Eastern Europe has changed dramatically since 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved and the Warsaw Pact ended. Former Czechoslovakia became two countries, and former Yugoslavia fragmented in 1991/1992 into six states (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia). This led to several wars in the territory of former Yugoslavia, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 140,000 people. Eastern Europe still tries to catch up to the rest of Europe, and there is a long way to go. In recent years, the region became a transit hub for refuges from the Syrian war and the unrest in the Middle East. Where is Eastern Europe today, and what is its future? In the following I want to share a few interesting facts about the region, as well as some pictures from several trips through the region.
Sometimes we use the expression "The Balkans" to refer to South-Eastern Europe. The Balkan peninsula stretches south from the Balkan Mountains, and is surrounded by the Adriatic Sea in the West and the Black Sea in the East. The Northern Border is the Danube River, which is the most significant waterway of Europe.
The Balkans were traditionally an area of political and social unrest. It is a place where Greek and Latin cultures mix; Catholic and Orthodox Christianity clashes with the influence of Islam stemming from the centuries-long presence of the Ottoman Empire. Then came the Habsburg and the Austro-Hungarian Empires, and the First World War started with a shooting in Sarajevo. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union dominated the region, and since 1991, Eastern European States seek refuge in the European Union. They all try to modernize, build democratic political structures, and reach a Western-European standard of living. Some of the former Warsaw Pact countries, like Poland or Hungary, have done very well, and there are huge improvements across the whole region. Some of the underlying and long-standing conflicts however persist and continue to simmer (Kosovo, Bosnia, Greece-Turkey.) The European Union wants to integrate the Balkans, but the progress is slow, due to the levels of corruption, crime, and nationalism in the region. Also, the integration of the Balkans into the European Union is opposed by Russia. Europe cannot solve the centuries-old religious conflicts with administrative measures alone: Will the vision of Europe, and the values that are implied in it, be strong enough to permanently transform the region from a complex political conflict zone into a prosperous and peaceful region?
Country Statistics and Trends
The following list of countries presents some statistical and economic data for the region. (Here are links to the financial and social rankings of all sovereign European States.) I include Poland as the northern neighbor, Russia on the eastern side, and Austria and Germany as the western neighbors. Germany is also the biggest economy of Europe, and serves here as a reference point for the small countries that comprise the "Balkans." The links mostly connect to statistical data from the CIA World Factbook, which is reliable, thoroughly researched, and updated frequently. (The first link for each country leads to a one-page summary.) All economic numbers are in USD, and I use purchasing power parity, or PPP, for comparisons.
Germany: Germany is a founding member of the European Union, with a slightly shrinking population of roughly 80 million people, an economic output of 4.5 trillion USD and a 2021 GDP/Cap of 53,200 USD.
Russia: Russia dominated Eastern Europe after the defeat of Germany in World War II. It separated Eastern Europe from Western Europe through the Iron Curtain and brought Marxism to all countries under the control of the Soviet Union. Russia was founded in the 12th century as the Principality of Muscovy. It emerged from over 200 years of Mongol domination (13th-15th centuries) and gradually conquered and absorbed surrounding principalities. The revolution of 1905 brought an end to the Czarist system, and in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1917 the Communist Party came to power. The Communist Party ruled until Gorbachev liberalized the country in 1990, which led to a coup, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. After years of economic decline (GDP shrank by 50%) Russia reverted to an authoritarian state when Putin came to power in 1999. Today, Russia has a shrinking population of 141.7 million people, a GDP of $4.016 trillion USD, and a GDP per capita ratio of $27,900. It is heavily dependent of the export of natural resources (oil, gas, coal), with a high concentration of wealth in the hands of government officials and a few oligarchs.
Poland: A former Warsaw Pact country that joined the EU in 2004, and is preparing to adopt the Euro. Poland has a shrinking population of 38.3 million people, a GDP of 1.13 trillion USD, and a GDP/Cap of 29,600 USD.
Austria: An alpine country with a population of 8.8 million people. It is a member state of the EU since 1995. It is also a member of the Eurozone (the group of countries that uses the Euro as currency.) It has a GDP of $491 billion USD and a GDP/Cap of $56,917.
Czech Republic: It's a small country with 10.7 million people. It joined NATO in 1999, and the EU in 2004. It has a GDP of 376 billion USD, and a GDP/Capita of 35,500 USD. Czechia was forcefully unified with Slovakia at the close of World War I, when the former Austro-Hungarian Empire broke apart and Czechs and Slovaks merged to form Czechoslovakia. This union was again dissolved in the "velvet divorce" of 1993. Czechoslovakia was occupied in 1968 by Russian troops during the Prague Spring.
