|Definition: Quasi-family ties, established through rituals of godparenthood to turn weaker ties into life-long support networks; instrumental in economies of favours|
|Keywords: Moldova – FSU – baptism – informal network – kinship – favour – patronage – economy of favours|
|Author: Andrei Iovu|
|Affiliation: UCL-SSEES Alumnus 2010-2011|
By Andrei Iovu, UCL-SSEES Alumnus 2010-2011
|The term cumătrism stands for the use of informal networks in the Republic of Moldova. While not in the official dictionary of Romanian language, in mass media and the vernacular the word is widely used and has two meanings. First, cumătrism refers to the system of kinship relations created in the event called cumătria, associated with religious ritual of baptizing a child. The second meaning has a pejorative connotation and describes the unmerited promotion of a candidate to a certain position, based on being a cumătru to someone with status. These two meanings are close to those of kumstvo in Montenegro, where the term stands for both the relationship with a godfather and the use of this relationship as competitive advantage. Cumătrism also occurs in Romania, where similar relations are associated with local customs. In both of these countries, the practice has connotations of political patronage, similar to padrino system in the Philippines, uruuchuluk in Kyrgyzstan, and yongo in South Korea.
Cumătrism can be understood as a type of patron-client network, but using a less direct form of ‘political patronage’ based on traditions and customs. (Weingrod 1968: 379). The ‘clients’ are the child’s parents and the patron is the cumătru. A cumătru can help the child to find employment, facilitate bureaucratic procedures or offer political protection or legal immunity. The extent of such services vary according to the power and possibilities of the cumătru. Like in a patron-client relationship, the ‘patron’ provides services and the ‘client’ reciprocates with respect and submissiveness.
When a child is baptized at the church, parents provide the priest with a list of people to take part in baptizing a child and become the child’s second parents, cumătri. At the party following the baptism, the cumătri have a central role and perform a prescribed set of rituals. The child’s parents offer gifts to the cumătri to recognise their acceptance to become kin. The cumătri offer money and gifts to the child’s parents in return. The christening and the associated rituals transform the relation between families. From that moment on, they become kin. There are no limits to the number of cumătri for the christened child, but there are guidelines for their selection that suggest that parents should consider cumătri who can serve as life-long ‘support and spiritual guides’ for their child, such as family friends or people they admire and respect (Cumatria 2011).
In other words, parents are prompted to think about establishing ‘strategic’ informal networks using the occasion of christening. Without stating it openly, parents select cumătri by carefully considering which friendships to ‘institutionalise’ and which liaisons with business partners, artists, politicians, or other ‘people with influence’ – not all of whom parents have close relationships with – to solidify. For each child, parents will tend to choose different cumătri, so the birth of each baby is a new opportunity to expand the overall size of the network by adding new kinship ties. The responsibilities and commitments of a cumătru are firstly, to the baptized child; and secondly, but more importantly, to the child’s parents. The obligations entail mutual respect and care, gift exchange and participation in family events. Once created, this bond is for life and cannot be revoked.
The cumătrism parties operate according to ‘norms of reciprocity’ (Gouldner 1977). The services and benefits they exchange might be difficult to obtain outside of these relations but are not necessarily equivalent or reciprocated immediately. In the long run, the cumătrism network balances out the exchange. The logic of a ‘good turn deserves another’ is enforced by peer pressure, and failing to provide help is considered to be an offense and a violation of the vows. Cumătrism is a ‘cultural ghost’ – it is well-known and commonly practised, yet only a few academic sources describe or study it. It is Moldova’s ‘open secret’ (Ledeneva 2011; Etco 2010) that embodies its ambivalence: on the one hand, cumătrism is understood as a ‘home-grown custom’, on the other hand, it is often associated with corruption:
Cumatrism (networks of those helping each other) […] proposes that patterns of patron-client relationships and kinship exist beneath the official structures of state, turning politics into a process of non-transparent decisions and allocations (Johannsen 2004: 37, 40).
Most Moldovans become cumătri several times during their lifetime. The practice is hard to avoid. Since it is not limited to particular regions or social groups and is equally present in urban and rural areas, Moldovans tend to see it as universal. Yet, since cumătrism is taken to belong to the private domain, people will not speak of it openly. Cumătrism puts personal relations in front of professionalism, competence or merit. A cumătru that hires relatives in a private company might justify this by claiming to support the idea of family business. Cumătrism becomes more problematic in the public sphere, where it violates the principles of fairness and equality of access and leads to ‘conflicts of interests.’
Tackling cumătrism in the Moldovan public domain began in 2008 with attempts to harmonize national legislation on the conflict of interest with international benchmarks. Two laws were passed as a result, but had limited effect. The ‘Law regarding the code of conduct for public servants’ stipulated that the officials should avoid any conflict of interest, yet without explaining which relations and actions constitute conflict (Lege privind Codul de conduită a funcționarului public, nr. 25-XVI din 22.02.2008, Monitorul Oficial nr.74-75/243 din 11.04.2008, art. 12). The ‘Law regarding the conflict of interest’ defined the categories of kinship – ‘husband (wife), persons related by blood or those that become kin by adoption (parents, children, brothers, sisters, grand-mothers, grandsons, uncles, aunt) and persons who are kin by affinity (sister-in-law, brother-in-law, father-in-law, and mother-in-law)’ (Lege cu privire la Conflictul de Interese, nr. 16 din 15.02.2008, Monitorul Oficial Nr. 94-96 din 30.05.2008, art. 2) – but did not include cumătri as kin ‘by affinity’ as proposed by Transparency International in their reports (Transparency International Moldova 2008). Ratifying international agreements and adopting legislation on the conflict of interest without including kinship relations established by local customs failed to provide effective measures against informal practices that were found to undercut the quality of public service and governance.
From the 2010s, cumătria selection has undergone considerable changes, with choice of cumătri driven by their professional skills rather than status. But cumătrism remains a widely accessed practice of strengthening kin-like ties that help people to find employment, avoid red tape and gain a competitive advantage. As it is common to solicit favours not only from one’s cumătru, but also from cumătri of the cumătru, the Moldovan cumătrism operates as a network-based economy of favours, as well as a cultural practice.
Iovu, A. 2018. Consolidarea normativă şi instituţională a integrării minorităţilor etnice în Republica Moldova (PhD thesis). Chisinau: Universitatea de Stat din Moldova
- Weingrod, Alex. 1968. ‘Patrons, Patronage, and Political Parties’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 10(4): 377-400
- Cumatria. 2011. ‘Alegerea și rolul nașilor de botez,’ http://cumatria.md/articles/view/18
- Gouldner, A. 1977. ‘The norm of reciprocity’, in Schmidt, S. (ed.), Friends, Followers and Factions: a reader in political clientelism, Berkeley: University of California Press
- Ledeneva, A. 2001. ‘Open Secrets and Knowing Smiles’, East European Politics and Society, 25(4): 720-736
- Etco, Tatiana. 2010. 'Patima nănăşismului în țara cumătrismului.' Ziarul de Garda, April 22, http://www.zdg.md/editoriale/tatiana-etco-patima-nanasismului-in-%C8%9Bara-cumatrismului
- Johannsen, Lars. 2004. ‘State of the State in Moldova’, Demstar Research Report, No 24, November 2004
- Transparency International Moldova. 2008. Transparency International cercetează fenomenul conflictului de interese în Moldova, http://www.transparency.md/content/view/369/49/lang,en