Zalatwianie (Poland)

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Załatwianie
Location: Poland
Poland map.png
Author: Paulina Pieprzyca
Affiliation: Transparency International

Original Text: Paulina Pieprzyca, Transparency International EU Office

Załatwianie (verbal form: to załatwić something) is a Polish euphemism describing a number of informal behaviours, carried out mostly to obtain benefits by avoiding the use of arduous legal activities or formal norms[1]. In a rough translation, the phrase ‘załatwić something’ means ‘to get something done’ or ‘to get something done in an easier way’; it is related to the verb ułatwić, which means ‘to do something easier’. The etymology of załatwić derives from the word łatwy (easy) with the prefix ‘za’, which means that something has been done and/or completed. The word załatwić has its origins in Slavonic languages, but its final form has only developed in Polish[2]. Therefore, załatwianie cannot be directly translated into any other language.

Other meanings of the word załatwić include the phrase ‘załatwić someone’, which means to eliminate (kill) or to professionally disable a person, i.e. to thwart their professional aims, such as being promoted. The phrase often appears in Polish criminal films, but also in discussions about murders, when people instead of saying, ‘he killed him’, rather use the phrase ‘on go załatwił’, which can be translated as ‘he made him that way’ or ‘he made him dead’. In the second case, a person who wishes to załatwić another can, for example, spread some compromising information about them so they cannot be promoted (a tactic particularly used among politicians) [3].

Załatwianie also has other meanings such as ‘excretion’, and is very often used by schoolchildren, for whom any other word associated with this particular bodily function seems vulgar or inappropriate. It is usual for a school pupil to ask a teacher if they can ‘załatwić się’, which means ‘załatwić myself’ or ‘take care of myself’. More generally, in the Polish language the word załatwić plays the role of a replacement word for uncomfortable phrases such as ‘to corrupt someone’ or ‘to kill someone’. It conveys the sense that the result will be obtained using informal methods, which should not be discussed in detail because of their obvious brutality or unethical nature.

Most frequently people can załatwić something via other people (relatives, friends, acquaintances) who are in a position that enables them to help provide or enable it. For example, one can załatwić a medical examination or a priority appointment with a doctor if he or she knows someone working in a hospital, such as a doctor or doctor’s friend. It is also possible for some people to załatwić something on behalf of others if they are in a position of power. Very often parents try to załatwić a first job for their adult children (e.g. just after graduation), exploiting their social networks and position on the labour market. This is still a very common practice in Poland[4].

Załatwianie, like Russian blat, is therefore a kind of a social system based on certain relationships among people[5]. A person with a wide social network and large number of friends has greater scope to załatwić than someone with a smaller number of connections. Consequently, more people want to establish relations with such a person as they are perceived as a valuable friend who can załatwić a lot [6]. However, unlike blat, załatwianie does not rely solely on the social networks and position within a group of people, but also on an individual’s tacit knowledge of how to get things done: how to approach certain institutions and/or people, and generally how to act in different situations in order to załatwić things. Sometimes a person does not even need a specific social network to achieve his/her goals – less than knowing people, it is important to be aware where and how things can be done, and then undertake specific actions (e.g. bribery, blackmailing) in order to obtain goods [7].

The word załatwianie became particularly popular in Poland during the Communist period, where there was no easy access to goods and society relied on informal practices and networks[8]. Some argue that the exclusive nature of załatwianie comes from the era of Partitions (1795 – 1918), during which Poles could only rely on other Poles as they had been surrounded by ‘enemies’ (the authorities of the invading states) [9]. It was better therefore to ‘get something done’ within the inner circle than to ask for help from external sources such as the Russian authorities, who would most probably be unhelpful or even worsen the situation.

