Kumoterstwo and kolesiostwo (Poland)

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Kumoterstwo and kolesiostwo 🇵🇱
Poland map.png
Location: Poland
Definition: Mutual exchange of favours, especially for relatives, friends or colleagues
Keywords: Poland CEE Europe EU Favour Kinship Personal connections Mutual help Community
Clusters: Domination Motivational ambivalence Co-optation Patron-client networks Economies of favour
Author: Piotr Koryś and Maciej Tymiński
Affiliation: Faculty of Economic Sciences and Institute of Social Research, University of Warsaw, Poland
Website: Profile page at UW, Profile page at UW

By Piotr Koryś and Maciej Tymiński, Faculty of Economic Sciences and Institute of Social Research, University of Warsaw, Poland

Kumoterstwo and kolesiostwo describe similar but not identical practices commonly found in Poland. Kumoterstwo derives from the old Polish noun kum which, while rarely heard today, was once commonly used to mean a close friend or neighbour. It describes an informal practice that is widely practised in many countries: that is, a mutual exchange of favours between relatives, friends or colleagues. In the English-speaking world it is known as cronyism, nepotism or favouritism, whereas in French-speaking countries it is called copinage or favoritisme. While such relations are usually enacted between partners on a horizontal basis, hierarchical relations are also possible, for example in patron-client relations between relatives, friends or colleagues.

Kolesiostwo also describes a non-market exchange of favours between friends and colleagues, but is restricted to the professional sphere and is therefore more narrowly focused than kumoterstwo. Derived from the Polish noun koleś—an informal term meaning colleague (kolega in more formal Polish)—the term came into use only after 1989. It is similar in meaning to the English term ‘old boys’ network,’ or to what in Spanish and Italian is known as amiguismo. In Polish, however, it has a broader meaning than the English ‘old boy.’ It also includes relations with neighbours and contacts established through public activities such as social movements, political parties or religious organisations.

Forms of non-market exchange have deep historical roots and were widely practised and accepted in pre-industrial societies. From the point of view of the modern world, however, governed as it is by the principles of the market economy, practices such as kumoterstwo and kolesiostwo are frowned upon since they lead to an unjust and inefficient allocation of material resources and social status. That is because benefits are distributed between the members of a closed social network on the basis not of an individual’s skills or achievements, but of his or her personal connections.

Kumoterstwo’s origins can be traced back to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th to 18th centuries. Favouritism and cronyism were key drivers of the political system of the time, known as Nobles’ Democracy. Under that system, the nobility enjoyed extensive legal rights and privileges; in particular, they controlled the legislature and elected the king of the Commonwealth (Mączak 2003[1]). Kumoterstwo survived the successive partitions that divided Poland in the 18th and 19th centuries between Russia, Prussia and Habsburg Austria, and proved especially resilient in the Russian part of Poland (Chwalba 1995[2]). Various forms of kumoterstwo remained common in the period between the two World Wars.

Following the Second World War, when Poland came under communist rule and a command economy was installed, kumoterstwo became even more widespread. Informal networks of friends, colleagues and family—known as koterie, kliki or sitwy (cliques)—played a vital role in helping people to survive in a non-market economy plagued by constant shortages. In such an environment, networks formed an essential component of social capital, mostly in its binding (as opposed to bridging) form (Tarkowski 1991[3]; Tymiński 2002[4]; Kochanowski 2010[5]).

The following example illustrates how small-scale cronyism worked in the 1960s. As leader of the trade union in a factory in Pruszków (a town near Warsaw), Jan J. built a network that included not only other trade-union officials but also the leaders of the factory’s branch of the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party. Together, the clique exploited their positions to secure higher incomes for themselves, to control the factory’s social funds, and to marginalise anyone who opposed them. When excursions were planned for the workers, Jan J. declared that, as a reward for their activities, members of the clique would travel for free. Thus the records state that, ‘The following are not required to pay for the July 1966 trip to Gdansk, Gdynia and Malbork: Jan J. and his wife Stanisława; Krystyna, daughter of Comrade Mieczysław G. and her partner Zbigniew W.’ Similarly, ‘Trade-union treasurer Krystyna B. and her daughter Anna; Halina, daughter of Comrade Jan J.; Comrade Mieczysław G. and his wife Halina’ were not required to pay for a trip to Kraków, Zakopane and Czechoslovakia (Tyminski 2005[6]).

Poland’s transition to the market in 1989 saw a gradual decline in the importance of kumoterstwo in the market sector of the economy. However, informal networks laid the groundwork for the rise of state and regulatory capture (Łoś and Zybertowicz 2000[7]; Zybertowicz and Sojak 2008[8]; Gadowska 2005[9]; Staniszkis 2001[10]). In the public sector as well as in many spheres where the public sector interacts with the market, informal networks remain important, as many analyses show (Jarosz 2004[11] ; Koryś and Tymiński 2005[12]; Rosicki 2012[13]). They are important for example in the healthcare system. As one young medical doctor reported, ‘I have colleagues who got residency in this specialisation (urology), and now they regret it. They were people ‘off the street,’ lacking the support of well-connected friends or colleagues. So, in order to discourage them, they are not allowed to examine the patients or to participate in the surgeries. All they are allowed to do is fill out documents’ (Suchodolska 2015[14]).

