Tal (Serbia and countries of former Yugoslavia)

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Tal (alt. taljenje, taliti, utaliti, rastaliti)
Serbia map.png
Location: Serbia and countries of former Yugoslavia
Author: Danko Runić
Affiliation: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK.

Original text by Danko Runić

Tal is a term used throughout most of the former Yugoslavia to colloquially describe an agreement, a settlement, or an arrangement between two or more parties, reached with the predominant goal of obtaining a financial cut, such as a kickback, or other types of advantage through illegal means. Etymologists agree that the term is derived from the modern German word Teil (Uroić 1994: 801[1], Klaić 1978: 132[2]), which translates in English as ‘part, portion, component, piece, bit, share, deal or slice’. Teil is clearly linked to Thaler, a silver coin used throughout Europe, an abbreviation of ‘Joachimsthaler’, meaning from the town of Joachimsthal in the Kingdom of Bohemia, where the first such coins were minted in 1518. In languages spoken in the former Yugoslavia, tal originally meant the same as in modern German, primarily to signify part or portion and less commonly to signify part of inheritance or dowry (Klaić 1978: 132[3]).

The term tal was first used in urban centres to imply widespread engagement in illicit practices through reaching secretive agreements (Imami 2003: 353[4] , Ćirković 2011: 72-73[5]). The use of the term has evolved since, with the noun taljenje and verbs taliti, utaliti and rastaliti deriving from it, indicating that the practice has become a complex phenomenon, well-established in the informal economy, with several variants having similar meanings. The term tal is commonly used nowadays among many generations and all levels of social strata (Imami 2001[6]).

The participants of a tal come together in order to combine resources that each has at their disposal. For example, if one person has financial means, another might have the necessary political connections to get a deal done. The type of resources involved can vary; tal can be private, political, commercial, criminal and often a combination of all four. According to the Serbian language online dictionary of slang, ‘Vukajlija’, tal is most often negotiated ‘face to face’ and its existence is thus known solely to parties involved and people of trust. It goes on to explain that ‘besides a petty tal, in which common people are engaged on everyday basis in order to earn some money to feed the family, there are also tals between criminals, large businesses and political establishment, a combination of which is most dangerous, as it enables tycoons and politicians to accumulate wealth at the speed of light and at the cost of the state and the people’. Entering tals is both a large-scale survival strategy for ordinary people and a widespread practice of bending the formal rules of economy caused by extensive lack of trust in institutions.

Across the former Yugoslavia, the practice of entering different tals has become so widespread that the formally obtained knowledge about normative business practices in market economies is mostly redundant (Cigler 2013[7]). To be awarded a lucrative contract or to enter a business deal with an important client does not depend on achieving the best price, on knowledge, quality of product or service, but depends solely upon the prospect of acquiring personal wealth for the individuals involved in the decision making, i.e. being part of the tal (Cigler 2013[8]). Hence those who prosper most and acquire most profit are those who make the best tals and participate in the highest number of tals.

The term tal is thus also used to ‘express appropriating a share in currency or some other commodity, which the seller returns to the buyer, an influential individual inside a company, an institution or an organisation, after the process of purchase is completed’ (Cigler 2013[9])The individual becomes part of a tal by guaranteeing the purchase of goods or services from a particular seller. In this sense, tal is easily translated in English as kickback. In such cases the amount of tal can vary significantly. It is usually no less than 10 to 20 per cent of the value of a transaction, however, it is not uncommon for it to be much higher.

Both tal and kickback imply collusion. Such collusion, based on trust as a moral predisposition, contributes to the accumulation of ‘social capital, which acts as a force of cohesion on the quantity and quality of mutual social interactions’ (Vehovec 2002: 230[10]). Although hidden and secretive, it is not uncommon for an individual who is part of a particularly important tal, or a tal in which the other party is influential in certain circles, to boast about it so as to demonstrate perceived self-importance and to show that he is well connected. Being part of high-profile tals is hence seen as not only highly profitable, but also socially beneficial and desirable within business and political communities in systematically corrupt regimes.

The practice of entering tals i.e. taljenje, is also widespread by elected and appointed public officials in their attempts to disguise ownership and management of private businesses. In Serbia for example, the Law on Anti-Corruption Agency prevents government officials from owning or managing a private business while exercising public function (Zakon o Agenciji 2008[11]). Similar legislation is in place in all countries throughout the region. Yet in order to earn extra income, and faced with a number of conflicting interests, government officials opt to become part of a tal, whereby their share in a business venture is disguised by trusted frontmen, close friends or distant family members posing as de jure owners. It is also not rare for a politician to become part of such a tal, being entrusted with the primary role of ensuring the speedy delivery of necessary licenses to get a business started, or charged with arranging other preferential treatment by government institutions through influence peddling.

The term tal is frequently used in the media. In cases where solid evidence of wrongdoing is absent, one might choose to publicly accuse someone of being part of a tal. Since tal does not appear in the Criminal Code, the media can avoid charges for defamation, while at the same time making a reference to illicit doings. For example, in September 2015 Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović publicly accused Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić of being in a tal with the Croatian opposition leader Tomislav Karamarko and Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán (Milanović 2015[12]). The event that led to such accusation during the height of the election campaign in Croatia was the influx of refugees from the Middle East that passed through Serbian territory on their way towards the European Union, who were allegedly transported and directed by Serbian authorities exclusively towards Croatian border. Milanović implied that although he offered assistance to Vučić, to provide a fleet of buses to transport refugees from the Serbian border with Macedonia towards not only Croatia, but also to Hungary, Vučić refused them. In a statement the Croatian Prime Minister declared:

The man simply refuses it. Can anyone explain what motives can one possibly have to refuse such help? Our offer is clear and well-intentioned. But he refuses it because he has motives, because he must be in a tal with someone. He is in constant contact with Budapest, he secretly meets Karamarko in Zagreb. They are all part of the same clique [Vučić, Karamarko and Orbán all belong to the same family of political parties, i.e. conservative and centre-right]. (Milanović 2015[13])

Similarly, in an interview to Jutarnji in 2014, Mirela Holy, the leader of Croatian political party ORaH – Sustainable Development of Croatia, noted that there was no strategic approach by the government to support investment in the economy and that rules of the game were not the same for everyone. She concluded by saying ‘if you are not in a tal with someone in the local administration or national government, your investment proposal will sit in a drawer for years’ (Penić 2014[14]).

An almost identical point was made by famous Serbian documentary film director Želimir Žilnik when he was asked to comment on poor government support of the cinematography industry. He noted ‘we film with budgets of several thousand Euros and with such amounts there is no place for someone to utaliti and that is the key reason why the funding is poor and not because they hate documentaries’ (Tribina 2013[15]).

Taljenje has serious implications for both the economy and society. In business transactions it is damaging for companies and institutions, as the price paid for goods or services is higher than the market price, while the quality also often suffers (Cigler 2013[16]). When tals are part of public procurement processes, the government budget is severely damaged. In cases when the value of tal is not financial, it nevertheless leads to all manner of illicit acts, including favouritism, seen in providing employment to family members of tal partners in government administration for example. Entering tals is thus closely connected to influence peddling, tax evasion, racketeering, kickbacks and the grey economy in general. Work by this author was supported by the Chevening Scholarships, the UK government’s global scholarship programme, funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and partner organisations.


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