|Lettish people first
appeared in what is now Latvia during the 9th century AD. Since the 13th
century Latvia has been successively dominated by Germany, Poland, and Russia.
German Crusaders began the conversion of the Baltic peoples to Christianity
early in the 13th century, and from 1237 to 1561 Latvia was part of Livonia,
the domain of the Teutonic Knights. When Livonia broke up in 1561, Poland
absorbed the provinces of Latgale and Vidzeme to the north of the Daugava
River. Kurzeme and Zemgale provinces, to the south and west, became Kurland,
an independent duchy under Polish control. Sweden conquered Rìga
and Vidzeme in 1621 but lost both to Russia in the early 18th century. 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, the German and Russian landowning class remained autocratic. The Letts, however, were able, through political and cultural associations, to work for their complete liberation. The Russian Revolution of 1917 furnished the desired opportunity, and on November 19, 1918, Latvia proclaimed itself an independent republic. Later, Bolshevik troops captured Rìga and supplanted the moderate Latvian government with a Russian-sponsored regime. After Allied troops expelled Russian troops from Latvia in 1920, a Latvian-Russian peace treaty stipulated that Russia would respect Latvia's sovereignty.
In the 1930s Latvia placed its economy on a sound footing. It adopted a neutral position after the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945). On October 5, 1939, Latvia signed a mutual-assistance treaty with the USSR and, later, a reparations convention with Germany. In June 1940, following the fall of France, the USSR accused Latvia of forming, with neighboring Estonia, a secret anti-Soviet military alliance, and Soviet forces occupied the country. After elections supervised by the Soviet army, a Communist regime was installed, and on August 5, 1940, Latvia became the 15th constituent republic of the USSR. It was occupied by Germany from 1941 to 1944, after which it again became a part of the USSR. Latvian resistance to Soviet administrative measures, such as the collectivization of agriculture, continued for some time, but by 1950 Sovietization was virtually complete.
Political liberalization in the USSR during the late 1980s sparked a revival of Latvian nationalism. In 1990 Latvia started a sea border dispute with Lithuania over oil exploration rights. After Communism collapsed in the USSR in August 1991, the Soviet government formally recognized the independence of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania on September 6, and all three were admitted to the United Nations (UN) later that month. Latvia held its first parliamentary elections since independence in June 1993. The new parliament elected Guntis Ulmanis, an economist, as president. Ulmanis selected Valdis Birkavs as prime minister. In February 1994 Latvia joined the Partnership for Peace program, which provided for limited military cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In March Latvian and Russian officials reached an agreement for the withdrawal of Russian troops by August 31, 1994. The agreement also granted Russia the right to operate its early-warning radar base in Skrunda until 1998. The last Russian troops departed as scheduled in August.
Latvia's first post-independence government collapsed in July 1994 as the ruling coalition split over high tariffs for agricultural imports demanded by the Latvian Farmers' Union Party. Members of the Latvian Farmers' Union Party left the coalition, led by Birkavs's Latvian Way Party, resulting in the resignation of Birkavs and his cabinet. A new coalition government was formed by the Latvian Way Party in September with Maris Gailis 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, prompting the resignation of the government's finance minister. In October 1995 elections Gailis's Latvian Way Party made a poor showing with 14.6 percent of the vote. The left-leaning Democratic Party received the highest percentage with 15.1 percent of the vote, and the radical right-wing Popular Movement for Latvia Party, led by a German-born politician, Joachim Siegerist, took second with 14.9 percent of the vote. Since no single party controlled more than 18 seats in Latvia's 100-member legislature, two of President Ulmanis's nominees for prime minister were rejected before parliament accepted the third nominee, Andris Skele, an entrepreneur with no political affiliation, in December 1995. As prime minister, Skele worked to accelerate economic reforms and to attract foreign investors. President Ulmanis was reelected to a second term in office in June 1996. On January 20, 1997, after receiving widespread criticism for his choice of a new finance minister, Prime Minister Skele resigned, forcing the dissolution of Latvia's government. He was renominated by parliament, however, on January 29, and his new administration was approved in February.