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 Central Europe

 Albania  East Germany  Serbia
 Austria  Hungary  Slovakia
 Bulgaria  Moldova  Slovenia
 Croatia  Poland  Ukraine
 Czech Republic  Romania  Yugoslavia

Except for Austria, these were the Communist countries. Austria was occupied by the allied forces in zones, as was Germany. However, Khruschov agreed to a peace treaty in exchange for a guarantee of neutrality - possibly a test run for a treaty about Germany, but that never happened.

During the Communist period (1945-1990) this area was usually called Eastern Europe, but before that it was Central Europe (German Mitteleuropa) and it represents the area between Germany and Russia. It once had something of a common culture - but this was created mainly by the Austrian monarchy and the Jews, who were exterminated by Hitler or dispersed to Israel and America. Before the first world war much of it belonged to Austria-Hungary, though Poland was split between the three empires. Bulgaria and Romania were independent but dependent on Russia.

Between the world wars the area was seen as a buffer between Germany and the Soviet Union. Most, except for Czechoslovakia, were dictatorships of one kind or another. All were occupied by Germany during the second world war. All were occupied by Soviet forces advancing to the defeat of Germany. Following that war Stalin saw them as a necessary frontier zone to prevent further western invasion of Russia (Russians remembered: Napoleon, the Crimean war, 1914, Hitler).

He formed them into an "alliance", the Warsaw Pact, in which their armies were under the control of Soviet commanders; their economies were integrated into COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Co-operation) by which their trade was almost entirely with the Soviet Union which controlled the whole and denominated in the non-convertible rouble. Their governments were formed by Communists who were under the control of the government in the Kremlin. Travel from western Europe was difficult and needed visas.

The economic collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberalization policies of Mikhail Gorbachov led to the collapse of all the communist governments, the election of conservative governments, the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the dissolution of the alliance.

Hungary and Czechoslovakia had already by 1990 announced their intention to apply for membership of the European Union. Austria joined in 1995.

With democracy, nationalist questions could be discussed again and long suppressed nationalist disputes have re-emerged. The pessimists believed these would cripple the whole area as the virulence of ethnic disputes has been of a kind unknown in western Europe. The large Hungarian minorities in Romania, Slovakia and Yugoslavia came to notice again. The frontiers of Poland and Germany were yet again questioned, though confirmed by the final German treaty of September 1990 which formally ended the second world war. The frontiers of Poland and Ukraine also show signs of at best an uneasy sleep. Macedonia and Bulgaria; Romania and Moldavia (Moldova); Romania and Hungary have potential boundary disputes. The Czechs and Slovaks had to face the question of whether they wished to remain together by free association rather than by a union devised by others (at the end of the first world war). They elected to split by the end of 1992.

However, the optimists believe membership of the European Union will transcend these disputes and render them much less important. So far (2007) the optimists have proved the better judges.

All these countries faced extreme economic problems, with collapsed economies based on outdated, inefficient and polluting technologies. Many observers believed they would come under German influence, perhaps as cheap labor for German industry - and many German manufacturers have opened factories in these countries.

Their stability may partly depend on the condition of the Soviet Union's successors. There was a lack of business knowledge and a hostility to trading after 45 years of business being forbidden.

COMECON, which had operated by barter, was closed down at the end of 1990 to be replaced by a new organization trading in dollars at world market prices. This raised the prices of imports, especially of oil and gas, from the Soviet Union. It also reduced imports by the Soviet Union of east European products. The Warsaw Pact was formally dissolved. In February 1991 Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland agreed to form a customs union (the Visegrad group). In April 1991 the European Community countries set up a Bank for East European Development, in order to finance the change to a market economy.

Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary joined the EU in 2004. All (except Austria) have joined NATO and contributed a few troops to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the summer of 1991 a civil war broke out in Yugoslavia between the Croats and the Serbs. By December 1991 the Soviet Union itself had dissolved leaving Russia and Ukraine as the main powers in the area. The Ukraine may come to have greater contacts with the countries further west, if it is not reabsorbed into Russia - something that is still possible, despite the so-called Orange Revolution of 2005.

Possible futures
If western Europe integrates further and forms a stronger federation with a single currency it seems likely that these countries will have to link their currencies to the euro - as Kosovo already has adopted it (and Slovakia and Slovenia).

These countries may possibly resume their historic role as the buffer between the West and Russia. The unsteady ethnic frontiers, such as the large numbers of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia would probably be a greater danger outside NATO than they would be within.

Can the nationalist disputes be defused? Perhaps only vigorous economic growth could give people more harmless things to think of. Cheaper wage rates are attracting industry from the older members of the EU.

In the latter part of 2004 the question of Ukraine - whether it will remain a close ally of Russia, or else move closer to the EU - was raised by the result of the presidential elections. Although the pro-western candidate won, the pro-Russian leader has become prime minister (2006).

As Russia revives, based on its oil and gas exports, Russian state owned companies are buying up utilities in the former satellites.

Interesting reading

Ursula le Guin - Malafrena
about an imaginary Central European country, Orsinia in the early 19th century

See also her "Orsinian Tales"

See also Norman Davies - Vanished Kingdoms here

Last revised 2/07/12


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