The Letts (after whom the country was also called Lettland) were conquered and Christianized by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword in the 13th cent. Their country formed the southern part of Livonia until 1561, when the order disbanded and its grand master became the first duke of Courland, a vassal duchy under Polish suzerainty. In 1629, Sweden conquered Livonia (except for Latgale), which it lost in turn to Russia in 1721. With the first (1772) and third (1795) partitions of Poland, Latgale and Courland also passed to Russia.
The region had been dominated since the time of the Livonian knights by German merchants, settled there by the Hanseatic League, and by a German landowning aristocracy, which reduced the Letts to servitude. Under the Russian regime these German "Baltic barons" retained their power, and German remained the official language until 1885, when it was replaced by Russian. Between 1817 and 1819 the serfs were emancipated, and in the middle of the 19th cent. a national revival began.
By the end of the 19th cent. there was great agricultural and industrial prosperity. In the Russian Revolution of 1905 the Letts played a prominent role, and bloody reprisals were meted out. Latvia was devastated in World War I, but the collapse of Russia and Germany made Latvian independence possible in 1918. Soviet troops and German volunteer bands were expelled. Peace with Russia followed in 1920.
The Latvian constitution of 1922 provided for a democratic republic. The largest land holdings were expropriated. However, there was no political stability, and in 1934 its constituent assembly and political parties were dissolved. In 1936, Karlis Ulmanis became a virtual dictator. Soviet pressure forced Latvia to grant (1939) the USSR several naval and military bases; a subsequent Latvian-German agreement provided for the transfer of the German minority to Germany.
Soviet troops occupied Latvia in 1940, and subsequent elections held under Soviet auspices resulted in the absorption of Latvia into the USSR as a constituent republic. Occupied (1941–44) during World War II by German troops, whom the Latvians supported, it was reconquered by the Soviet Union. In the postwar years, the remaining estates were at first distributed to landless peasants, but soon almost all the land was collectivized. Latvia's resources and industry were nationalized, and a program of industrialization was pursued by the Soviet regime.
In May, 1990, the parliament of Latvia annulled its annexation and reestablished the constitution of 1922. A referendum on independence passed in Mar., 1991. Latvia's independence from the Soviet Union was recognized by the Russian SFSR in August and conceded by the Soviet Union in Sept., 1991. Subsequent relations with Russia have been tense at times; a treaty establishing Estonia-Russia boundary was not signed until 2007. In 1993, under the restored 1922 constitution, a new parliament was elected, and Guntis Ulmanis became president. In 1995, a politically independent business executive, Andris Skele, became prime minister. Ulmanis was elected president for a second term in 1996.
Latvia became a member of the United Nations in 1991, and in 1993 signed a free-trade agreement with its fellow Baltic states, Estonia and Lithuania. Virtually all Russian troops left by Aug., 1994. Guntars Krasts became prime minister in 1997; he was succeeded in 1998 by Vilis Kristopans, who formed a center-right coalition government. In 1999 Vaira Vîke-Freiberga was elected president, becoming the first woman to hold such a post in Eastern Europe; she was reelected in 2003. Andris Skele again became prime minister in July, 1999, but resigned in Apr., 2000, after his coalition collapsed in a dispute over privatization. In May, Andris Berzins became prime minister of a four-party coalition.
Elections in Oct., 2002, gave the largest number of seats to the centrist New Era party, whose leader, Einars Repše, became prime minister of a four-party center-right coalition. Charges of mismanagement against Repše caused the coalition to collapse in Feb., 2004, and a three-party center-right minority government, led by Indulis Emsis, was formed. Emsis became the first Green party leader to head a European government, but the coalition government resigned after losing a budget vote in Oct., 2004.
In Dec., 2004, Aigars Kalvitis, of the People's party, became prime minister of a four-party center-right coalition government (a three-party coalition after Apr., 2006). Also in 2004 the country became a member of NATO and the European Union. Kalvitis's coalition won a majority of the seats in parliament in the Oct., 2006, elections, becoming the first coalition to win reelection since Latvia regained its independence in 1991. In May, 2007, Valdis Zatlers, a surgeon who helped found (1988) the proindependence Latvian Popular Front but had little subsequent political experience, was elected president.
Kalvitis resigned in Dec., 2007, under pressure; his government's attempt to remove the country's anticorruption chief led to his resignation. Subsequently, Ivars Godmanis, of the Latvia's First/Latvia's Way party, became prime minister, heading the same coalition; Godmanis also was prime minister in 1990–93. In 2008 Latvia's significant economic problems forced the country to secure a
The withdrawal of the People's party from the coalition in Mar., 2010, over economic recovery measures left Dombrovskis with a minority government, but the coalition won a majority in the Oct., 2010, elections and Dombrovskis formed a new coalition government in November. In June, 2011, Andris Berzins, a business executive and politician (not the the former prime minister), was elected president; Zatlers failed to win reelection after he accused legislators of being tolerant of corruption and called a referendum on dissolving parliament. The subsequent referendum (July), however, approved the dissolution. In the election in September, the pro-Russian Harmony Center won the largest bloc of seats, but needed to form a coalition government with other parties who were reluctant to do so because of policy and ideological differences. Zatlers' Reform party placed second. In October a three-party coalition government, led by Dombrovskis and including the Reform party but not Harmony Center, was formed. A referendum that would have made Russian a second official language was rejected by roughly three to one in Feb., 2012.