Veza (Serbia and the Balkans)

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Veza
Location: Serbia and the Balkans
WesternBalkans map.png
Author: Prof. Dragan Stanojevic and Prof. Dragana Stokanic
Affiliation: University of Belgrade

Original Text: Prof. Dragan Stanojevic and Prof. Dragana Stokanic

The term veza (plural veze) literally means ‘connection’, and refers to the use of informal contacts in order to obtain access to opportunities that are not available through formal channels. These opportunities may include information, services or goods for the benefit of an individual, group or organisation.

Where an individual is concerned, veze may be used instrumentally to serve the purpose of personal consumption, interests, or goals; this may include access to services such as medical care, or obtaining formal documents such as a certificate, licence or permit. Veze ties may also be used by public or private organisations in order to secure privileged results. Connections in political, economic and everyday life may serve as a substitute mechanism enabling such organisations to influence other organisations’ decision-making procedures in ways that would not be possible using formal means alone.

A survey of young people (aged 19 to 35) found that 25 percent of recent graduates had used their parents’ veze to find a job (ISR FP 2011). According to the same survey, 24.6 per cent of all those in employment found their jobs by means of their parents’ veze. While graduates are linked to their parents by strong ties, it is weak ties – parents’ contacts to whom the graduates themselves are unlikely to be bound – that are most likely to help them get jobs (Granovetter 1973[1], 1995[2]).

Etymologically, the word veza derives from cohesion and binding exchange. The term may also refer to regular telephone communication (na vezi sa…) or to an emotional relationship between two people (u vezi sa…). The Dictionary of Serbian language (Miroslav 2007: 134[3]) gives several meanings, but the closest to this informal practice is ‘mutual relations between people, something that connects them, brings them together: marital ties, friendship, love, cultural affinity, trade connections.’ Veza may also mean ‘a close acquaintance, friendship with an influential person.’ The term’s connotations may also include intense relations that imply reciprocity and trust between actors based on mutually binding ties or the existence of a guarantor or mediator.

The term veze is often used as a euphemism for using contacts in order to get things done. The expressions used in this context are as follows: ‘I know the man’ (Znam čoveka), ‘See what can be done!’ (Vidi šta može da se uradi), ‘It will be taken care of’ (Biće sređeno) (Stanojevic and Stokanic 2015[4]). Connections may facilitate both legal and illegal activities. In the vernacular, the term is used to embrace a wide spectrum of practices, from such trivial legal activities as passing on information about job vacancies (since for important jobs it is necessary to know the right people) or getting advice on the best doctor, through semi-legal activities such as exercising discretion and favouring a certain candidate at a job interview, to illegal practices such as fixed or unfairly awarded tenders. Connections in Serbia are viewed as personal, family or social capital that is operationalised and used instrumentally (Tomanovic 2008[5], Tomanovic and Ignjatovic 2004[6], Cveticanin 2012[7]). Other researchers have focused on the use of connections in the economy (Cvejic 2006[8], Babovic 2009[9], Stokanic 2009[10]) and politics (Antonic 2011[11], Vuletic, Stanojevic 2014[12], Goati 2006[13], Pavlovic 2007[14], Stanojevic, Stokanic 2015[15]).

In the political sphere, one speaks of političke veze (political connections). Informal political connections have been especially important in the whole period of modern Serbian statehood (nineteenth century onwards), in particular during the monarchy (until 1945). All political parties had kafanas, traditional restaurants or bars, where political strategies and tactics were organised and negotiated (Stojanovic 2012[16]). Although the term političke veze predates the socialist period, its use took on a new importance during that era. The Communist party controlled the entire social system, and političke veze provided competitive advantages through access to information and state orders requiring party authorisation. Političke veze also reinforced certain individuals’ dependency on and loyalty to the Communist party system by guaranteed privileges and personal promotion – something that also benefitted their family, friends and associates.

The years following the collapse of socialism, and especially following the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in 2000, saw the introduction of privatisation and market reforms, and the move to a multi-party political system. Today, veze denotes not only connections to the ruling party, but also enhanced access to public resources through appointments, or the ‘assisted’ winning of state tenders by private firms. The current situation, characterised by a shortage of resources and weak institutions, ensures that the state is a significant player in the field of opportunities. For this reason, political parties fight to secure a monopoly over state resources in order to secure their own political survival. The downside of such monopolisation is a major redistribution of resources by means of informal channels. These channels include promising jobs to (potential) voters whose support could influence a large number of people to vote for the party in question, and guaranteeing private enterprises that they will receive concessions and state orders, even when the latter are supposedly awarded on a competitive basis.

Serbian opinion polls indicate that political engagement is perceived as a social lift. This in turn leads to a high level of membership in political parties. The percentage of party membership in Serbia is among the highest in Europe – 12.2 percent (World Values Survey database 2008), and it has been at this level since the period of late socialism. Furthermore, there is a high degree of fluctuating membership, whereby membership rates of individual parties vary significantly according to whether that party is in power (Goati 2006: 134-136[17]). This demonstrates that individuals have instrumental reasons for becoming party members.

A survey of young people in Serbia (Mojić 2012: 103[18]) suggests that informal channels are seen as the most effective routes for social mobility. More than two thirds of those surveyed said that knowing the right people was crucial, while about half saw political affiliation as key, and only one third of young people saw education as important.

