Blat (Caucasus)

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Blat (Caucasus)
Informal practice commonly found in Caucasus
Caucasus map.png
Map of Caucasus, where Blat (Caucasus) commonly takes place.
Entry written by Huseyn Aliyev.
Huseyn Aliyev is affiliated to Research Centre for East European Studies (Forschungsstelle Osteuropa).

Original Text: Huseyn Aliyev, Research Centre for East European Studies (Forschungsstelle Osteuropa)

It is hard to estimate when the Soviet/Russian practice of blat – use of personal networks for getting thing done [1] – became established in the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. According to the author’s informants, blat practices spread in the region in the post-war period (mid 1940s onwards). The term blat migrated from Soviet Russia, and became established in the urban dialects of Armenians, Azeris and Georgians as a ‘trendy’ way of referring to previously-existing informal behaviour. For example, in Azerbaijan, blat is synonymous with local practices, such as taps and hormet. In Georgia, blat is sometimes used alongside the local term krtami. Notwithstanding the etymological complexity, it is nevertheless possible to delineate and differentiate blat from other informal behaviours in the South Caucasus.

In Soviet Armenia, the term blat was used primarily by Russian-speaking residents of the capital city Yerevan. In post-communist times, ‘using blat’ can refer to a plethora of informal practices ranging from gift-giving to preferential treatment in formal institutions[2]. More commonly, however, the term blat is employed under various circumstances to describe the use of personal connections. Similarly, blat in Azerbaijan occurs mainly in urban contexts and is mentioned mostly by residents of the capital city Baku[3]. Both ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Azeri residents of Baku use the term blat to denote favour-based informal relationships[4]. Whereas residents of other major urban centres (Ganja, Sheki, etc.) are vaguely familiar with the term, blat is unknown to individuals originating from rural settlements. In contrast to Azeri taps, which functions primarily in urban areas and is used to access formal institutions and widely employed in the search for jobs, blat exists not as a practice but as an umbrella concept with a connotation of personal influence and strength of one’s networks. To have blat means to have a well-developed system of personal networks, which can assist individuals in day-to-day life. Each of these contacts in a blat network may be used to obtain more specific taps-favours. In other words, unlike more abstract networking-centred use of the term blat, taps refers to the actual process of favour-provision. Research conducted by the author in several of Baku’s suburbs in 2013-14, revealed that references to blat are waning with the steady decline in numbers of Russian-speakers.

Among three South Caucasian republics, Georgia has historically been less exposed to the influence of blat-culture. For example, fieldwork conducted by Altman[5] among Georgian-Jewish émigré communities in the 1970s showed that none of his informants were familiar with the term blat or blatmeister. More recent fieldwork carried out by the author in Georgia in 2013 revealed that although term blat is well-known among Tbilisi’s and Batumi’s intelligentsia and elites, the majority of common Georgians have either never heard of the term or are unsure about its meaning[6]. For instance, when asked about the meaning of blat, many informants from among the general public, regardless of age and gender differences, admitted to never having used the word. In the author’s observation, the use of and familiarity with blat in Georgia is conditioned by an individual’s acquaintance with the Russian culture and the way of life. Those few Georgians who admitted to using the term blat primarily understood the practice as that of Georgian male-peers networks (satzmosadokalo) or somewhat similar to friendship (megobroba) networks.

Irrespectively of divergences in the use and understanding of blat across the South Caucasus, informal practices enshrined under the concept blat share a number of similarities. Firstly, during the communist period in all three South Caucasian societies under consideration, blat, despite the umbrella-like feature of the term, was also understood as a specific means of acquiring commodities in short-supply. As in Soviet Russia, in the Soviet South Caucasus blat was used to acquire luxury items or deficit goods. In contrast, megobroba networks in Georgia, hormet-practices in Azerbaijan or tsanot networks in Armenia were used to access more valuable public goods, such as jobs and opportunities. During the post-communist period this role of blat in acquiring deficit goods has largely disappeared from blat-relations in the South Caucasus[7], as indeed it has in Russia[8].

Photograph of Baku Akhmedi district, taken by Huseyn Alivev.

Secondly, blat in the South Caucasus is more similar to blat-practices in Central Asia[9] than to blat in Russia[10] and Ukraine[11], inasmuch as it is less grounded in reciprocation or exchange of favours. Analogous to Asian informal practices and driven by norms indigenous to the South Caucasus, blat-favours are used not only among equals, but to an even greater extent among people of different social standing. For example, receiving a favour ‘po blatu’ in Baku often means acquiring preferential access to particular services or public goods from an influential person, or a person who has a lot of blat-connections[12]. Such a service is often, although not always, offered without an expectation of a reciprocal favour. Informants in Georgia associate blat with status and consider it a symbol of one’s position in society. Similar to providing hospitality, offering blat favours is honourable and widely respected.

