Blat (Romania)

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Blat (Romania)
Location: Romania
Romania map.png
Author: Marius Wamsiedel
Affiliation: University of Hong Kong

Original text: Marius Wamsiedel, Department of Sociology, The University of Hong Kong

In its primary sense, blat in Romanian means ‘cake batter.’ Colloquially, however, it has many more colourful meanings which have been in common use for many years. The first documented use of the term dates back to 1906, in a newspaper article describing prison life[1]. Later, in the period between the two World Wars, it acquired new meanings. It might refer, for example, to a thief’s accomplice, a friend, cheating at cards, or acting out of camaraderie.

During the communist period (1947-1989), the word grew increasingly popular and its meaning more specific. At that time, it was used mainly to denote informal ways of securing access to various kinds of services, usually by means of negotiating with state officials. In the late 1950s, dictionaries defined blat as meaning ‘comrade’ or ‘friend’ – meanings that are now lost – while the verb a blătui in those days meant ‘to make an arrangement’ or ‘to reach an agreement’[2]. Later, the term acquired the meaning ‘to hitch a [free] ride ’or ‘thumb a lift.’ Travelling by blat became part of youth subculture and was romanticised in songs such as ‘The train without a godfather’ (‘godfather’ in this sense meaning a ticket inspector) performed in 1984 by the rock band Iris, and ‘The hymn of the blatists,’ a hiking song popular in the 1980s.

After the collapse of communist rule, Romania’s newly independent media made frequent use of the term blat to mean fare-dodging not only on the railways but also in the context of sports events and match-fixing. The word’s multiple meanings are spelled out in the Explanatory Dictionary of the Romanian Language[3] and in the dictionary of slang[4]: these range from fare-dodging on a train or watching a show without buying a ticket, to more general forms of illicit activity, such as paying a bribe or securing influence by exploiting one’s connections. The term is also found in the pun Blătescu, meaning ‘Mr Freedrider’[5]. Terms commonly used today include a face blatul (to practise blat), a merge pe blat (to travel by blat), and simply pe blat (to do something by blat, that is, secretively of furtively).

The etymology of the word is contentious. Some linguists suggest it is German or Russian in origin[6] while others argue, more plausibly, that in the case of both Romanian and Russian its origin is Yiddish.

In both Romania and Russia, blat denotes the exchange of ‘favours of access’ at the expense of public resources[7]. It follows that, in both countries, the practice stands in clear opposition to the official rules and subverts the formal economy. Linguistic and etymological similarities apart, however, the way in which blat is practised differs significantly in the two countries. This relates not only to the nature of the exchange and the scale of the transaction, but also to relations between the participants and the duration of their relationship over time. Unlike the Soviet practice, which was essentially non-monetary and was closely linked to relationships based on friendship, the Romanian variant implies the exchange of money. The amount may vary considerably, depending on the formal price of the service to which access is granted, and it may also be the subject of only a brief negotiation. In Russia, by contrast, blat normally implies, as it did in the Soviet period, either a preexisting relationship between the participants in an exchange, or the use of an intermediary agent personally related to one or both of the parties. Connections are nurtured and usually extend over an indefinite period of time. In Romania, no such prerequisite is required. More often than not, the connection between Romanian participants is situational and one-off. Even when exchanges recur, as in the case of a frequent traveller on a specific train serviced by the same ticket inspector, they rarely lead to the development of a personal relationship or extend beyond the nature of a here-and-now transaction. Whereas in Soviet Russia blat could take the form of a system of generalised exchange, in Romania it was necessarily dyadic and did not entail any future commitments. In Romania under socialism, blat was confined to a limited set of services (such as going to a cinema or theatre, taking a train or bus, getting accommodation) and its primary goal was to minimise costs. In Soviet Russia, blat included access to a wider range of goods and services, and was used to get hold of goods in short supply or of better quality than those available through formal channels[8].

Another important distinction between the practices observed in Romania and Russia concerns the post-socialist trajectory. In Russia, the transition to capitalism from an economy of shortage and the resultant monetisation of society created conditions under which blat reoriented itself toward new shortages – whether of money, information, or know-how that could be later converted into money. In Romania, by contrast, blat was already a form of monetary exchange, exercised for the pursuit of financial reward, and so it remained in the post-socialist period.

As in Russia, blat in Romania is surrounded by moral ambiguity. In the USSR, the non-monetary character of transactions and familiarity between participants created conditions for misrecognition and concealment[9][10]. People involved in exchange networks justified their actions through the rhetoric of friendship, invoking norms of camaraderie and unselfish generosity to discount the moral responsibility of engaging in informal practices. In Romania, by contrast, where money is exchanged and participants are connected only by the transaction itself, the illicit nature of the practice is more easily apparent. Even so, and despite the official representation of blat as petty corruption, illegal and reprehensible, the practice remains common, if not widely accepted. Numerous surveys indicate the pervasiveness of petty corruption in Romania. According to the 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, for example, 65% of Romanian respondents said they thought corruption had increased over the previous two years, whereas 27% said it had remained unchanged (Transparency International 2013). According to the same study, 17% of Romanian respondents claimed to have paid bribes, a figure well above the EU average of 11%. It should however be noted that, while this and other reports clearly indicate that the incidence of petty corruption in Romania continues to be perceived as high, there is as yet no report that explicitly discusses the blat transactions that are the subject of the present discussion.

The word used for informal payments in blat is șpagă, a colloquial term meaning a bribe but without moralistic overtones. Another expression used to describe payments is the ironic a da dreptul (give what one is entitled to receive). It has been suggested that dreptul conveys the idea of pervasive, organised corruption, whereas șpagă is generally used in a more generic sense [11]. The vocabulary attests to the fact that official condemnation of blat fails to affect the common understanding of the practice, as is the case with other forms of informality akin to petty corruption[12].

