Latvia in Crisis: Where is a Way Out of It?

Encina Ground Floor Conference Room
  • Aivars Stranga

Latvia is a country that has come through a crisis before; can it do it again? Professor Stranga examines the current crisis in Latvia, a country much evolved over the past 50 years. He focuses on a variety of social, economic, and political factors in assessing how Latvia can move forward.


Prof. Stranga begins by examining what he calls Latvia’s “first great crisis” from 1929-1933. At the time, Latvia was a democracy, a member of the League of Nations, but critically had no security guarantees and was stuck between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Prof. Stranga explains that this crisis was overcome by the dictatorship of Karlis Ulmanis, whose regime lasted from 1934 until the Nazi occupation. Those years were seen as the ‘Golden Years,’ times of economic flourishing and national freedom from occupation. Prof. Stranga reveals this period had long lasting effects on the national psyche of Latvia.

To Prof. Stranga, Latvia is in a very different situation today. He argues that these are times of very limited sovereignty, particularly for his country. Prof. Stranga explains that this is mainly due to Latvia’s dependence on the EU, NATO, and the IMF which provide economic and military security. Prof. Stranga identifies the effects of Karlis Ulmanis’ regime as the perception in Latvia that a ‘strong man’ is needed to guide Latvia out of its current crisis. However, the necessity for Latvia to remain a democracy is made clear by the help it receives from the organizations mentioned above.

Although the help is clearly needed, Prof. Stranga feels that its consequences are often very painful. The IMF’s conditions for essentially saving Latvia’s economy include cutbacks in medical assistance and a reduction of teachers and schools, facets of public life deeply engrained in Latvia’s culture. In addition, Prof. Stranga examines the question of energy security. He looks particularly at Latvia’s absolute dependence on Russia exhibited by the fact that Gazprom’s first foreign office is in Latvia, and the fact that this has perhaps hindered Latvia’s progress.

At the same time, it seems clear that Prof. Stranga sees this crisis also as an opportunity. Firstly, he argues that now is probably the time to not be shy but to look for alternative energy sources such as nuclear energy, something Prof. Stranga further discussed when answering questions. Moreover, Prof. Stranga believes there are too many bureaucratic positions, and the crisis is an opportunity to cut these off and direct funding elsewhere. In addition, he feels the crisis is a chance to reconstruct exports. In particular, Prof. Stranga would like to see Latvia leaning more towards innovation rather than timber or agriculture. Finally, Prof. Stranga addresses Latvia’s issue of an internally divided society, particularly between Latvians and Russian speakers. He analyzes Latvian Russians’ diminishing impact as Russia’s economy falters but also expresses concern at the fact that Russian influence in Latvia seems to be heavily dependent on Russia’s economic state.

Prof. Stranga kindly takes the time to briefly answer a few questions and raises several issues in the process. Prof. Stranga cites Latvia's population reduction as perhaps the "greatest" problem it faces. However, he feels reassured by the help of the friendly states of Scandinavia and other organizations across the world. At the same time, Prof. Stranga explains such organizations are not having an entirely positive impact. In particular, he argues against the "inhuman" approach of solely focusing on cutting back capital of the IMF which he feels is an assault on Latvian life.

About the speaker

Aivars Stranga is professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of Latvia. He is the author of seven monographs and more than 150 scholarly and general publications on Latvian domestic and foreign policy andinternational relations between 1918 and 1940, and Latvian foreign policy from 1991 to 2000. Professor Stranga was a distinguished visiting professor at Stanford in 2003, teaching courses on Baltic History and the History of the Holocaust in the Baltics.

Jointly sponsored by the Forum on Contemporary Europe, Stanford Humanities Center, Department of History, Taube Center for Jewish Studies, and Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.