S vrutka (Bulgaria)

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S vrutka
Location: Bulgaria
Bulgaria map.png
Author: Lora Koycheva

Original text: Lora Koycheva

S vrutka (c врътка) is a rhetorical expression found in Bulgaria that literally means ‘with a twist’ and appears in phrases such as ‘vsichko stava s vrutka’ (‘everything happens with a twist’ or ‘everything is achievable with a twist’). S vrutka is sometimes substituted by other terms, for example, s fint, s trik, and s dalavera, which comes from the Turkish word dalavere, meaning deception, swindle, ploy or manoeuvre. This colloquial figure of speech refers to the practice of pooling resources and manipulating one’s networks and connections in order to achieve a goal. S vrutka is a part of the repertoire of linguistic means to communicate the intricate interplay between the formal and informal, legal and illegal, licit and illicit, legitimate and illegitimate modes of getting things done in contemporary Bulgarian society. It refers to practices across various normative domains and to activities that include both legal and illegal means of pursuing a goal.

In itself, ‘twisting’ suggests repositioning the existing elements in a system or re-arranging available resources. The introduction of new elements from outside and the use of expert knowledge can also be employed. Twisting can connote out-of-the-ordinary circumstances, an exceptional case, or an extraordinary effort necessary to conduct a transaction.

The phrase s vrutka highlights several characteristics of everyday practices – it invokes creativity, fluidity, and mastery of the social milieus and social and cultural knowledge, bordering on what Michael Herzfeld has called ‘cultural intimacy’ (Herzfeld 2004)[1]. The phrase refers not to the repertoire of informal practices, but rather to the way in which informal practices can be conducted. It signals communicative creativity and cultural intimacy because only insiders in a culture are able to exploit the existing rules, norms, regulations and other available social and cultural resources in order to achieve the desired goal.

There are many other popular figures of speech and ways to denote corruption or informality in Bulgaria. Two other common examples of expressions used are ‘beer money’ (pari za edna bira; da pocherpya bira) and ‘coffee money’ (pari za kafe). It is worth noting that neither expression is exclusive to the Bulgarian case. The same terms are found in Africa (Blundo and Sardan 2006)[2]. In both cases however, the expressions tend to be used in the context of situations involving low-level bureaucrats. For example when paperwork needs to be expedited, it necessitates ‘beer money’ or coffee money’ being paid. Unlike these popular figures of speech, however, s vrutka is not the same as discursive expressions ‘legitimizing discourses about corruption’ (Znoj 2007: 59)[3].

It is methodologically difficult to definitively date when and how such popular expressions enter or leave everyday language, and if s vrutka has replaced ‘coffee money.’ It is worth noting that s vrutka appears to have been referred to in the media from the late-2000s onwards. In the same time, observations of people casually leaving a small amount of money (not unlike a tip) for public officials, saying they were for ‘coffee’, were, in this author’s ethnographic work carried out intermittently between 2008-2011, non-existent – in contrast to the 1990s when such a practice was reportedly common.

There are two prevailing contexts in which the phrase s vrutka is used. In media coverage, the phrase is often used to imply a scheme circumventing a legal obstacle, usually through the workings of hierarchy and informal power, or through the careful navigation of available legal loopholes. In this case, saying that something happens ‘s vrutka’ is usually embedded in a narrative about elites and power play. For example, in a highly critical editorial in the daily newspaper 24 chasa, chief editor Danka Vassileva used the term to question the way in which public funds are deposited in banks and for what reason. ‘For this kind of twist [vrutka], Europe will not say congratulations [...] There is another version, of course, concerning corruption, which we would not even voice out loud, let alone believe’ (Vassileva 2012; translation Koycheva)[4]. When used in such contexts, ‘s vrutka’ is often accompanied by an explanation of exactly how the manipulation takes place. In this usage, the term is another way of contributing to the visualisation of the mechanisms of power and the state through the deployment of narratives about it (Gupta 1995 and 2005)[5][6].

