The last word: Emerging Europe’s impressive journey

For the last 15 months, emerging Europe has been the focus of Europe, the new heart of Europe, and this is a trend that will continue, to the region’s advantage

Earlier this week, I joined the Eastern Europe portfolio team at DAI Global, an international development company that has been at the frontlines of social and economic development for half a century and is currently operating in almost 200 countries around the globe. I was excited to share my thoughts, experiences and projections about the region I live and breathe.  

I wanted to show the journey that the emerging Europe region has taken. I started by again quoting Francis Tapon and his The Hidden Europe: “back in the good old Cold War days, defining eastern Europe was easy. It was made up of all those losers who were on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Eastern Europe had those backward communist countries which were frozen in the stone age.” 

Ditch communism  

On June 4, Poland will celebrate the 34th anniversary of the defeat of the communist system and the triumph of “Solidarity”. The Berlin Wall has now been gone longer than it stood to divide East and West Germany. A couple of months ago, Lithuania commemorated the declaration of independence by a unanimous vote of its newly elected parliament in 1990. 

Interestingly enough, the international media don’t refer to Germany as a former Nazi state, or partially communist (GDR) but they are eager to use ‘post-communist’ or ‘ex-Soviet’ to describe countries in the region without knowing that, for example, Lithuania had never joined the USSR — Moscow illegally occupied our territory for decades. 

The Czech writer Milan Kundera once said that communism, which was smuggled to the Czech Republic by the Red Army was mostly an Asian thing and so is Russia. Kundera also said that Europe ends somewhere in Bohemia. 

I wouldn’t say that Russia is “an Asian thing” — there are quite a few democratic and developed countries in Asia, but the last 15 months have shown that the Bear is somewhat different in her approach. 

I would say that the countries that used to be in the Soviet spere of influence decades share a common heritage as communism has as much impact on Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Romania, as it does on Georgia, Moldova or Ukraine. And it would be difficult to imagine that communism lost its impact after over three decades — if we look at the US, slavery was abolished almost 150 years ago, yet it still plays a role. 

But it is high time we dropped the reference to ‘Soviet’ or ‘communist’ because it is simply passé. 

The 23 countries that we refer to as emerging Europe — despite various levels of social and economic development and political alliances — 14 are in NATO, 11 are EU members, and 2 are part of the Eurasian Economic Union — have made enormous progress over the three decades. The region is moving away from a past which has not treated them well and is becoming more visible.

Check the growth 

Growth is one of the reasons the region should be more visible.  

If we look at the last quarter of a century, real GDP in Poland and Lithuania increased by more than 170 per cent. Estonia’s by almost 170 per cent. And Latvia’s and Romania’s by over 140 per cent. 

Let’s not forget that in the early 1990s emerging Europe economies suffered significant economic contractions. For example, the Polish economy shrank by 7.2 per cent. Then during the global financial crisis, when the GDP was falling everywhere, Poland was marked green, with the GDP growing despite the pan-European recession. 

It is already cliché to refer to the amazing talent the region boasts about. But it is the talent and the skills, creativity, also resulting from the old times, that have been the region’s strength.  

There will be economic fluctuations going forward but we do not see that long-term trend to change in Poland and across the region. And even Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hasn’t affected that growth significantly. 

Last year at the Future of Emerging Europe Summit in Brussels, I hosted a fireside chat with Sir Malcom Rifkind, a former UK foreign secretary. He said that Vladimir Putin wanted to have less NATO close to Russia and restore the greatness of the Soviet Union. The invasion of Ukraine is one of the direct consequences of the strategic genius of Putin. Not only has it brought more NATO. He has also started to help change the narrative and the perception of Ukraine and the region. 

With the exception of Belarus, little more than a satellite of Russia these days, Serbia, a long-term Russian ally, and Hungary, which simply wants to stir up trouble within the EU, Emerging Europe has stood firmly behind Ukraine, offering whatever it needs.  

And for the last 15 months, emerging Europe has been the focus of Europe, the new heart of Europe, and this is a trend that will continue, to the region’s advantage. Now the region needs to take advantage of that moment when the rest of the globe is looking and listening to what is happening in the region and to strengthen regional collaboration and build stronger ties between individual countries in the region. 

Europe’s vigour 

When the topic of the future of the Old Continent is discussed, we often refer to the alleged quote of Henry Kissinger — “who do I call when I want to speak with Europe?” Kissinger apparently never wanted to dial Europe, but I have already heard multiple times that one of those phone calls could now be answered in the eastern part of the Old Continent.   

Over the last few years, especially since Russia’s full-scale invasion, Poland has become a much more influential player in European defence than it ever was, not only by being a frontline country, alongside the Baltic states, taking massive numbers of refugees but also being a land route to supply Ukraine with weapons and humanitarian aid.   

The region – and in particular Ukraine’s neighbours: Romania, Poland, Hungary – will have a key role to play in its reconstruction once the war is won, repairing and then improving infrastructure links.   

This leadership, and the hesitancy of some leaders in Western Europe, has signalled a real shift in Europe’s centre of gravity. The countries of Emerging Europe have for decades been warning the rest of the continent – and the US – of the threat posed by Russia. Their concerns were often dismissed as scaremongering.  

But countries in the region have been proven right, and it has meant that suddenly they are being treated far more seriously.  

They are setting Europe’s agenda, and the old Paris-Berlin Axis which has propped up Europe since World War II is very quickly being replaced by a new axis that stretches from Tallinn in Estonia to Bucharest in Romania. 

Last year, during a session at the Bucharest Forum, the editor of El Orden Mundial, which is a leading Spanish foreign affairs website, said that people in countries like Spain and Portugal are going to lose influence. And they will probably not be the only ones. 

Donald Rumsfeld who was a former secretary of defence, spoke of the vigour coming from Europe. This vigour – I would call it leadership – is clearly visible in Europe itself, but it is increasingly more visible with China ang globally.  

I am more than certain than ever that there will be more leadership like that coming from emerging Europe and I am quite confident the next NATO chief will also come from the region. 

So, from a backward region to a global leader! It has been quite a journey! 

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