Is it time to kill ‘Central & Eastern Europe’


Somewhat related to Pawel’s post below, is it not time for Poland to be considered for its own merits and not just lumped into the increasingly meaningless geographic lump of Central & Eastern Europe?

I was just listening to Newshour on the BBC World Service where they were busy doom-mongering about Central & Eastern Europe. Civil unrest, swelling ethnic tensions, falling governments, economic disaster, trashed currencies…it was all there. It was, however, the usual splattergun approach to news in our part of the world; throw out a bunch of problems and a list of countries and leave everyone with the assumption that all listed countries have all the named problems. Poland was mentioned in the programme but I’ve already forgotten why, can’t have been serious, whereas Latvia, well, you may as well close the country! The questions were best described as ‘very leading’ and with an agenda of “We all want to believe that CEE is screwed so why don’t you, Mr Expert, just confirm it”. Mr Expert didn’t actually confirm anything beyond the fact that a few countries have over-borrowed and might have problems. Poland wasn’t one of them and yet those who simply listen to and react to ill informed, sensationalist headlines and reports might be excused for assuming Poland is now on the brink of total collapse.

I’m convinced that a lot of the current bad press is nothing more than green-eyed jealousy. This country enjoyed, and may still be enjoying, a period of strong growth. It is, possibly, being less affected by the munch-crunch-recession-depression-slump-crisis than other countries. Our citizens took advantage of the UK while the times were good and may well be moving back now the tide has turned. This country is not, yet, suffering quite as much as others, nor does it have 2 trillion GBP mountain of debt, the worse since the 50’s. So, is there just a touch of jealousy here? If others are having a bad time then it would only be right for us to suffer as well? Tired of talking about their own desperate problems they have to find a new donkey to kick?

I’m all for people reporting on Poland and even highlighting its problems, whatever they may be, but let’s please keep it specific to Poland. What I don’t like is people suggesting that Poland, Latvia, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania et al. are essentially one big country where everyone has the same problems! How would the UK like it if we just started referring to them as Western Europe and drawing no distinctions between them and Holland, France, Germany, Belgium, Norway and Spain? How would the USA like to be lumped in with Cuba, Mexico, Canada and Venezuela under a heading of The Americas?

So, let’s please start a campaign against geographical discrimination and stop using this ridiculous heading of Central & Eastern Europe. Even Wikipedia, fast becoming the font of all wisdom, fails to provide a clear definition;

Central Europe is the region lying between the variously and vaguely defined areas of Eastern and Western Europe. In addition, Northern, Southern and Southeastern Europe may variously delimit or overlap into Central Europe.

Their map of the region includes the usual suspects – Poland, Hungary, Czech, Slovakia, Slovenia & Austria but adds Liechtenstein, Germany and Switzerland whilst sitting on the fence about Croatia and Romania.


Here are just a few more reasons why we should hang, draw and quarter the phrase ‘Central & Eastern Europe’:

  • Austria. Austria is as related to Central Europe as it is to China. It does not share the communist history. The attitude of its citizens is not even close to any I’ve met in CE. The only link it has to CE is that it pretended to be the “Gateway to Central Europe” for a year or two shortly after the iron curtain fell. Austria should bog off and be Austrian!
  • Definition. Ask 100 people to tell you which countries are in Central or Eastern Europe and you’ll get at least 95 different answers.
  • Eastern Europe. To my mind these are the countries that retain stronger ties to Russia. These might be trading, language, alphabet, mental attitude or all of the above. This might include Ukraine, Belarus and a bunch of places ending in ‘stan’, then again, it might not. Who knows? This is a meaningless geographic grouping within the even less meaningful grouping of CEE.
  • Croatia. I’ve been there, it feels more like ‘Venice by the sea’ than Warsaw or Prague. Surely this, along with Bulgaria (also often lumped into a CE definition) would be better defined as part of ‘The Balkans’ rather than CE?
  • Romania. Strange place. Cornered the market for dead dogs. Stole Transylvania from Hungary (as I am always reminded by the Hungarians) but can it possibly be a part of CE? From my work point of view I’m tempted to allow Romania in, but it’s a close call.
  • Germany, Liechtenstein & Switzerland. Someone’s having a laugh, right?!
  • Do you notice Latvia/Estonia/Lithuania on that Wikipedia map? No, because those are best known as the Baltic States. So why was the BBC banging on about Latvia in a programme about the problems that Central Europe has?
  • Need I go on?

