As one who actually lived or traveled to several of those places, I'd submit that the answer is quite a few things.
There's surface level resemblance between the two lists when you're in a shopping mall or a shop heavy district. Outside of the latter, however, Western cities and countryside stand out as much wealthier in all sorts of ways. In particular less places that look like they're in shambles.
The contrast is comparable what you can encounter in the US countryside (which at times is borderline 3rd world-ish) vs e.g. major US metropoles (which compare to major Western European cities in sophistication and wealth).
But if you read/listen to the news, talk to the people or just overhear their conversations in the streets, you'll probably perceive the difference and get to look at the place with different eyes.
I think this difference is deeply rooted in history and is a clear continuing legacy of the iron curtain.
Its interesting to see how attitudes diverge when populations split anyway.
As an aside you touch on a separate point: it's much easier for your girlfriend to find work in Belgium than it would be for you to find one in Bratislava. Which probably explains, much like here further south, the mass exodus of the youth and a somewhat pessimistic attitude of the locals towards their country's economy.
Depends on what you mean by "third world conditions" too. There are places in the third world that are heaps and bounds above some US towns and cities.
Try parts of Mississippi, Appalachia, etc. Or heck, try Pine Ridge SD, where life expectancy "in 2007 was estimated to be 48 for males and 52 for females."
It's nowhere near comparable to Latin American slums, obviously, but it certainly looked on par with what you see in the Belizean or Mexican countryside. And it was a far cry from what I've ever encountered in rural France, Benelux, or Germany outside of abandoned crack shacks.
Yes, the heritage of the iron curtain is slowly disappearing, but I would not say that it is happening as fast as the author thinks it is.
As an example, there is still a serious division between the "nationals" and "occupants" (Russian speaking people) in Latvia. We have different politicians, celebrations, churches, companies and neighborhoods for people speaking in either the Latvian or Russian language.
Youth still tries to get away from the country since the working conditions are not the best. I'm lucky to be working in IT, where it's much better than the for the rest of the population (developers tend to make more than our politicians), but that's due to western countries looking for cheap IT labor (cheap for them; but good money for locals).
Who you also consider "non-citizens", but not in the sense that they're citizens of some other state, you just refuse part of country's population of some citizen rights (like voting) as if it was Apartheid all over again.
It's a long-lasting grievance that could perhaps be eased by some diplomacy, but is instead being used by all aggrieved parties to further antagonist, and nationalistically protectionist agendas. There is little practical incentive for either Latvia or Russia to soften first, for reasons more than just national pride: this is a power play like any other. In truth, the status, while somewhat derogatory, is not particularly horrific, and impacts people's daily prosperity or international mobility little.
It's disingenuous to try to frame it as a human rights violation; it's most certainly not, but it is a festering issue that doesn't make reconciliation any more likely or easier.
> There is little practical incentive for either Latvia or Russia to soften first
Let me try to understand. Latvia calls some of its citizens "non-citizens" and somehow Russia (a different country) has the option of "softening first". By doing what exactly?
What are the issues that Russia should go soft on in order for Latvia to stop considering a fraction of its population "non-citizens"? And why it was an issue in the 90's where the Russia was famous "The Coma State"?
Romania, Serbia, "Macedonia" (yes, the quotes are intentional, and yes, I know it's not cool, and yes, this is pretty typical), Bulgaria - they're all on a completely different level of human development, corruption, values, etc.
Part of the reason is 500 years of Ottoman rule, another part is the close proximity and close relations with the Russian Empire/USSR/Russia, but someone who's Czech or Hungarian or a Croat is much closer culturally with someone from Germany/Austria than someone from Bulgaria is.
Being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and part of the Ottoman Empire completely changed how those countries developed, and the situations they're in now, even though countries are sometimes only hundreds of
Hungary, Czechoslovakia had revolutions, in '56 in '68 respectively, to attempt to escape the iron grip of Mother Russia while a large portion of Bulgarians to this day are Russophiles and nostalgic about those days, not to mention EU- and NATO-sceptics.
Props to Western Europe for literally dragging countries like Bulgaria and Romania and Serbia away from the clutches of the Russian Bear and into Western Civilization, but I'm not convinced they'll be successful.
What kind of effort has Western Europe actually put towards "dragging us into western civilization"? We just became a market for their goods and a pool of cheap skilled and unskilled labour. Recently, they even started praising our corrupt politicians (from the GERB party) just for keeping a pro-EU stance.
Most people had a genuine pro-western attitude in the 1990s, but that is now evaporating because we realised that the West doesn't care at all.
That kind of morally relativistic BS happily doesn't ring true for the majority of contemporary Bulgarians who haven't been a subject of liberal brainwashing.
Some of us who still live here like to think that our votes and civic choices also had a tiny influence in the matter.
A curious thing to note is that population numbers are declining across most of Eastern Europe, which I don't think is the case in the West, because of immigration.
And then some more paragraphs of stereotypes.
People here are complex, just as they are everywhere. The washing-over of several different empires has added even more layers to the cultures of Eastern Europe, but to paint it as uniformly bleak is to miss the humor and wit and diversity of this place.
The trappings of modern consumer life are just a varnish on this place. Only a shallow reading would mistake them for anything else. Master a Slavic or Baltic or Turkic language and then dive down the rabbit hole. It's fun. It's weird. And it's definitely not dead.
The essay quoted in the article is a prime example:
He compares the humanisic philosophers of Austria to the natural philosophers of the West, while ignoring the significant actual scientific output of the Empire (things like Auenbrugger's invention of percussion as a diagnostic technique, Semmelweis' introduction of antiseptics, Loschmidt's groundbreaking work on ideal gases). He also deliberately mixes events from different time periods into a confused narrative: for example, Baron Chaos' Austria was the massively German-speaking southeastern part of the HRE, which does not fit the description of "too many nationalities, too many fractious nobles and rebellious provinces" more representative of the late, sprawling empire (which, by the way, also had scientific output comparable to the West).
Maybe foreigners increasingly miss out on a good laugh as the horse carriages disappear from the Balkans. Maybe a westerner is disappointed that his long weekend slumming in Prague is spoiled by normalty. Maybe an intellectual's romantic dream of Eastern Europe is ruined.
But for those of us who live here, it's better this way. Maybe not for many people in the older generations, though.
Say this to someone from Bratislava, Prague or anyone else of that region, and they will correct you that they live in "Central Europe".
While we (Western Europe and probably US) associate those countries with the Soviet influence, they themselves consider themselves 100% European, and didn't understand why Western Europe never came to rescue them. They want to forget the Soviet influence as fast as possible.
Consider Lviv - Polish, Austrian, and Ukranian; Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish. Or, Bratislava: 40% German, 40% Hungarian, and 15% Slovak. The creator of Esperanto, L. L. Zamenhof wrote of the conditions in Bialystok which inspired him:
The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Białystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies.
Now that we have an open Europe, the once-strict are starting to become less meaningful again. I wonder to what extent the populations of Europe will again intermix. Sadly, seeing the Balkans subdivide in to smaller and smaller states does not give one hope.
So don't worry. Everything is still fine.
I was heartbroken, so I just gave him the money and took it off his hands. Here's my little baby: https://www.instagram.com/p/BHKiB4Qg3pi/
Then this gem:
> A haphazard construction, held together by little more than dynastic loyalty and a touch of baroque magic, the realm of the Habsburgs had an essentially comic nature. Its chief sins lay less in violence than in needless complication, an endless and pointless elaboration of court ritual and bureaucratic protocol.
Perhaps more so than in any other part of the world, Eastern Europe's people have been more acutely defined by economic inequality than anywhere else: whether from the Empire days when one's ethnicity was secondary to one's status as a serf or civis or nobility until it came time to kill each other in someone else's war, or from the Eastern Bloc times when socialist governments handed down a bureaucratic and unremarkable forced egalitarianism that applied only to the masses but not the ruling class, even if it gave them affordable housing and education and healthcare and womens' and workers' rights, or today when middle-class people in Timișoara and Debrecen can buy world-class consumer goods but good jobs are few and far between, and lucrative opportunities lie in few fields, or on the other side of the continent, or in remittances.
Yes, perhaps the stereotype of Eastern Europe is dead, and its cities are more lively to the untrained eye. But plenty of problems still exist; they're just hidden beneath a veneer of disposable spending of South Korean goods to absorb people's momentary desires while being unable to cultivate lasting wealth. It's still a deeply troubled place, albeit in ways that the banlieues of France, the run-down districts of Brussels, the declining Midlands, the small towns of America can relate.
There is a big difference between the facade, "there is American stores everywhere", and the deep culture behind, which clearly still is very present.
When I grew up in Western Germany, the world seemed to end at the Iron Curtain. Would be great if this is indeed changing now.
And as far as your comment, I think you are wrong. There are plenty of centrist and right wing voices on HN. I get push back on a lot of my leftist political comments. I mean we're making competing anecdotal arguments to take it for what it's worth, but just look at this thread: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13663629
The top comment is claiming to find the ideal of a globalized community is "deeply cynical".
Don't be a snowflake who worries that everyone's biased against you because of your politics, just make good and good-faith arguments.
On your snowflake accusation (wow - I've never been accused of that; usually the other way round! I don't recognize the concept of being 'offended' as anything other than a triviality so I'm mystified by the present turn of events in the West) I will add that my comment was not political. Any neutral observer will note the animus (irrespective of its level on HN) against Trump. That's not taking a side.
On the other hand I'm a snowflake insofar as understanding that political views are not welcome on HN and it's nice to relax into another world where politics are largely absent unless closely connected with an IT issue. That was my point. You might think that I didn't have to read your comment and you'd be right! I'll have to get over it. Thanks for the response. Making good and good-faith arguments - I'll go with that!
It starts off by playing on stereotypes of dirtyness, grit, and sanctuaries of sexual promiscuity whose location changes by which first world country you ask. Before diving into existential questions and nuances of a variety of cultures in the former second world. A term whose meaning is largely erased from the collective conscious and lost for a colliqualism of first and third world ambiguity.