Štela (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

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Location: Bosnia and Herzegovina
BosniaHerzegovina map.png
Author: Čarna Brković and Karla Koutkova
Affiliation: Graduate School of East and Southeast European Studies and Central European University

Original Text: Čarna Brković and Karla Koutkova, Graduate School of East and Southeast European Studies, and Central European University

Štela (pronounced shtēlla) is a term used in Bosnia and Herzegovina to refer to people, relations and practices implicated in obtaining public or private resources through a personalised connection. Štela implies either that the official procedure was circumvented, or that there was no official procedure for obtaining the resource in the first place.

The word štela can refer to a person (‘on je bio njena štela’, meaning ‘he was her štela’); a particular act of exchange (‘dobila je posao preko štele’, meaning ‘she got a job through a štela’); or a pervading system of exchange (‘tamo ide sve preko štele’, meaning ‘there, everything runs on štela’). Given the historical legacy of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy which governed Bosnia and Herzegovina 1878-1918, the word štela may be related to the German verb stellen, meaning ‘to put, place or provide’, as well as to the German noun die Stelle, meaning ‘a position or a place’. Veza, meaning ‘a relation’ as well as ‘a connection’, is another term used to refer to the same practice across former Yugoslav countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Ninety-five percent of people in Bosnia and Herzegovinia considered štela to be ‘always’ or ‘occasionally’ necessary for accessing basic services such as employment, education, or healthcare, according to a UNDP report on social capital and ties[1]. The report provides quantitative and qualitative data on the overwhelming importance of štela in Bosnia and Herzegovina and suggests that most of the country’s residents understand its implicit ‘terms and conditions’ in contemporary everyday life. The following table shows the responses of 1,600 citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovinia to the question ‘When is štela useful?’ – for accessing employment, education, healthcare, public authorities, and services such as obtaining a visa and other official documents. Quantitative analysis of the data set shows little variance in terms of gender, ethnicity, age or education background of the respondents.

Perceived importance of informal networks in BiH in percentages (UNDP 2009)
How useful is štela in getting...? A job Into school or university Health care Access to authorities Access to services A visa
Always useful 85.7 80.1 79.4 76.9 75.1 74.6
Sometimes useful 8 10.7 12.8 14.1 14.4 13.4
Occasionally useful 1.2 2.2 2.8 3.1 4.6 4
Never useful 1.5 2 1.3 1.4 1.5 2.1
Don't know/No answer 3.5 4.9 3.7 4.5 4.4 5.8

Ethnographic research reveals a pattern similar to that presented by the UNDP report[2][3][4]. Namely, residents of Bosnia and Herzegovinia of different generations, ethno-national groups, genders, or income have used štele to access public and private resources throughout the 2000s and 2010s. This does not mean that identity differences were not important for redistributing access via any given štela, or that anyone could have asked anyone else to be their štela. On the contrary, people usually relied on those they already knew – friends and kin relatives, acquaintances, former classmates, or work colleagues – to access resources via a štela. Thus, although štele are widely used by all citizens across Bosnia and Herzegovina, they are firmly rooted in people’s existing social worlds, groups, and experiences, reproducing existing social differences.

The term štela can refer to a wide spectrum of social relations. Obtaining a resource via a štela may involve a dyadic relationship in which there is one beneficiary and one intermediary, but it may also extend into a chain of connections among unequally positioned persons. It is not unusual for people not to know all the others temporarily connected by the same chain. In a similar manner, štela may refer to obtaining a resource through close relatives and friends, thereby reflecting meanings of kinship, friendship, and love. However, it can also refer to temporary connections, forged on the spot among acquaintances, co-workers, or people who got to know one another through a third party.

The exact form each štela takes depends on the person who needs a resource, the contacts available to them, and the kind of resource that is needed. For instance, when people need to obtain an official document or gain access to a certain medical practitioner, they often look for a štela among colleagues, co-workers, or friends of friends. However, when they search for employment, especially for permanent positions, the stakes are higher and it is more likely that a štela will be found among close relatives and friends. Therefore, when people look for a štela, they do not follow a culturally well-established set of steps or rules. As with other forms of sociality in Bosnia and Herzegovina, such as komšiluk (meaning ‘neighbourhood’[5][6]) or raja[7], there is no set number of drinks that has to be shared, or verbal formulas that should be exchanged, in order to obtain something via a štela. Rather, people engage in a calibration of possibilities – they use their existing social connections and relations and adapt their strategies along the way to a resource they need.

