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 indiscriminately 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 states.
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, the telegraph) 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 happy 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. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.
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