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Does Eastern Europe Still Exist?

Speaker: Anne Applebaum; Chair: Professor Michael Cox

Tuesday 12 March 2013, 6.30pm, Old Theatre, Old Building

The nations of the region we called 'Eastern Europe' were once closely linked, so much so that West Europeans had trouble distinguishing them: 'Siberia starts at Checkpoint Charlie,' as we used to say. But since 1989 they have made different choices and taken different paths. Which have been most successful, and why? Are there lessons which can be learned from the East European experience of reform?

Suggested Twitter hashtag for this event: #LSEEurope.

A podcast of the event can be found here.

Video Interview here:



by Harriet Shone

Professor Anne Applebaum posed the interesting question of whether Eastern Europe still exists at her final public lecture as the current Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at LSE Ideas.

In 2009, the Economist accused ‘Eastern Europeans’ of going “on a binge fuelled by foreign investment” that might drag the whole of Europe into economic ruin. However, as Professor Applebaum points out, in 2013 it is not ‘Eastern Europeans’ who are mired in crisis but the citizens of Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain. The relative economic strength of key ‘Eastern European’ nations belie the idea of a primitive and united ‘bloc’ in the east, dragging Europe’s economy down.

Professor Applebaum comprehensively, and convincingly, argued that ‘Eastern Europe’, a political concept specific to a particular historical period, no longer exists. Eastern Europe has never been a single cultural entity, rich as it is with different languages, religions and ethnicities, and it was a single political entity, Applebaum argues, only during those Cold War years when Soviet Communism and repression united it under one terrible economic and political system.

Since 1989, ‘Eastern Europe’ has splintered as individual nation-states re-emerged and diverged into the proliferation of cultures, political systems and economies that now exist behind the former Iron Curtain.

As they emerged from Communism, the states of Central and Eastern Europe followed one of three paths. The first, as seen in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, was rapid and radical transition into a Capitalist liberal democracy. The second path, followed most spectacularly by Russia in the mid-1990s, was that of ‘crony capitalism’ dominated by a corrupt elite. Finally, some Eastern Bloc countries simply replaced communist despotism with nationalist despotism. Different paths have produced wildly varied countries and within each category a diverse a set of systems has emerged.

The success or failure Eastern European countries in the wake of 1989 has proved unpredictable. Few people in 1991 expected post-Soviet Russia to be ruled by a cabal of millionaires or Poland to outperform Hungary in its transition into liberal democracy and economic stability.

The performance of each country has depended on a myriad of factors, the most important of which include the existence of an organised, viable alternative elite; an organised civil society in the 1970s and 80s; and a clear sense of economic and political direction which could be pursued quickly and relatively efficiently. It is certainly true that those countries that chose to reform quickly have fallen prey to less corruption and met with a more successful transition into democracy.

Given the clear differences in the post-communist experience of the myriad of ‘Eastern European’ countries, the term ‘Eastern Europe’, with its implications of political and economic unity, has lost its meaning. Its continued existence in the Western vocabulary, Professor Applebaum suggested, instead reflects a pervasive prejudice. It often implies a backwardness and even criminality that reflects its Cold War origins.

This prejudice belies the lessons that should be learnt from some of our Eastern neighbours. Latvia, now returned to 5% growth after facing down economic crisis with real spending cuts that targeted bureaucracy and not the safety net, offers a real-world example of how to turn around a recession. Slovakia has returned to 4% yearly growth while Poland simply avoided recession altogether, growing 20% since 2008. Plenty of Eurozone members in the ‘West’ have failed to achieve such stability.

‘Eastern Europe’ has produced positive role models not just for Europe but for the countries of North Africa, and beyond, that face daunting transitions in the years to come. The countries of the former Soviet Bloc can offer practical advice on how – and how not – to liberalise the media, train a new judiciary, compose new libel laws and all manner of other key system-building activities.

Professor Applebaum’s lecture ended with the sad reflection that it is this paradox – the shiny, successful stories of miraculous recovery that many ex-Communist nations represent vs their continued treatment in the West as a backwards and homogenous bloc – that continues to dominate European politics.

It is thus time to expunge the term ‘Eastern Europe’ from our political vocabulary and focus instead the lessons we can learn from the experiences of individual European nations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.




Anne Applebaum is Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs at LSE IDEAS for 2012-2013 




Professor Michael Cox is Founding Co-Director of LSE IDEAS. He is also Head of Programme for Transatlantic Relations, Executive Programme Director and an Academic Management Committee Member.




Old Theatre, Old Building, LSE.


LSE IDEAS Public Lecture
Philippe Roman Chair Lecture