Elena Nikolova, Ph.D.


University College London

City: London and Mauritius, England

Country: United Kingdom

About Me:

I am an Assistant Professor (Lecturer) at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London and a visiting lecturer at EBS Business School in Germany. I am also affiliated with the Central European Labour Studies Institute in Slovakia (as a research fellow) and with the Leibniz-Institute for East and Southeast European Studies (IOS) Regensburg in Germany (as an associated researcher). I am a Fellow of the Global Labor Organization. I received my PhD from Princeton University in 2011, and my undergraduate degree from Gettysburg College in the US. Previously, I was an economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London. I'm interested in political economy, economic development, gender, economic history, comparative politics and democratization, and the politics and economics of transition. 

Research Interests

Post-Communist Politics

Comparative Political Institutions


Comparative Democratization

Political Economy

Gender and Politics

Comparative Politics



Political Institutions

Political Culture


Countries of Interest







My Research:

My research focuses on a broad range of topics in political science and economics, including corruption, attitudes and values, gender, happiness, religion, democratization and entrepreneurship. My focus is on Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Western Europe and the US. I have conducted policy work for the EBRD, World Bank, UNDP and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. 


Journal Articles:

(2018) Communism as the unhappy coming, Journal of Comparative Economics

We show that Eastern Orthodox believers are less happy compared to those of Catholic and Protestant faith using data covering more than 100 countries around the world. Consistent with the happiness results, we also find that relative to Catholics, Protestants and non-believers, those of Eastern Orthodox religion have less social capital and prefer old ideas and safe jobs. In addition, Orthodoxy is associated with left-leaning political preferences and stronger support for government involvement in the economy. Compared to non-believers and Orthodox adherents, Catholics and Protestants are less likely to agree that government ownership is a good thing, and Protestants are less likely to agree that getting rich can only happen at the expense of others. These differences in life satisfaction and other attitudes and values persisted despite the fact that communist elites sought to eradicate church-going in Eastern Europe, since communists maintained many aspects of Orthodox theology which were useful for the advancement of the communist doctrine. The findings are consistent with Berdyaev's (1933, 1937) hypothesis of communism as a successor of Orthodoxy.

(2018) War and Social Attitudes, Conflict Management and Peace Science

We study the long-run effects of conflict on social attitudes, with World War II and Central and Eastern Europe as our setting. Earlier work has relied on self-reported measures of victimization, which are prone to endogenous misreporting. With our own survey-based measure, we replicate consensus findings linking victimization to increased political participation and civic engagement. Those findings collapse when tested instead with an objective measure of victimization based on historical reference material. Also, in a reversal of earlier short-run findings, we show that conflict breeds optimism in the long-run. Last, we shed doubt on another consensus by failing to provide evidence that conflict hinders trust.

(2017) Do Public Fund Windfalls Increase Corruption? Evidence From a Natural Disaster, Comparative Political Studies

We show that unexpected financial windfalls increase corruption in local government. Our analysis uses a new data set on flood-related transfers, and the associated spending infringements, which the Bulgarian central government distributed to municipalities following torrential rains in 2004 and 2005. Using information from the publicly available audit reports, we are able to build a unique objective index of corruption. We also exploit the quasi-random nature of the rainfall shock (conditional on controls for ground flood risk) to isolate exogenous variation in the amount of funds received by each municipality. Our results imply that a 10% increase in the per capita amount of disbursed funds leads to a 9.8% increase in corruption. We also present suggestive evidence that more corrupt mayors anticipated punishment by voters and dropped out of the next election race. Our results highlight the governance pitfalls of nontax transfers, such as disaster relief or assistance from international organizations, even in moderately strong democracies.

(2017) Can diversity encourage entrepreneurship in transition economies?, IZA World of Labor

Entrepreneurship is an important lever for spurring transition in the economies of the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe. Utilizing diversity, in terms of religion or gender, can positively affect entrepreneurial development. Programs that encourage entrepreneurial initiatives (such as business start-ups) in culturally diverse localities should rank high on the policy agenda. Prompting women to start a business, along with female-friendly measures (including targeted legislation), can positively affect entrepreneurial behaviour and the performance of existing enterprises.

(2017) Suffrage, labour markets and coalitions in colonial Virginia, European Journal of Political Economy

We study Virginia's suffrage from the early-17th century until the American Revolution using an analytical narrative and econometric analysis of unique data on franchise restrictions. First, we hold that suffrage changes reflected labour market dynamics. Indeed, Virginia's liberal institutions initially served to attract indentured servants from England who were needed in the labour-intensive tobacco farming but deteriorated once worker demand subsided and planters replaced white workers with slaves. Second, we argue that Virginia's suffrage was also the result of political bargaining influenced by shifting societal coalitions. We show that new politically influential coalitions of freemen and then of small and large slave-holding farmers emerged in the second half of the 17th and early-18th centuries, respectively. These coalitions were instrumental in reversing the earlier democratic institution\s. Our main contribution stems from integrating the labour markets and bargaining/coalitions arguments, thus proving a novel theoretical and empirical explanation for institutional change.

