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Eastern Europe

Related subjects: European Geography

Background Information

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Eastern Europe is the eastern part of the European continent. The term has widely disparate and varying geopolitical, geographical, cultural and socioeconomic readings, which makes it highly context-dependent and even volatile, and there are "almost as many definitions of Eastern Europe as there are scholars of the region". A related United Nations paper adds that "every assessment of spatial identities is essentially a social and cultural construct".

One definition describes Eastern Europe as a cultural (and econo-cultural) entity: the region lying in Europe with main characteristics consisting in Byzantine, Orthodox and some Turco-Islamic influences. Another definition, considered outdated by several authors, was created during the Cold War and used more or less synonymously with the term Eastern Bloc. A similar definition names the formerly communist European states outside the Soviet Union as Eastern Europe.

Central and Eastern Europe was a home of the bulk of the Jewish diaspora until the 1940s, is the birthplace of Hasidic Judaism, Litvak Judaism and several Orthodox churches.


Regions used for statistical processing purposes by the United Nations Statistics Division (Eastern Europe marked red) :
   Northern Europe
   Western Europe
  Eastern Europe
CIA World Factbook
  Eastern Europe
  Southeastern Europe
Pre-1989 division between the "West" (grey) and "Eastern Bloc" (orange) superimposed on current borders:
  Russia (dark orange)
  other countries formerly part of the USSR (medium orange)
  members of the Warsaw Pact (light orange)
  other former Communist regimes not aligned with Moscow (lightest orange)

Several definitions of Eastern Europe exist today, but they often lack precision or are extremely general. These definitions vary both across cultures and among experts, even political scientists, recently becoming more and more imprecise.

Political and cultural

One view of the present boundaries of Eastern Europe came into being during the final stages of World War II. The area eventually came to encompass all the European countries which were under Soviet influence. These countries had communist governments, and neutral countries were classified by the nature of their political regimes. The Cold War increased the number of reasons for the division of Europe into two parts along the borders of NATO and Warsaw Pact states. (See: The Cold War section).

A competing view excludes from the definition of Eastern Europe states that are historically and culturally different, constituting part of the so-called Western world. This usually refers to Central Europe and the Baltic states which have significantly different political, religious, cultural, and economic histories from their eastern neighbors. (See: Classical antiquity and medieval origins section)


  • The United Nations Statistics Division developed a selection of geographical regions and groupings of countries and areas, which are or may be used in compilation of statistics. In this collection, the following ten countries were classified as Eastern Europe: Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. The assignment of countries or areas to specific groupings is for statistical convenience and does not imply any assumption regarding political or other affiliation of countries or territories by the United Nations. The United Nations' definition encompasses most of the states which were once under the Soviet Union's realm of influence and were part of the Warsaw Pact.
  • The United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN) was set up to consider the technical problems of domestic standardization of geographical names. The Group is composed of experts from various linguistic/geographical divisions that have been established at the UN Conferences on the Standardization of Geographical Names.
  1. Eastern Europe, Northern and Central Asia Division: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
  2. East Central and South-East Europe Division: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey, and Ukraine.
  3. Romano-Hellenic Division: Fifteen countries including Belgium, Cyprus, France, Greece, Holy See, Italy, Luxembourg, Moldova, Monaco, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, and Turkey.
  4. Baltic Division: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Russian Federation.
  • Other agencies of the United Nations (like UNAIDS, UNHCR, ILO, or UNICEF) divide Europe into different regions and variously assign various states to those regions.

European Union

The Multilingual Thesaurus of the European Union defines the following countries as Eastern Europe: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine;


The Ural Mountains, Ural River, and the Caucasus Mountains are the geographical land border of the eastern edge of Europe. In the west, however, the cultural and religious boundaries of "Eastern Europe" are subject to considerable overlap and, most importantly, have undergone historical fluctuations, which make a precise definition of the western boundaries of Eastern Europe somewhat difficult.

Contemporary developments

The fall of the Iron Curtain brought the end of the East-West division in Europe, but this geopolitical concept is sometimes still used for quick reference by the media.

The Baltic states

The Baltic states were widely recognised as occupied by the former Soviet Union and are EU members. They could be included in definitions of Eastern Europe as being situated between Western Europe and Russia though, geographically, in Northern Europe.


The Caucasus states are sometimes included in definitions of Eastern Europe or histories of Eastern Europe. They are located on the border of Europe and Asia. However they participate in European Union's Eastern Partnership Program. These countries are members of Council of Europe, and Georgia has sought membership in NATO and EU.

