Transitions of Eastern Europe after the Cold War
After World War II ended in 1945, Europe was divided into Western Europe and Eastern Europe by the Iron Curtain. Eastern Europe fell under the influence of the Soviet Union, and the region was separated from the West. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all the Soviet Republics bordering Eastern Europe declared independence from Russia and united with the rest of Europe. The transition Eastern Europe has experienced in the last few decades has not been easy; however, most of the countries are now looking to Western Europe for trade and economic development. Cooperation continues between Eastern and Western Europe, and the European Union (EU) has emerged as the primary economic and political entity of Europe.
The collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union led to upheaval and transition in the region of Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Each country in the region was under Communist rule. The countries bordering Russia were once part of the Soviet Union, and those countries not part of the Soviet Union were heavily influenced by its dominant position in the region. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the bordering countries declared independence and began the process of integration into the European community. Moldavia changed its name to Moldova. The countries of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia each broke into multiple countries and, because of the diverse ethnic populations, organized around the concept of nation-states. (See Section 2.2.6 “Nation-States and Devolution” for a discussion of nation-states.) Czechoslovakia peacefully agreed to separate into two states: the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia. Yugoslavia was not so fortunate.
Most Eastern European political borders resemble ethnic boundaries. Each of the regions once resembled nation-states. In principle, Romania is set apart for Romanians, Hungary for Hungarians, and so on. Few are true nation-states because of ethnic minorities located within their borders, but the countries held on to their shared heritage throughout the Communist era. In most Eastern European countries, cultural forces have brought people together to publicly support the move to unite and hold onto a heritage that is as old as Europe itself.
Governments that had been controlled by Communist dictators or authoritarian leaderships before 1991 were opened up to democratic processes with public elections. With the fall of Communism came economic reforms that shifted countries from central planning to open markets. Under central planning, the governments dictated which products were produced and how many of each were to be produced. The open markets invited private capitalism and western corporate businesses.
The power of the state was transferred from the Communist elite to the private citizen. People could vote for their public officials and could choose businesses and work individually. With the EU looming over the realm, the now-independent countries of Eastern Europe shifted their economic direction away from Moscow and the collapsing Communist state and toward the core industrial countries of Western Europe and the EU.
The stage for the transition from communism to capitalism was further set by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who began to liberalize the Soviet Union by allowing multiparty elections and encouraging economic reform and societal openness (concepts known throughout the world by the Russian words perestroika and glasnost, respectively). At the same time, the world watched as the Chinese government violently cracked down on student protests in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, which strengthened the revolutionary sentiments and intentions of many people in the Eastern bloc, the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe.
During the Communist period, Hungary enjoyed a higher standard of living than its neighbors. It was likely the marked contrast in daily life between the Communist period and the post-Communist period that influenced the outcome of the 1994 elections, which gave the Hungarian Socialist Party, led by former Communists, an absolute majority in parliament. Many were concerned that Hungary was signaling a wish to return to the past. Still, instead, all three main political parties joined together to work toward the common goals of continued liberalization of the economy, closer ties with the West, and full EU membership.
Economic reforms have not been easy for Hungary and have resulted in a lower standard of living for most people. The removal of government subsidies, a pillar of Communist rule, led to a recession. To avoid massive inflation and attract investment, government fiscal policies had to be conservative to the point of austerity. Hungary’s large-scale manufacturing and stable government have aided it through the latest global economic downturn.
An essential characteristic of post-Communist Hungary is its desire to become an active member of the global community by joining international organizations. In 1990, Hungary was the first Eastern bloc nation to join the Council of Europe. In 2004, Hungary joined the EU. Also, Hungary joined the other international organizations, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Another endeavor that would not have been possible under the Communist rule was the development of tourism as an important economic sector. Budapest’s reputation as a city of great elegance has helped it become one of the major tourist attractions in Eastern Europe. Major movie studios have also traveled to the city to film.
The Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic (Slovakia)
Each country in Eastern Europe has a different story to tell regarding its path from communism to independence. Countries such as the Czech Republic and Hungary were more prepared and better equipped to meet the challenges and were early qualifiers for entry into the EU. Historically, the region occupied by the modern Czech Republic was known as Bohemia and Moravia. The Czech Republic and Slovakia were, until recently, part of the same country: Czechoslovakia, which was created in 1918 from part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War II ended. On January 1, 1993, they became two newly independent nations. Slovakia is officially known as the Slovak Republic.