Slovakia: Slovakia has a long history - it traces its roots to the 9th century state of Moravia, then became part of the Hungarian Kingdom for a millennium. After splitting from the Czech Republic in 1993, Slovakia joined both NATO and the EU in the spring of 2004 and the euro zone in 2009. It has a population of 5.4 million people, a GDP of $179.7 billion USD, and GDP per capita of $33,100 USD.
Hungary: Hungary became a Christian Kingdom in 1000, and remained a bulwark against the Ottoman Empire (Ottoman-Hungarian Wars.) The 1956 uprising against Communist rule was crushed by Russian troops. Hungary held its first multiparty elections in 1990 and initiated a free market economy. It joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004. Hungary has a population of 9.8 million, a GDP of $289.6 billion USD, and a GDP per capita of $29,600.
Romania: Romania was for centuries under the control of the Ottoman Empire, and gained independence only in 1878. Romania sided with Germany during World War II, and was subsequently conquered by Russian troops. Romania was ruled for decades by Ceausescu with an iron fist, who turned the country into a dictatorial police state. He was executed in 1989, but ongoing corruption hampered real progress for the country. Romania became a NATO member in 2004, and joined the EU in 2007. Romania has a shrinking population of 21.3 million people, GDP of $483.4 billion, and GDP/Cap of $24,600 USD.
Bulgaria: Bulgaria has a shrinking population of 7 million people, a GDP of $153.5 billion USD, and a GDP per capita ratio of $21,800 USD. It is one of the poorest EU countries, has an open economy, but its per-capita income remains among the lowest in the EU. The country stills relies heavily on Russia, especially for energy imports. It has high levels of corruption, a weak judiciary, low productivity, a lack of transparency in public procurements, and organized crime. These conditions hamper foreign investment and economic prospects.
Croatia: Croatia stretches along the Eastern Adriatic coast, and its capital of Zagreb. Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the close of World War I. In 1918, the Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes formed a kingdom that became known as Yugoslavia. After World War II, Yugoslavia became a federal independent communist state. Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, which led to four years of bitter fighting before Yugoslav forces and ethnic Serbians were removed from Croatia. The country joined NATO in April 2009 and the EU in July 2013. It is a very small country with a shrinking population of 4.2 million people, a GDP of $102.1 billion USD, and a GDP/Cap of $24,700 USD.
Slovenia: Slovenia is another small country, located between Austria and Croatia. It's capital is Ljubljana. It has a population of 2.1 million people, a GDP of $163.7 billion USD, and GDP/Cap of $34,500. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, Slovenia quickly integrated into Western Europe. It has a growing economy and a stable democracy. Slovenia joined NATO and the EU in the spring of 2004 and became a member of the euro zone and the Schengen zone in 2007.
Serbia: After being at the center of multiple successor wars in the aftermath of Yugoslavia's breakup in 1991, Serbia was bombed by NATO forces in 1999 due to its occupation of Kosovo. It is today a small landlocked country with 7 million inhabitants. 85% of its citizens are orthodox Christians. It is a poor country with a GDP of $105.7 billion USD, and a GDP per capita ratio of $18,233 USD. Serbia is in negotiations to join the EU in 2025.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: About half of the population of 3.8 million people in Bosnia is Muslim, 30% are orthodox Christians, and 15% are Catholics. Many ethnic Serbs lived in Bosnia, so when Yugoslavia broke apart and the civil wars started, "ethnic cleansing" became a terrible form of politics. Eventually, the Dayton Peace Accord was signed in 1995, enforced by UN and European Union troops. The country was stabilized as "Bosnia and Herzegovina," with a guarantee for its international boundaries. A multiethnic and democratic government was created and charged with conducting foreign, diplomatic, and fiscal policy, but it is a very complicated political construction. Bosnia has a GDP of $49 billion USD, and a GDP per capita of $14,900.
Albania: Albania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. It was conquered by Italy in 1939 and occupied by Germany in 1943. Communist partisans took over the country in 1944. Albania allied itself first with the USSR (until 1960), and then with China (to 1978). In the early 1990s, Albania ended 46 years of isolated communist rule and established a multiparty democracy. Albania has a large informal economy, high unemployment, widespread corruption, dilapidated infrastructure, and powerful organized crime networks. Nevertheless, it makes progress, joined NATO in April 2009, and in April 2017, it received a European Commission recommendation to join the EU, pending some further reforms. It has a population of 3.1 million people, of which 57% are Muslim. It has a GDP of 40 billion USD, and a GDP/Cap of 14,000 USD. Joining the EU would usher in a new period of growth for the country.
