Where does Europe end? It is easy to pinpoint its borders in the north, south, and west – partially because coastlines clearly delineate them. It is much more complicated regarding the continent’s final frontier farther east. The eastern end is considered to be the Ural Mountains, although this boundary has changed throughout history.
There is uncertainty about where Europe’s eastern border extends deep into the continent, making the boundaries between its parts blur. Only the accession of parts of the former Soviet bloc countries to the European Union made it possible to distinguish Central from Eastern Europe. But it did not erase the differences. The war in Ukraine has clearly shown that countries from Central Europe have a much better understanding of those further east than Western European states.
Stark European contrasts
“Central Europe” is quite a new concept. This idea began at the beginning of the 20th century, but it only started gaining traction in the 80s. “It was revived by Czech, Hungarian, and Polish writers such as Milan Kundera, György Konrad, and Czesław Miłosz, as an intellectual and political alternative to the Soviet-dominated “Eastern Europe,” wrote Prof. Timothy Garton Ash in his article “The Puzzle of Central Europe” from 1999.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the division between Central and Eastern Europe began to deepen. Countries near the Baltic Sea and in the tributaries of the Vistula and Danube started to integrate rapidly into Western Europe. Countries closer to Russia were stuck in the post-Soviet grey zone, trying to work out their own development model. Unsuccessfully. The differences between the nations of the two blocs widened with each passing year, and the pace accelerated after the accession of 11 Central European countries to the European Union in 2004, 2007, and 2013.
The outbreak of war in Ukraine is the most glaring example of how deep a difference has grown between Central and Eastern European countries. The former – belonging to the EU as well as NATO – are most worried about high inflation. The latter have lived for years in the shadow of an aggressive, undemocratic Russia and have paid a very high price for this in the form of political instability, corruption, and economies taken over by oligarchs.
All these problems affected not only Ukraine but all the countries of the region: Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Virtually every one of these countries in the 21st century has experienced war or at least realistically feared armed conflict. It provides a stark contrast to those countries that, after 1989, set their sights unequivocally on rapprochement with the West.
A new Iron Curtain to cut out Russia
The increasingly profound differences apparent at various levels (economic, political, as well as social, and civilizational) between the two parts of Europe, which until 1989 were either part of the Soviet Union or its satellite, are a fact. But something else is also a fact – the bond linking the countries that formerly formed the communist bloc. Although they have been moving at different speeds for more than 30 years, choosing different development and political models, some similarities can be discerned throughout. This can be seen, for example, in the reaction to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – the Central European countries started to provide assistance to Kyiv much faster and with much more commitment than the other countries of the transatlantic bloc.
This is confirmed by data such as that published by the Kiel Institute, showing that those are the states of Central Europe that donate the highest percentage of their GDP to Ukraine (including help for war refugees). For instance, Poland’s support is worth 2.8% of its GDP. Latvia and Estonia have allocated 2.1% of their GDP, Bulgaria – 1.8%, Czechia – 1.7%, and Lithuania – 1.5%. Support from other countries has not exceeded 1.0% of GDP.
The identity commonality with Eastern European countries can also be seen in the 2022/2023 Eurobarometer survey. Respondents in all EU countries were asked if they agreed or not with the statement: “People in the EU’s Eastern neighbor countries have a lot of things in common with people in the EU.” The percentage of positive responses was significantly higher in Central European countries than in Western or Southern European countries.
On average, 43% of EU citizens agree with this sentence – and 49% disagree. Ties with Eastern Europeans are not felt by 66% of Dutch, 61% of Greeks, 57% of French, and 56% of Germans. In contrast, 68% of Poles, 66% of Irish, 62% of Swedes, 59% of Croatians, and 57% of Hungarians admit to feeling a strong connection with them. When looking at the results of the other EU countries, it is apparent that understanding of Eastern Europe is more often seen in the countries of the central part of the continent than in its other regions.
The post-Yalta gap
This compassion of feeling between Central and Eastern Europe is most easily explained by history. “The post-Yalta order dictated a strict and single dichotomy. Western Europe implicitly accepted this dichotomy by subsuming under the label “Eastern Europe,” all those parts of historic Central, East Central, and South-Eastern Europe that fell under Soviet domination after 1945. The European Economic Community (the forerunner of the EU) completed the semantic trick by arrogating to itself the unqualified title, ‘Europe,'” wrote Timothy Garton Ash in another essay, “Does Central Europe Exist?” from 1986.
Eastern Europe began to split into parts only after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, there is a visible distinction between Central and Eastern Europe. But the latter – adjacent to the EU – occupies too little space in the consciousness of the collective West. The most striking example of this has been the war in Ukraine, the outbreak of which was made possible by, among other things, the mistakes of Western countries in their relations with Russia. “The European Union needs to do much more to insulate itself against the variegated pathologies emanating from Moscow. It needs to reinstitute an Iron Curtain to cut Russia entirely out of economics and politics across the continent while stepping up the integration of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine into EU structures,” proposes Prof. John O’Brennan from Maynooth University.
But this will not be achieved unless the vast majority of Europeans fully realize that their security is directly linked to the fate of Eastern European countries. Central Europeans – as those who understand the East better – are naturally predisposed to play the role of liaison and interpreter. And they have to watch carefully to ensure nothing is lost in translation.