Economic Interdependence, Emigration and Exit Prisoners


How do economic opportunities abroad affect citizens’ ability to exit an authoritarian regime? We theorize the conditions under which authoritarian leaders will perceive emigration as a threat and will use imprisonment instead of other types of anti-emigration measures to prevent mass emigration. Using data from Communist East Germany’s secret prisoner database that we reassembled based on archival material, we show that as economic opportunities in West Germany increased, the number of East German exit prisoners—political prisoners arrested for attempting to illegally cross the border illegally—also increased. Our causal identification strategy exploits occupation-specific differences in the changing economic opportunities between East and West Germany. Using differential access to West German television, we also shed light on the informational mechanism underlying our main finding, and we leverage cross-national data to present evidence for the external validity of our estimates. Our results highlight how global economic interdependence affects politics within authoritarian regimes.

(Working Paper)