Difference between revisions of "Švercovanje (Serbia)"

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Location: Serbia (and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro)
Author: Ivana Spasić
Affiliation: Department of Sociology, University of Belgrade

Original text by Ivana Spasić

Švercovanje is a colloquial term used in Serbia for free-riding on public transport. It is used in slightly different forms in other parts of former Yugoslavia where varieties of the Serbo-Croatian language are spoken: švercanje in Zagreb and švercanje or, still more informally, šveranje in Sarajevo.

While the practice of free-riding can be found throughout the world, this entry focusses on the Serbian capital Belgrade, where švercovanje has a long and glorious history. It has developed a rich repertoire of techniques and justifications, and traditionally enjoyed considerable cultural acceptance. What is particularly remarkable is the extent to which the practice is used in Serbia as a gesture of defiance to the state authorities.

Derived from the German words schwarz (black) and schwärzen (to blacken), švercovanje is the gerund of the verb švercovati. Švercovati today has two meanings, which are reflected in the different grammatical forms that the verb follows. The first denotes black-marketeering as in ‘to smuggle, trade illegally, speculate.’ In this sense, the verb is used in the transitive form. The second meaning denotes ‘free-riding’ and in this sense the verb is used in the reflexive, švercovati se, roughly translated as ‘to smuggle oneself.’

Švercovanje is practised mainly on urban buses, trams and trolleybuses. It may also occur on inter-city coaches and trains, but it is much less frequent there. It is virtually impossible, for instance, to board a coach without being spotted by the driver. And whereas on trains people may simply try to dodge the ticket-collector, a more widespread practice is to collude with the conductor by giving him or her a small bribe (similar to blat in Romania), a practice that does not fall under the heading of švercovanje.

In order to qualify as a true case of švercovanje, an act must contain a component of ‘beating the system.’ Merely saving money, even if that remains the main motivation, is not the point. Rather, the practice is culturally framed as the Underdog versus the Powerful and is associated with notions of cunning, courage and popular resistance. A satirical linguistic website defines švercovanje as ‘an excellent opportunity for you to feel at least once a day like an action hero hiding from the evil mutant ninjas’ (vukajlija.com 2016[1]). These ‘evil mutant ninjas’ are the conductors or ticket inspectors—informally known as ridža, after the American general Matthew Ridgway (Andrić 2005[2])—who are representatives of the ‘system.’ They show up unexpectedly, demand to see passengers’ tickets, and (supposedly) fine anyone without one.

Free-riding has been part of Belgrade’s urban lore since the beginnings of its public transport system in the late 19th century. A practice especially valued by reckless young men in the decades leading up to Second World War, but trailing off in the late 1960s, was kešanje na tramvaj. Roughly translated as ’hooking onto a tram’ or ‘taking a hitch,’ this consisted of hanging off the back of the carriage on the outside. Later, ways of tricking the ticketing system changed as the technology developed. Free-riding became easier in the late 1970s, when human conductors were replaced by ticketing machines. Since then, the prospective free-rider is constrained more by moral concerns—personal conscience or (more rarely) reprobation by fellow passengers—than by the (relatively low) risk of being caught by the ridža.

Švercovanje comprises a variety of methods, ranging from ‘passive’ to ‘active.’ Passive methods are the most common: keeping on the alert for inspectors, avoiding them whenever possible and leaving the carriage if they approach. An active method is to engage in conversation with the inspector and attempt to get away with free-riding, either by playing dumb (‘I left my pass at home,’ ‘I forgot to top up my card,’ ‘I got onto the bus just a second ago’) or by being unfriendly, quarrelling with the conductor and refusing their request for an ID. Sometimes these altercations escalate into verbal (or occasionally even physical) fights, and it is usually the švercer who is the abusive actor.

In such on-the-spot rows or in broader public debates, several arguments are used to legitimate švercovanje. Some are economic. A free-rider confronted by a ridža may say, ‘I didn’t buy a ticket because I’m poor/unemployed/haven’t received my salary in months.’ The same reasoning claims that tickets are too expensive relative to the material status of the majority of the population. Another argument focuses on the quality of service: old, dilapidated, uncomfortable, crammed, unsafe carriages; irregular schedules and long waiting-times; wild drivers.