I’m not sure which, if any other nation Poles would be happy to be associated with but to me, the use of an all encompassing “Central & Eastern Europe” is about as insulting as defining everyone with slanted eyes as a chink, Barak Obama as a brown man or everyone from Britain as a Paki.


25 thoughts on “Is it time to kill ‘Central & Eastern Europe’

  1. stefonic says:

    So much for the EU, lets put the borders back up and start all over. Remember the good ol’ days when truck drivers sat for hours every 400 to 600 kilometers and waited to be allowed to drive across Europe? Can’t have it both ways I’m afraid

  2. guest says:

    This would be OK.

  3. guest says:

    “swelling ethnic tensions” in Poland ? hahah

  4. wildphelps says:

    I’m with Scatts when it comes to making more accurate distinctions among the regions of Europe. The simplistic geographical lumping together of all former communist countries can skew new coverage for those people who do not take the time to look at an atlas.

    I have noticed, though, that (some) Poles do the same thing along the lines of race. By this I mean I have heard/seen enough instances of Poles referring to people merely as “black” and not Nigerian, Ghanan, Cuban, African-American, etc. They/we take the time and effort to distinguish Germans from Italians from Swedes from Poles and so on, why not for other parts of the world as well?

  5. adthelad says:

    Trying to appear objective yet overstating the matter – classic example of what you’ve been writing about.

    read some of the comments – they will really make your eyes boggle!!

  6. adthelad says:

    There are a few sensible comments thankfully.
    Krzysztof Rybinski wrote:

    February 22, 2009 16:21
    Imagine that 10 major world newspapers (FT, NYT, WSJ, IHT, Economist, …) wrote articles that drinking Cola can ruin your health, citing pseudo-scientific evidence, and that massive negative media campaign was maintained over several weeks, special stories were featured in CNN, Fox, CNBC, BBC, local media. Cola share price would crash, sales would crash and the company would crash. Perception matters.
    Below is the list of arguments showing why the Economist story is biased. In times like this journalists in major newspapers should make extra efforts to provide accurate and objective information.


  7. adthelad says:

    And another good comment to the Economist’s scare mongering.

    smada legin wrote:
    February 22, 2009 10:58

    I completely agree with the comments of mikeinwarsaw, Markitant, yuroman, Geri Orendi and the others who live in the countries mentioned in your article.

    In addition, my Polish business colleagues feel that the slow down in the Polish economy has been due to negative reporting in the media, not due to reductions in lending by Polish banks.

    As a long-term reader of The Economist Newspaper, I am very concerned and disappointed about your lack of in-depth research prior to publishing such an article. You seem to have joined-in the type “negative reporting” that will just create more problems, not help us to solve these problems. This type of report is only worthy of some of ther UK’s tabloid newspapers, not a world respected and previously well-balanced journal.
    Recommended (5)

  8. adthelad says:

    Another great comment – the Economist deserves a really good smacking.

    TomekAtomekk wrote:
    February 21, 2009 22:45

    Some facts – GDP prediction for Poland for 2009 +1,7% growth, for Spain decrease of -2%, for UK -3% (!). 2009 budget deficit for Poland is predicted to be 2,5%. For France, it will be 4,4%, for Greece 3,7%, for Spain 5,8% (!). Public debt for Poland will be 46% while Italy’s 110% (!), Greece’s 96%.

    These are the facts. The myth is that Poland is comparable to Ukraine or Hungary. Export is 40% of Polish GDP while for Czech is 80% and 90% for Slovakia. FX loans are 10% of GDP for Poland but 40% for Hubgary.

    These are the facts. The myth is that the UK is the 51st state of the USA and the Economist is reliable source of economic information.

    Recommended (23)

  9. guest says:

    The negative reporting makes the zloty weaker andso the UK/US banks can make money with zloty speculations.

    This is how it works and it is very cynical. Because now Poland will pay for the western banks and save their butts.

  10. Leopolis says:

    CEE maybe dead in the mind, but alive in political economy.