Greece: Greece has a population of 10.6 million people, and a GDP of 319 Billion USD. It's GDP/Cap ratio is $29,800 USD. Greece liberated itself from the Ottoman Empire in 1830 and became a monarchy. During World War II, Greece was occupied by Germany (1941-44); which led to fighting between supporters of the king and other anti-communist and communist rebels. Greece joined NATO in 1952. From 1967 to 1974 it was a ruled by a military dictatorship country. In 1974 it became a parliamentary republic and abolished the monarchy. Greece joined the EU in 1981, and became a member of the Eurozone in 2001. It went through a severe economic crisis since 2009, due to chronic overspending and structural problems. The ensuing bailout programs were hard on the economy and the people, but Greece is back on a growth path since 2018.
The overview above shows how uneven the development in the region is. Hungary, with a million people more than Austria, still has only about half the GDP per capita. Both states are EU members, and their capitals, Vienna and Budapest, are only 150 miles apart from each other. Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia have done very well, while Serbia and Bosnia are still very poor, followed by Bulgaria and Romania. The small Southern states of the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro, are also very poor. Albania, which kept tis independence for decades as a staunchly Communist country, is an example for the future of the region: the only way forward for these countries is to merge into the European Union. Russia is not a viable alternative as a big partner any more.
EU integration operates on two tracks: becoming a member state, and adopting the Euro as currency.
Countries join through a political process of candidacy and accession, which leads to reforms in respect to the implementation of the following rights in the country constitution: respect for human dignity; freedom; democracy; equality; the rule of law; respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.
Serbia, Bosnia, Albania and Macedonia are not yet members of the 27 Nation EU block. The Monetary Union does not include Hungary, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria. This situation reflects the difficulties Europe faces in its pursuit of integration. The differences in the political structure and leadership of these countries are so deep that the “Pax Europeana” is still very much in question in the Balkans. Europe has to stay engaged and continue to pursue a Pan-European vision for the region. This process has been delayed during the years of BREXIT negotiations. The United Kingdoms' desire to leave the Union challenges the very idea of Europe, because it is more than just a bureaucratic political entity. If Europe is only grounded in political and economic cooperation of the member states it would lack an intrinsic common bond, and it would be built upon sand. By giving up on Europe at a time of eastward expansion, the UK has returned to its old historic distance, and tries to revive its role as a balancing point between feuding European powers. The other end of the European political spectrum is Russia and its pursuit of regional hegemony over Eastern Europe.
Integrating the small states of former Yugoslavia will eventually succeed, because they have no political alternatives. The process has become more difficult due to the stream of Middle-Eastern refugees, coming through the Balkans since the start of the Arab Spring and the Syrian war in 2011. Currently, Turkey is the buffer zone, and it wants to join the European Union as well (it currently has candidate status.) The integration of Turkey into the European Union seems further away than ever since the attempted military putsch in Turkey in July 2016.
Old religious divisions define many European conflicts. Europe is built on 2000 years of Christianity. Turkey represents the old Ottoman Empire. It has a population of 82 million people, who are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims. Europe's secular humanism will be severely tested with these political expansions.
As a political structure with 445 million people, Europe is founded on tolerance, and it promises affluence and wealth to its citizens. Europe's diversity and multi-culturalism is different than in the United States. There is no central European language, for instance. People are free to travel, but local differences often function as barriers. European politicians are by and large not visionary leaders, they can barely be distinguished from bureaucrats, and it is sometimes unclear how decisions are made. There is a tendency to trade democracy for stability, and to overlook corruption and systemic political failures. The integration process has lost political support, and is under political scrutiny: is the EU too focused on process and not enough on substance? Does Europe evoke hope, and inspire the younger generation?
What did Europeans learn from the problems in recent years? The economic crisis in Greece was a test case: Portugal, Spain, and Italy also have deep economic problems. Can Europe continue to bail out every failed state in its sphere of influence? Internal opposition to Europe has been growing in many member countries. The backlash against Islamic terrorism has triggered right-wing reactions and the creation of new political movements, like the AFD in Germany. Undoubtedly, Europe is under pressure. The Russian occupation of the Crimea and the undeclared war in the Ukraine are almost forgotten conflicts that continue to burn. External political players don't loose any time: Russia, Turkey, the US, the Gulf countries, or China, are all trying to fill the power vacuum that emerges from a weak and indecisive Europe.
If you travel through Eastern Europe today, you'll see beautiful towns and landscapes, many signs of economic development, and people who want to celebrate their freedom and the lifestyles that come along with it. They want to leave behind a dark past, but this past also carries an extremely rich history.