Sitwa (Poland)

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Sitwa 🇵🇱
Poland map.png
Location: Poland
Definition: Informal networks within public authorities; ‘amoral familism’
Keywords: Poland CEE Europe EU Public service Network Elite
Clusters: Solidarity Normative ambivalence Conformity Lock-in effect Semi-closed lock-in Amoral familialism
Author: Piotr Koryś and Maciej Tymiński
Affiliation: Department 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, Department of Economic Sciences and Institute of Social Research, University of Warsaw, Poland

Sitwa is a Polish word describing a powerful informal network of mutually-supportive individuals who pursue their own personal interests even when these are harmful to the interests of society as a whole. In recent years, the word has come to be used to describe unorganised, informal networks in local or central authorities, lacking hierarchical structure or clearly defined leaders.

The term may also be used to denote influential circles within professional corporations or social organisations. Relations between sitwa members are often based on kumoterstwo (meaning a non-market exchange of favours; Cf. kumoterstwo and kolesiostwo). While sitwais a form of professional rather than family relations, its structure resembles that of the social networks that controlled local politics in Italy in the aftermath of the Second World War (Banfield 1958[1]). The moral basis of sitwa in Polish politics bears striking resemblance to what Edward Banfield described as ‘amoral familism.’

The noun sitwa (plural sitwy) derives from a Jewish word meaning cooperative or company (szitwes in Yiddish, szuttafuth in Hebrew). In the years preceding the Second World War, it was used in criminal slang to denote worthless, badly behaved and poor people, or partners in crime. While sitwa has not always been used pejoratively (Kamiński and Kowalczyk 2008[2]), today its meaning is entirely pejorative. In the 2000s, it became widely used in the mass media and in everyday language to mean informal networks within the privileged public authorities.

As an expression describing informal activity, sitwa resembles the German term Kamarilla (from the Spanish camarilla, literally ‘little chamber,’ meaning an elite circle of courtiers or favourites surrounding a king or ruler). Kamarilla was used in the German Empire in the late nineteenth century and again during the Weimar Republic, notably to describe the coterie surrounding President Paul von Hindenburg, to whom responsibility is attributed for the decision to appoint Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. In German, however, the meaning of Kamarilla has typically been limited to the central authorities. Similar expressions found in many languages are ‘clique’ and ‘coterie’ (kliki and koteria in Polish).

While informal networks flourished in pre-modern Poland (as indeed they did throughout Europe), the term sitwa came into use relatively recently. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795) saw coteries cluster around the families of the richest noblemen; based on patron-client relations, these groups exercised strong influence over parliament and the regional authorities. Such networks, with their focus on securing political and financial benefits for their members, have been identified by Polish historians as one of the main reasons for the crisis of the Polish political system that provoked the collapse of the state in the eighteenth century (Mączak 2003[3]).

In the nineteenth century, when Poland was partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Habsburg Austria, informal networks were not found within the leadership for the simple reason that Poland was no longer an independent state and had no central government. Poles in those days had little access even to local government. The years between the two World Wars saw the rebirth of Polish politics, and new cliques and sitwy sprang up.

They continued to flourish during the Communist period (1945-89). At that time, the nomenklatura system saw appointments to influential posts approved exclusively by the Communist Party apparatus. This quickly evolved into a hierarchical mechanism whereby clients or friends were promoted by Communist Party patrons (Hirszowicz 1973[4] and 1980[5]; for a description of a similar process in the USSR, see Voslensky 1984 and Gregory 1990[6]). As a result, informal patronage networks became established at both central and local levels (Tarkowski 1994[7]; Tymiński 2002[8]).

These coteries (cliques, sitwy) focused on securing personal benefits and privileges for members of the network by, for example, by providing access to rare or hardly accessible goods and services such as motorcars, privileged healthcare, apartments, houses or summer cottages. In certain circumstances, cliques might play a positive role for a specific enterprise or local community. Since the system of central economic planning led to frequent shortages of virtually all resources, goods and services, network-members might help a local enterprise to obtain resources, machinery or investment funds (Tarkowski 1994[9]). While such activity would benefit a specific enterprise or local community, however, it was unlikely to benefit the wider community since, in a centrally planned economy, the informal acquisition of goods or resources by one local community or enterprise would result in a loss by others.

