Original text: Huseyn Aliyev, Research Center for East European Studies (Forschungsstelle Osteuropa)
The South Caucasian republic of Georgia has been known for the spread and importance of informal practices for centuries . Until the late Soviet period, similar to its South and North Caucasian neighbours, the bulk of Georgian informal practices thrived within tightly-knit kinship networks, sustained by extended patriarchal families. Such kinship networks in essence resembled those found among clan-based and tribal societies in other parts of the world, yet were also undermined and transformed by the decades of collectivisation, urbanisation and social reorganisation associated with Sovietisation . The gradual retreat of extended traditional families into rural enclaves gave rise to informal networks of connections and acquaintances, which became instrumental in rapidly transforming the social milieus of Georgian urban metropolises. The widespread use of contacts and networks, known as natsnoboba (ნაცნობობა), also transliterated as nacnoboba, became typical.
Natsnoboba translates from Georgian as ‘acquaintances’ and, similarly to Chinese guanxi (‘acquaintances’) or Korean gwangue   refers to an extensive individual network of connections and contacts. The use of natsnoboba belongs to a ‘bigger family’ of informal practices – Russian blat  Arab wasta  and Brazilian jeitinho  – which rely on the instrumental use of connections, friends and acquaintances. Among the most notable regional equivalents of natsnoboba are Azerbaijan’s tanisliq and Armenian tsanot networks, which are similarly based upon loosely-knit groups of remotely-connected friends and acquaintances.
The term natsnoboba has two subtly different meanings in the Georgian language, which means that researchers must analyse any use of the term in context. Firstly, natsnoboba can refer to the strategic use of contacts: one’s informal network of acquaintances and familiar individuals, including colleagues and remote friends, but excluding close friends (the latter are considered part of closer and more intimate megobroba (friendship) groups). However, the word natsnoboba can also be used in a more general sense, to refer simply to one’s acquaintances in the sense of people one happens to know, with no implications of ‘networks’ or ‘useful contacts’. This dual use of the term makes it challenging to determine specific types of informal relations when referred to in the media.
The rise of reciprocal networks of acquaintances is a relatively recent phenomenon, especially when contrasted with kinship or friendship networks, which were at the core of Georgian social relations for centuries. Due to de-traditionalisation and social standardisation processes enforced by Soviet authorities, networks of acquaintances became part of urban life under Soviet rule. As with many other socialist societies, shortages in the Soviet command economy and the pervasive interference of the Communist Party into the private sphere accelerated the spread of informal networks in Georgia. The decline of traditional kinship structures, particularly in urban areas, and the steady appearance of blat-culture both influenced the growth of natsnoboba networks. Expanding one’s informal contacts beyond the limits of relatively narrow family and kinship groups enabled Georgians to access resources outside of their immediate friendship ties. Given the lack of empirical data on natsnoboba, it is difficult to establish when exactly they became an integral part of Georgian social life. Reliance on networks of connections and acquaintances was best documented in studies of the Georgian informal scene in the late communist period . Georgian films of that period also allow us to conclude that the rise of natsnoboba was associated with urbanisation, modernisation and atomisation of Georgian society under ‘developed socialism’ (Mimino 1977; Tbilisi and Her Citizens 1976).
Natsnoboba became particularly instrumental during the immediate post-communist period, when economic hardships and the weakness of state institutions forced the population to rely extensively on private safety nets. Of these, access to public goods distributed through natsnoboba networks was one of the key assets for every Georgian.
The tough economic environment of the 1990s often necessitated Georgians to maintain complex networks of acquaintances, which could be used in the search for jobs, receiving preferential treatment at state institutions, and other forms of problem-solving. With the decline of kinship networks and the gradual shift of Georgian social organisation – particularly in urban settings – towards nuclear family groups, natsnoboba networks function as an essential element of private safety nets. As revealed during fieldwork conducted by the author in the Georgian capital city Tbilisi, natsnoboba networks have largely replaced kinship and extended family structures in their daily significance.
One of the key reasons behind the rise of natsnoboba in contemporary Georgian society, along with urbanisation and modernisation, is the potential of open-ended networks. The use of natsnoboba allows individuals to expand their connections beyond fairly narrow groups defined by kinship or close friends. By developing ‘weak ties’ , natsnoboba contacts enable one to access public goods and services inaccessible through their own networks – the feature essential for the effectiveness of the economy of favours.
A typical natsnoboba network consists of several ‘layers’ of contacts. The core of the network normally comprises an individual’s well-known acquaintances. The next layer is composed of occasional acquaintances, remote neighbours, work colleagues and former classmates. The final layer includes individuals with whom the immediate network-owner may not be personally familiar – they are friends of friends and acquaintances of acquaintances. For some services and favours, the network-owner may have to deal with a wide range of individuals or a number of links in the chain of contacts in order to achieve the desired goal. Unlike smaller and more intimate friendship groups, natsnoboba extends across several circles of contacts. Although each individual’s list of natsnoboba contacts may include dozens or even hundreds of names, there would be only occasional interaction with most of these people. As one informant from Tbilisi stated to the author, ‘it is very important to maintain these [natsnoboba] networks, even if you are never going to contact most of them.’ This means that the accumulation of contacts and expansion of one’s network functions as a form of private safety net, which can be invoked in case of emergencies. Regardless of previous cooperation (or the lack thereof) between the network members, each contact may potentially be expected to provide a favour when asked.
Employing natsnoboba connections almost always generates the need for a reciprocal favour, even if not directly. Sometimes these favours take the form of a gift including monetary gifts (krtami), sometimes they necessitate for a return favour. The nature of reciprocity in each natsnoboba relation depends on the proximity between network members and the importance or value of the favour. Although natsnoboba may pave the way for a bribe, the underlying principle of using ‘acquaintances’ is to secure access to public goods or services, which cannot be acquired through a straightforward offer of a bribe. For example, prior to the 2003 Rose Revolution, receiving a land register or extending one’s passport, as well as many other official documents, often required using natsnoboba in order to access officials in state institutions.
The extensive institutional reforms implemented by President Mikheil Saakashvili specifically targeted the use of informal practices, including use of natsnoboba in dealings with formal institutions. Streamlining the workings of state institutions, reducing their centralisation and bureaucracy and simplifying application procedures for acquiring official documents have significantly undermined the importance of natsnoboba in this domain. Numerous informants interviewed by the author in 2013-14 stated that since the mid 2000s neither they nor their family members have employed natsnoboba to receive preferential treatment at state institutions. Nevertheless, natsnoboba continues to play an important role in the educational sphere and search for jobs . For instance, as reported by the Caucasus Barometer (CRRC) survey conducted in 2013, over 30 per cent of respondents indicated that using informal connections remains ‘the most important factor’ in finding a good job. Personal networks are still widely used as community-based mechanisms of support and coping with hardship in urban areas, where for many Georgians the availability of kinship connections became even more limited in the post-communist period.
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