|Author: Tanya Chavdarova|
|Affiliation: Sofia University|
Original Text: Tanya Chavdarova, Sofia University
Vruzki (връзки) means connections or ties in Bulgarian. It denotes a set of informal rules for building and maintaining personal commitments and loyalties in a formal environment; these are the rules by which a social exchange of favours takes place . The objects of vruzki exchanges are the ‘favours of access to goods and services in short supply’ . Vruzki works to reduce social risk and guarantee privileged access. The phrase zadejstvam vruzki (literally, to activate connections) is similar to the British idiom pulling strings. It emphasises the active element in vruzki. It is the action-taker, vruzkar (връзкар), who uses vruzki and thus engages in the practice of vruzkarstvo (връзкарство).
Vruzki may be based on long-term relationships that are direct and dyadic (that is, between a pair of individuals), or that are mediated and linked into a chain on a short-term basis. The norms of reciprocity prescribe some delay in reciprocation and some asymmetry in value. Vruzki are guided by the norms and ethics of interpersonal relations in general and of extended family and kinship in particular. The latter are manifested in a much-used colloquial word shurobadjanastina (шуробаджанащина), which points to the nepotistic usage of vruzki in the search for employment or professional promotion. This term consists of two parts, each denoting brothers-in-law: brothers of wives (shurej (шурей) and husbands of wives’ sisters (badjanak, баджанак). Already a tongue-twister, shurobadjanastina is actually a shortened version of zetjo-shuro-badjanakisum (зетьо-шуро-баджанакизъм), where the add-on zetjo denotes son-in-law. The first use of this term dates to 1880, when the columnist Zahari Stoyanov published a satirical article, ‘Do you know who we are?’ . According to Stoyanov, vruzkarstvo was set to become an essential institution after the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in 1878 and the subsequent unification of the Principality of Bulgaria and the then-Ottoman province of Southern Bulgaria in 1885. In Stoyanov’s words, ‘The Unification had first of all to be accomplished in the triple union: zetjo-shuro-badjanakisma’ .
As an informal institution, vruzki creates shared expectations among the parties to the exchange as to how their private roles in personal relationships (family, friends) interweave with their public, socio-professional roles. As a result, two mechanisms emerge through which vruzki functions: either the instrumentalisation of personal relationships, or the personalisation of social relationships. The primacy of personal relationships in daily life has long been part of tradition and culture in Bulgarian society, but these relationships are also moulded by institutional factors characteristic of the European periphery, such as deep distrust of public institutions and blurred boundaries between the public and the private spheres.
The personal trust that underlies vruzki relationships has a reverse side: distrust of the faceless ‘Other.’ In his seminal analysis of daily life in Bulgaria in the first capitalist period (1878-1944), Ivan Hadjiiski articulated popular wisdom and expectations as follows: ‘Everybody is a crook until proven otherwise’ (emphasis in original); ‘Treat everyone like a crook; the burden of proving otherwise…rests on him/her’. To counterbalance the culture of low impersonal trust, personal trust relationships are introduced into the formal environment. These personal channels help to overcome systemic and societal mistrust by creating overlap between the private and the public spheres. Vruzki may lead to the accumulation of positive social capital, but it may also reveal the detrimental effects of negative social capital, such as exclusion of outsiders, excessive claims on group members, restrictions on individual freedoms, and ‘downward levelling norms’.
The content and specific manifestations of vruzki depend on concrete historical conditions. During Bulgaria’s socialist period (1946-90) vruzki closely resembled Russian blat, defined as ‘use of personal networks for obtaining goods and services in short supply and for circumventing formal procedures’. And while scholars refer to vruzki as the ‘second network’ , folklore emphasised its primary importance. As one popular saying had it, ‘Without vruzki, a person can neither be born nor die’.
Bulgaria’s post-1990 transition to a market economy changed the modus operandi of vruzki, as it evolved from an instrument of consumption maximisation into an instrument of utility maximisation . The logic can be traced back to the way in which vruzki functioned as early as Bulgaria’s first capitalist period  but remains relevant in the post-socialist period, when the indicators of impersonal, or societal, trust hit a new low. The hardship suffered by ordinary people during Bulgaria’s transition from socialism to the market partly explains why vruzkarstvo has remained so vital. The shortages of goods and services that typified the socialist economy were replaced by shortages of money, jobs and trustworthy partners. Compensating for these deficiencies became a highly significant and widely spread factor in vruzki exchanges. Recurrent exchanges of favours have shaped expectations and rules of behaviour. The rules implicitly postulate that utility is expected to increase when impersonal relationships become personal.
The notion of vruzki does not by definition mean violating the established formal procedures, even though everyday usage of the term often carries a negative connotation. Such widely used phrases as ‘doing/obtaining/arranging something in the second way’ indicate that vruzki presuppose taking alternative paths. But using an alternative does not mean avoiding the formal. Like most informal practices, vruzki fall between clear categories such as legal and illegal (permitted/prohibited by law), or licit and illicit (socially perceived as acceptable/unacceptable) . The reciprocal exchange of favours of access might be legal/licit (such as the exchange of professional favours) or illegal/illicit (when social ties are used as, for example, a means of practising corruption, clientelism or nepotism). While legal/licit informal practices imply predominantly symmetrical relations between the counterparts, asymmetrical links prevail in illegal/illicit practices. The latter are usually power-relations aimed at the covert redistribution of resources. Thus, although vruzki obey the principle of reciprocity, the term may also have substantial hidden re-distributional effects at the macro-level and support both profit- and rent-seeking types of behaviour.
The outcomes of the use of vruzki may converge with those aimed at by formal institutions or they may diverge from them. On the one hand, vruzki may guarantee contracts, facilitate transactions and reinforce the mechanisms of reputation, thereby supporting the public order. On the other hand, vruzki could overthrow formal mechanisms since they may help create hidden monopolies and uphold unfair competition.
Vruzki are found in all areas of contemporary social life in Bulgaria. Much empirical research – mostly sociological and ethnological – has been done since 1989 on specific aspects or practices related to vruzki. There is still, however, a need for more theoretical work that would place vruzki in comparative perspective with blat in Russia, kombinowanje in Poland, veze (везе) in Serbia, meson in Greece and torpil in Turkey.
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