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Chapter 2

A Land of Many Aspects


The countries of Eastern Europe differ geographically not only by three-dimensional relief, but by climate and landscape. In the north lies the central part of an immense plain that extends from the banks of the North Sea to the Urals. Known as the Germano-Polish plain by geographers, it is 250 to 300 miles wide and comprises most of the territory of the German Democratic Republic and of Poland.

In the center, extending from the German Democratic Republic to the White Russian border, rise a succession of forested, ancient and eroded mountainous masses alternating with fertile basins. These mountains, most of which contain ferrous and non-ferrous ores, reach elevations of 2,100 to 5, 100 feet.

In the south -- which includes over half of the Eastern European region -- there are large systems of recently formed mountain chains, which are an extension of the Alpine chains to the east and the southeast. At their northernmost point, they form the Carpathian arc, rising to a maximum altitude of 7,800 feet. In the south, they form the Balkan and Rhodope mountains. These young mountains promoted the formation of large depositional basins: the Pannonian plain in the west, the Hungarian great plain -- the Alföld -- between the Danube and Tisza rivers, and the Vojvodine and Banat plains.

The ancient mountainous masses and the young mountains alike give rise to an abundant hydrographic network. One of the major north-south

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rivers is the Elbe, a natural waterway for Czechoslovakia and particularly for the German Democratic Republic. The Oder provides transportation northward for products from Silesia and from the industrial center of East Germany. The Neisse and the Oder have delineated the eastern border of Germany since 1945. Finally, the Vistula is a pre-eminently Polish river which crosses the country from north to south for a distance of 680 miles, and waters two capitals successively -- Krakow, the capital of the past, and Warsaw, the present capital.

The Danube flows in the south, and more than 1,200 of its 1,600 mile length is in Eastern Europe. The Danube has always been a correcting link between Eastern and Western Europe, and will become even more so now that the Rhine-Maine-Danube canal is complete. But the Danube is above all an important commercial artery for the Eastern countries along its banks--Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. It is also vital for the U.S.S.R., which became a Danubian country with the annexation of Bessarabia in 1945.


Eastern Europe differs also by climate, with several differing climatic zones. On the Germano-Polish plain, western winds often serve to mitigate the effects of the Siberian anticyclone in winter, and in summer they bring some cooling air. Their influence, however, decreases from west to east.

Mountainous regions have a distinct and more continental environment, with cold winters, hot summers, and abundant precipitation.

The continental climate is more evident in the countries along the Danube, as the western winds are checked by the Alps and the mid-German massif. On the plains in Hungary to the northeast of Yugoslavia, in Lower Rumania, and on the Bulgarian plains, the winters are harsh, ranging from an average of -2 Celsius in January in Budapest to -3 .5 in Bucharest. The hot summers are sometimes influenced by the Mediterranean climate, especially in Rumania and Bulgaria, where the dryness is interspersed with heavy downpours. In general, however, the annual precipitation is low, averaging around 19 inches per year.

Finally, the shores of the Adriatic and Black Seas enjoy a Mediterranean climate, especially in the summer when it remains dry for at least three months. In winter, despite the predominantly mild and sunny weather, the cold winds from the interior -- known as the Bora in Yugoslavia -- can sometimes cause a sharp, though short-lived, drop in the thermometer.

Climate and landscape are mainly responsible for the uneven distribution of the population and the inequalities of economic development still evident in these regions, although of course it is impossible to separate these from the roles of circumstance and history.

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Clear economic differences exist between the countries of Eastern Europe. By 1938 the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia had attained a level of economic development close to that of the great industrial powers of Western Europe. Others, such as the Balkan states and to a certain degree Poland, remained candidates for the term "developing country." Countries such as Rumania and Hungary fell somewhere in between, with a small industrial sector and fairly heavy reliance on agricultural products for export earnings.

After 1945, the economies of the Eastern European countries were faced with two series of problems: those linked to reconstruction and those resulting from changes in the political structure. In addition to the heavy damage received from bombings and military operations in the course of the bloodiest and most destructive war ever fought, the nations of Eastern Europe were also faced with the devastation caused by the looting and plundering committed by successive occupying forces. Concerning the second series of problems, changes in political structures included agrarian reforms, nationalization, and the shift from a fairly liberal free-market economy to a socialist-communist one which gave priority to the development of heavy industry for ideological reasons. These nations were grouped in 1949 under the umbrella of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA or COMECON), an organization formed to counter the Marshall Plan offered to all European nations, both west and east. Politically dominated by the Soviet Union, the COMECON allows each country certain trading privileges vis-a-vis the others. The socialist division of work (specialization), set up in the early 1960s, has further strengthened cooperation and ties between the COMECON nations.


Despite the oft-cited principles of ideological unity, universal membership in the socialist system, and identical principles guiding domestic and foreign politics, the reader should not forget that the Eastern European countries often display considerable differences in their political institutions and in the exercise of power.

A distinction can be made between the states whose political make-up allows a coalition of political parties grouped around the Communist party, and states in which the Communist party completely monopolizes political life. Sometimes the Communist party and even other political parties are grouped together into large popular assemblies whose names vary by country -- the Bulgarian Front of the Fatherland, the Hungarian Patriotic Front, the Polish National Front, the Yugoslavian Socialist Alliance of

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Working People, and so on. These groups take their place beside other mass organizations, such as unions, youth organizations, cultural associations, and carefully chosen representatives of the churches.

In all of the Eastern European countries, political power officially emanates from the people, who exercise it through their representatives elected by universal sufferage. The election procedure follows the principle of either direct or secret ballot, but with only a yes or no answer allowed. A single list of candidates prepared by the Communist party and the mass organizations is submitted for the approval of the voters. For several years, in countries such as Hungary and Poland, the lists have contained more names than there were offices to be filled, thus permitting the voters to cross out certain candidates. In 1985, for the first time since the Communist takeover in 1949, in Hungary the names of non-Communist candidates were also placed on the candidate list.

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