(2017) Destined for Democracy? Labour Markets and Political Change in Colonial British America, British Journal of Political Science

In this article a new explanation for the emergence of democratic institutions is proposed: elites may extend the right to vote to the masses in order to attract migrant workers. It is argued that representative assemblies serve as a commitment device for any promises made to labourers by those in power, and the argument is tested on a new political and economic dataset from the thirteen British American colonies. The results suggest that colonies that relied on white migrant labour, rather than slaves, had better representative institutions. These findings are not driven by alternative factors identified in the literature, such as inequality or initial conditions, and survive a battery of validity checks.

(2016) How much should we trust life satisfaction data? Evidence from the Life in Transition Survey, Journal of Comparative Economics

We analyse responses to two similar life satisfaction questions asked at different points in the same wave of a major cross-country household survey covering the transition region, Turkey and five Western European countries. We show that while the answers to the two questions are broadly consistent for most people, the responses for some groups differ significantly. Respondents of a lower socio-economic status and with a more favourable parental background show systematically higher levels of self-reported satisfaction in the later question. We also find evidence that responses to the later question are influenced by preceding questions on social capital. Our results have important implications for the design and length of household surveys that contain subjective questions.

(2016) The happiness gap in Eastern Europe, Journal of Comparative Economics

Citizens in Eastern Europe are less satisfied with life than their peers in other countries. This happiness gap has persisted over time, despite predictions to the contrary by earlier scholars. It holds after controlling for a variety of covariates, such as the standard of living, life expectancy and Eastern Orthodox religion. Armed with a battery of surveys from the early 1990s to 2014, we argue that the happiness gap is explained by how citizens in post-communist countries perceive their governments. Eastern Europeans link their life satisfaction to higher perceived corruption and weaker government performance. Our results suggest that the transition from central planning is still incomplete, at least in the psychology of people.

(2016) The Great Recession and social preferences: Evidence from Ukraine, Journal of Comparative Economics

We use detailed survey data to document stark differences between West and East Ukraine when it comes to household attitudes toward market-based economies and democratic institutions. Along both of these dimensions, Eastern Ukrainians are decidedly less supportive of liberal systems. We also find that economic attitudes changed in response to the global financial crisis. West Ukrainian households who were affected more extensively by the crisis were more disappointed with the market and private ownership, while in Eastern Ukraine economic attitudes became less pro-market across the board. Our evidence suggests that attitudes and values are determined by both deep-rooted factors and more transient macroeconomic shocks.

(2015) Religious diversity and entrepreneurship in transition: lessons for policymakers, IZA Journal of European Labor Studies

Using the 2010 Life in Transition Survey, we show that localities with higher religious diversity have more respondents who have tried to set up a business. Although religious diversity also correlates with a higher start-up probability (following trial), this effect is driven by access to finance and risk preferences. We provide suggestive evidence that the positive association between religious diversity and entrepreneurial trial is positively moderated by social capital (when measured as access to weak ties and the ability to bridge structural holes). Our results suggest that programs which encourage entrepreneurial attempts in diverse areas and develop such social capital are likely to be particularly effective. At the start-up stage, relaxing credit constraints should rank high on the policy agenda.

Media Appearances:

Radio Appearances:

(2015) Bulgarian National Radio

Discussed paper on corruption in Bulgaria.

Newspaper Quotes:

(2018) Globe Post

Will Yet Another Anti-Corruption Protest Trigger Change in Romania? - op-ed

(2015) Many

Featured study on corruption in Bulgaria (with Nikolay Marinov) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/04/22/how-disaster-relief-can-increase-corruption/?utm_term=.be7b22cba5a0 http://www.standartnews.com/mneniya-analizi/kak_bedstviyata_hranyat_rushvetite-280625.html https://www.capital.bg/politika_i_ikonomika/bulgaria/2015/04/25/2519689_niama_nishto_po-hubavo_ot_loshoto_vreme/

(2015) FT.com, Forbes Russia

Comment on my research on the happiness gap in Eastern Europe

Blog Posts:

(2018) UCL research blog

The Mauritian Miracle

(2018) Washington Post - Monkey Cage

After the Greek financial crisis, Greeks are more mistrustful of others — especially non-Greeks

(2018) VoxEU.org

Communism, religion and unhappiness

(2017) Washington Post

Blog on paper on institutions in colonial America