Independent modern Latvia (1990 and beyond)

On 1990 Latvia declared independence from the Soviet Union together with the two other Baltic States. By 1991 the democratic and capitalist Latvia was widely recognized by foreign powers. The final Russian forces departed in 1995.

Demolition of a 16 floor tall Soviet military radar in Skrunda-2
Demolition of 16-floor-tall Soviet Skrunda-2 military radar (1995), completing a major goal in asserting full Latvian independence.

Political independence was, however, merely the first step. Cultural independence had to follow: with 46% of its inhabitants and the majority of its urban population being Russophone, Latvians could have been easily outvoted and assimilated by the Russians even after independence. The key issue was that while Latvians spoke Russian, Russians generally did not speak Latvian, meaning that Russian was usually the only possible language for interethnic communication. As most of the communication in Latvian cities was interethnic, this would have left the Latvian language awfully little usage outside of the family, possibly sending it into extinction.

Pope John Paul II visits Latvia's Catholic minority in their holiest shrine at Aglona, 1993
Pope John Paul II visits Latvia’s Catholic minority in their holiest shrine at Aglona, 1993. Unimaginable just 5 years ago the visit marked a tremendous shift from Soviet state atheism towards religious freedom.

Desperate times required desperate measures. Latvian was declared the sole official language for most public signs and activities. Only those of the Soviet settlers who were fluent in Latvian received citizenship. A third of Russians repatriated to Russia, but hundreds of thousands remained to live in Latvia, rendered stateless (until they would take Latvian exams – which most have refused to do). As the new generation grew up, Latvian language took a weak hold once again in the cities and culture. However, this came at the expense of national cohesion: Russians felt excluded from the new Latvia. They clung to their “privileged” Soviet past, celebrating Soviet festivals, history, and political ideas.

Deleted Russian street name in Riga
After independence Russian street signs were removed or overpainted with only the official Latvian names remaining. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latvia also strove for economic independence. Its outdated Soviet factories were built for the Soviet rather than local needs. Out-competed by Western goods and pushed out of the Eastern markets, they went bankrupt one after another, sending the economy into deep crisis in the 1990s. But economic freedom did wonders and young Baltic entrepreneurs put the economy back on track within a decade, filling the cities with new malls and office buildings which the Soviet system lacked. By 2001, Latvia was effectively a modern European society, attracting foreign investments.

2006 World Ice Hockey championship in Riga became the first event of such scale to be hosted in the city
2006 World Ice Hockey championship in Riga became the first event of such scale to be hosted by Latvia.

In 2004, Latvia joined NATO and the European Union as part of its program to ensure that Russia would never reconquer it. EU membership brought in many adverse effects, however, among them a mass emigration of Latvians to the newly accessible labor markets of the West. Latvian population declined from 2 377 000 to 2 070 000 between census years 2001 and 2011. Furthermore, European Union measures have displaced more and more Latvian laws, making some locals to question whether European Union membership on itself does not compromise Latvian independence.

Abandoned building in Riga
As many locals emigrated abandoned residentials (such as this one in Riga) became increasingly visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

By the late 2000s, Riga was once again the „unofficial capital of the Baltics“ and Jūrmala the top Baltic resort, despite the loss of population. Economically, however, Latvia lagged behind the two other Baltic States and was one of the worst-hit countries of the 2009 global economic downturn. Its subsequent austerity-based approach to tame the crisis has been celebrated among Western economists.

Latvia's tallest skyscrapers Z-Towers under construction
Latvia’s tallest skyscrapers Z-Towers under construction in modern Riga (2016). Initially planned for ~2010 the project was put on hold but then reinitiated after the economic troubles were tackled. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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