Academic journal article East European Quarterly

The Political Quiescence of the New Democracies in Central and Eastern Europe: An Opportunity Cost Framework

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

The Political Quiescence of the New Democracies in Central and Eastern Europe: An Opportunity Cost Framework

Article excerpt


The early 1990s in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe were a period of unprecedented, large-scale social change. This included a simultaneous transition to democracy and the market under conditions of often severe social-economic hardship, including soaring poverty and unemployment rates and declining industrial output and real wages (UNICEF 1995; Vanhuysse 1999). In this context, many expected that the early 1990s in this region would be marked by widespread political and social instability (e.g. Przeworski 1991; Bresser Pereira et al. 1993). Yet as an increasing number of writers have noted in recent years, the post-communist transitions have been accompanied by surprisingly low levels of strikes, political violence and other disruptive protests. (1) To give but one example, between 1990 and 1995 the mean rates of workdays lost during strikes and lockouts in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania were lower than in emerging Latin American democracies during the 1980s, and lower than in long-established Western democracies such as Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark, the UK and the US during the 1990s (Vanhuysse 2004a; 2006). A number of country studies have offered evidence and insights on this puzzle, notably in the cases of Russia (Crowley 1997; Ashwin 1998) and Poland (Ekiert and Kubik 1998, 1999). This article sketches a simple theoretical framework for interpreting the unexpected 'crisis-proofness' of the post-communist transitions, centered around an analysis of the opportunity costs of participation in collective protests. The first section emphasizes the role of the opportunity costs in determining collective action outcomes. I then apply this perspective to reanalyze a number of stylized economic features from the literature on late communism and early transition. I conclude by arguing that for many Central and East European citizens, private earnings opportunities in informal markets were more compelling than collective action as a mechanism for coping with declining living standards during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Free-riding and Opportunity Costs in Protests: A Materialist Framework

The literature on contentious politics suggests a large number of causes, contexts, and triggering conditions to account for large-scale protest movements. Influential explanations have mainly stressed such causal variables as domestic changes in political opportunity structures (Tilly 1978; Tarrow 1998) and macro-political configurations of international crisis and domestic pressures (Skocpol 1979; Goldstone 2003). These accounts generally attribute a high degree of determinism to large-scale protests (or their absence), while underplaying the role and relevance of individual actors. (2) Moreover, they juxtapose a great number of structural variables and strongly advocate a theoretical emphasis on synthesis and inclusiveness rather than parsimony (see McAdam et al. 1997:166; Tarrow 1998:3).

Within the rational action paradigm, theorists have pointed to selective incentives provided by political entrepreneurs (Popkin 1979) or by local communities (Taylor 1988; Hardin 1995). Such arguments need to tackle a second-order paradox: providing selective incentives itself poses a public good problem, albeit one that may be easier to solve (Elster 1989; Coleman 1990). Alternatively, theorists have argued that cooperating in providing the good becomes the individually rational strategy beyond a certain 'tipping point' level of participation in public goods contexts as varied as tax paying (Levi 1988), protests (Chong 1991; Oberschall 1994), ethnic violence (Laitin 1999), rebellion (Petersen 2001), and welfare support (Rothstein 2001). Collective action then transforms into an assurance game.

However, since assurance games have one full-cooperation and one zero-cooperation equilibrium and no dominant strategy, they cannot explain cases with participation rates in between these extremes--plausibly the great majority of real-life protests. …

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