Social inequality in Central and Eastern Europe: Perception, reality and democracy

A recent study of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) countries has found that “citizens in less equal societies expect free markets to generate social conflict”. This finding could have significant implications for EU efforts to promote social cohesion. EUREQUAL, an EU-funded research project, led by the University of Oxford, has found that Citizens of CEE countries have experienced profound socio-economic change over the past couple of decades. While this change can be regarded as largely beneficial, in some cases the transition to democracy and a market economy has been accompanied by high levels of social inequality. Just how widespread perceptions of inequality are in post-Communist CEE states has been revealed in a recently concluded three-year study carried out by the EUREQUAL consortium.

Setting out to assess the “character, causes and consequences” of social inequality in CEE states, the EUREQUAL project conducted nearly 15,000 interviews during 2007. The survey respondents were drawn from the populations of 12 countries: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. In all but one of these countries (Romania), over half the interviewees said there was too much social inequality in their society (Table 1)1.

Table 1: Views on Social Inequality

Note: Response categories are: ‘Too much’ = there is ‘too much’ or excessive social inequality; ‘Right amount’ = there is the ‘right amount’ of social inequality; ‘Not enough’ = there is ‘not enough’ social inequality; ‘No SI’ = there is no social inequality; ‘DK’ = don’t know/no answer.

Though the data gathered during the project are still being analysed, the preliminary findings clearly show that public perception of social inequality is widespread in CEE states, including those countries that are part of the European Union. In some post-Communist states, the researchers note, the overall extent of social inequality has “dramatically worsened”. Along with Russia and Ukraine, over 80 per cent of respondents in Bulgaria and Hungary say there is too much inequality in their societies.

For most of these countries, the widespread perception that society is excessively unequal does not affect how people view democracy. Democracy “may not mitigate concerns about the social impact of unequal distribution”, the consortium concludes, “but it does not magnify them”. On the other hand, there does appear to be a correlation between the perception of excessive social inequality and the desire for ‘government with a strong hand’ to intervene in the market to curb excesses. Indeed, the researchers express concern that entrenched perceptions of social inequality in CEE states could have negative implications for economic competitiveness and long-term stability. In societies that are perceived to be highly unequal, the consortium observes, “perceptions of social inequality have the strongest influence on expectations of market-based social conflict, and these perceptions are stronger than normative views of the market”.

In terms of the character, causes and consequences of social inequality the research suggests:

  • Character: Social inequality relates to the distribution of social goods such as access to health care, education, and broader cultural goods. Rather than a mere extension to income inequality, social inequality is defined by arrays of inequalities that work in concert.
  • Causes: The causes of the perceptions of social inequality are largely linked to individuals’ views about ideal ways of organising economic systems – planned versus market economies – and by their perceptions of fairness in social mobility and access to broader social goods. Importantly, the consortium finds that there is little link at all between ‘objective’ measures of income inequality – national GINI coefficients – and perceptions of excessive social inequality. If anything, the results show that those in more equal societies in terms of income inequality may be somewhat more likely to perceive social inequality to be excessive.
  • Consequences: Individuals’ perceptions of social inequality produce significant and clear attitudinal effects in the form of lower assessments of market, social atomisation, increased expectations of conflict, changes in political engagement, higher perceptions of official corruption, and lower support for membership in the European Union.

Dealing with perceptions of social inequality may be as important as dealing with the inequality itself for citizens’ preferences about market governance, expectations of conflict, political engagement and support for the EU. Action to improve the openness of societies and in particular to reduce citizens’ judgement that advancement is limited by corruption will have a significant impact on views of social inequality and therefore on its consequences.

When they began their project, the EUREQUAL consortium suggested that reducing social inequality in Central and Eastern Europe may have a significant impact on economic development. That hypothesis has yet to be tested. But the researchers have succeeded in deepening our understanding of the relationship between social inequality, democracy and the market economy. By identifying a link between high levels of perceived social inequality and negative attitudes toward the market economy, EUREQUAL has provided further evidence to consider in the development of social cohesion policy.



1 Matthew Loveless and Stephen Whitefield, ‘Being unequal and seeing inequality: Explaining the political significance of social inequality in new market democracies’. European Journal of Political Research, Published Online: May 17 2010. (Forthcoming in 2010). See:

EUREQUAL - Social Inequality and Why it Matters for the Economic and Democratic Development of Europe and its Citizens: Post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe in Comparative Perspective (duration: 1/5/2006 – 28/4/2009) - was a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 – Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.


Contact: Stephen Whitefield,