Thirdly, individual honour and social hierarchy are essential prerequisites of blat in the South Caucasus[13]. It is not only a matter of honour to provide a blat-favour to a good friend or a relative in need, but also one of social hierarchy. In other words, individuals with higher social standing (‘elders’) are often obliged to provide blat-favours to younger and less successful members of their networks. The top-down patronal structure of blat-relations in the South Caucasus is an indication of the central role of hierarchy in the social order of South Caucasian societies – the obligation of respect for elders, and patrons’ obligation to offer ‘protection’ to clients in their network[14]. Limited reciprocity and the top-down distribution of blat favours are typical characteristics of blat practices in the region that allow them to merge with local practices and embedded behaviours, thus distinguishing the South Caucasus’s blat from its Russian counterpart. Unlike Russian blat, informal relations in the South Caucasus’s societies acquire a typically Caucasian undertone, encapsulated into the notion that on many occasions providing informal favours is not a matter of choice, but a requirement. In such an environment, reciprocity and equality, characteristic to blat, become overshadowed by intra-group dynamics and local traditions.

Although Russian blat in Soviet times was essentially a non-monetary practice[15], it has been demonstrated that in the post-communist period both in Russia[16] and in Ukraine[17] blat-exchanges have often become monetised. By contrast, blat’s South Caucasus’ equivalent has to date remained a non-monetised practice of favour-provision. Informants from different geographical areas of the region equivocally suggested that blat is primarily associated with patronage, not financial rewards[18]. If Georgian krtami practices and Azeri taps are closely associated and synonymous with corruption, the role of blat in these two countries is limited to one’s position within a network and the use of that position for the distribution of one-off or continuous honour-centred favours.

Overall, it may be concluded that blat is closely associated with the Soviet past; with shortages and other defects of the Soviet system. Yet, the growing gap in the South Caucasus between the older Soviet and the younger post-socialist generations, in conjunction with national self-awareness, has led to a steady extinction of the term blat from local languages and popular use. Informal practices previously known as blat have gradually become absorbed into indigenous practices.

Notes

  1. Ledeneva, Alena. 1998. Russia's economy of favours: Blat, networking and informal exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Babajanian, Babken V. 2008. ‘Social capital and community participation in post-Soviet Armenia: Implications for policy and practice’, Europe-Asia Studies, 60(8): 1299-1319.
  3. Aliyev, Huseyn. 2015a. ‘Informal Networks as Sources of Human (In)Security in the South Caucasus’, Global Change, Peace & Security, 27(2): 1-16.
  4. Aliyev, Huseyn. 2013. ‘Post-Communist Informal Networking: Blat in the South Caucasus’, Demokratizatsiya: Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, 21(1): 98-111.
  5. Altman, Yochanan. 1983. A reconstruction, using anthropological methods, of the second economy of Soviet Georgia. Enfield: Middlesex Polytechnic.
  6. Aliyev, Huseyn. 2014. ‘The Effects of the Saakashvili Era Reforms on Informal Practices in the Republic of Georgia’, Studies of Transition States and Societies, 6(1): 21-35.
  7. Aliyev, Huseyn. 2013. ‘Post-Communist Informal Networking: Blat in the South Caucasus’, Demokratizatsiya: Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, 21(1): 98-111.
  8. Ledeneva, Alena. 1998. Russia's economy of favours: Blat, networking and informal exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Schatz, Edward. 2004. Modern Clan Politics and Beyond: The Power of ‘Blood’ in Kazakhstan. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
  10. Ledeneva, Alena. 1998. Russia's economy of favours: Blat, networking and informal exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  11. Onoshchenko, O. and Williams C. 2013. ‘Paying for favours: evaluating the role of blat in post-Soviet Ukraine’, Debatte: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe 21(2-3): 259-277
  12. Aliyev, Huseyn. 2015b. Post-Communist Civil Society and the Soviet Legacy. The Challenges of Democratisation and Reform in the Caucasus. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  13. Aliyev, Huseyn. 2013. ‘Post-Communist Informal Networking: Blat in the South Caucasus’, Demokratizatsiya: Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, 21(1): 98-111.
  14. Mars, G. and Altman Y. 1983. ‘The cultural bases of Soviet Georgia's second economy’, Europe‐Asia Studies 35(4): 546-560.
  15. Ledeneva, Alena. 1998. Russia's economy of favours: Blat, networking and informal exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  16. Ledeneva, Alena. 2009. ‘From Russia with "Blat": Can Informal Networks Help Modernize Russia?’, Social Research, 76(1): 257-288.
  17. Onoshchenko, O. and Williams C. 2013. ‘Paying for favours: evaluating the role of blat in post-Soviet Ukraine’, Debatte: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe 21(2-3): 259-277.
  18. Aliyev, Huseyn. 2013. ‘Post-Communist Informal Networking: Blat in the South Caucasus’, Demokratizatsiya: Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, 21(1): 98-111.