Eastern Europeans trust their political system and institutions less than their counterparts in Western Europe. But, the foundations of institutional trust at the individual level are not that different between Western and Eastern Europe. What is causing the gap, then? Zsolt Boda and Gergő Medve-Bálint argue that the persistently low levels of institutional trust in the East may be explained by the publicly perceived low performance of institutions, resulting from their politicisation, and that this may also indirectly trigger low levels of social trust.

A growing body of literature on trust is concerned with the lack or decline of trust and its potential consequences on democratic legitimacy and effective governance. Compared to Western Europe, the populations of Eastern European countries demonstrate persistently lower aggregate trust levels towards the political system and institutions, which poses a concern for social scientists and policy-makers alike. Why is political and institutional trust lower in Eastern than in Western Europe? Three competing approaches offer explanations.

The first one highlights the differences in certain macro-level features between the West and the East, such as in political culture or in income levels. The second approach argues that the characteristics of specific institutions matter the most: since institutional performance in the newer democracies is less effective and less fair (less democratic, transparent, inclusive etc.) than in the West, people also tend to place less confidence in those institutions. The third approach focuses on the micro-level, and aims to identify differences in the individuals’ attitudes, preferences or social statuses, which would affect the levels of institutional trust. Our analysis shows that the third approach does not stand on a solid empirical ground and that the reasons for different trust levels between Eastern and Western Europe may lie in the first two explanations and that the micro-foundations of institutional trust do not differ substantially between Western and Eastern Europe.

Some macro-level approaches that aim to explain cross-country differences in institutional trust refer to variations in the level of development or in political culture as a key explanatory factor. Indeed, as Figure 1 below shows, there is a remarkably strong association between social trust and institutional trust at the country level. In this chart, Eastern European countries (with the exception of Estonia) are located at the bottom left corner, while most Western Europeans are in the middle and at the top right corner, which demonstrates that in the Western part of the continent the aggregate levels of social and institutional trust are higher than in the East.

Figure 1: Association between interpersonal trust and institutional trust

Figure 1 may also suggest that trust is a general cultural attribute rooted in social history, experiences, and shared values. However, the rather unfavourable public attitudes towards institutions in Eastern Europe can also be explained by problems of legitimacy and governance effectiveness, which is characteristic of these states.

Social trust might be also dependent on other factors of trust – instead of being a foundational element of social reality. For instance, we found that the volatility of both social and institutional trust is higher in Eastern Europe. This suggests that other factors also play a role in shaping trust levels (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Volatility of social and institutional trust (2002-2010)

Institutional trust and per capita GDP also show a strong association with each other (see Figure 3). However, their relationship may be circular: high GDP and a well-functioning economy may lead to higher levels of trust, but trust may also contribute to a better and more effective institutional functioning, as argued above. Thus the approach emphasising the role of the performance of political institutions may be highly relevant: according to Tom Tyler and others, trust depends first and foremost on the fairness of the procedures that institutions use, in addition to institutional outcome and effectiveness.

Figure 3: Association between institutional trust and per capita GDP (2010)

The third approach that explains institutional trust focuses on the individual level variations in institutional trust, and argues that micro-level characteristics such as the differences in socialisation and in individual political and economic attitudes, which people develop to evaluate political institutions, are the main factors to consider. Using this framework some scholarly works claim that the micro-level foundations of institutional trust differ between the two sides of Europe. For instance, they suggest that in Central and Eastern Europe individual level income is a strong predictor of trust in political institutions, while other micro-level characteristics play a less decisive role. This would also imply that citizens of these two country groups differ from each other in terms of the micro-level mechanisms that determine their trust levels towards institutions.

Given that most of the democracies in Central and Eastern Europe were established more than 20 years ago, we could at best refer to them as newer but no longer as new democracies. Since the majority of these states have already gained membership in the European Union, it is safe to claim that they have established the institutional foundations of market economy and democracy. For this reason, we argue that citizens of Central and Eastern Europe (at least in those democratic countries that are either EU members or prospective members) may not differ from their Western European peers in a sense that the same micro-level socio-economic and demographic factors affect institutional trust in both parts of the continent. Moreover, we expect that the same factors show the same directional relationships both in Western and Eastern Europe. This hypothesis also implies that the cross-country differences in institutional trust cannot be explained by referring to micro-level foundations. Instead, differences in political culture and the (perceived) performance of institutions may explain the variation.

Our empirical analysis seems to reinforce the above hypothesis. We ran OLS regressions on country samples from the latest (2010) European Social Survey, and in the model we included indicators of social trust, happiness, media consumption, level of socialising, level of religiousness, household income, age, level of education, type of domicile, gender and membership in a minority group as predictors of institutional trust. We found that while controlling for the other factors, income became a weak predictor of institutional trust even though it showed a positive relationship with it. All in all, we found a uniform pattern in that the levels of social trust, happiness and religiousness demonstrate a statistically significant, positive association with institutional trust in the whole sample, across all countries. Other variables were either statistically insignificant or did not demonstrate a clearly identifiable cross-country pattern.

We thus concluded that the micro-foundations of institutional trust do not differ substantially between Western and Eastern Europe. This also implies that the persistently low levels of institutional trust in the East may be explained by the publicly perceived low performance of institutions, which, as suggested by several scholars, is a result of their politicisation. However, if the relationship between institutional and social trust is mutually constitutive on the ground, then inferior institutional performance may also indirectly trigger low levels of social trust. This seemingly vicious circle can be broken by “getting institutions right”: our findings are policy-relevant in a sense that improving institutional performance (both in terms of fairness and effectiveness) in Eastern Europe would likely generate both greater institutional and social trust, which in turn would strengthen the fundamentals of these democracies.

This article is based on: Boda, Z., & Medve-Bálint, G. (2012). Institutional Trust in Central and Eastern European Countries: Is it Different from Western Europe? Presented at the EPSA 2nd Annual Conference, Berlin.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the authors

Zsolt Boda – Hungarian Academy of Science
Zsolt Boda is a senior research fellow and Head of Department at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Political Science. His research interests include public policy, governance of public goods, and trust-based policy making.

Gergő Medve-Bálint Central European University
Gergő Medve-Bálint is a PhD student at the Department of International Relations and European Studies at the Central European University. He is also a Junior Research Fellow at the Institute for Political Science of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

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