    If you look at energy infrastructure, there is certainly a “Central and Eastern Europe” — one part of Europe is tethered to the post-Soviet energy system and the other is not. 92% of Poland’s gas imports are Russian gas, or 60% of the total gas consumption). Percentages of Russian imports of gas of total consumption decreases the further west you go. Lithuania and Bulgaria are fighting to keep open their Soviet-era nuclear plants as they promised to enter the EU and there are no electricity “bridge” between the Baltic States and Poland.

    “Austria is as related to Central Europe as it is to China.” Seems hyperbolic. Have you been to Lviv, Budapest or Przemysl? Each of them — Austro-Hungarian cities, are certainly more Hapsburg than Hu Jintao.

  11. […] writes about the problem with the term “Central & Eastern Europe”: “I’m all for […]

  12. […] writes about the problem with the term “Central & Eastern Europe”: “I’m all for […]

  13. When I say Central and Eastern Europe – being well aware of the differences between the very diverse countries since I have been to most and studied all – I am referring to countries that have belonged to the former Soviet space and that have joined the European Union.

    Both issues are uniting them, despite their differences: They all have certain joint legacies, shared understandings, and a common historical path. And they all have joined the Union as a bloc (except Bulgaria and Romania) and relatively recently, which means that they weren’t able to shape the institutions as other member states were able to do over several decades.

    This is why there is a certain (forced) unity between these states, and I think it is still relevant to use the term CEE if it is used with a reference to issues that include EU issues or any relations shaped by the joint “Soviet” past. And a pre-Summit summit ( is the best sign that there is something like a “CEE”.

  14. MaterialGirl says:

    When I was small I always heard I live in Europe. I’d never felt I live in the better or the worst part of Europe, just in Europe. From the ninety’s XX c. I heard “You live in the Central Europe” – that’s shows that speaker see or treat me “better”, or “You live in Eastern Europe” – speaker has a worse attitude. The golden remedy should be another word creation: “Europa Środkowowschodnia” “Centraleast Europe”, but it isn’t.
    I see now that kind of thinking is strengthening the division communism made.
    But if sb has a problem and if it only helps him/her to manage with it, I’m treating this kind of disdain with a pinch of salt.

  15. scatts says:

    Island has pointed out that this post has been picked up by “reddit”. I popped over to see the comments and my favourite is –

    “Only the fact that the author says (Romania) “Stole Transylvania from Hungary …” is enough to prove it’s an incompetent moron that has not touched a serious history book on Europe not even by accident .”

    Oh, and this one too –

    “I agree that it is an issue to put CEE into one bad but otherwise he is writing a bunch of crap.”

    Fame at last! :-)

    I’d be interested to see what the history books do say about Transylvania because the fact that it is now inside Romania has been a pretty consistent bitching point with I’d say a good 50% of the Hungarians I’ve had long enough discussions with. Perhaps I’ve just met a lot of Hungarians who’s family history goes back to roots in Transylvania?

  16. adaniel says:

    I also prefer to draw a line between Central Europe and Eastern Europe, but I think the CEE phrase is still very much useful.

    For me, the former Habsburg Empire, and countries that are at least in some part used to belong to it are economically, culturally, historically very much tied to each other. This includes of course Austria, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and also Slovenia, Croatia, Romania and Poland; but also somewhat Ukraine, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. “Austria is as related to Central Europe as it is to China”. I think this must be a joke. The Austrian financial system has an exposure to these countries which amounts to 80% the size of Austrian GDP. Albeit Austria is definitely the core of this region and much richer, the living standards, consumer habits in the other countries are rather similar. In Vienna, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak are widely spoken. The former Habsburg group usually votes together in the EU.

    I don’t know much about the Baltic Republics, I guess they are historically, politically and economically more linked to Scandinavia and Russia than the rest of these countries.

  17. stefonic says:

    Adthelad: Poland is commonly referred to as “America’s Bitch” throughout Europe.

  18. scatts says:

    Someone from the FT agreeing with me, at last!

    In terms of scale of their problems;

    Low – Poland, Czech, Slovakia, Slovenia

    Medium/High – Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania

    High/Very high – Ukraine, Latvia, Hungary

  19. scatts says:

    adaniel, the Austria/China remark was not aimed at the financial situation. I think it’s clear that Austria has vested interests in “central europe” in terms of money.