Czechs and Slovaks alike descended from Slavic peoples. The national language of the Czech Republic is Czech, while the official language of Slovakia is Slovakian. Both languages are in the Slavic linguistic family. About 94 percent of the population of the Czech Republic identify themselves as ethnically Czech. The others are Slovenian, Polish, German, Hungarian, and Roma (Gypsy). About 86 percent of the inhabitants of Slovakia self-identify as ethnically Slovakian. Hungarians make up the largest minority population, and about 2 percent of the population identify themselves as Roma.
Under Communist rule, the standard of living was very high in Czechoslovakia. When market reforms began in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the standard of living declined to some extent. In general, the Czech Republic has more rapidly and effectively transferred state control of industry to private ownership than has Slovakia. Also, Slovakia was hit harder by the move away from defense industries, which had employed many people during the Communist period. Unemployment has consistently been higher in Slovakia. Slovakia is not as industrialized as the Czech Republic but has made strides since its independence to provide economic opportunities for its people. Both countries expanded their economic prospects when they were admitted to the EU in 2004.
The Baltic Republics
The small Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania transitioned away from their old Soviet connections. After independence, they were quick to look toward Western Europe for trade and development. Most Eastern European countries followed this pattern. Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania received their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia withdrew its troops from the region in 1994. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the EU welcomed them as members in 2004. They have transitioned to market economies with democratic governments. The people of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania rapidly expanded their economic conditions after independence but have been hard hit by the downturn in the global marketplace in 2008.
Poland has a long-standing history of working to oppose the Communist domination of its country. The Solidarity movement in Poland started as an independent trade union in the 1980s but became a lightning rod for political change in Poland. The Communist Party dominated politics and suppressed any movement to organize labor or the people against the government. The strength of Solidarity became evident by the 1990 election, when Solidarity candidate Lech Wałęsa won Poland’s presidential election. Solidarity’s victory signified the collapse of the power of the Soviet Union and Communism in Eastern Europe. The country has emerged with a democratic government and a thriving capitalist economy.
Since the fall of Communism, Poland left behind its old state-directed economy and transitioned to a market economy, in which businesses are privately owned and run. When the Communists controlled Poland, there was a strong emphasis on heavy industry, and that focus remains alive today. Poland produces cars, buses, helicopters, trains, and heavy military equipment, including tanks and ships. Before the Communists industrialized the Polish economy, it was mostly agrarian. Though Poland continues to be one of Europe’s leading agricultural producers, with a wide variety of crops and dairy and meat production, it is unable to meet the food demands of its large population. Poland’s economy is still considered to be under development. Reforms, including privatization, must continue before Poland can adopt the euro, the common EU currency.
Unemployment has, at times, presented very significant problems for the Polish economy and society. Unemployment skyrocketed to nearly 20 percent in the early 1990s. The situation improved, but unemployment was still at about 14 percent in 2006. By 2010 the situation improved further, and the unemployment rate was around 7 percent. When Poland joined the EU, many people left Poland in search of work. Some of those workers who left have recently returned, as the employment rate and wages are both increasing substantially.
Moldova and Belarus
A variety of cultural and social forces provided different levels of civility in the transitions of Eastern Europe. The poor, agrarian economy of the small, landlocked country of Moldova provides few opportunities or advantages to grow its economy and provide a stronger future for its people. As a result, young people earning an education or technical skills immigrate to other countries for opportunities or employment.
In 1991, independence came to the former Soviet Republic of Belarus. Still, Belarus took a different path from most of the other Eastern bloc countries in that Belarus did not distance itself from its Russian connection. Belarus has consequently experienced authoritarian governments well into the twenty-first century. In this case, Russia and Belarus created a stronger relationship by signing agreements to increase economic integration. Difficulties have hindered the implementation of many of these policies. For one thing, the government of Belarus has been slow to move toward democratic reforms. The president has taken on greater authoritarian powers. Some of the personal freedoms that have been granted in other European countries—freedom of the press, free speech, and the right to peacefully assemble—are still restricted in Belarus. As of 2010, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova have not been admitted into the EU. Belarus has indicated that it might join with the Russian Republic and has not even applied for entry into the EU.
