Learn about Latvia

About Latvia

The Republic of Latvia was founded on 18 November 1918 (18 November is a national holiday and the day of proclamation of Latvia’s independence). Following the end of the fight for freedom in 1920, several countries recognised Latvia’s independence de jure, and 16 foreign missions were established in Riga. Latvia lost its independence in 1940 after the beginning of the World War II. It was first occupied by the Soviet Union (from 1940 to 1941). Then the occupation by Nazi Germany (from 1941 to 1945) followed. However, the Soviet Union regained the power and occupied Latvia again (from 1945 to 1991). As a result of Gorbachev’s reforms, on 21 August 1991 Latvia declared restoration of its independence de facto. It restored the international diplomatic relations and joined the United Nations (UN).

The name ‘Latvia’ originates from the ancient Latgalians which was one of the four Indo-European tribes that together with Semigallians, Couronians and Selonians was involved in the ethnogenesis of Latvians.

Flag of Latvia

The flag of Latvia with three horizontal stripes the colours of which are maroon and white is one of the oldest flags in the world dating back to the events in the town of Cēsis in the 13th century. According to the legend a fatally wounded military leader together with its sword was wrapped in a white sheet and the blood stained both edges of the sheet. After the leader’s death this sheet was used as a flag in the next battle which led Latvians to a victory. The design of Latvia’s flag is officially adopted and provided for under the Constitution of Latvia – Satversme.

Geography and neighbouring countries

Latvia is the central country of the Baltic States and is situated in the Northeastern Europe. Latvia’s territory the terrain of which formed in the ice age consists of rich lowlands in the plains and moderate hills. The most of it is lower than 100 metres below sea level. Latvia has a vast network of rivers and lakes consisting of more than twelve thousand rivers and approximately two thousand lakes. There are pine forests, dunes and white-sand beaches all over Latvia. The sea along Latvia’s coastline is very shallow, and the Gulf of Riga is no deeper than 26 metres. The highest mountain in Latvia is Gaiziņkalns (312 m). The neighbour countries of Latvia are Estonia, Latvia, Russia and Belarus, and the strategic location of Latvia facilitates the development of trade and culture.


Latvia lies in the temperate climate zone, and its climate is affected by the proximity of the sea and air masses from the Atlantic Ocean. Latvia has four distinctive seasons. Summers are mild, but winters – moderately cold; the humidity level is relatively high, and there is frequent rainfall. The average temperature in summer is 15.8°C and in winter – -4.5°C. Temperature records have been accordingly 36.4°C and -43.2°C. Latvia’s weather is marked by frequent change of air masses due to 170 fronts crossing the territory in February, July and October. These fronts are accompanied by strong winds which are responsible for the maximum occurrences of snowstorms in February, for the high level of rainfall and thunderstorms in July and for the strong winds, even storms, in October.


With more than 44 % of its territory covered by forests and the vast network of rivers and thousands of lakes, Latvia is one of the best preserved “sanctuaries” for various wild animals. More than 27,000 of flora and fauna species live under natural conditions in territories that are still relatively untouched by humans. Many rare species, for example, black storks and lesser spotted eagles live in their habitats which are mixed forests, swamps and meadows. Latvia is also densely populated by otters, beavers, lynxes and wolves, as well as large number of deer, elks, foxes and wild boars. It is an interesting place for ornithologists and other birdwatchers, especially the coastline and wetland zones during the migration periods, as well as for hunters during the official hunt periods.


The indigenous population of Latvia is Latvians and Fenno-Ugrian Lives (Livonians). The existing ethnic composition is the result of post-war massive migrations. The following comparison can be made – 77 % of the population were Latvians in 1935, whereas in 1989 this number had decreased to 52 %. Population was 2,248,374 in 2010, and the population dispersal is the following: 68 % live in cities and towns and 32 % – in rural areas.


Latvian is a Baltic language belonging to the Indo-European language family. The only language closely related to the Latvian language is Lithuanian. Latvian has been recognised as one of the most ancient and relatively unchanged languages in the world. It is the native language of approximately 1.5 million people. Russian and English are also quite common in Latvia, but German, French and Scandinavian languages are rather rare. Latvian is the only official language in Latvia; however, there are several mechanisms in place to provide people who do not know Latvian language with effective legal protection.