    I just don’t think Austrians are on the same wavelength as people over here. Probably not with the Chinese either, in fact I’d be hard pressed to think of any nation similar to Austria except perhaps Germany but that’s only really a language thing and they both appear to hate each other so………..

  20. Dawid says:

    Largely true. Check up this:

    The article is all about Latvia, Hungary and other countries except Poland, yet the caption says: “Countries such as Poland are being hit hard by the downturn”

    This whole question of how to refer to the region has been debated here and everywhere else and I’m afraid I won’t live to see the day it’s finally resolved. Unless Poland somehow emerges from the “shadowy realm” of “former Eastern Bloc” and makes a case for being treated individually, many people will go on lumping very different countries closely together. Including opinion makers such as the BBC journalists.

    “I have heard/seen enough instances of Poles referring to people merely as “black” and not Nigerian, Ghanan, Cuban, African-American, etc. They/we take the time and effort to distinguish Germans from Italians from Swedes from Poles and so on, why not for other parts of the world as well?”

    This is idealistic I’m afraid. Europeans can more easily distinguish between Europeans than between Africans whom they simply know less. Let’s be honest here, do we actually know African political, geographical, religious and ethnic issues so well as we know Europe’s? Of course we don’t – that’s why we are often unable to be any more specific. When I was in China I was routinely referred to as a waiguoren (foreigner) and many people had no idea that European countries are any different. That’s the way it is not only in Poland.

  21. stefonic says:

    The real reason Poland is lumped together with other countries is that it is considered tiny and financially insignificant. Just as people refer to Brazil as Brazil but other small nations are lumped in as South American. For a nation of only 35 million people, Poles are a bit self involved and naive as to thier importance on the world market. For example there are CITIES bigger and more productive than this entire country. Other than a few late construction deadlines. Poland could disappear from the map, and it would hardly cuase a hicup in the world banking market. So when the population of Poland is as say the US, Russia, Brazil, etc. only then will it be no longer that tiny country in CEE. :) Let’s be realistic here, it’s just a tiny country in CEE.

  22. scatts says:

    Dawid, interesting article!

    I wonder if the BBC has a large percentage of journalists who have been relying on Polish workers to build loft extensions and fix their dripping taps. Perhaps that’s why they want to discourage the Poles from coming home!

    The only other option is complete stupidity!


  23. Dawid says:

    statts, I struggle to come up with a third option ;)

    stefonic, have you looked up your maps?;) First of all, everything is relative. In relation to the population of China and India the US and Russia are dwarves. So let’s stick to Europe here. Poland is the sixth biggest country of the EU in terms of both population (it’s 38 million BTW) and area – pretty high on the list of 27, wouldn’t you say? And you seem to assume that countries of Eastern Europe (however you define it) are tiny – take Ukraine for example, actually THE LARGEST COUNTRY in Europe (excluding Russia, which spans two continents), which is also ahead of Spain in terms of population. So things are not as clear cut as you think. BTW, the largest city in the world is Mumbai with 14 million, so don’t get carried away with this “there are cities bigger…” etc. Facts do matter.

    This whole thing is not about the importance of Poles (or Ukrainians for that matter) on the world stage; rather what matters is the perseverance of old cliches that keep obscuring vision of too many people.

    Coming back to Austria being or not part of the region – indeed the Habsburgs ruled over vast areas and ethnic gropus and you can e.g. see common architectural features from Vienna to Budapest to Lviv in Ukraine. And mentally former Eastern Germany is still largely on par with many people from other former communist states. This IS a very convoluted thing.

  24. stefonic says:

    Sorry Dawid I wasn’t aware that 38 mil was a big country. I guess we should all refer to it as the continent of Poland from now on.
    Even though 12 mil of them live in the US, 1mil in Canada, and several mil living all over the EU. If you count the suburban masses of people living and commuting to work in the surrounding areas of NYC and LA, there really are cities bigger than Poland. It for now is just a small country in CEE…….really it is. It just makes me smile a bit when Europe goes to all the trouble of opening the borders and organising things like the 50 states of the US. And now people get all bent out of shape when you say CEE. Instead of Poland, Austria, Romania etc. I’m from Colorado, but it does not bother me a bit to say that I’m from the “mid-west” as they say . Whats the big deal? I live in Poland, it’s a small country in CEE. Get over it.

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