With the largest physical area in Europe, Ukraine is slightly larger than France. Its population in 2010 was approximately forty-six million, and 77 percent of the population is ethnically Ukrainian and 17 percent is Russian. Most of the population lives in the industrial regions of the southeast or eastern parts of the country. Though the official language is Ukrainian, many Ukrainians still speak Russian. As is the case with neighboring states, the Eastern Orthodox Church dominates the religious and cultural reflections of the arts, literature, and architecture. Christian themes are often reflected in the paintings, books, and performances.
The demographic trend in Ukraine follows a pattern of industrialization with smaller family sizes but continues to have a higher death rate than most European countries. The country is now losing about 150,000 people per year. The low birth rates are similar to those of Russia and southern Europe. Poor health and childhood poverty in Ukraine are two of the main issues confirmed by the United Nations (UN). In 2010, Ukraine had a negative population growth rate of −0.62 percent. Fertility rates have been in decline throughout Europe over the past few decades. The average fertility rate in Ukraine is 1.1, one of the world’s lowest; in Europe as a whole, the average is about 1.3. The causes for some of these trends can be attributed to alcoholism, poor diets, smoking, and the lack of medical care. The average life expectancy for an adult male in Ukraine is about sixty-two years. In comparison, the average life expectancy for men in France is about seventy-eight years.
Of the former Soviet Union republics, excluding Russia, Ukraine was far and away from the most important economic component, producing about four times the output of the next-ranking Soviet republic. Its fertile black soil generated more than one-fourth of the overall Soviet agricultural production, and its farms provided substantial quantities of meat, milk, grain, and vegetables to other republics. Likewise, its diversified heavy industry supplied steel pipes and raw materials to Russia’s oil and mining industry. Ukraine’s political relationship with Russia has Several since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, Russia still supplies enormous amounts of natural gas and oil to fuel the economy, and Russia’s markets are still highly integrated with those of Ukraine.
Though Ukraine has transitioned from a Soviet republic to a fully independent country, divisive centrifugal forces have made Ukraine’s path to free elections and democratically elected leaders difficult. The country has held political elections, but they have been challenged or tainted with corruption and accusations of fraud. Today, the country has a democratically elected government and is working toward improving its economy and creating stability for its people.
A number of countries of Eastern Europe have fully transitioned from Communist dictatorships to modern, integrated economies. Romania is one of those countries. Romania encompasses an area equivalent to the US state of Minnesota. Its population of 21.5 million people includes two million who live in Bucharest, the capital and largest city of the country. The Carpathian Mountains circle Romania, with the Transylvanian Alps to the south. The Danube River runs across the region and creates a natural border with Bulgaria and Serbia before flowing into the Black Sea. The Romanian forests are some of the largest in Europe, with about half (13 percent of the country) set aside from logging and placed in watershed conservation programs. The integrity of the ecosystems in the Romanian forests provide diverse habitats for plants and animals. Romania claims to have the most European brown bears and about 40 percent of all European wolves living within its borders.
Tourism is growing in Romania. Almost 5 percent of Romania is placed in protected areas, including thirteen national parks and three biosphere reserves, all of which are attractive to tourists. Tourist attractions also include medieval castles as well as historic Transylvanian cities. Rural tourism focuses on folklore and traditions including such sites as Bran Castle, referred to locally as the castle of Dracula, a mythical person patterned after the stories and legends of Vlad III the Impaler.
Romania’s Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu, ruled from 1965 to 1989. The end of his domination came when a revolution overthrew the government. Ceauşescu and his wife were arrested and shot to death. Even after his death, the Communist Party maintained strong ties to the government until the mid-1990s.
The transition to integrate Romania’s economy with that of the greater European economy was delayed because of Romania’s obsolete industrial infrastructure, established during the Communist era. Since joining the EU in 2007, Romania has developed a stronger export market with Western European countries. Investments and consumer confidence have fueled the growth of the domestic economy. Romania has worked through several thorny issues in its attempts to provide a stable government and a growing market economy.