According to an official report on Poland’s social situation[10], the practice of załatwianie is still used by the majority of Polish society. It has a negative impact on general societal trust, which contributes to the lack of social integration and difficulty of creating civil society among the Polish population. Czapiński suggests that when an individual wants to załatwić something with another person or a group of people, they are all connected by a common secrecy and benefits, but also by a common guilt. In consequence, the trust can only exist within the group, and those outside the circle come to be considered as untrustworthy. The circles that try to załatwić things are everywhere and have very much the same objectives and desires. However, such groups will never interact in order to obtain goods together, but rather stick to their own social groups because of the lack of trust in outsiders (the thinking goes: why would we załatwić it somewhere else when we can do it with ‘our’ people?). To a large degree, therefore, Polish society consists of multitudes of these exclusive informal self-help groups, which does not allow for mutual integration and the increase of general societal trust[11].

Załatwianie on an individual level is almost always profitable; however, in a wider social context załatwianie, like many other informal practice, sacrifices long term societal benefits for short term private returns. Załatwić-ing a job for a friend always implies the rejection of a more suitable candidate; załatwić-ing a deal with a company impedes free-market competition. Another negative impact of załatwianie is in reinforcing the conviction within society that the most effective way to get things done is by informal means, while official procedures will probably be a waste of time and inefficient. People therefore often opt to do something through załatwianie in the first instance and, if that fails, fall back on formal methods (although sometimes the order is reversed: when the formal methods fail, people turn to informality). In many cases, people perceive those who try to obtain goods through the formal channels as fools: if they do not know how to załatwić it, they must be either lazy, or not well-connected enough to know someone who can załatwić it for them (or both). There is a phrase in Polish: ‘on nie potrafi niczego załatwić’, ‘on niczego nie załatwi.’ This literally translates as ‘he cannot get anything done’, relating to a person who is not effective in his aims; does not know how to approach certain people (or does not know them at all); and/or is too righteous or clumsy to reach his goal using informal methods[12].

Through efficiency improvements in the public sector and the ‘westernisation’ of Polish society, methods of załatwianie are gradually being replaced by formal and legal practices, especially among the younger generation[13]. Nevertheless, this is part of a lengthy process of ideological transition from Soviet practices to Western norms of formality. The phenomena of nepotism, bribery and cronyism still operate within Polish society, and załatwianie is a convenient and widely-used umbrella term for them [14].

Notes

  1. Słownik Języka Polskiego PWN. 2007. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.
  2. Słownik Języka Polskiego PWN. 2007. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.
  3. Słownik Języka Polskiego PWN. 2007. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.
  4. Tomaszkewicz B. 2012. 'Problem Nepotyzmu – Polska radzi z nim sobie gorzej niż inne kraje', Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, 13 August, http://www.gazetaprawna.pl/wiadomosci/artykuly/639545,problem_nepotyzmu_polska_radzi_sobie_z_nim_gorzej_niz_inne_kraje.html
  5. Ledeneva A. 1998. Russia's economy of favours: blat, networking, and informal exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  6. Wedel J. 2001. 'Corruption and Organised Crime in Post-Communist States: New Ways of Manifesting New Patters', Trends in Organized Crime, 7(1): 3-61.
  7. Wedel J. 1986. Private Poland. New York: Facts on File Inc.
  8. Morris J. and Polese, A. 2013. The Informal Post-Socialist Economy: Embedded Practices and Livehoods. Oxford: Taylor and Francis.
  9. Pacan J. 2009. 'Tutaj wszystko da się załatwić', Newsweek Polska, 1 December, http://blogi.newsweek.pl/Tekst/polityka-polska/533612,Tutaj-wszystko-sie-da-zalatwic.html>
  10. Czapiński J. and Panek T. 2009. Diagnoza Społeczna 2009. Warunki i jakość życia Polaków. Warsaw: Rada Monitoringu Społecznego.
  11. Kamiński A. 1997. 'Corruption Under the Post-Communist Transformation: The Case of Poland', Polish Sociological Review, 118: 91-117.
  12. Wedel J. 1991. The Unplanned society: Poland during and after communism. New York: Columbia University Press.
  13. Kulesza M. 2000. Transformacja Ustroju Administracyjnego Polski. Studia Iuridica XXXVIII/2000
  14. Tumiłowicz B. 2009. Czy Polska kolesiostwem i nepotyzmem stoi? Przegląd, 48/2009
[[Category:Social System][[Category:Informal Practice]