Eastern Europe as a region has several alternative definitions, whereby it can denote:
- European countries of the former "Eastern Bloc", or
- the region lying between the variously and vaguely defined areas of Central Europe and Russia. This new Eastern Europe has become more commonly used to identify the region since the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, or
- a homogeneous group of countries which stretches from the Ural mountains or the eastern border of European Russia to:
The boundaries of Eastern Europe can be subject to considerable overlap and fluctuation depending on the context they are used in, which makes differentiation difficult. As is also true of continents, regions are only social constructs and should not be understood as physical features defined by abstract, neutral criteria.
In many sources the term "Eastern Europe" still encompasses most, or all, such European countries that until the end of the "Cold War" (around 1989) were under communist regimes or direct Soviet control, i.e., the former "Eastern Bloc". However, it is currently common to include many former "Eastern Bloc" nations in the categories of Southeastern Europe/Balkans, Central Europe and Northern Europe.
As a term, the origins of "Eastern Europe" are fairly recent. For many years Europe was divided on a North-South axis, with the southern Mediterranean states having much in common, and the northern Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea bordering states also having much in common (see also Northern Europe, Nordic Countries). The term "Eastern Europe" first arose in the 19th century and was used to describe an area that was falling behind the rest of Europe economically. It was seen as a region where serfdom and reactionary autocratic governments persisted long after those things faded in the West. It was always a very vague notion, however, and many countries in the region did not fit the stereotypical view.
More recently, the term "Eastern Europe" has been used to refer to all European countries that were previously under communist regimes, the so-called "Eastern Bloc". The idea of an "Iron Curtain" separating "Western Europe" and Soviet-controlled "Eastern Europe" was dominant throughout the period of Cold War which followed the Second World War. This dualism failed to account fully for some exceptions, as Yugoslavia and Albania were communist states, yet refused to be controlled by the Kremlin. In recent years, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991), freeing its captive states, the term "Eastern Europe" is sometimes used to identify the region, in effect retroactively, as consisting only of these European countries that were during the decades prior to 1991 known as parts of the Soviet Union (see list below).
As a cultural and ethnic difference, the rise of nationalism in the 1800s and onward coined the term Eastern Europe to by synonymous with "Slavic Europe", as opposed to Germanic (Western) Europe. This concept was re-enforced during the years leading up to World War II and was often used in a racist terminology to characterize Eastern/Slavic culture as being backwards and inferior to Western/Germanic culture, language, and customs. Eastern Europe would then refer to imaginary line which divided prodominantly German lands from predominant Slavic lands. The dividing line has thus changed over time as a result of the World Wars, as well as numerous expulsions and genocides.
As the ideological division has now disappeared, the cultural division of Europe between Western Christianity, on the one hand, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Islam, on the other, has reemerged. It follows the so-called Huntington line of "clashing civilizations" corresponding roughly to the eastern boundary of Western Christianity in the year 1500. This line runs along what are now the eastern boundaries separating Norway, Finland, Estonia and Latvia from Russia, continues east of Lithuania, cuts in northwestern Ukraine, swings westward separating Transylvania from the rest of Romania, and then along the line now separating Slovenia and Croatia from the rest of ex-Yugoslavia. In the Balkans this line coincides with the historic border between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, whereas in the north it marks the then eastern boundaries of Kingdom of Sweden and Teutonic Order, and the subsequent spread of Lutheran Reformation. The peoples to the west and north of the Huntington line are Protestant or Catholic; they shared most of the common experiences of Western European history -- feudalism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution.
The 1995 and 2004 enlargements arguably brought the European Union's eastern border up to the boundary between Western and Eastern Orthodox civilizations. Most of Europe's historically Protestant and Roman Catholic countries (with the exception of Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Croatia, and the various European microstates) were now EU members, while most of Europe's historically Eastern Orthodox countries (with the exception of Greece and Cyprus) were outside the EU.
A view that Europe is divided strictly into the West and the East is considered pejorative by many in the nominally eastern countries, especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall and Communism in Europe overall. Europeans from the formerly communist-controlled countries tend not to classify themselves as "East Europeans" but prefer to include themselves in other groups, associating themselves with Central Europe, with Northern Europe, or with Southern Europe. For example, many people in Estonia, Poland, Czech Republic or Slovenia may feel the label stigmatizing in comparison with countries that successfully have asserted their belonging to "the West" despite their equally, or more, "eastern" location — and history as parts of Imperial Russia (Finland) or Eastern Orthodoxy (Greece).
Former Eastern Bloc
The United Nations Statistics Division defines Eastern Europe as:
These countries were all formerly within the Soviet Union:
Note: The forcible annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet Union in 1940 was considered illegal by the United States and most Western European democracies and the three nations were de jure not considered parts of the Soviet Union.
Southeastern Europe/Balkan Peninsula
Commonly this definition is expanded to include these other previously communist countries:
- the Czech Republic - part of former Czechoslovakia
- Slovakia - part of former Czechoslovakia
- Slovenia - formerly within Yugoslavia
Prior to the German reunification, East Germany was often counted to Eastern Europe. Croatia is partially in the region too, which explains why it is sometimes excluded from this group. Also all countries in the region entered EU in 2004, while Croatia is still a candidate country.
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