The second context is the vernacular one, encountered in daily usage, when usually no further explanation is given as to what the ‘twisting’ involves, but rather a form of meaningful silence follows. Employing the term in this way covers a range of everyday practices and communicative tactics which are often overlooked both within the larger field of postsocialist studies and within the specialism of informality studies: namely, the indeterminacy that Ledeneva has referred to as ‘open secrets’ and ‘non-articulated knowledge that people prefer to leave ambiguous’ (Ledeneva 2011:727)[7]. It requires from all participants ‘the complicity to leave things unarticulated’ (ibid: 733), thus achieving through linguistic means what Blundo and de Sardan have termed, ‘an incessant alternation between condemnation and tolerance’ by actively engaging the ‘semantic fields of corruption’ (Blundo and de Sardan 2006:110-111)[8].

In a similar vein, in an everyday context, as used verbally and among friends, the term is encountered when people give an account of how they overcome daily challenges, or ostensibly absurd situations arising from bureaucratic restructuring or a contradiction of rules. Unlike vruzki (see this volume), which can in certain circumstances occupy the same broad semantic space, s vrutka is often used when paperwork is involved. For example, since kindergarten spaces in the capital are severely limited, a family may acknowledge securing a space for their child ‘with a twist’, but will not specify which means were used: whether they actively exploited paperwork loopholes or employed vruzki which implies connections and a personal network. Thus, s vrutka does not necessarily always imply using vruzki.

In sum, the usage of this term reveals several important aspects of informality, both in methodological and in theoretical terms and points to an area of research that has been under-explored in the scholarship on informality: language. The use of such a term raises methodological questions regarding the way in which social science studies phenomena resist definition from local informants within their own societies. This in turn leads to important theoretical preoccupations about the pragmatics not only of informal practices themselves, but also crucially of the pragmatics of the scholarship of informality. It presents a conundrum: how to name phenomena without a priori ascribing normative value to them, which may or may not be part of the way they are experienced in the world of formal and informal interactions (see Lucy 1993 on pragmatics[9]).

Notes

  1. Herzfeld, M. 2004.’Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State.’New York and London: Routledge ‘Izmamnitzi Poligloti s Nova vrutka’. 2015. VestnikNovinar, 6 December, http://novinar.bg/news/izmamnitci-poligloti-s-nova-vratka_NDkxNDs3Ng==.html
  2. Blundo, G., Olivier de Sardan. J-P.,Arifari. N.B., Tidjani Alou. M. 2006. Everyday Corruption and the State. Citizens and Public Officials in Africa, London: Zed Books, 298
  3. Znoj, H. 2007. ‘Deep corruption in Indonesia. Discourses, Practices, Histories’, in M. Nuijten, G. Anders (eds.) Corruption and the Secret of Law: A Legal Anthropological
  4. Vassileva, D. 2012. ‘Zashto zasekretiha darjavnite pari v Korporativna Banka?, 24chasa, 14 January, www.24chasa.bg/Article.asp?ArticleId=1184792.
  5. Gupta, A. 1995. ‘Blurred Boundaries: the Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State.’ American Ethnologist 22 (2): 375-402
  6. Gupta, A. 2005. ‘Narratives of Corruption Anthropological and Fictional Accounts of the Indian State.’ Ethnography,6.1: 5-34
  7. Ledeneva, A. 2011. ‘Open Secrets and Knowing Smiles’, East European Politics and Society 25 (4): 720-36
  8. Blundo, G., Olivier de Sardan. J-P.,Arifari. N.B., Tidjani Alou. M. 2006. Everyday Corruption and the State. Citizens and Public Officials in Africa, London: Zed Books, 298
  9. Lucy, J. A. 1993. ‘Reflexive language and the human disciplines.’ in John A. Lucy, (ed.),Reflexive Language: Reported Speech and Metapragmatics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 9-32