Most interesting are the political arguments. Following Serbia’s experience of undemocratic government in the 1990s, švercovanje may be seen as an expression of political resistance. Another argument is framed in terms of civic entitlement: public transport is a public good and should be free for all. Yet another version of the resistance argument sees švercovanje as a civic fight against institutional corruption. This became particularly popular in Belgrade following the introduction in 2012 of a new electronic monitoring-cum-ticketing system by a public-private partnership between the city government and a Turkish company. Street protests focused on allegations of corruption and of high profits reaped by the private company to the detriment of the public interest. A contemporary website informs users of public transport about their rights and defines švercovanje as a method of conscious resistance (99posto.org 2016[3]).

Such arguments are based on diverse, even contradictory understandings of the institution of public transport. On the one hand, passengers wish to be treated as customers who should receive service for their money according to the logic of the market; on the other, they see themselves as citizens for whose welfare the state has responsibility (Simić 2014: 185) and who therefore have the right to challenge faulty government policies. As an arena for ongoing confrontation between the micro and the macro, the mundane and the institutional, public transport may be seen as a kind of social laboratory, providing insight into the condition of society and its changing cultural traditions (Živković 2010[4]). The willingness of passengers to pay for a journey may be interpreted as an indicator of the overall level of social trust (Marković 2007[5]). During the transition from socialism, public transport became a potent symbol of the disturbed relations between citizens, with their old and new expectations, and what was perceived as a mostly failing state (Lemon 2000[6]; Simić 2014[7]; Jansen 2015[8]).

Švercovanje is essentially a solitary practice, pitting the individual against the authorities. It is not an exchange and it does not normally establish a social tie. It does not rule out solidarity entirely, but it does not assume it, either. While fellow-passengers tend to stay aloof, they are also likely to side with the free-rider. Švercovanje is no great moral violation in Serbia, if at all. On the contrary, it is seen as a way of asserting one’s rights as a citizen, one’s independence and one’s identity. It is also used to express one’s defiance of or contempt for the powers-that-be.

It is hard to say how many people in Belgrade engage in švercovanje on public transport. Estimates have fluctuated since the 1980s from as low as 5 per cent to as high as 90 per cent (Marković 2007[9]). The official figure of 2-3 per cent of travellers who have been prosecuted and fined is merely a fraction, since the majority of passengers without tickets go undetected, while the figure of 50 per cent sometimes cited in the press appears inflated. More significant than the actual numbers, however, are the persistence of the practice and the lack of any moral sanction.


  1. Vukajlija.com. http://vukajlija.com/recnik/definicije/indeks, accessed 6 April 2016
  2. Andrić, D. 2005. Dvosmerni rečnik srpskog žargona i žargonu srodnih reči i izraza. Belgrade: Zepter Book World
  3. 99posto.org. http://www.99posto.org/srpski/uputstvo-za-one-koji-bojkotuju-bus-plus, accessed 10 April 2016
  4. Živković, M. 2010. ‘Bubbles and Powder Kegs: Buses in the Belgrade Imaginary,’ unpublished manuscript
  5. Marković, P. 2007. ‘Poverenje u institucije u Srbiji: primer beogradskog javnog prevoza,’ in Trajnost i promena. Društvena istorija socijalističke i postsocijalističke svakodnevice u Jugoslaviji i Srbiji. Belgrade: Službeni glasnik: 146-56
  6. Lemon, A. 2000. ‘Talking Transit and Spectating Transition: The Moscow Metro,’ in D. Berdahl, M. Bunzl and M. Lampland (eds), Altering States: Ethnographies of Transition in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press: 14-39
  7. Simić, M. 2014. ‘Travel and the State after the “Fall”: Everyday Modes of Transport in Post-Socialist Serbia,’ in K. Burrell and K. Hörschelmann (eds), Mobilities in Socialist and Post-Socialist States: Societies on the Move. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 173-93
  8. Jansen, S. 2015. Yearnings in the Meantime. ’Normal Lives’ and the State in a Sarajevo Apartment Complex. New York and Oxford: Berghahn
  9. Marković, P. 2007. ‘Poverenje u institucije u Srbiji: primer beogradskog javnog prevoza,’ in Trajnost i promena. Društvena istorija socijalističke i postsocijalističke svakodnevice u Jugoslaviji i Srbiji. Belgrade: Službeni glasnik: 146-56