Among the Baltic countries, Latvia is the one that counts the most consistent Slavic minorities: according to 1998 data, ethnic Latvians, whose traditional religion is Lutheran Protestant, represent only 55 % of the population (which amounts in total to over 2.4 million residents), against 33 % of Russians, who arrived in the country mainly in the Soviet period, and 10% of other Slavs (Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles). However, the fears expressed by the Latvians of becoming a long-term minority in their homeland, due to their ‘senile’ demographic behavior, with a negative natural balance, do not seem to be realized: after independence, in fact, an ebb towards the countries origin of Slavs, especially Russians, who felt discriminated against in the new political situation and in the legislation on citizenship and electoral rights. Thus, during the 1990s the proportion of ethnic Latvians gained three percentage points (it was 52 % at the 1989 Soviet census), in a context of general population decline.
About a third of the Latvian population lives in the capital Riga, a city with a Germanic aspect located at the apex of the estuary of the Daugava River (Western Dvina), which flows into the center of the great Gulf of Riga and is an excellent port site, wisely exploited by the Latvians. Only two other cities exceed 100. 000 residents: Daugavpils inland, further upstream on the same river, near the border with Lithuania and Belarus; and Liepāja on the open Baltic, another important port and railway terminus for relations with the Russian Federation. However, the main port by volume of traffic is that of the more modest city of Ventspils, the extreme western terminus of the Siberian gas pipeline. The transit function serving the western outlets of the Russian economy therefore continues to be essential for Latvia.
Agriculture employs less than a fifth of the active population. Collective farms have largely been transformed into private enterprises or split between the old owners and former employees. Good productions are obtained, of minor cereals such as barley and rye, as well as potatoes and sugar beets. The cattle breeding is remarkable, mainly oriented towards the production of milk and dairy products, and also the pig one. The Baltic ports have a decent fishing fleet, which annually land good quantities of fish. Finally, the woods, covering 40 % of the country’s surface, provide good quantities of wood.
Privatization in industry has been slow, in the context of a restructuring that has proved difficult. Mining mainly consists of peat, a typical poor fuel obtained from marshy areas. After the cessation of cheap supplies of Russian hydrocarbons, hopes, but also disagreements with Lithuania, emerge from oil exploration on the Baltic continental shelf. The range of industries is very diversified: while some productions are connected with the forestry economy, others derive from ‘specializations’ chosen at the table from the old Soviet five-year plans: eg. the manufacture of railway carriages. In any case, many productions depend on ethnic Russian technicians and workers, and the products are still exported mainly to the Russian Federation, even if the other Baltic countries, Finland, Sweden and Germany are intensifying their trade relations with Latvia (it should be borne in mind that flows of direct investments that are not insignificant).