Degradation of agricultural soils is a serious concern in transition countries in the EU. We investigate similarities and differences between the soil conservation policy frameworks of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and the former German Democratic Republic and their implementation. Our focus is on the differences in institutional arrangements, i.e. formally existing policies, property rights, informal institutions and governance structures. We conducted comparative case studies based on a framework of institutional analysis, using literature survey, document analysis and in-depth stakeholder interviews. Results show that among the determining factors for policy effectiveness are property rights regimes and land-use rights, traditions in the provision of advisory services, farmers' previous experience with soil conservation practices and policies, perceived threat of enforcement, and trust in administrative authorities. We conclude that the existence of similar legislation and a common policy framework does not guarantee similar outcomes because institutional arrangements and their evolution play a major role in the effectiveness of agricultural soil conservation policies. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.