|Author: Justin Otten|
|Affiliation: Indiana University|
Original Text: Justin Otten
The use of personal networks, connections and informal contacts to obtain goods and services in Macedonia. Vrski in Macedonian can be translated as ‘connections’, and is related to the words vrska (connection) and povrzan (connected). The term therefore has various meanings and is used in several mostly benign contexts, from the ties between people or things to the government’s Ministry of Transportation (Ministerstvo za Transport i Vrski, with ‘vrski’ referring to the logistics relevant to transportation).
As a form of social capital, however, the term is scarcely written about within the country (such as in media) and there is in fact little academic literature on vrski in Macedonia. Rather, the term is used colloquially such as when discussing an individual of means, and its informal meaning is widely understood. If asked ‘How does s/he have…?’ the reply will often simply be ‘vrski’ or an explanation of someone’s connections. For vrski are the connections one’s family has and as anthropologist Ilká Thiessen observed, they help individuals not only get a job but ensure that one will not be easily laid off. In fact, Thiessen noted that through vrski work may be given to someone who is not only unqualified, but may never perform the expected duties. ‘Who you know’ rather than expertise may thus often be the most important factor in acquiring work. Indeed, Keith Brown wrote of vrski: ‘the reported prevalence and importance of vrski is at the heart of many Macedonian critiques of how their society operates: vrski underpin corruption, nepotism, the black market, and every other obstacle citizens face in negotiating everyday life’. Use of vrski can be both legal and illegal; and beneficial to an individual when successfully transacted, but a hindrance when formal mechanisms for a procedure are disregarded due to a lack of such connections.
While the practice of vrski is seen as corrupting, the use of such informal connections is common and many Macedonians will instinctively call upon the contacts of friends and family in order to assure a beneficial outcome. Such situations typically include acquiring work, accessing a public service (such as getting their child into the best school or completing a bureaucratic procedure), or obtaining a particular good. Shared origins are very important in a small nation such as Macedonia and in the capital Skopje, where many inhabitants are only one or two generations removed from their ancestral villages and towns. Therefore, it is common for such regional ties to be discussed and utilised.
Once a connection is made, enacting the use of vrski often includes meeting the connection outside in public or just outside of their office (so as to be escorted in and better assisted). The individual soliciting the favour may bring a small gift (e.g. a package of Turkish coffee, chocolates or a bottle of brandy) as a token of appreciation. Occasionally, a bribe (mito) is necessary in the transaction, though this is not common for most Macedonians engaged in such informal transactions. Conversation about their connection is important as well, because the closer the connection the greater the likelihood of the service or favour being successfully obtained. In fact, the individual providing the service may feel particularly obliged to lend their assistance if the individual seeking such help has been sent by a particularly important acquaintance (e.g. a mayor, godfather, or someone to whom they are indebted). The practice is thus cyclical, and helps maintain a social fabric and ‘economy of favours’ comprised of cooperative, overlapping structured behaviour.
The use of vrski has had a negative effect on the provision of state services under the post-socialist restructuring of government and the economy. The state has intentionally exited from providing a number of formerly state-run services by implementing privatisation programmes. Privatisation has taken place due to the pursuit of free market principles, but also, arguably, in order for politicians and their vrski to profit privately. Through transferring responsibility to the private sector and ceasing to provide services, the state has opened up opportunities to the owners of private enterprises, who are made aware of these opportunities through their network and connections. Consequently, politicians and their acquaintances have appropriated state capital through the privatisation of its services, from utilities to higher education to agriculture. As an example, when the state’s largest winery was privatised and taken oven by an investment holding firm, political figures including the (state-appointed) director of the winery as well as local and national political figures personally profited from the transaction. In particular, the former winery director acquired enough income to build a villa and small winery of his own.
Another form of corruption induced by vrski between the public and private sectors is closely linked to the English-language concept of ‘kickbacks’. If a government agency is looking to contract out a particular service, a bureaucrat may use vrski networks to commission a private business which provides such services. However, both the bureaucrat and the business owner will expect personal gain from the engagement and transaction. This seeming corruption is in fact the norm; the value of vrski combined with self-gain are lamented but expected, and should be factored into budgeting for a public-private partnership. Vrski thus combines with the interaction between public and private sectors to facilitate such kickbacks.
‘Informal’ economic practices have been defined by Hart as those falling outside of or which are invisible to bureaucratic form. He therefore states that ‘the task is not only to find practical ways of harnessing the complementary potential of bureaucracy and informality, but also to advance thinking about their dialectical movement.’ Further, Hart asserts that neoliberal globalisation has expanded the scope of informal activities, so that there must be an examination of the social forms which organise them and their relation to governments, corporations and international agencies. Vrski should therefore provoke concern about the development of what Saskia Sassen calls ‘predatory formations’: mixes of elites, global networks, laws and government policies, all of which help constitute a ‘brutality’ in the modern global economy and the ‘expulsion’ of mass numbers of individuals from a decent standard of living. Indeed, to return to the case of the former winery director, his gain was a loss to many others in the community, and his villa was one in which he had to essentially hide out in due to anger by the wine region’s residents over the winery’s privatisation.
Within the Southeast European region, personal networks are utilised in a comparable manner to Macedonian vrski, and in the neighbouring Slavic speaking countries the terms are similar: vruzki (връзки) in Bulgaria (cf. Chavdarova 2013) and veze (везе) in Serbia. All of these practices can involve bribes, gifts and other forms of potential corruption, and are thus seen as unfair practices by those who do not benefit from them to the extent of others. Such favours help create significant privileges for individuals connected to the ruling powers and state apparatus who continue to benefit from the transfers of wealth occurring between it and the connected private firms and their owners.
- Ilká Thiessen, Waiting for Macedonia: Identity in a Changing World (University of Toronto, 2007)
- Keith Brown, Transacting Transition: The Micropolitics of Democracy Assistance in the Former Yugoslavia (Kumarian Press, 2006)
- Alena Ledeneva, Russia’s Economy of Favours. Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange (Cambridge, 1998)
- Justin Otten, ‘Wine mafia and the thieving state: tension and power at the crossroads of neoliberalism and authoritarianism in 21st century Macedonia’ Anthropology of East Europe Review (AEER), Vol. 31(2), 2013
- Keith Hart, ‘On the Informal Economy: the Political History of an Ethnographic Concept’, Universite Libre de Bruxelles Working Papers CEB (2009)
- Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Belknap Press, 2014)
- Tanya Chavdarova, ‘Institutionalisation of Market Order and Re-institutionalisation of Vruzki (Connections) in Bulgaria’. In: Giordano, C. and N. Hayoz (eds.). Informality in Eastern Europe. Structures, Political Cultures and Social Practices. (Bern: Peter Lang, pp. 19–196)