The southern Adriatic is home to the small country of Albania. The rugged mountainous country of Albania has a Muslim majority. Poverty, unemployment, and a lack of opportunities to gain wealth have plagued the country. Albania has even received Communist support from China. As a result of the war in Kosovo, Albania suffered a major setback in its progress toward an improved standard of living and integration with the rest of Europe. When stability is established, Albania can progress toward becoming more integrated with the European economy and raise its standard of living for its people. Parliamentary democracy has been installed since the Communist era, and foreign investments have aided in developing updated transportation and power grids.
Located in the crossroads of the continents, Bulgaria has a major trans-European corridor running through its territory that connects to Asia. The country is home to diverse landscapes, which include the sunny Black Sea coast and the higher elevations of the Balkan Mountains, which reach a height of 9,596 feet. The Danube River flows across the border with Bulgaria on its way to the Black Sea. About one-third of the country consists of plains, which provide for extensive agricultural activity. Ore and minerals can also be found in Albania, which has allowed the country to gain wealth.
Upon declaring independence from Russia, Bulgaria held multiparty elections. Its economy is emerging, but the transition to a capitalist system has not been without the difficulties of unemployment, inflation, and corruption. Bulgaria became a member of NATO in 2004 and was accepted for EU membership in 2007. The transition to a free-market economy is still in progress, with mining, industry, and agriculture as the main economic activities. Tourism is an emerging segment of the economy that has been gaining international attention in recent years. The country has a milder climate than the northern states of Eastern Europe and has been marketing itself as a major tourist destination. The main points of interest include historical monasteries, coastal resorts on the Black Sea, and the capital city of Sofia.
A Valuable Lesson in Political and Cultural Geography
The name Yugoslavia, applied to the region along the Adriatic in 1929, means Land of the South Slavs. From 1918 to 1929, the region had been called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Non-Slavic populations surround Yugoslavia. The region’s core is mountainous. The Dinaric Alps, with the highest peak at just below nine thousand feet in elevation, run through the center of the Balkan Peninsula. The rugged mountains separate and isolate groups of Slavic people who, over time, have formed separate identities and consider themselves different from those on the other sides of the mountain ridges. Distinct subethnic divisions developed into the Slovenes, Macedonians, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Croats, and Serbs, with various additional groups. These differences led to conflict, division, and war when the breakup of the former Yugoslavia began.
World War I started in the city of Sarajevo, Bosnia, when a Serb advocate assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. In the next conflict, World War II, there was also divisiveness within Yugoslavia: Croatia sided with Nazi Germany, but Serbia was an ally with the Communist Soviet Union. The region of Bosnia, with a Muslim majority, faced religious opposition from its mainly Christian neighbors. A group headed by Marshal Tito (a.k.a. Josip Broz) led Yugoslavia after World War II ended in 1945. Tito created a Communist state that attempted to retain its own brand of neutrality between the Warsaw Pact nations led by the Soviet Union and the NATO nations of the West.
Tito was a centripetal force for the region of Yugoslavia. For over forty years, he held the many ethnic Slavic groups together under what he called Brotherhood and Unity, which was actually the threat of brute military force. It appears to have been effective. The 1984 Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo as a witness to the progress and unity of Tito’s Yugoslavia. At the same time, Yugoslavia started manufacturing a model of automobiles called the Yugo. While the Yugo was not in the same league as high-end European luxury cars, the ability to make and purchase automobiles was a testimony to the rising industrial level of the Yugoslav economy. This progressive trend, unfortunately, was not to last.
The Breakup of Former Yugoslavia
The name Yugoslavia, applied to the region along the Adriatic in 1929, means Land of the South Slavs. From 1918 to 1929, the region had been called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Non-Slavic populations surround Yugoslavia. The region’s core is mountainous. The Dinaric Alps, with the highest peak at just below nine thousand feet in elevation, run through the center of the Balkan Peninsula. The rugged mountains separate and isolate groups of Slavic people who, over time, have formed separate identities and consider themselves different from those on the other sides of the mountain ridges. Distinct subethnic divisions developed into the Slovenes, Macedonians, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Croats, and Serbs, with various additional groups. These differences led to conflict, division, and war when the breakup of former Yugoslavia began.
World War I started in the city of Sarajevo, Bosnia, when a Serb advocate assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. In the next conflict, World War II, there was also divisiveness within Yugoslavia: Croatia sided with Nazi Germany, but Serbia was an ally with the Communist Soviet Union. The region of Bosnia, with a Muslim majority, faced religious opposition from its mainly Christian neighbors. A group headed by Marshal Tito (a.k.a. Josip Broz) led Yugoslavia after World War II ended in 1945. Tito created a Communist state that attempted to retain its brand of neutrality between the Warsaw Pact nations led by the Soviet Union and the NATO nations of the West.
