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One strange aspect of the flurry of activity back when the US State Department was in negotiations over NATO expansion, was that the term Eastern Europe surfaced as the U.S. State Department's standard term for countries of the former East bloc.

This usage is certainly not sanctioned by precedent.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the State Department has been careful to use such locutions as "Central and Eastern Europe" (the preferred NATO term), or the more austere "Central Europe" when worried about offending people. It has led to some absurd results.

While one can almost believe Romanian claims to being in Central Europe, Ukraine's official position as a country in the same region is a little harder to accept. The "Central Europe" tag is not totally without meaning.

In the opinion of Polish dissident writer Adam Michnik, it refers to lands with Baroque architecture.

Since Baroque is the architecture of the Counter-Reformation, this also means the lands that fell under the influence of the Jesuits and the Roman Catholic Church. This cultural definition refers to an asymmetrical region stretching from the shores of the Baltic Sea in the north in an uneven arc across to western Ukraine in the southeast.

Admittedly, this definition is a little misleading. To the average person without any specialized knowledge of the region, Central Europe sounds like a straightforward term referring to the central part of the Continent.

Another complication is that these lands were not culturally unified in any other way. They were under the influence of communist regimes of differing degrees of severity, so the recent history of each country is quite different.

But being Central European has the great advantage of not being East European, and so countries with no particular interest in a regional cultural identity, like Ukraine, feel obliged to tell the United States that they are definitely Central and not Eastern.

Now it looks as that could change. A significant new atlas published by Macmillan is unashamedly titled A Concise Historical Atlas of Eastern Europe and appears to be a sign of the times.

It is too much to expect the average person to remember all the minor differences among these countries. It's like expecting a European to remember all the differences among the countries of Latin America or Africa.

All anyone ever wanted was a simple geographical term, something to go with Western Europe and Eastern Europe has that going for it.

This is what the U.S. State Department seems to have decided, and it probably has more to do with internal politics than anything else.

"NATO expansion to Eastern Europe" is a lot snappier than "NATO expansion to the states of the former eastern bloc and Soviet Union with most of them left out."

So it looks as if Kyiv will soon be an Eastern European capital once again (just as everyone knew it was all along).

Two steps forward, three steps back.

A few more thoughts on the term Central Europe

There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding the terms Central Europe and Eastern Europe. The cardinal questions are the following: Where does Central Europe end and Eastern Europe begin? Who should decide where the dividing line falls?

Are the two terms equal or is Central Europe in fact part of Eastern Europe, just like Central America is part of Latin America?

A quick glance at a world atlas reveals that some countries are more geographically central in Europe than others. Czechia, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria seem to be in the center of Europe.

The case of Austria seems to indicate that the term Central (or Eastern, for that matter) Europe tends to be political rather than geographical.

Now the next question is: What about countries like Slovenia or even Croatia? Are they also in Central Europe or is that already Eastern Europe, just as Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Albania, Romania, and Bulgaria are often considered to be a part of Eastern Europe - although they are also in the Balkans.

Those countries are also sometimes referred to as Southeastern Europe. Naturally, there is also Southern Europe which stretches across the Mediterranean from Greece to Portugal as well, but also occasionally includes some of the southern Balkan states north of Greece.

Confusing? Yes. Academic? Perhaps, but not necessarily.

As written above, countries 'like Ukraine feel obliged to tell the United States that they are definitely Central and not Eastern [Europe].'

When the late Czech President Václav Havel was on a state visit to Kyiv, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma mentioned in his speech that his country is not against the idea of becoming a NATO member, since '[Ukraine] is, after all, in the center of Europe.'

However absurd such a statement may sound, the truth is that if you look at a map, you see that Ukraine (or at least its capital) lies much closer to the imaginary center of Europe, if you take Europe to mean the land that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains in Russia.

However, for many Czechs, Europe never ended at the Ural Mountains (who decided that this particular mountain range signifies the border between Europe and Asia anyway?) but on the border between former Czechoslovakia and the former Soviet Union.

The term Europe is also confusing in the economic and political senses. In 1989, many Czechs famously chanted the slogan, 'Back to Europe,' meaning in this case the European Union.

However, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, despite the conspicuous word 'European' in its name, also includes countries like Kazakstan, which lies east of the Urals and is generally referred to as a Central Asian country.

Similarly, the magazine Business Central Europe, which was published by The Economist Group of Britain until 2001, included coverage of countries like Albania, Bulgaria, and even Russia in its pages.

A while back, the magazine ran an article on the far eastern Russian city of Vladivostok, which lies a figurative stone's throw away from Japan.

Another magazine, Transition, was until early 1997 subtitled 'Events and Issues in the Former Soviet Union and East-Central and Southeastern Europe.'

Where is the dividing line between 'East-Central' and 'Southeastern?' Is Slovenia in the former category or the latter? And why 'East-Central' and not simply Central Europe?

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