The 1992-1995 war and the subsequent post-conflict state-building processes brought an influx of foreign humanitarian relief and development aid workers to Bosnia and Herzegovina, including inter alia the UNHCR, UNDP, IOM, UNICEF, OSCE, and EU Delegation[8][9]. The social dynamics within these organisations brought to the fore the similarities between what the domestic employees understood as štela and what the foreign staff framed as ‘networking’[10]. For the ‘internationals’, there seemed to be a clear difference between these two practices, whereby they considered štela to be backward and corrupt. For the local employees, however, the difference between these two practices was marginal. Some of them found ‘networking’ to be a way to reframe and translate the practice of štela into the language of the westerners. Bosnia-Herzegovinian staff considered some of the practices in the world of the ‘internationals’ to be equivalent to štela, such as the allocation of internships through personal networks as gateways to future employment, or holding ko fol (literally ‘as if’ or ‘fake’) recruitment procedures.

Štela largely provokes dissatisfaction, criticism, and a certain sense of shame among people in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although seemingly everybody uses štela, people often blame others for obtaining resources in this way and express their own powerlessness about it. Using a štela is perceived more as something to be ‘confessed’ than ‘bragged about’. The dominant perception is that there would be no need to obtain resources via a štela if Bosnia Herzegovina were a ‘normal’ country[11]. That is, if it resembled a state in which jobs, healthcare, education, and social support were accessible to everybody. Similarly, the 2009 UNDP report indicates that its respondents shared a sense of hopelessness and resignation with the status quo:

‘(Štela) is considered normal... It is as widespread as if it were given by God (...) we cannot do anything about it.’ (Female, employed, two children, Sarajevo)[12]

When attempts to obtain a resource via a štela turn out to be unsuccessful, people sometimes try to get what they need by offering monetary payments. Most of the respondents to the UNDP report outlined rough financial amounts to be paid should one not find štela brokers amongst people one knew well. Thus, a monetary payment for a resource easily takes place when it is not possible to obtain the resource through personal relations. Since štela is used to circumvent an official procedure (or compensate for the lack of such a procedure), monetary exchange – despite being conceptually different from štela exchange – is in practice never located too far away from it.

Štela does not usually involve monetary transactions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it does create a sense of gratefulness and indebtedness to the people who help. Oftentimes, people give a token of gratitude in return, such a piece of jewellery, perfume, a painting or flowers. The financial value of such gifts depends on a range of factors, such as income level and whether there was a previously existing relationship with the person who helped. For instance, when family members help one to access a resource, their favour does not necessarily need to be reciprocated in the foreseeable future, because it is already embedded in a long-term relationship of give and take. However, when a štela is established through a third party, there is more of an expectation to reciprocate immediately by ‘rewarding’ the favour giver with a material (or sometimes even financial) gift upon obtaining the desired resource.

As in almost any other form of giving, helping people to obtain a resource via a štela reinforces mutual social obligations. Štela is not just a form of material exchange, but a practice that reproduces existing and creates new social connections between people. When people connected via a štela occupy similar positions of power (and therefore could provide access to similar kinds of resources), this could turn into a long-term cycle of reciprocal exchange. However, štela also often links people in unequal power positions. In such situations, štela usually reproduces existing power arrangements, by confirming that the person in a more powerful position (such as a doctor, a politician, a director of a company, or a teacher) is the one who can help others via a štela. The sense of indebtedness and gratefulness for a štela to the more powerful person reconfirms existing inequalities and differences.

In addition to reproducing existing social arrangements, štela can also make new things happen. For instance, štela can contribute to increasing one’s own influence and power. Some people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, over time, have learned how to serve as a štela for an ever- increasing number of people, doing so across multiple public and private arenas[13]. In being able to skilfully help others to access various resources by circumventing the official procedure, they augment their own influence and power.


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