The ethnic composition of Latvia is the following: 59.4 % are Latvians, 27.6 % – Russians, 3.6 % –Belarusians, 2.5 % – Ukrainians, 2.3 % – Poles, 1.3 % – Lithuanians, 3.3 % – other nationalities.


Latvia has a relatively high per capita ratio in respect to education. The state ensures free primary education and offers a large number of higher education programs. Foreign students from the Member States of the European Union pays for education the same amount as domestic students, and the Latvian education is highly regarded abroad. There are also funded schools for language minority groups in Latvia where the subjects are taught bilingually – in Latvian and the respective foreign language.


The Constitution of Latvia (Satversme) stipulates that the state shall be separate from any religion. The largest religious movements are Lutherans, Catholics and Orthodoxs. Christianity spread in Latvia along with arrival of Crusaders in 12th century. Since reformation in the 16th century the leading movement in Latvia has been the Lutherans. Most of Lutheran churches are located in the northern and western parts of Latvia, but Catholic churches have become an integral part of Latvia’s cultural landscape. After restoration of the Aglona basilica it was visited by the Pope John Paul II.

Government and election

Latvia is a democratic, parliamentary republic. The legislative power is vested in the Parliament or Saeima consisting of 100 members (deputies). The Parliament is elected every four years, and the elections are general, equal, direct, secret and based on proportional representation. Only citizens at least 18 years old have the right to vote. The election threshold is 5 %, because there are not many parties in Latvia. The President, who is appointed by the Parliament, signs the laws, nominates a candidate for the Prime Minister post (head of the executive power) and has a representative role. The Parliament appoints the Prime Minister who then accordingly appoints other ministers. The ground for work of the Cabinet of Ministers is the confidence in the Prime Minister expressed by the Parliament. The third branch of power is the judicial power. It is a three-tier judicial system consisting of district courts, regional courts and the Supreme Court. There is also a Constitutional Court (Satversme Court) in Latvia that exists outside the three-tier system.

Involvement in organisations

Latvia is involved in the following international organisations: the European Union, NATO, United Nations Organisation, Council of Europe, World Trade Organisation, and Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Council of the Baltic Sea States and other organisations.

Latvian economy and products

The main sectors of Latvian economy are information technologies, chemical and pharmaceutical industry, electronics, mechanical engineering, wood processing, construction, food industry, textile industry, fishery and agriculture.

Finance sector, currency, trade partners

The central bank is the Bank of Latvia which is the member of the European System of Central Banks. Since accession to the European Union in 2004 more than 20 commercial banks have been operating in Latvia offering a wide range of services. The largest net turnover is ensured by sectors of wholesale and retail, car and motorcycle repair, manufacturing and transport services. According to data provided by the Central Statistical Bureau the accumulated foreign direct investments amount to LVL 5.8 million as of the last quarter of 2010.

The official currency of Latvia is the Latvian lat (code – LVL, symbol – Ls), and it is equivalent to 100 santims. This currency exists since 1993 and is one of the most expensive currencies in the world. Starting from 2005, the Latvian lat has been fixed to the euro which is the first step towards introduction of the euro in Latvia.

Latvia’s largest trading partners are the Member States of the European Union (71.8 % in 2009), but the trade with the countries that are members of the Commonwealth of Independent States amounts to 13.9 % (in 2009). The largest importers are Lithuania, Russia, Germany, Poland and Estonia, but most of the export goes to Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, Germany and Sweden.

Traditional food and Midsummer celebration (Jāņi)

The most popular traditional food in Latvia is caraway cheese (Jāņu siers), grey peas with bacon, pastries filled with bacon or ham and a special rye bread prepared according to ancient recipes. The Latvian rye bread is widely consumed by most of the population, and it is considered one of the most popular delicacies or food souvenirs of Latvia.

Latvia’s national celebration is the Midsummer celebration (in Latvian – Jāņi; called also Midsummer Eve, St. John’s Eve, St. John’s Night) which was celebrated long before Christianity arrived in Latvia. During this national holiday most of people usually leave the cities to celebrate together with the family and friends at the countryside. An integral part of this celebration is a bonfire. Also special food and drinks are served. This joyful celebration entails also singing folk songs and dancing.