The return of “Eastern Europe”

The term “Eastern Europe” suggests a new division of Europe. But it also highlights how integrated and interdependent Europe has become.

The global economic crisis led to a sudden, forceful, even brutal return of
the term “Eastern Europe” applied
to all of non-Western Europe.
It has always been difficult to brand the bunch of very diverse former
socialist countries. Terms such as Central and East Europe (CEE) or South East
Europe (SEE) have been used for a while. But they were never too clearly defined
(and analytically useful), nor very satisfactory for the countries included in
these categories. The “Central Europoean ” Hungary
did not really want to be part of “Eastern Europe” together with Ukraine. Romania or Slovenia
also did not really like to be South East European together with Albania or Serbia. The more countries diverged
in their reform trajectories – the less meaningful the terms CEE and SEE
became. More to the east – the term “post-soviet” was not particularly precise
either, since technically it would include Estonia
or Lithuania which were
light years ahead in reforms and democratization from central Asia or Belarus, which
are really post-Soviet. Such terminology has never been very meaningful. They
were crude Western simplifications of a complex set of “non-western” small

With time the terminology more or less settled. The new EU member states (Estonia, Latvia,
Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia,
Hungary, the Czech republic, Slovenia,
Romania and Bulgaria) have roughly found their group name as
Central Europe. The countries of the former Yugoslavia emerged as the “Western Balkans”
(excluding Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia which were South East
European, but not Western Balkans). Moldova,
Ukraine and Belarus were slowly becoming “Eastern
Europe” (despite temporary linguistic curiosities such as WNIS –
the Western newly independent states). So by 2008 – the former socialist
countries had more or less established brand names. And then the global
economic crisis hit.

For the last weeks especially, the media has been full of articles (just a
few examples: rferl,
) about collapsing “Eastern Europe”.
Whether these articles refer to Austrian and Italian banks heavily exposed in
the region, IMF bail-outs (for Belarus,
Ukraine, Hungary and Latvia),
or simply political instability – the term “Eastern Europe”
is back in the branding race. The term now includes Latvia
and Ukraine, Hungary and Belarus,
Estonia and Serbia. The new
meaning of “Eastern Europe” applies to EU and non-EU, democratic and
undemocratic (Belarus),
reformed and semi-reformed, economically collapsing (Latvia,
Ukraine) and still muddling
through (Poland, Moldova)
states. The new Eastern Europe refers pretty much to any state between Russia and the countries of the Euro-zone (which
includes now Slovenia and Slovakia).

“Central European” states are not that
about this re-branding. And they are right. The difference between Ukraine and Slovenia,
Moldova and Estonia are
staggering. But on the positive side is the fact that “Eastern Europe”
re-emerged as a term precisely because the crisis in Ukraine
is as likely to affect the rest of Europe as the crisis in Latvia or Hungary. In this sense, “Eastern
Europe” is a good term for a more integrated Europe,
that reaches beyond the EU. The term “Eastern Europe” does raise the spectre of a
new symbolic division of Europe, but even more so it highlights how
integrated and interdependent united Europe
has become.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Wider Europe programme

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