvia's economy became fully integrated into that of the USSR, as the new factories were dependent on raw materials from other parts of the USSR and were used to supply products to other Soviet republics.
Political liberalization in the USSR during the late 1980s sparked a revival of Latvian nationalism. Latvian was declared the official state language, pro-independence political groups formed, and the Latvian Supreme Soviet (legislature) voted to end the Communist Party's monopoly of power. In March 1990 the republic held its first multiparty legislative elections since 1931. Then in August 1991, during a coup attempt by Communist hard-liners in Moscow, Latvia declared its full independence. The coup attempt failed, leading to the downfall of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union's central government. In September the Soviet government conceded the independent status of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, and all three republics were admitted to the United Nations (UN) later that month. The USSR itself collapsed in December. In June 1993 Latvia held its first parliamentary elections as an independent republic, and in July the constitution of 1922 was fully restored. The new parliament, again called the Saeima, elected economist Guntis Ulmanis as president, and he selected Valdis Birkavs to be prime minister.
Citizenship and voting eligibility were major issues in Latvia during the early 1990s. In the 1993 elections, only residents (including nonethnic Latvians) who had lived in Latvia before 1940, along with their descendants and spouses, were eligible to vote. This was a result of legislation passed in late 1991 that guaranteed citizenship to these residents only; all other residents (mostly Russians and other Slavs) were required to apply for naturalization once a new citizenship law had been finalized. The Saeima adopted this new citizenship law in June 1994 and amended it the following month. In its amended form, the citizenship law requires a minimum of five years of permanent residence and a demonstrated proficiency in the Latvian language. In 1997 about 30 percent of Latvia's residents were not citizens of Latvia. Some of them were citizens of other countries, such as Russia, but most were stateless. Tensions rose between Latvia and Russia in early 1998 over the citizenship law. In October 1998, 53 percent of Latvians approved a proposal to relax citizenship regulations.
The withdrawal of former Soviet troops (under Russia's jurisdiction) from Latvian territory began in 1992 and was completed at the end of August 1994. In return for the removal of the troops, Latvia agreed to allow Russia to operate its radar base in Skrunda until 1998. In other relations with Russia, Latvia demanded the return of a section of territory along the Russian-Latvian border that the Soviet government had transferred to Russia in 1944. However, in February 1997 Latvia gave up this claim.
Since gaining independence, Latvia has sought closer ties with the West. In February 1994 Latvia joined the Partnership for Peace program, which provided for limited military cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 1995 Latvia became an associate member of the European Union (EU), the world's largest trade bloc, and went on to apply for full membership. Latvia also has attempted to strengthen ties with Lithuania and Estonia. In late 1991 the three countries established an intergovernmental body, the Baltic Assembly, to encourage political and economic cooperation. In September 1993 the countries signed a free-trade agreement that removed duties on imports and standardized visa and customs regulations. However, in the mid-1990s relations became strained between Latvia and its Baltic neighbors over the demarcation of their sea borders. At stake were national rights to fishing areas and offshore oil reserves. After extensive negotiations, Latvia and Estonia concluded a maritime border agreement in February 1997. An agricultural agreement, effective that January, completed the process of establishing a Baltic free-trade area.
In domestic affairs, the Latvian government initiated economic reforms in the early 1990s with the aim of achieving a market economy and encouraging foreign investment. The country initially suffered a significant decline in industrial output and standard of living. In 1992 the government attempted to stabilize the economy while broadening the scope of reform. At that time a significant number of state-owned retail enterprises had already been transferred to private ownership, and the privatization of farmland was under way as well.
Latvia's first postindependence government collapsed in July 1994 as the ruling coalition split over the Latvian Farmers' Union's demand for high tariffs on agricultural imports. Members of the Farmers' Union left the coalition, which was led by Birkavs's Latvia's Way party, resulting in the resignation of Birkavs and his cabinet. In September a new coalition government formed with Maris Gailis of Latvia's Way as prime minister. Gailis's term as prime minister was rocked by numerous bank failures, including the collapse of the nation's largest commercial bank, Banka Baltija, in May 1995. As a result of the banking crisis, Latvia's budget deficit for 1995 was double the figure expected, and growth in gross domestic product (GDP) came to a standstill.
In the 1995 elections, Latvia's Way lost its plurality, receiving only 14.6 percent of the vote. The left-leaning Democratic Party Saimnieks received the highest percentage with 15.1 percent, and the right-wing nationalist People's Movement for Latvia received 14.9 percent. In December 1995 the parliament approved Andris Skele, an entrepreneur with no political affiliation, as prime minister. Skele worked to accelerate economic reforms and attract foreign investors. President Ulmanis was reelected to a second term in June 1996. In August 1997 Guntars Krasts, from the conservative Fatherland and Freedom Union (with which relatively few Saeima members were affiliated), became prime minister of a new coalition government. In March 1998 Skele formed a new conservative party, the People's Party. In the parliamentary elections in October 1998 the People's Party won 21 percent of the vote and more seats than any other party. However, Latvia's Way, which took 18 percent of the vote, formed a ruling coalition with the Fatherland and Freedom Union (FFU) and the centrist New Party. Vilis Kristopans of Latvia's Way was chosen in November to head a center-right coalition government. Discord within the cabinet caused Kristopans to resign in July 1999, and Skele formed a new center-right coalition government.
In July 1999 the Saeima elected Vaira Vike-Freiberga, a former Canadian citizen, as president. Skele resigned in April 2000 in a dispute with members of his cabinet over privatization of the economy. Andris Berzins, the mayor of Riga, was subsequently named prime minister.