Eastern Europe is, by convention, a region defined geographically as that part of Europe covering the eastern part of the continent. Generally this means that it lies between the Ural and Caucasus mountains and the western border of Russia, or alternatively also includes those countries adjacent to Russia's western border. As is also true of continents, regions are only social constructs and should not be understood as physical features defined by abstract, neutral criteria.
Contemporary Eastern Europe
The countries meant by the term Eastern Europe in the less strict geographical definition were all formerly within the Soviet Union:
These countries are included as part of Eastern Europe not only because of their geographical situation at the east of the continent, but also because they have shared a common history for centuries and are culturally fairly similar. There is, however, one important exception: Moldova, whose majority population is not ethnic-Slav and who was part of Romania for most of its history. It is, however, included in this region due to its close ties with Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States which continue up to this moment.
Extended Eastern Europe
Besides the countries above, other countries are commonly referred to as being part of Eastern Europe because they were previously under communist regimes, the so-called Eastern Bloc. This usage is generally more common in Western Europe as well as in other parts of Europe that were not part of the Eastern Bloc. The following countries are sometimes included under the extended definition:
A map showing the core Eastern Europe as well as other former-Communist countries sometimes labelled as being part of this region, even though this usage is seen as politically incorrect
Greece and Turkey, while part of Southeastern Europe, are very rarely associated with Eastern Europe, due to the fact that they were not communist.
Prior to the Reunification of Germany, East Germany was often described as an Eastern European country.
The three Baltic States, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are sometimes included in Eastern Europe since they were part of the USSR. However, these countries are culturally and historically part of Northern Europe.
Problems with this definition
There are many flaws with the extended defition of Eastern Europe. Firstly, it implies a greater East-West division than actually exists in the contemporary world. For example, it is worth noting that an important number of former-Communist states are now part of the European Union and NATO, and nearly all of them have free-market economies. Many of them also have as liberal forms of government as those found in other parts of Europe. Therefore, beside the differences in income/standard of living, which are closing fairly rapidly, there is no major difference between the countries of the former Eastern Bloc and those regarded as "Western European".
For this reason, it is better to include former Eastern Bloc countries, except Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Russia, in other regions, such as Central Europe, Northern Europe and Southeastern Europe, because they usually fit into these regions much better than they would fit under an extended definition of Eastern Europe that, in the contemporary world situation, is mostly obsolete.
Today, a number of media sources and international organisations have adopted the compromise term Central and Eastern Europe, which they use to refer to all former-Communist countries in Europe. While better than using Eastern Europe to refer to the entire Eastern Bloc, this usage is also flawed, because it ignores the association of the Baltic states with Northern Europe, as well as the presence of Southeastern Europe. For this reason, the most correct term to refer to the former-Commnist countries of Europe would be the former Eastern Bloc or the former-Communist countries of Europe. Although they are correct, these terms are sometimes found insulting by Central-, Southeastern- and Northern Europeans who regard them as unnecessary references to their Communist past.
The term New Europe has been proposed but there are controversies over this because it is found to be pejorative to non-former-Eastern-Bloc countries such as France and Germany.
Except in historical contexts, it is hoped that, in the future, as the East-West divide becomes even less significant, the usage of these terms will not be necessary. Even today, there are marked differences between, say, Central Europe and its fairly advanced Euro-Atlantic integration, Southeastern Europe, which is less advanced but hoping for EU integration, and Eastern Europe, which is still strongly associated with Russia.
The concept of Eastern Europe was greatly strengthened by the domination of the region by Communism and more specifically the Soviet Union after the Second World War. The idea of an "Iron Curtain" separating Eastern and Western Europe was an extremely common view throughout the Cold War. This strict dualism caused problems, however, as it failed to account for the complexities of the region. For instance, communist countries such as Yugoslavia and Albania refused to be controlled by Moscow, but this division was often ignored by many in the west.
Furthermore, a view that Europe is divided stricly into the West and the East is considered pejorative by the population of the nominally eastern countries, especially since the fall of the Berlin wall and Communism in Europe overall. The Europeans from former Eastern Bloc countries do not classify themselves as "East Europeans" but prefer to include themselves in other groups, associating themselves with Central Europe, with Scandinavia (in Northern Europe) or with Southern Europe. Note that eastern countries that were never under communist influence, such as Finland in the north and Greece in the south, are never considered part of Eastern Europe, while conversely several countries much further to the west but which were under communist influence, are.
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. The term "Eastern Europe" first arose in the 18th and 19th centuries, 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.
Much of Eastern Europe has ties to both the east and west. While all of the countries were heavily influenced by Roman Catholic or Protestant Christianity and have very close historical and cultural ties to Germany, Italy, France or Scandinavia (e.g. the Hanseatic league in the Baltics), many countries also had relations with the East. Russia was under the control of the Mongols for centuries and inherited political and social conventions from them. Further south the Ottoman Empire and Islam had a very strong influence. The nations of the Balkans as well as Hungary and Romania were all at one time controlled by the Turks.
- http://www.centreurope-us.org; Web portal for Central and Eastern Europe.