Government and Politics

Latvia Table of Contents

Transition to Independence

The decision of the Latvian Supreme Soviet in December 1989 to end the communist party's monopoly on political power in Latvia cleared the way for the rise of independent political parties and for the country's first free parliamentary elections since 1940. Of the 201 deputies elected to the new Supreme Council, the transitional parliament, in March and April 1990, only fifteen had served in any of the previous Soviet Latvian legislative assemblies, and about two-thirds belonged to the proindependence Popular Front of Latvia (see Historical Setting, this ch.).

On May 4, 1990, a declaration renewing the independence of the Republic of Latvia was adopted by the Supreme Council. A de facto transition period for the renewal of independence was to culminate in elections to a restored Saeima (Latvia's pre-1940 legislature). The Supreme Council declared the Soviet annexation of Latvia illegal and restored certain articles of the constitution of February 15, 1922, pertaining to the election of the Saeima and to Latvia's status as an independent and democratic state whose sovereign power rests with the Latvian people.

To pass this declaration, according to Soviet Latvian law, it was necessary to have at least a two-thirds majority of the total number of deputies--134 out of 201. The vote was close, but the declaration passed with 138 votes. The Russophone Ravnopraviye (Equal Rights Movement) boycotted this resolution by walking out of parliament.

On August 21, 1991, in an emergency session following the Soviet coup in Moscow, the Supreme Council declared Latvia's full independence, ending the transition period. Several parts of the May 4, 1990, declaration, however, were not affected. Of particular importance was the inaction on the creation of a revised constitution to reflect "new" realities. A particularly vigorous opposition to this clause was mounted by the Latvian Citizens' Committee (Latvijas Pilsonu Komiteja), which was op-posed to the legitimacy of the newly elected Supreme Council and did not see how an illegitimate body could create a legitimate new constitution. The committee fought to retain the entire package of the 1922 constitution without any amendments. Its initiative was endorsed by numerous deputies within the Popular Front of Latvia, who were so opposed to any compromises on this issue that they created a separate parliamentary faction called Satversme (Constitution). Their reluctance to tamper with the 1922 constitution and the basics of the 1918 republic extended to a refusal to change Latvia's electoral law, which technically was not even part of the constitution. Minor changes in the electoral law were accepted, however, including the right to vote at age eighteen.

In view of the fact that elections to the Supreme Council were competitive and democratic, why was there so much opposition to the right of this council to deal with constitutional questions? The elections in 1990, critics said, were still held in occupied Latvia in accordance with the rules agreed upon by the communist-led Supreme Soviet of Latvia. One of the greatest points of contention was participation by the Soviet army, which refused to provide for any valid enumeration of voters and was allowed to vote using different rules from the rest of the population. Many of the opponents also contended that, according to international law, people who were resettled in an occupied territory had no automatic right to citizenship or the right to vote. Thus, only those with Latvian citizenship prior to Soviet occupation on June 17, 1940, and their progeny were entitled to determine Latvia's future. This point of view prevailed in the determination of the electorate for the June 5-6, 1993, elections to the restored Saeima. About 25 percent of the permanent residents of Latvia, mainly ethnic Russians, were not allowed to vote in those elections.

For more information about the government, see Facts about Latvia.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress