RIGA - Shortly before midnight on New Year's Eve, Latvian Prime Minister Einars Repse gave an address to the nation imploring people to return to the countryside to reclaim the land and calling for an increase in the number of births in the Baltic state.
Repse said he wanted to encourage people to return to older, simpler times when the ethnic Latvian population lived largely in rural areas.
"Let's return to the land in the coming years," he said.
Combined with the "Walden Pond" pleas to flock to the countryside was an appeal for people to have more children along with a warning about the dangers of a continuing decrease in the population.
"Let's remember: If we do not populate Latvia, others will. This place will not remain empty," the prime minister added.
Latvia has the second lowest birth rate among EU candidate states, ahead of only Bulgaria at 8.6 births per 1,000 people. Latvia also has the second highest mortality rate at 13.8 deaths per 1,000 births, surpassed again only by Bulgaria.
All EU accession countries except Cyprus have declining populations.
Repse was alarmed earlier this year when he learned how rapidly the population was diminishing through deaths and a low birthrate. The prime minister has said that this year one of the main goals of his administration will be to bolster the dismal birthrate.
The other Baltic states also face declining populations, although the drops are not as acute as that in Latvia.
According to the Central Statistics Office, the population in Latvia is expected to fall by 12,000 in 2003.
Since the collapse of communism the population of Latvia has fallen by 234,000 from 1990 to 1999. Latvian males also have the shortest life expectancy among EU candidate countries at 64.5 years.
In Estonia, the ruling coalition allocated part of the increase in the country's 2004 budget to help bolster the birth rate through improving financial support for families.
Though Lithuania's population declined by 13,000 people in the first 11 months of 2003, the country saw a slight increase in the number of children born compared with the same period in 2002.
Latvia had a low birthrate during Soviet times, which combined with the low fertility rate since independence has left the country with one of the oldest populations in Europe.
"The problem is very painful. Neither money nor rules will change the situation," Eriks Jekabsons, leader of Latvia's First Party, told The Baltic Times.
Emigration has been another factor behind the overall decline of the population during the past decade. More and more Latvians are moving abroad in search of better career opportunities and higher incomes.
"In the last 10 years Latvia underwent dramatic economic changes. A loss of stability led to short term planning for many Latvians," said Aigars Freimanis, a sociologist from the polling group Latvijas Fakti. "Kids are not a priority," he added.
"We need to increase the welfare of all families to motivate young people to get married and have families," Jekabsons said.
He blamed the population decrease on the economic situation and the decline in values that has led some to strive for monetary and self-indulgent goals over family ones.