Other former Soviet states

Several other former Soviet republics are part of Eastern Europe

  •  Russia is a transcontinental country in Eastern Europe and Asia.
  •  Ukraine is a member of the council of Europe, has aspiration of joining the EU and is in the process of signing an Association agreement with the EU. Geographically is entirely in Europe. Culturally and Politically also belongs to Europe.
  •  Belarus
  •  Moldova

Central Europe

The term "Central Europe" is often used by historians to designate Germany and its eastern neighbors, and thus overlaps with "Eastern Europe." The following countries are often labeled Eastern European by some commentators and as Central European by others.

Southeastern Europe

Most South-eastern European states did not belong to the Eastern Bloc (save Bulgaria, Romania, and for a short time, Albania) although some of them were represented in the Cominform. Only some of them can be included in the classical former political definition of Eastern Europe. Some can be considered as being in Southern Europe. However, most can be characterized as belonging to South-eastern Europe, but some of them may also be included in Central Europe or Eastern Europe.

  •  Albania belongs to Southeastern Europe.
  •  Bosnia and Herzegovina may be included in Southeastern Europe
  •  Bulgaria is in the central part of the Balkans, it may be included in Southeastern Europe, but also Eastern Europe in the Cold War context
  •  Croatia may be included in Southeastern Europe and Central Europe.
  •  Cyprus belongs to Southwest Asia (Middle East), but because of its political, cultural and historical ties with Europe, it may be included into Southeastern Europe.
  •  Greece may be included in Southeastern and Southern Europe, but the country does not form part of Eastern Europe in the geopolitical sense.
  •  Macedonia belongs to Southeastern Europe.
  •  Montenegro belongs to Southeastern Europe.
  •  Romania can be included in Eastern Europe in the Cold War context, but is commonly referred to as belonging to Southeastern Europe or Central Europe.
  •  Serbia belongs to both Southeastern Europe and Central Europe.
  •  Turkey lies partially in Southeastern Europe: the region known as East Thrace, which constitutes 3% of the country's total land mass, lies west of the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosphorus.


Classical antiquity and medieval origins

Under Ashurbanipal (669-627 BC) the boundaries of the Assyrian Empire reached as far as the Caucasus Mountains in Eastern Europe. Other ancient kingdoms of the region included Armenia, Albania, Colchis and Iberia. These kingdoms were later incorporated into various Iranian empires, including Achaemenid Empire and Sassanid Empire. In 95-55 BC under the reign of Armenian king of kings Tigranes the Great, the Kingdom of Armenia became an empire, growing to include: Kingdom of Armenia, vassals Iberia, Albania, Parthia, Atropatene, Cappadocia, Cilicia and Atropatene. Owing to the rivalry between Persia and Rome, and later Byzantium, the latter would invade the region several times, although it was never able to hold the region.

The earliest known distinctions between east and west in Europe originate in the history of the Roman Republic. As the Roman domain expanded, a cultural and linguistic division appeared between the mainly Greek-speaking eastern provinces which had formed the highly urbanized Hellenistic civilization. In contrast the western territories largely adopted the Latin language. This cultural and linguistic division was eventually reinforced by the later political east-west division of the Roman Empire.

The division between these two spheres was enhanced during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages by a number of events. The Western Roman Empire collapsed starting the Early Middle Ages. By contrast, the Eastern Roman Empire, mostly known as the Byzantine Empire, managed to survive and even to thrive for another 1,000 years. The rise of the Frankish Empire in the west, and in particular the Great Schism that formally divided Eastern and Western Christianity, enhanced the cultural and religious distinctiveness between Eastern and Western Europe. Much of Eastern Europe was invaded and occupied by the Mongols.

The conquest of the Byzantine Empire, centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church, by the Muslim Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, and the gradual fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire (which had replaced the Frankish empire) led to a change of the importance of Roman Catholic/ Protestant vs. Eastern Orthodox concept in Europe, although even modern authors sometimes state that Eastern Europe is, strictly speaking, that part of Europe where the Greek and/or the Bulgarian Cyrillic alphabet is used (Greece, Cyprus, Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia).

Interwar years

A major result of the First World War was the breakup of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires, as well as partial losses to the German Empire. A surge of ethnic nationalism created a series of new states in Eastern Europe, validated by the Versailles Treaty of 1919. Poland was reconstituted after the partitions of the 1790s had divided it between Germany, Austria and Russia. New countries included Finland, the Baltics (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia), Ukraine (which was soon reabsorbed by the Soviet Union), Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Austria and Hungary had much reduced boundaries. Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece likewise were independent. All the countries were heavily rural, with little industry and only a few urban centers. Nationalism was the dominant force but most of the countries had ethnic or religious minorities who felt threatened by majority elements. Nearly all became democratic in the 1920s, but all of them (except Czechoslovakia and Finland) gave up democracy during the depression years of the 1930s, in favour of autocratic or strong-man or single party states. The new states were unable to form stable military alliances, and one by one were too weak to stand up against Germany or the Soviet Union, which took them over 1938-45