In the economic sphere, informal contacts are used to avoid state regulation and circumvent the constraints of formal institutions. Likewise, personal connections are used to circumvent formal procedures. Entrepreneurs create safety nets of social networks to secure predictability in the economic sphere. Risks associated with illegal informal activities are avoided by creating personal relations with business partners and consumers. Circles of trust are based on already existing social ties – close neighbours, friends and relatives. Ethnic communities use family and other connections to establish ‘ethnic niches’ in certain sectors. For example, Bosniaks in Sandžak, south-western Serbia, used social networks to organise small firms to produce jeans (Stokanić 2009[19]). By exploiting informal connections, entrepreneurs can secure reliable workers, raw materials, machinery, partners, distributers and consumers. Meanwhile, consumers use informal networks to obtain goods and services in short supply.

Administrative connections are used not only to secure legal rights (obtaining information or administrative permits), but also to bypass legal procedures. Research indicates that administrative access plays a significant role in enabling businesses to function (Cvejić et al. 2016[20]). Serbian families use social networks in order to access vital resources such as health care or the police. In 2008, nearly half of those surveyed said they could rely on the support of at least three people in the case of an emergency (Tomanovic 2008[21]). Forty percent could rely on one or two such persons, while only 13 percent had no individual on whom they could rely. As regards young people, 13 percent of those surveyed said they used their parents’ contacts to solve administrative problems (Stanojevic 2012[22]).

Serbia’s economic and political elites are tightly intertwined. Informal ties provide members of the elite with financial support, contracts and valuable information. Patron-client relationships connecting political and economic elites facilitate but also impede Serbia’s institutional development, leading to non-transparent and divisive levels of distrust and uncertainty.

Notes

  1. Granovetter, M. 1973. ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’, American Journal of Sociology, 78(6): 1360-1380
  2. Granovetter, M. 1995. Getting a Job, A Study of Contacts and Careers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  3. Nikolić, Miroslav. 2007. Rečnik srpskog jezika (The Dictionary of Serbian language), Matica srpska, Novi Sad.
  4. Stanojevic, D., Stokanic, D. 2014. ‘The Importance of Clientelism and Informal Practices for Employment Among Political Party Members After 2000s - An Explorative Enquiry’, in Cveticanin, P., Mangova, I. and Markovikj N. (eds), A Life for Tomorrow – Social Transformations in South-East Europe, Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis” Skopje (Macedonia)
  5. Tomanović, S. (2008): ‘Families and Social Capital: Some Issues in Research and Policy’, Sociologija, L, 1, 1–16.
  6. Tomanović, S., Ignjatović, S. (2004): ‘Mladi u tranziciji: između porodice porekla i porodice opredeljenja’, in : Mihailović, S. (eds. .) Mladi zagubljeni u tranziciji, Belgrade: Centar za proučavanje alternativa: 39–64.
  7. Cveticanin, P. (ed.) 2012. Social and Cultural Capital in Serbia, Centre for Empirical Cultural Studies of South-East Europe, Nis
  8. Cvejić, S. 2006. The step in the same place, Social mobility in Serbia in the process of post-socialist transformation, Institute for Sociological Research, Belgrade
  9. Babović, M. 2009. Post-socialist transformation and socio-economic strategies of households and individuals in Serbia, Institute for Sociological Research, Belgrade
  10. Stokanić, D. (2009): Entrepreneurship on the margin between informality and formality: The textile industry in South-West Serbia. Master’s thesis submitted to Central European University.
  11. Antonić, S. 2011. ‘Mreža školskih drugara u političkoj eliti Srbije’, Nacionalni interes, God. 6, Vol 9, br 3: 329-350
  12. Vuletic, V., Stanojevic, D. (2014): ‘Social Networks – Networks of Old School Ties’, Kultura, 1, Belgrade.
  13. Goati, V. 2006. Partijske borbe u Srbiji u postoktobarskom razdoblju. Belgrade, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung/Institut društvenih nauka
  14. Pavlović, D. 2007. Unutrašnja demokratija u političkim strankama Srbije u periodu 2000.-2006. godine. Belgrade, Sociološki pregled, 41(1), 123-141
  15. Stanojevic, D., Stokanic, D. 2014. ‘The Importance of Clientelism and Informal Practices for Employment Among Political Party Members After 2000s - An Explorative Enquiry’, in Cveticanin, P., Mangova, I. and Markovikj N. (eds), A Life for Tomorrow – Social Transformations in South-East Europe, Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis” Skopje (Macedonia)
  16. Pavlović, D. 2007. Unutrašnja demokratija u političkim strankama Srbije u periodu 2000.-2006. godine. Belgrade, Sociološki pregled, 41(1), 123-141
  17. Goati, V. 2006. Partijske borbe u Srbiji u postoktobarskom razdoblju. Belgrade, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung/Institut društvenih nauka
  18. Mojić, D. 2012. ‘Obrazovni resursi, orijentacije i delanje mladih’, in: Mladi naša sadašnjost (ed.) Smiljka Tomanović, Belgrade, ISRFP, 95-109
  19. Stokanić, D. (2009): Entrepreneurship on the margin between informality and formality: The textile industry in South-West Serbia. Master’s thesis submitted to Central European University.
  20. Cvejić S. et al. (2016): Informal Power Networks, Political Patronage and Clientelism in Serbia and Kosovo*, SeCons, Belgrade, (in print).
  21. Tomanović, S. (2008): ‘Families and Social Capital: Some Issues in Research and Policy’, Sociologija, L, 1, 1–16.
  22. Stanojevic, D. 2012. ‘Social status of the young people’, in Tomanovic S. et al, Young people are present. The study on social biographies of young people in Serbia, Institute for Sociological Research, Belgrade.
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