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Latvia - Introduction

Latvia is the "middle" Baltic state in terms of size, population, and geographic location. It is situated between Estonia and the Gulf of Riga to the north and Lithuania to the south. Russia and Belarus border Latvia to the east and the Baltic Sea lies to its west. With an area of 64,500 square kilometers (about the size of West Virginia), Latvia ranks 12th in size of the 15 former Soviet republics, larger than only Estonia, Armenia, and Moldova.

Like the rest of the great northern European plain, the country is low lying with more than one-fifth of the land no more than 131 feet (40 meters) above sea level and three-quarters less than 400 feet (122 meters) in elevation. The fertile Riga-Jelgava lowland in the center of Latvia separates the western morainic hills of the Kurland region from the highlands of picturesque Livonia in the northeast and Latgale in the southeast. The countryside is very moist with numerous peat bogs and nearly 3,000 small lakes. The largest river, the Daugava, originates on the western slopes of the Valday Hills in Russia's Tver' Oblast, flows westward through the northern part of Belarus, and then northwestward through 230 miles (370 kilometers) of central Latvia before emptying into the Gulf at the capital city of Riga, where its mouth is a mile ( 1.6 kilometers) wide. This river is navigable throughout Latvia, accounting for substan- tial commerce in addition to locally produced hydro- electric power at three locations-Kegums, Stucka, and Riga.

Because of the moderating influence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea, Latvia enjoys less extreme variations in climate than most of the European part of the former USSR. Riga's January temperatures average 23 degrees Fahrenheit (-5 degrees Centigrade) and its July temperatures average 63 degrees Fahrenheit (17 degrees Centigrade). Cloud cover, fog, high humidity, and rainfall are persistent throughout the year, with an average annual rainfall of 566 millimeters (23 inches) in Riga.

The port at Riga usually free& over in the winter, but the Baltic Sea ports at ~iepaji and Ventspils remain ice-free. The Baltic coast, however, consists of pine- covered sand dunes and offshdre shallow sand bars that are not conducive to natural darbors. As a result, Latvia's western ports lie only at the mouth of rivers.

Forests cover over one-third of the territory, most prominently in the uplands of Kurland and Livonia. Conifers (Scotch pine and ~drway spruce) dominate, but in the west are scattered broadleaf forests of birch, ash, maple, oak, and linden. Most of Latvia contains either poor sandy beqrock and moraine loam- soils or acidic podzols leached of minerals by the pine needles of the conifers.

The behavior of most Latvians reflects the strong cultural and religious influences of centuries-long Germanic and Scandinavian colonization and settlement. They are viewed as self-reliant, independent, persistent, and reserved. 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. The majority of Latvians belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church; a sizable minority is Russian Orthodox, and Eastern Latvia is predominantly Roman Catholic.

Historically, Latvia has always had fairly large Russian, Jewish, German, and Polish minorities, but traumatic wartime events, postwar emigration, deportations, and Soviet Russification policies from 1939 to 1989 reduced the percentage of ethnic Latvians in Latvia from 73% to 52%. In an attempt to preserve the Latvian language and prevent ethnic Latvians from becoming a minority in their own country, Latvia enacted language, education, and citizenship laws which require a working proficiency in the Latvian language in order to become a citizen. Such legislation has caused concern among many non-citizen resident Russians, 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. Latvians and Lithuanians are the only surviving direct descendents of the Baltic peoples who speak languages of the Indo-European family. While Latvia was a member of the U.S.S.R., Russian was the official language, so many Latvians also speak Russian, and the resident Slavic populace generally speaks Russian as a first language.

Among the Baltic States, Latvia lies "in the middle," not merely geographically but also in a cultural sense. It has been suggested that average Estonians are cool, rational, and somewhat aloof, whereas Lithuanians are warm, emotional, and gregarious. Latvians incorporate a mixture of these traits. Although they have much in common with Estonians and Lithuanians, on most questions--whether in economics, politics, or social policies--the Latvian people have chosen a slightly different path of development.

There is a widespread perception that Latvia is a "tiny" country. Its actual size, however, surprises most first-time travelers. It is only slightly smaller than Ireland and is larger than many other European countries, such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, and Denmark. Its significant contribution to history, especially in the dissolution of the tsarist and Soviet empires, belies its comparatively limited geographical dimensions beside its giant and unpredictable neighbor to the east.

Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union for half a century. This occupation has left serious demographic, economic, and psychological legacies, whose burdens will be borne by the inhabitants of Latvia for the foreseeable future. In spite of these burdens, however, Latvia and the other two Baltic republics have made greater progress toward Westernization than any of the other former Soviet republics.





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