Eastern Europe is, to state the obvious, the eastern part of the continent of Europe. The eastern geographic boundary of Europe is generally agreed to be at the Ural Mountains, but delimiting the dividing line between East and West Europe has always been an exercise in politics, not geography.

Cold War Era

During the Cold War, there was an unambiguous divide -- the Iron Curtain -- between the capitalists, who were West, and the communists, who were East. Eastern Europe thus consisted of: Countries like Finland, Greece and Cyprus, while geographically to the east of many of these, were not communist so they were considered a part of Western Europe. With the exception of Turkey, which is mostly in Asia anyway, there was very little gray area in between.

Post-Cold War

The collapse of the Soviet Union threw these neat categories (and the countries themselves) into disarray. Some ten years later, the area has fractured into at least three separate regions, only one of which is universally still called Eastern Europe.

Central Europe These days, the better developed ex-communist countries -- now clearly marked as future members of the European Union -- prefer to be called Central Europe: For obvious geographic reasons, Austria is also often included in this group, but nobody calls it Eastern Europe. The German Democratic Republic was swallowed by Germany and is now firmly a part of Western Europe, although a slowly fading distinction between Wessis and Ossis remains.

It may not be entirely coincidental that these countries are largely Roman Catholic, not Orthodox.

Baltics

The three former Soviet republics bordering the Baltic Sea, which are also well on their way to the EU, are now commonly known by the obvious moniker the Baltics. More northeastern than central, they remain more likely to be lumped into Eastern Europe, but Estonia in particular much prefers to belong to Northern Europe.

The odd man out is the last of these, the Russian Kaliningrad enclave wedged between Lithuania and Poland. Geographically it's Baltic alright, but politically and economically it remains firmly Russian.

Eastern Europe, Version 2

And it is thus the leftover detritus that is stuck with the label Eastern Europe: Geography and religion would tend to place Croatia in the Central block, but politically it will remain East until it joins the EU -- which won't happen for some time. Ex-Yugoslav politicians are now floating the term Southeastern Europe as a sunnier alternative to the Balkans, but this has yet to take off elsewhere.

Some other former Soviet republics, notably Georgia and Kazakhstan, are also arguably in geographical Europe -- but they are rarely considered a part of Eastern Europe per se.

The Future

It remains to be seen how this nomenclature will change if Romania and Bulgaria, and perhaps even Turkey, some day join the EU; the label Central Europe seems improbable, but then again, that label would have seemed downright impossible for the eastern half of Czechoslovakia less than 15 years ago. Odds are some handy terms will be developed for "EU" and "not-EU".

References

Rand McNally's Europe atlas (1988)
shallot's handy listing in Europe (and /msg'd commentary)

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