VoxEU Column Politics and economics

Political protest and economic reform: Lessons from The Great Transition

Do political protests make a difference? This column examines a new dataset focusing on political protests before the fall of communism. Countries that had a strong civil society, and a lenient communist government, have embarked on a path towards sound political institutions, economic reforms and democratisation. Those that had a weak civil society and repressive governments have not.

Throughout the 1990s, two opposing views were put forward about the political conditions that are conducive to the success of economic reforms. According to the first, success of reform depends on factors that can diminish the chances of politicising issues of economic transformation, such as strong power concentration, insulation of reformers from political pressures or a speed of reforms that does not allow time for the potential opponents of reforms to get organised and resist change (Przeworski 1991, Lipton and Sachs 1990).

According to the second camp, the presence of actors and institutions that could put issues of reform in a contested and plural political frame represented the ideal conditions for reforms enjoying stable support (Dewatripont and Roland 1992a and 1992b, and Murrell 1992).

Explicitly, or implicitly, both camps have attached independent explanatory power to variation in the properties of civil societies. But neither of these viewpoints have yet quantified and measured the variation in the properties of civil societies in the dying days of the state-socialist regimes.
This is precisely what we have attempted in recent research (Bruszt et al. 2010). To that effect, we compiled a new and unique dataset covering the period between the start of Glasnost and the fall of communism (i.e., from 1985 to 1989) for the 27 former centrally-planned economies of Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The data, collected from the Open Society Archives in Budapest, measure the frequency and nature of a broad range of political-opposition events. These events were reported by Radio Free Europe and other news sources that specialised in reporting on the formerly communist countries and on dissident activities there.
Nearly two decades after the start of economic and political reforms in the former communist countries, the outcomes are very diverse. The wide range of outcomes of the post-communist transition has given rise to large literature. There is by now a consensus that proximate causes, such as the outcomes of the first democratic elections or differences in economic policies, alone cannot explain the observed divergence, and that differences in the institutional quality provide a better explanation. Yet, this only begs the next question: how can we explain differences in institutional evolution across countries? Taking institutions as exogenous is unsatisfactory because all these countries underwent rapid and profound institutional change following the end of communism.

Pre-transition civil society is likely to have played an important positive role in driving institutional change for a number of reasons. In countries where a more active civil society has exploited the political opportunity created by the communist collapse, the demand for implementing and consolidating institutional checks and balances and limits to the powers of the executive was certainly stronger than in countries where the ex-ante civil society was weaker. And in countries with a more vibrant civil society, the incentives of incumbents to introduce encompassing and sustainable economic reforms were different from the incentives of incumbents facing a less developed civil society.

The dataset, reported in Bruszt et al (2010), captures the breadth and depth of pre-transition civil society and can be used to investigate the impact of civil society on subsequent institutional, economic, and political developments. The database contains detailed information on dissident activity, such as the number of events, dates, and number of participants. It also records the type of event (strike, demonstration, etc.), motivation, and whether the government reacted – and how severely. It tries to measure civil society by actual actions rather than, say, by organisational membership. It refers to political action in authoritarian state-socialist regimes that had no freedom of association and assembly and no guaranteed political rights. In such regimes, any non-licensed gathering of people or non-authorised public speech act could in principle count as an illegal action.

As this new dataset demonstrates, before the regime change, countries varied greatly in the propensity of their citizens to engage in political confrontation. Focusing on the average number of events, Figure 1 shows these propensities to be substantially higher in Central Europe and the former Yugoslavia than in the former Soviet Union (including the Baltics). It is only in 1988, at the height of the Glasnost period under Gorbachev, that we can see a slight increase in the number of events in the former Soviet Union. In contrast, there is a very strong upward trend in dissident activities in the Baltics and former Yugoslavia. Interestingly, as shown in Figure 2, the median number of participants is higher in the Baltics and former Yugoslavia than in other groups of countries. There is a spike in 1988 in the former Soviet Union but for the other years, median participation in the former Soviet Union is substantially lower than elsewhere.

Figure 1. Average number of dissident events between 1985 and 1991 (countries are grouped into central Europe, Baltics, former Soviet Union, and former Yugoslavia)

Figure 2. Median number of participants in dissident events between 1985 and 1989 (countries are grouped into central Europe, Baltics, former Soviet Union, and former Yugoslavia)

One aspect of political protest that this dataset highlights is the importance of government repression. The reaction to protest activities was not uniform across the region. Figure 3 shows the percentage of events to which the government reacted to, that is, that it tried to repress. It is clear that the likelihood of government reaction to political protest events is low and decreasing in Central Europe from around 40% in 1985 to 20% in 1989. Repression in the former Soviet Union (including the Baltics), in contrast, shows an increasing trend during the same period, although it declines subsequently in 1990-91.

Figure 3. Frequency of government reaction to dissident events between 1985 and 1991 (countries are grouped into central Europe, Baltics, former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia)

Figure 4 shows the percentage of events that were repressed by the government violently. Again, repression was stronger in the former Soviet Union and Baltics compared to central Europe and the former Yugoslavia. Note in particular the dramatic increase in violent repression in the Baltics during the late 1980s until 1989.

Figure 4. Frequency of violent government reaction to dissident events between 1985 and 1991 (countries are grouped into central Europe, Baltics, former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia)

The lessons from these new data are clear. Central European countries experienced a relatively high level of dissident activity, and had governments that were less repressive. Protest activity in central Europe was more politicised, aiming directly at political change. There was a lot of dissent in former Yugoslavia where the government was less repressive, although protest took mostly the form of strikes and had mainly an economic motivation and was prone to easy manipulation by communist incumbents. There were fewer events and at the same time more repression in the former Soviet Union. Protest mainly took the form of demonstrations for the defence of human rights and only became more politicised later on. An exception is the Baltics where very strong nationalist (pro-independence) activities were recorded in the late 1980s.

We also relate these data to the subsequent political and economic developments. The econometric results suggest that the emergence of strong presidential regimes in the former Soviet Union countries, which subsequently proved to have worse human right records compared with the parliamentary and more democratic regimes in Central Europe and the Baltics, can be related to the lower frequency of political opposition in the pre-transition period, its nature, and to the severity of government repression. Similarly, the results suggest that the pre-transition civil society has had also an effect on the subsequent nature and pace of market-oriented reform and democratisation.

These results indicate that the differences in civil society development and collective-action processes in societies before the beginning of the post-communist transition have had a long-lasting legacy. The success or failure of institutional change, reform and political liberalisation is strongly linked to the political events that unfolded during the final years of communism. Countries with a vibrant pre-transition civil society have embarked on a path towards sound political institutions, economic reforms and democratisation. Countries that had little in the way of civil society, and whose governments repressed it, have introduced more authoritarian regimes and at best dragged their feet on economic and political liberalisation.


Bruszt, László, Nauro F Campos, Jan Fidrmuc, and Gérard Roland (2010), “Civil Society, Institutional Change and the Politics of Reform: The Great Transition,” CEPR Discussion paper.

Dewatripont, M and G Roland (1992a), “Economic Reform and Dynamic Political Constraints”, Review of Economic Studies, 59: 703-730.

Dewatripont, M and G Roland (1992b), “The Virtues of Gradualism and Legitimacy in the Transition to a Market Economy”, Economic Journal, 102:291-300.

Lipton, D and JD Sachs (1990), “Creating a Market in Eastern Europe: The Case of Poland”, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 20(1):75–147.

Murrell, P (1992), “Evolution in Economics and in the Economic Reform of the Centrally Planned Economies”, in Christopher C Clague and Gordon Rausser (eds.), The Emergence of Market Economies in Eastern Europe, Blackwell.

Przeworski, Adam (1991), Democracy and the market: Political and economic reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America, Cambridge University Press,



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