That kumoterstwo continued to play a role even after Poland’s transition to democracy and the market was seen from Rywingate, a corruption scandal that erupted in 2002. Award-winning film producer Lew Rywin allegedly visited Adam Michnik, chief editor of the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, to solicit a bribe of US$17.5 million. In return, Rywin offered to use his political connections to lobby for legislative changes that would allow the newspaper's parent company to enter the television business. Rywin claimed to be speaking on behalf of ‘a group of people in power,’ by implication, an unidentified clique of senior politicians. Rywin subsequently denied the charges, saying he had been set up, but he was found guilty and sentenced to prison. Numerous parliamentary Investigations only added to the public impression of ‘an impenetrable network of social friendships, mutual obligations, business interests and plain old-fashioned nepotism’ (Repa 2003[15]).

Similarly emblematic of kumoterstwo was an SMS sent in March 2003 by an official from the National Broadcasting Council (the body responsible for supervising Poland’s TV and radio stations) to the head of TVP, Poland’s public broadcasting corporation. In it, the official promoted a member of his old boys’ network for a highly-paid position in public television: ‘Think about U. He is superb guy, loyal and hardworking, I like him. […] Glory to us and our colleagues’ (Koryś and Tymiński 2004[16] and 2005[17]).

Cronyism remains widespread, even in developed market economies (Begley, Khatri and Tsang 2006[18] and 2010[19]). Post-communist Poland is no exception, as the above examples illustrate. Such practices are generally disapproved of and legislated against, as Poland did in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Nevertheless, the practices continue.


  1. Mączak, A. 2003. Nierówna przyjaźń. Układy klientelne w perspektywie historycznej (Uneven friendship. Clientelistic systems in historical perspective). Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego
  2. Chwalba, A. 1995. Imperium korupcji w Rosjii Królestwie Polskim w latach 1861–1917 (An Empire of Corruption in Russia and the Polish Kingdom 1861–1917). Kraków: ‘Universitas’
  3. Tarkowski, J. 1991. ‘The Risk of Privatization and the Polish Nomenklatura: The New Entrepreneurial Class.’ The Wilson Center, Occasional Paper No 28, April
  4. Tymiński, M. 2002. ‘Funkcjonowanie klik w zakładach przemysłowych (1950-1970)’ (Activity of cliques in Soviet-type enterprises 1950-1970), Kultura i Społeczeństwo XLVI (4): 109-31
  5. Kochanowski, J. 2010. Tylnymi drzwiami. Czarny rynek w Polsce 1944-1989 (Through the backdoor. The black market in Poland 1944-1989). Warsaw: W.A.B.
  6. Tymiński, M. 2005. ‘Związki (nie tylko) zawodowe. (Zakłady im. 1 Maja w Pruszkowie 1966-1968)’ (Not just trade unions. The 1 May Works in Pruszków 1966-1968). Dzieje Najnowsze XXXVII (2): 105-18
  7. Łoś, M. and Zybertowicz, A. 2000. Privatizing the Police-State. The Case of Poland. London: Macmillan
  8. Zybertowicz, A. and Sojak, R. 2008.Transformacja podszyta przemocą. O nieformalnych mechanizmach przemian instytucjonalnych (Transformation lined violence. On the informal mechanisms of institutional change). Toruń: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Mikołaja Kopernika
  9. Gadowska, K. 2005. ‘Klientelizm oraz kolesiostwo w polskiej polityce i gospodarce’ (Clientelism and old boys’ network in Polish politics and economics) in Wesołowski, W. and Włodarek, J. (eds) Kręgi integracji i rodzaje tożsamości. Polska Europa, Świat (Circles of integration and types of identity). Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar: 265-98
  10. Staniszkis, J. 2001. Postkomunizm: Próba opisu (Postcommunism: An attempt at a description). Gdańsk: Słowo/Obraz Terytoria
  11. Jarosz, M. 2004. Władza, przywileje, korupcja [Power, privileges, corruption]. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Instytut Studiów Politycznych PAN
  12. Koryś, P. and Tymiński, M. 2005. ‘Understanding "Conflict of Interest" in Post-Communist Poland,’ Polish Sociological Review 2(150): 121-43
  13. Rosicki, R. 2012. ‘Rzecz o nepotyzmie i kumoterstwie’ (About nepotism and cronyism) Przegląd Politologiczny 2: 131-146
  14. Suchodolska, M. 2015. ‘Kolesiostwo i klanowość. Cała prawda o pracy lekarzy w Polsce’ (‘Old boys’ network’ and clans. The whole truth about the practice of medicine in Poland), Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, 13 November
  15. Repa, J. 2003. ‘Poland gripped by "bribery” row,’ BBC, 1 April http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/2907087.stm
  16. Koryś, P. and Tymiński, M. 2004. ‘Nowy stary klientelizm. System obsadzania stanowisk w postkomunistycznej Polsce (na przykładzie nominacji do rad nadzorczych publicznych mediów)’ (New old clientelism. The appointment system in the Polish post-communist public media), Kultura i Społeczeństwo XLVIII (2): 97-120
  17. Koryś, P. and Tymiński, M. 2005. ‘Understanding "Conflict of Interest" in Post-Communist Poland,’ Polish Sociological Review 2(150): 121-43
  18. Begley, T., Khatri, N. and Tsang, E. 2006. ‘Cronyism: A cross-cultural analysis,’ Journal of International Business Studies 37(1): 61-75
  19. Begley, T., Khatri, N. and Tsang, E. 2010. ‘Networks and cronyism: A social exchange analysis,’ Asia Pacific Journal of Management 27: 281-97