Tito was a centripetal force for the region of Yugoslavia. For over forty years, he held the many ethnic Slavic groups together under what he called Brotherhood and Unity, which was the threat of brute military force. It appears to have been effective. The 1984 Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo as a witness to the progress and unity of Tito’s Yugoslavia. At the same time, Yugoslavia started manufacturing a model of automobiles called the Yugo. While the Yugo was not in the same league as high-end European luxury cars, the ability to make and purchase automobiles was a testimony to the rising industrial level of the Yugoslav economy. This progressive trend, unfortunately, was not to last.
Military forces continue to monitor and secure the regions of Bosnia. Portions of Bosnia under Serb control have declared themselves the Republic of Srpska and have attempted to create their nation-state. The remaining territory of Bosnia (51 percent) consists of a joint Bosnian/Croat federation. Both regions have sublevel governments within the formal country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Herzegovina is a small region extending from the city of Mostar to the southern border with Montenegro. In June of 2006, the region of Montenegro declared itself independent of Serbia. Montenegro uses the euro as its currency and has applied for WTO membership. Montenegro has privatized its primary industries and is soliciting a tourism industry.
The War for Kosovo
Yugoslavia, under the leadership of President Miloševik, sought to ensure that Kosovo would never leave the umbrella of Greater Serbia. The 1.8 million Albanian Muslims who lived in Kosovo constituted 90 percent of the population by 1989. They did not want to live under Serb control. Serbia claimed that Kosovo was the heart of the Serb Orthodox Church and the cradle of the medieval Serbian Empire. The historic battles against the Islamic Turkish Ottoman Empire in Kosovo have been memorialized in Serb tradition and history.
The main opposition to the Serb power structure in Kosovo in the early 1990s was the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Many in the KLA wanted an independent Kosovo and an alliance with Albania. In 1998, Miloševik sent troops into areas controlled by the KLA. The civil war in Kosovo between Serbs and Albanian Muslims was devastating the region and creating thousands of refugees. The tension, hatred, and massacres by both forces further complicated the peace process. In March of 1999, NATO implemented a unified mission, called Operation Allied Force, to force Miloševik to discontinue the ethnic cleansing campaign and end the violence in Kosovo.
In June of 1999, Miloševik yielded to a peace agreement that brought Kosovo under the auspices of the UN and NATO forces, removed the Serb military, and allowed for the safe return of over eight hundred thousand refugees from Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Miloševik lost his bid for the presidency in the elections of 2000, was arrested for crimes against humanity in 2001, and was transferred to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands. The charges brought against him included ethnic cleansing and torture. He died in 2006 while in custody before the trial ended.
NATO forces continue to be stationed in Kosovo to keep the peace and work toward restoring order. After much negotiation between the UN and regional entities, the Kosovo Assembly declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Serb officials overwhelmingly opposed Kosovo’s independence, as they had in 1991. Kosovo’s status is now pending in the UN.
Conclusion of Former Yugoslavia
Kosovo and the independent republics of former Yugoslavia provide an excellent study in the dynamics of ethnicity, culture, and political geography. The lessons learned from this region could be applied to many other areas of the world, suffering similar conflicts, such as Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Congo/Zaire, or East Timor. Former Yugoslavia represents an example of how divisive centrifugal and devolutionary forces can lead to nationalism and eventually to war. The drive toward a nation-state has fueled nationalism and conflict in the Balkans. The civil wars within the former Yugoslavia have cost thousands of lives and destroyed an infrastructure that had taken decades to build. Geographers have called Eastern Europe a shatter belt because of the conflicts and divisions that have occurred there.
In spite of the problems with the transition in Eastern Europe, the region has nonetheless seen enormous economic gains. Even Slovenia, once part of former Yugoslavia, has rebounded with strong economic growth. Many of the progressive Eastern European countries have been accepted into the EU. The map of the EU includes many of the developing Eastern bloc countries. Eastern Europe has experienced many transitions throughout its history. The transition from communism to capitalism is only one part of the geography and history of Eastern Europe.