The scale of blat in Romania has not been scientifically assessed, but estimates of its incidence on the railways and of its economic consequences do exist. While these reports are impressionistic in their findings, they concur in showing that blat is not a marginal phenomenon. Over a period of nine months in 2001, for example, 300,000 individuals were fined for travelling without a ticket[13]. Unofficial estimates by the railway police suggest that, between 2005 and 2010, train operators lost as much as 370 million Euros as a result of fraudulent blat transactions, the equivalent of 40% of the total revenue from tickets sold[14]. A criminal investigation into 43 railway workers, the majority of whom were ticket inspectors, estimated the damage at 44.5 million Euros[15].

Blat as match-fixing is a hot topic in sports journalism. A search on the websites of two major national publications, Gazeta Sporturilor and ProSport, reveals, respectively, 1,199 and 1,144 entries for the word blat, and 399 and 499 entries respectively for the plural form, blaturi. But, while blat is believed to widely practiced in sports events, concrete evidence of matches whose outcomes were pre-determined by informal agreements is scarce and anecdotal. More often than not, it consists of retrospective confessions of involvement in games that took place at least two decades earlier. Drawing on statements by football-team managers who admitted to having engaged in blat practices, a sports journalist has argued that match-fixing was reconfigured during the season 2001-2[16]. The traditional practice, founded on honor and involving the exchange of commonplace goods such as wine, cured meat or training equipment, was replaced by monetised exchanges devoid of any moral obligations. However, the alleged transformation applied exclusively to teams in the highest home division, and the argument is not supported by sound empirical evidence. Moreover, confessions by retired players indicate that, even under socialism, financial recompense for members of the losing team was a prerequisite of blat matches[17].

Apart from linguistic studies of the word’s origins and semantic reconfiguration, blat has so far attracted only limited academic interest in Romania. One of the few studies of post-socialist informality [18] acknowledges the existence of the practice, but focuses on pile, the functional equivalent of the Russian blat. Very little is known about the structural factors that shaped the development of blat and confined it to specific forms of access, or about how transactions are realised in practice. Research is needed to disentangle blat conceptually from pile and other local practices involving personal connections. The subjective motivation for and rationalisation of involvement in blat both during socialism and in the post-socialist period remain largely unresearched; rigorous data collection will be necessary to advance knowledge and understanding of the practice.

Notes

  1. Zafiu, R. 2009. ‘Blaturi.’ România literară 2:15
  2. Ciorănescu, A. 2002 [1958]. Dicționarul etimologic al limbii române. Bucharest: Saeculum I.O.
  3. Academia Română. 2009. Dicționarul explicativ al limbii române. Revised 2nd edition. Bucharest: Univers Enciclopedic Gold 1998. Dicționarul explicativ al limbii române. 2nd edition. Bucharest: Univers Enciclopedic
  4. Volceanov, G. 2007. Dicționar de argou al limbii române. Bucharest: Niculescu
  5. Zafiu, R. 2001. Diversitate stilistică în româna actuală. Bucharest: Editura Universității din București, p.222
  6. Zafiu, R. 2009. ‘Blaturi.’ România literară 2:15
  7. Ledeneva, A. 1998. Russia’s economy of favours: Blat, networking and informal exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  8. Ledeneva, A. 1998. Russia’s economy of favours: Blat, networking and informal exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  9. Ledeneva, A. 1998. Russia’s economy of favours: Blat, networking and informal exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.59-72
  10. Ledeneva, A. 2000. ‘Continuity and Change of Blat Practices in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia,’ in S. Lovell, A. Ledeneva, A. and Rogachevskii, A. (eds), Bribery and Blat in Russia: Negotiating Reciprocity from the Middle Ages to the 1990s. London: Palgrave Macmillan: 183-205, p.185
  11. Zafiu, R. 2007. Limbaj si politica. Bucharest: Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, pp.132-3
  12. Zerilli, F.M. 2005. ‘Corruption, Property Restitution, and Romanianness,’ in Haller, D. and Shore, C. (eds), Corruption: Anthropological Perspectives. London and Ann Arbor: Pluto Press: 83-102
  13. Șerban, R. 2001. ‘Amenzi la CFR’, Cotidianul, 8 November
  14. Cană, P. and Fantaziu, I. 2012. ‘Din piramida șpăgilor la CFR lipsește Regina’, Evenimentul Zilei, 30 October, http://www.evz.ro/detalii/stiri/REPORTAJ-EVZ-Din-piramida-pgilor-la-CFR-lipsete-Regina-1007634.html
  15. Roșca, I. 2012. ‘Rețeaua "Nașilor": alți 45 de angajați ai CFR Călători suspectați de fapte de corupție, duși la audieri’, HotNews, 29 October, http://www.hotnews.ro/stiri-esential-13507469-reteaua-nasilor-alti-45-angajati-cfr-calatori-suspectati-fapte-coruptie-dusi-audieri.htm
  16. Udrea, M. 2008. ‘Oameni de onoare’, Evenimentul zilei, 19 December, http://www.evz.ro/detalii/stiri/matei-udrea-oameni-de-onoare-833006.html
  17. Udrea, M. 2011. ‘Povestea unui scandal celebru’, ProSport, 20 June
  18. Stoica, C. A. 2012. ‘Old habits die hard? An exploratory analysis of communist-era social ties in post-communist Romania,’ European Journal of Science and Technology, 8(1): 171-93
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