Geographically, the countries of Central Europe are located in an area that has been a source of contention and competition for several powers throughout history. Among others, the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires have all vied for influence and control over the land and people of Central Europe. The region served as a major battleground during World War I and World War II as the competition between external powers and the nations within the region escalated into military conflict.
After World War II, Central European states all had similar strategic orientations. They were brought into the Soviet sphere of influence as the dividing lines of Europe were drawn following the war. While Western European countries aligned with the United States under the auspices of NATO, Central European countries were incorporated into the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact. For more than 40 years, they were led by communist governments aligned toward Moscow to various degrees and were integrated into the Soviet Union's military-industrial complex. Despite several attempts to break free of Soviet alignment, such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968, Central Europe remained on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain throughout the Cold War.
This all changed in 1989, when a series of revolutions — this time successful — occurred during the reform era of the Soviet Union. Within six months, these satellite states (along with East Germany) broke free from communist rule. Each began to integrate with Western Europe once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the European Union and NATO continued to expand. These countries adopted Western-style parliamentary democracies and began the transition to a capitalist economic system. In relatively short succession, all of the Central European countries became members of NATO (1999-2004) and the European Union (2004-2007), officially joining the West after having spent almost a half-century under Eastern domain.
For nearly 20 years, the transition to the European Union and NATO and the respective reforms undertaken to join these blocs were a common feature for the six Central European countries. However, the European financial crisis of 2008 prompted yet another shift to the strategic position of each Central European state. The European Union no longer offered the promise of unbridled prosperity and high growth that it did throughout most of the previous two decades, creating significant economic dislocation and political friction within the bloc. The EU crisis also coincided with and facilitated the resurgence of Russia, which had been weak and chaotic during the 1990s but by 2008 had re-emerged as a regional power, partly due to high energy prices and a strengthened security and economic position in much of the former Soviet periphery.
Over the past five years, these dynamics have created a new reality for Central Europe, in which the European Union is no longer as strong and prosperous as it once was and Russia is no longer as weak and distracted as it once was. This has led the region to once again re-evaluate its position between East and West, only this time — in the absence of an overwhelmingly strong or coherent bloc on either side — each country has pursued an independent path to balancing between Russia and Europe.
This is not an altogether new strategic environment for Central Europe. Before these countries were collectively swept into the Soviet bloc during the Cold War and ushered into the Western alliance structure shortly thereafter, their cohesion and unity was far from guaranteed. There are several reasons for this. Central Europe is physically divided by the Carpathian Mountains, which run from southern Poland and Slovakia in an arc through Romania that impedes regional north-south integration. Moreover, Romania and Bulgaria are located on the Balkan Peninsula, which is mountainous and only weakly integrated with the rest of Europe. Given that geography shapes national strategy, the strategic interests of these countries vary by their geographic position. For example, Poland, which sits on the North European Plain, is much more exposed to Russia than countries farther south behind the Carpathians like Slovakia or Hungary. As a result, Warsaw interacts with Moscow much differently than Bratislava or Budapest.
The EU crisis has also fostered the growth of nationalism in Europe, and the demographics of Central Europe have obstructed comprehensive integration. For example, significant Hungarian minorities in Romania and Slovakia and their exploitation by Budapest for political purposes have served as a source of antagonism between Hungary and these countries. While such ethnic tensions were marginalized (though never eliminated completely) during times of economic prosperity, the crisis in Europe has exposed and even inflamed these tensions.
Combined with the ongoing economic issues of low or negative growth and high unemployment, these factors have complicated region-wide political and security integration efforts. They have also created a divergence in each country's view of the European Union and Russia. It is thus necessary to gauge the current state of relations individually rather than collectively.
Next: How national interests are shaping Central European countries' bilateral ties with Russia and the West.