Jak igrač (North Macedonia)

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Jak igrač 🇲🇰
Macedonia map.png
Location: North Macedonia
Definition: Label for a skilled informality broker who knows how to manipulate formal and informal rules in a particularistic mode of social organisation
Keywords: North Macedonia Balkans Yugoslavia Europe Particularism Clientelism Patronage Governance Employment Political party Public service Favour
Clusters: Normative ambivalenceInformal governance Patron-client networks INFORM
Author: Borjan Gjuzelov
Affiliation: Queen Mary University of London

By Borjan Gjuzelov, Queen Mary University of London

The Macedonian term jak igrač (јак играч, ʻstrong playerʼ) refers to someone who is well networked, has the right connections and knows how to manipulate formal and informal rules for their benefit. A strong player is a skilled informality broker who understands ‘the economy of favours’ (Ledeneva 1998) and is involved in multiple relationships of informal exchange and reciprocity. The analogy ‘player’ points to someone who knows how to act according to the informal rules of the game. The term is used when the speaker wants to emphasise someone’s ability to make the most out of complex and uncertain situations. Strong player is someone whose position and authority are not primarily grounded in their professional capabilities or merit, but rather in their ability to make the right decisions at the right time and to take advantage of informal networks and connections. An example of colloquial use is: She’s a strong player, she always finds her way… He’s a strong player, watch out!

In North Macedonia, ʻstrong playerʼ is used in limited political or administrative contexts, particularly among insiders knowledgeable about organizational setups. Strong players are usually active in politics, business or public administration (or in all of them) and have ties across these sectors which helps them ‘get things done’. They are ‘masters of informality’: they have the social capital and networking resources and use them to maximise their financial or cultural capital. The term ‘strong player’ is different from the phrase ‘strong man’ (jak čovek); the latter refers to someone above the law due to their political or economic status rather than due to their ability to take advantage of the gaps between the formal and the informal. The term is likely to be used in other Western Balkan countries with a similar connotation.

Strong players thrive in particularistic modes of social organisation. Particularism is a mode of social organisation with a prevalence of non-universally applied rules and a discrepancy between the formal, written rules, and the informal ways of ‘how things work in practice’. Thus, particularistic regimes are characterised by uncertainty and blurred lines between the public and private interests. The opposite of particularism is universalism; a mode of governance characterised by a prevalence of the universally applied rule of law (Mungiu-Pipidi 2005, 2015). Strong players take advantage of the uncertainty and gaps between formal and informal rules and further expand them to preserve their social position. When good governance reforms seek to install a universal application of the law, strong players may act as veto players to ensure the status quo (See Dimitrova 2010).

The Macedonian judiciary, similar to judiciaries in other Western Balkan countries, has numerous characteristics of the particularistic mode of social organization. It is vulnerable to political interference and informal influence. Judicial professionals are often faced with ambivalent expectations and the need to balance between formal and informal incentives. While obedience and dependency are often rewarded, professionalism and impartiality can be obstacles to a successful career (Damjanovski et al. in preparation, Gjuzelov forthcoming). As a researcher in INFORM, a multidisciplinary project that analysed the gap between formal rules and informal practices in prospect of the Europeanisation of the Western Balkan countries, I conducted several interviews with Macedonian judicial personnel (judges, prosecutors and lawyers) in 2018 (Gjuzelov forthcoming).

Highly ranked judges in Macedonian judiciary were labelled ‘strong players’ by their colleagues to illustrate their ability to sustain and expand their position of authority, despite allegations of their corrupt actions and involvement in shadow dealings. Due to their informal connections, strong players were able to manipulate the decision making of the Judicial Council, the body responsible for appointment, promotion or dismissal of judges. Moreover, they manifested a ‘survival ability’: although much of their informal power and authority have been gained through their connection with one political establishment, they remained influential even after the political landscape changed. When asked in an interview about his colleague who was about to be dismissed for malpractices, a judge elaborated with the following:

‘Look, he’s a strong player, he won’t be dismissed so easily, because many of those who decide [members of the judicial council] owe him a favor… He was involved in so many quid pro quo exchanges that he is stronger than the [formal] institutional mechanisms of dismissal. He also knows a lot about others, so everyone will be very careful in their actions.’