Many of the informal networks created under the Communist system survived the collapse of communism. As shown by Zybertowicz and Łoś (2000[10]), such networks captured significant sectors of both economic and political capital during the transition from state socialism. In one notable incident for example, Mariusz Łapiński, minister of health from 2001 to 2003, accused Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski (in office 1995-2005) of presiding over a sitwa that sought to reap benefits from public institutions. ‘The presidential palace’s sitwa, built in the past ten years,’ Łapiński asserted, ‘is a group of people connected to one another by their various interests. In order to realise their interests, this group does not hesitate to break the law or to harm inconvenient people. […] How this most dangerous sitwa works can be summed up as ‘MSM’ – money, secret services, media’ (Łapiński 2005[11]). Łapiński’s allegations should be viewed with caution in light of his conflict with President Kwaśniewski’s administration. In 2006, however, in a conversation with Aleksander Gudzowaty (one of Poland’s richest men, who recorded the conversation), former Prime Minister Józef Oleksy stated that, ‘My sitwa did not give a damn about Poland,’ though he went on to stress that this did not apply to him personally (Zapis 2007[12]).

Large amounts of information on sitwy has been published in the Polish press. For example, in an interview published in 2012 under the heading, ‘Gorzów [a city in western Poland] is governed by sitwa,’ a member of the local opposition accused the city authorities of creating a sitwa consisting of a pyramid topped by the city’s president. ‘In this pyramid there are some 60, maybe 80 managers, various directors and friends. Then there are their families and colleagues’ (Rusek 2010). Also in 2012, the Justice Minister accused prosecutors and judges of operating as a sitwa after they refused him access to documents in the notorious Amber Gold financial scandal (Drozdowski 2012[13]).

Again, these accusations should be taken with a pinch of salt. In recent years, the term sitwa has become widely used in the mass media to describe informal networks within local and national government. Often it is hard to distinguish accusations levelled as a form of political campaigning from descriptions of real problems.


  1. Banfield E. 1958. The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Glencoe: Free Press
  2. Kamiński, K. and Kowalczyk, J. 2008. ‘W języku polskim: Sitwa,’ Rzeczpospolita, 15 September
  3. Mączak, A. 2003. Nierówna przyjaźń. Układy klientelne w perspektywie historycznej. Wrocław: Wrocław University Press
  4. Hirszowicz, M. 1973. Komunistyczny Lewiatan. Paris: Instytut Literacki
  5. Hirszowicz, M. 1980. Bureaucratic Leviathan. A Study in the Sociology of Communism. Oxford: Martin Robertson
  6. Gregory, P. 1990. Restructing the Soviet Economic Bureaucracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  7. Tarkowski J. 1994. Socjologia Świata polityki. Vol. 2: Patroni i klienci. Warsaw: ISP PAN
  8. Tymiński, M. 2002. ‘Funkcjonowanie klik w zakładach przemysłowych (1950-1970),’ Kultura i Społeczeństwo XLVI (4): 109-31
  9. Tarkowski J. 1994. Socjologia Świata polityki. Vol. 2: Patroni i klienci. Warsaw: ISP PAN
  10. Łoś, M. and Zybertowicz, A. 2000. Privatizing the Police-State. The Case of Poland. London: Palgrave Macmillan
  11. Łapiński, M. 2005 Walka z sitwą. Warsaw: published by the author
  12. ‘Zapis rozmowy Oleksego z Gudzowatym.’ 2007., 12 October,zapis-rozmowy-oleksego-z-gudzowatym.html
  13. Drozdowski, S. 2012. ‘Gowin kontra sitwa,’ Super Express, 22 September