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People, Language & Religion


In 1935, the population was 77% Latvian, but according to 2002 estimates, the percentage of ethnic Latvians has dipped to only about 57.7%. Russians constitute about 29.6% of the population; Belarussians make up 4.1%; Ukrainians account for2.7%; Poles for 2.5%; Lithuanians for 1.4%; and others 2%. Nearly half the Russians and Ukrainians lived in Riga, where Russians formed a majority of the population. All residents of pre 1940 Latvia and their descendants are citizens. Naturalisation requires 16 years' residence and fluency in Latvian.


Latvian (also called Lettish), a Baltic language written in the Roman alphabet, is the official language. It is highly inflected, with seven noun cases and six verb declensions. The stress is always on the first syllable. There are three dialects. The macron is used for long vowels, and there is a hacek for "h." A cedilla adds the y sound. Education is now guaranteed in Latvian only. Instruction in higher education is given in Latvian only from the second year. Lithuanian and Russian are also spoken.


After declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, freedom of religion and worship was restored for the first time since 1941. Christianity had arrived in Latvia in the 12th century, and the Reformation made Lutheranism the primary religious persuasion after 1530. Currently the three largest faiths are Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Orthodoxy.

In 2002, the Latvian Justice Ministry has registered more than 1,000 religious congregations, including 309 Lutheran, 251 Roman Catholic, 114 Orthodox, 89 Baptist, 67 Old Believer (a breakaway Orthodox sect dating from the 17th century), 46 Seventh-Day Adventist, 10 Jehovah's Witnesses, 10 Hare Krishna, 12 Methodists, 7 Jewish, 7 Muslim, 4 Buddhist, 3 Mormon, and over 100 others. Other minority groups that have been registered and openly practice include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) and various evangelical Protestants, such as the Pentecostal Good News Church.

According to church membership rolls submitted to the Justice Ministry, the Roman Catholic Church has about 500,000 members, the Lutheran Church has about 400,000 members, and the Orthodox Churches have about 300,000 members. The Old Believers claim about 70,000 members, 6,000 people are Baptist, 6,000 are Jewish, 4,000 are Seventh-Day Adventist, 2,000 are Jehovah's Witnesses, and another 2,000 are Mormon. Other groups have about 500 members or less. It is believed that a large portion of the population is atheist.