World War II and the Cold war

Russia, defeated in the First World War, lost territory as the Baltics and Poland made good their independence. The region was the main battlefield in the second World War (1939-45), with German and Soviet armies sweeping back and forth, with millions of Jews killed by the Nazis, and millions of others killed by disease, starvation and military action, or shot as politically dangerous. During the final stages of WWII the future of Eastern Europe was decided by the overwhelming power of the Soviet Red Army, as it swept the Germans aside. It did not reach Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece, however. Finland was free but forced to be neutral in the Cold War. The region fell to Soviet control, and Communist governments were imposed. Yugoslavia and Albania had their own Communist regimes; after a civil war the Communists lost in Greece. Eastern Bloc with the onset of the Cold War in 1947 was mostly behind.

Winston Churchill in his famous "Sinews of Peace" address March 5, 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri stressed the tight "iron curtain"::

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia.
The political borders of Eastern Europe were largely defined by the Cold War. The Iron Curtain separated the members of the Warsaw Pact (in red) from the European members of NATO (in blue). Dark gray indicates members of the Non-Aligned Movement and light gray indicates other neutral countries.

Eastern Bloc

The Soviet secret police, the NKVD, working in collaboration with local communists, created secret police forces using leadership trained in Moscow. As soon as the Red Army had expelled the Germans, this new secret police arrived to arrest political enemies according to prepared lists. They took control of the Interior Ministries, which controlled the local police. They confiscated and redistributed farmland. Next the Soviets and their agents took control of the mass media, especially radio, as well as the education system. Third the communists seized control of or replaced the organizations of civil society, such as church groups, sports, youth groups, trade unions, farmers organizations and civic organizations. Finally they engaged in large scale ethnic cleansing, moving ethnic minorities far away, often with high loss of life. After a year or two, the communists took control of private businesses and monitored the media and churches. For a while, cooperative non-Communist parties were tolerated. The communists had a natural reservoir of popularity in that they had destroyed Hitler and the Nazi invaders. Their goal was to guarantee long-term working-class solidarity.

Eastern Europe after 1945 usually meant all the European countries liberated and then occupied by the Soviet army. It included the German Democratic Republic (also known as East Germany), formed by the Soviet occupation zone of Germany. All the countries in Eastern Europe adopted communist modes of control. These countries were officially independent from the Soviet Union, but the practical extent of this independence - except in Yugoslavia, Albania, and to some extent Romania - was quite limited.

Under pressure from Stalin these nations rejected grants from the American Marshall plan. Instead they participated in the Molotov Plan which later evolved into the Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance). As NATO was created, most countries of Eastern Europe, became members of the opposing Warsaw Pact, forming a geopolitical concept that became known as Eastern Bloc.

  • First and foremost was the Soviet Union (which included the modern-day territories of Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova). Other countries dominated by the Soviet Union were the German Democratic Republic, People's Republic of Poland, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, People's Republic of Hungary, People's Republic of Bulgaria and Socialist Republic of Romania.
  • The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (formed after WWII and before its later dismemberment) was not a member of the Warsaw Pact. It was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, an organization created in an attempt to avoid being assigned to any of the two blocs. The movement was demonstratively independent from both the Soviet Union and the Western bloc for most of the Cold War period, allowing Yugoslavia and its other members to act as a business and political mediator between the blocs.
  • Socialist People's Republic of Albania broke with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s as a result of the Sino-Soviet split, aligning itself instead with China. Albania formally left the Warsaw pact in September 1968, after the suppression of the Prague spring. When China established diplomatic relations with the United States in 1978, Albania also broke with China. Albania and especially Yugoslavia were not unanimously appended to the Eastern Bloc, as they were neutral for a large part of the Cold War period.
Following disappearance of the Iron Curtain, the political situation has changed and some of the former members of the Warsaw Pact joined NATO.
  Current members
  Candidate countries
  Promised invitation
  Intensified Dialogue
  Membership not goal
  Undeclared intent

Since 1989

With the Fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 the political landscape of the Eastern Bloc, and indeed of the world, changed. In the German reunification, the Federal Republic of Germany peacefully absorbed the German Democratic Republic in 1990. In 1991, COMECON, the Warsaw Pact, and the Soviet Union were dissolved.

Many European nations which had been part of the Soviet Union regained their independence (Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Ukraine).

Czechoslovakia peacefully separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) fell apart, creating new nations in 1992: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and Macedonia (see Breakup of Yugoslavia). FRY was later renamed to Serbia and Montenegro and, in 2006, it broke up into these two countries.

Many countries of this region joined the European Union, namely Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Croatia is an acceding state and will join the EU on 1 July 2013. Three other states Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are currently official candidates that are yet to start membership talks with the EU.

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