Research profile

Eastern Europe as an integrated transnational region

Research target agreement, Institute for East European Studies at Freie Universität Berlin

The Institute is characterized by the interdisciplinarity of its research on Eastern Europe that combines area expertise with theory-based approaches from social and cultural sciences. There is no uniform definition of Eastern Europe in the relevant literature. We include Russia and European states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union or under its control as satellite countries. Russia is part of European history, politics and culture. At the same time, the vast country repeatedly positions itself as the center of Eurasia, as a distinct civilization and politico-economic power and as a counter model to the West. This has significant consequences for the entire region. Southeast Europe is also important for comparison but is not the focal point.

The outlined perspective is relevant for several reasons: Firstly, Eastern Europe is characterized by a shared “communist” past in which Soviet-style state socialism was structurally formative. However, specific historical conditions and groups of individuals meant that countries took quite different paths toward market economies and democracies, thereby creating path dependencies of their own. There is still a considerable lack of understanding of this heterogeneity as well its dynamics and stability.

Secondly, Eastern Europe encompasses a culturally, politically and economically distinct integrated area in which current and former borders were drawn based on varying political alignments of countries following the collapse of state socialism. It is a focal point of contemporary and historic global and European conflict, with Russia as a traditional center on one side and Western Europe as well as the USA as another power on the other. Conflict centers around both the assertion of dominance and realizing socio-economic development potential as well as concepts of cultural identity and self-determination. As Russia pivots away from the “West” once more and reemerges as a global power, there is intensifying conflict on matters of political regimes, economic and social models as well as economic, political and cultural integration. This conflict must be seen in the context of a global critique of globalization cycles driven by financial markets since the 1980s and the contemporary crisis of liberalism.

Thirdly, we are currently experiencing the reemergence of authoritarianism as an overarching trend. This was unforeseeable considering the various transformation paths and integration patterns in the aftermath of 1989. Research must therefore continue to concern itself with common legacies. However, this dynamic is also connected with expectations concerning the transformation process, as well as the course of events and its outcomes and is part of a global transformation.

The research profile “Eastern Europe in interrelated transnational regions” incorporates both social and cultural sciences and focusses on processes of regional and global interrelatedness, which are integral to understanding developments in Eastern Europe. The research program differs considerably from European Studies, in which Eastern Europe is primarily seen as part of the European Union or as an associated or soon to be associated periphery. Russia is considered an intervening factor, if at all, and is not treated as a distinct field of research.

The perspective of transnational interrelatedness is combined with comparative approaches that vary depending on the research question. The focus lies on regime comparison but is not limited to political systems. Rather, a broad politico-economic approach is applied to the political analysis of legal systems, socio-economic orders as well as cultural perceptions of norms and social order or conflict. The concepts of interrelatedness and regimes are closely linked, as the type of regime influences the characteristics of the interrelatedness, just as interrelatedness determines the regime. Modern hybrids or authoritarian regimes are incorporated in international systems of cooperation and power.

The Institute for East European Studies (IEES) at Freie Universität Berlin covers both social and cultural sciences, including history and to date also law. The range of disciplines, particularly the importance attached to social sciences, and the relative size of the faculty are unique in Germany and create an excellent environment in which to implement the research profile. Although further specification of the research profile is not yet possible due to a pending change of generations, the Institute’s central research questions and fields have been identified for the coming years.

Overarching research questions

  • Why is authoritarianism returning to Eastern Europe? Which socio-economic orders are pursued and what legitimization strategies are employed to do so? How do informal and formal institutions interact in the implementation and stabilization of different regimes? How does this relationship vary depending on specific policy fields and economic structures?
  • What effect do historical, cultural and institutional legacies have on comparable and divergent development paths for both similar and conflicting perceptions of norms and social orders?
  • What are the effects of conflicting transnational processes of diffusion, migration and integration on socio-economic systems, political regimes and the formation of collective identities in individual countries? How does Russia as a distinct social model and geopolitical actor affect East-Central and Southeast Europe and Eurasia?
  • How are developments in Russia and Eastern Europe related to the crises of the global economic and social order?

Research areas

(1)   Comparative research and theory of institutions: The interaction of formal institutions and informal rules, norms and practices in authoritarian/hybrid regimes; adaptation of international standards in this context; the relationship between political regimes and socio-economic variants of market economies and social policies; the performance of institutions and impacts on socio-economic development and social inequality; cultural embeddedness of institutions.

(2)   Russia as a major power: Russia as a social order for European and non-European global regions throughout history and in the present day; transformations of economic models and social orders in the context of global crises; restoration of an empire and Russia’s political, socio-economic and identarian pivot away from the “West”; historical, meta-historical and cultural narratives in post-Soviet Russia as a means of legitimization and critique, the role of law in these processes.

(3)   Actors and cultural perceptions of social order: Construction and reconstruction of Eastern European identities in the context of national isolation and migration history (including Eastern European Jewish history); civil society and the production, conflict and diffusion of ideas between official and subversive culture.

(4)   Political economy and economic history informed by cultural studies: Modeling of political processes, comparison of the economics of central planning and transition paths, persistent cultural perceptions of social order and economic development in East and Southeast Europe – the Russian and Ottoman Empires in comparison.