Forests provide important ecosystem services, and protected areas around the world are intended to reduce human disturbance on forests. The question is how forest cover is changing in different parts of the world, why some areas are more frequently disturbed, and if protected areas are effective in limiting anthropogenic forest disturbance. The Carpathians are Eastern Europe’s largest contiguous forest ecosystem and are a hotspot of biodiversity. Eastern Europe has undergone dramatic changes in political and socioeconomic structures since 1990, when socialistic state economies transitioned toward market economies. However, the effects of the political and economic transition on Carpathian forests remain largely unknown. Our goals were to compare post-socialist forest disturbance and to assess the effectiveness of protected areas in the border triangle of Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine, to better understand the role of broadscale political and socioeconomic factors. Forest disturbances were assessed using the forest disturbance index derived from Landsat MSS/TM/ETM+ images from 1978 to 2000. Our results showed increased harvesting in all three countries (up to 1.8 times) in 1988-1994, right after the system change. Forest disturbance rates differed markedly among countries (disturbance rates in Ukraine were 4.5 times higher than in Poland, and those in Slovakia were 4.3 times higher than in Poland), and in Ukraine, harvests tended to occur at higher elevations. Forest fragmentation increased in all three countries but experienced a stronger increase in Slovakia and Ukraine (approximately 5% decrease in core forest) than in Poland. Protected areas were most effective in Poland and in Slovakia, where harvesting rates dropped markedly (by nearly an order of magnitude in Slovakia) after protected areas were designated. In Ukraine, harvesting rates inside and outside protected areas did not differ appreciably, and harvests were widespread immediately before the designation of protected areas. In summary, the socioeconomic changes in Eastern Europe that occurred since 1990 had strong effects on forest disturbance. Differences in disturbance rates among countries appear to be most closely related to broadscale socioeconomic conditions, forest management practices, forest policies, and the strength of institutions. We suggest that such factors may be equally important in other regions of the world.