The pattern of ‘survival ability’ is supported by other findings from the INFORM project. In Serbia, neo-patrimonial local leaders maintain their authority despite regime changes and remain in power for decades. They are called lokalni šerifi (ʻlocal sheriffsʼ) and hold a political and economic monopoly in their respective regions based on both formal and informal power. They rely on informal networks of patronage and clientelism on one hand, while they keep close to incumbent political powers on central level on the other. From a bottom-up perspective, they exert political influence on the local population because they provide jobs and solve problems. From a top-down perspective, they are inclined to get (formal and informal) support from the central government in return for predictable and loyal political support from their region. These leaders exhibit the behaviours of strong players because they take advantage of the uncertainties of the particularistic governance to maximise and maintain their local monopoly (Bliznakovski et al. in preparation).

The use of the term ‘strong player’ can also be found in Macedonian public administration, an area usually dominated by incumbent political parties and their informal networks. In this context, the term is used to describe two kinds of people; both those with good ‘survival ability’, despite the changes in the political structure; as well as those who obtain incomes in addition to their public servant salaries. Extra incomes may come from both legal activities, such as consulting or doing business, and illegal ones, including direct bribery for abusing their administrative position or revealing sensitive information. Public servants who hold positions of discretionary decision-making power are often able to act as strong players. As one mid-ranked public official in the Macedonian Ministry of Justice elaborated, ‘strong players’ will more likely be found among those holding a licencing authority for issuing permits or accreditations.

As noted by another interviewed public official, in a small number of cases, the label ʻstrong playerʼ is used in the positive sense and refers to public servants with real expertise and institutional memory, whose authority is widely appreciated in their respective institution, regardless of their political affiliation. ‘Strong player’ indicates a notable normative ambivalence, as people might assign this label not necessarily out of approval or sympathy with actions of the strong player, but out of appreciation of their ability to do things informally. Moreover, although the strong player’s ability to ‘play well’ primarily benefits their own personal interest, it may also be directed towards helping others. For instance, the ‘institutional veterans’ may advise younger colleagues in situations of uncertainty or help them interpret unclear formal procedures. This show of solidarity helps legitimise their actions in the eyes of the others. However, despite the normative interpretations, most of strong player’s actions will primarily serve private rather than public interest. Some of their actions may involve illicit activities and shadow dealings in direct conflict with the formal law. Sometimes, strong player can be also called a ʻdangerous playerʼ (opasen igrač), with a similarly ambivalent connotation: to show respect for their abilities but not necessarily agreement with their activities.


Bliznakovski, J., Markovikj, N., Krasniqi, V., Pandelejmoni, E., Krstić, N., Mangova, I. Manuscript in preparation. ‘Informality in the political field: state and society capture behind a liberal-democratic façade’. In Gordy, E., Cveticanin, P., Ledeneva A. (eds.). The Gap between Rules and Practices: Informality in South-East Europe.

Damjanovski, I., Lavrič, M., Gjuzelov, B., Obad, O., Jovanović M. Manuscript in preparation. ‘The Gap Between Formal Rules and Informal Practices: Europeanisation Meets Informality’. In Gordy, E., Cveticanin, P., Ledeneva A. (eds.). The Gap between Rules and Practices: Informality in South-East Europe.

Dimitrova, A. L. 2010. ‘The New Member States of the EU in the aftermath of Enlargement: do new european rules remain empty shells?’, Journal of European Public Policy, 17:1, 137-148

Gjuzelov, B. forthcoming. Between Written and Unwritten Rules: On the Ambivalent Context of EU-Sponsored Judicial Reforms in North Macedonia. PhD Thesis. London: Queen Mary University of London

Ledeneva, A. 1998. Russia's Economy of Favors: Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Mungiu-Pippidi, A. 2005. ‘Deconstructing Balkan Particularism: The Ambiguous Social Capital Of Southeastern Europe’, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 49-68

Mungiu-Pippidi, A. 2015. The Quest for Good Governance: How Societies Develop Control of Corruption. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press