Taps

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Tapş
Informal practice commonly found in Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan map.png
Map of Azerbaijan, where Tapş commonly takes place.
Azerbaijan flag.png
Flag of Azerbaijan.
Entry written by Leyla Sayfutdinova.
Leyla Sayfutdinova is affiliated to Department of Sociology, Middle East Technical University.

Original Text: Leyla Sayfutdinova, PhD candidate, Department of Sociology, Middle East Technical University

Tapş is an informal practice of obtaining favours on behalf of others, widely practiced in Azerbaijan. While nearly any resource can be obtained through tapş, access to capital, jobs, promotions, and grades in the education system are the most common objects of the practice. A typical tapş transaction involves an intermediary (A) who obtains a favour for the supplicant (B) from a third party (C). A typical example of a tapş transaction in an educational setting would be someone calling his/her acquaintance at the university and asking to help a child of his/her 'close acquaintance' pass an examination. The person making the phone call in this case serves as an intermediary between the student asking for the grade and the university professor who can provide the favour.

The word tapş is of Azerbaijani origin and comes from the verb tapşırmaq, which means to entrust something or somebody into someone else' custody, hence the inherently polyadic structure of tapş transactions. The word ‘tapş’ was also adopted in Bakuvian urban Russian vernacular, and has been widely used colloquially, including the Russified verbal forms of tapshanut' (to entrust) or tapshanut'sa (to be entrusted), although this use has not been recorded in any dictionaries.

Tapş is similar to a range of other network-based informal practices, such as Soviet blat, Chinese guanxi, Bulgarian vruzki, and Arabic wasta[1][2][3][4][5]. Like blat and vruzki, tapş became widespread under socialism when it served to circumvent the structural constraints (especially conditions of shortage) of the Soviet economy and centralised distribution of resources[6]. In common with blat, tapş was used to gain private access to public resources; it is also often described in the rhetoric of help and mutual support. These commonalities, as well as the fact that Azerbaijan was integrated in the Soviet centralised system of distribution, have led some scholars to subsume tapş within blat[7]. In this perspective, blat is understood as a generic Soviet practice of which tapş is a specific instance. However, such a view glosses over the differences between the two practices and empties blat of its specificity as a non-hierarchical practice based on symmetrical reciprocity (‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’).

Tapş differs from blat, its closest analogue, in several significant respects. First is the structure of the exchange transactions. Although blat, as well as vruzki and guanxi, can involve circular chains of favours with many intermediaries, in its most basic form blat is a dyadic transaction between two people, one of whom provides and the other receives a favour. Tapş, on the other hand, is always a polyadic practice. The most basic form case of tapş is a triadic transaction, necessarily involving an intermediary. Hence another Russian euphemism for this practice in Baku: “poprosit za kogo-to” (to ask for someone).

The second important difference between tapş and blat stems from their embeddedness in differently configured social networks. Blat is based on non-hierarchical relationships and presupposes a more or less symmetrical reciprocity between participants[8][9]. In contrast, while some tapş transactions can involve a horizontal connection or two, e.g. between colleagues or friends, they usually are embedded within the hierarchical patronage networks and involve vertical patron-client ties. Often, the intermediary (i.e. the person who obtains the favour) and the supplicant are in a patron-client relationship; the intermediary and the person providing the favour are also in a vertical patron-client relationship. These patronage networks, commonly, although inaccurately, referred to as 'clans', permeate Azerbaijan's society from top to bottom, and are usually kinship-based (for an analysis of the role of patronage in Azerbaijani politics see Guliyev 2012[10]; for an ethnographic description of how political patronage interacts with kinship networks in rural Azerbaijan see Yalçın-Heckmann 2010[11]). Depending on the status of the person obtaining the favour, tapş can be described as 'low' or 'high'.

The triadic structure of transactions and embeddedness of tapş in patronage networks puts it close to the Middle Eastern practice of wasta. According to Cunninghan and Sarayrah, wasta “involves a protagonist intervening on behalf of a client to obtain an advantage for the client”[12] and thus, like tapş, it is as a minimum a triadic transaction that involves an intermediary. Wasta is said to have originated in the practices of mediation between conflicting tribes; although in modern times the use of wasta has become much broader, the networks based on kin remain the primary sphere in which wasta is embedded[13][14]. Similarly, in Azerbaijan, tapş is sustained by the persistent importance of kinship and quasi-kinship networks based on place of origin, often described as 'clans'[15][16].

Finally, while blat is said to be waning in the post-Soviet period, the practice of tapş remains as strong as ever. In post-Soviet Russia blat is being replaced by monetised, ad-hoc bribery, as opposed to the personalized, long-term relationships of reciprocity that used to sustain it in the Soviet period (Ledeneva 2008). In Azerbaijan, by contrast, the strengthening of patronage networks in the post-Soviet period and the practice of patronage control over distribution of considerable state wealth produced in the oil sector of the economy makes tapş a primary channel for gaining access to the distribution of these resources.

The role of tapş in Azerbaijan's politics, economy and society is highly ambivalent. Like any other informal practice, tapş reduces the transaction costs of the actors. As a practice based on traditional kinship networks, it is often perceived as a part of cultural tradition, and therefore a form of resistance to the individualism and alienation that Western-style modernization brings. It also allows disenfranchised individuals and groups to access some state-controlled resources through intermediaries, bridging otherwise disconnected networks. At the same time, tapş is a particularistic practice that undermines the development of universal norms and generalised trust. Tapş also interacts with other practices from Azerbaijan's rich repertoire of informality, including various forms of corruption. Although many tapş transaction are ad hoc in nature and involve asking for individual favours in time of need, there can be more permanent arrangements, such as ‘protection’ for entrepreneurs. Known in Russian as krysha (literally ‘roof’) and in Azerbaijani, arxa (literally ‘the back’), it refers to patronage protection by state officials against both legal taxes and the extortion of bribes. While this use of tapş undermines the universalistic logic of market competition, it does enable business activity to take place which would otherwise be impossible in Azerbaijan[17]. Tapş favours can also sometimes be reciprocated by gifts or informal payments, which links the practice to bribery (hormet, referring to payments made out of gratitude for an action already done, or ruşvet, referring to payments that are offered or demanded for future actions). In other cases, tapş can serve as an alternative to bribery, by providing access to advantage which would otherwise require monetary payment. For example, in Azerbaijan's highly corrupt educational system having tapş can protect students from extortion of informal payments by instructors and teachers.

The research on informal practices in Azerbaijan is limited, and there have not yet been any significant attempts to conceptualize tapş as a practice specific to Azerbaijani society. This is, however, a common feature of informal practices – scholars often point out that informal practices are insufficiently researched despite their pervasiveness and influence[18][19]. Although there is at present no research focusing on tapş specifically, several studies deal with various aspects of tapş in the more general context of informal practices. A variety of methods have been used for this research, including interviews[20][21][22], ethnography[23] and survey[24][25][26]. Ethnographic methods in particular would be useful for understanding the complex structure of tapş transactions and the interaction of vertical and horizontal ties involved in them. However, like other other informal practices, taps is difficult to measure because of its hidden nature and the sensitivity of the issue due to its interlinking with illicit practices and political patronage.

Notes

  1. Chavdarova, T. (2013) Institutionalization of Market Order and Reinstitutionalization of Vruzki (Connections) in Bulgaria. In: Giordano, C. and Hayoz, N. (eds.) Informality in Eastern Europe: Structures, Political Cultures and Social practices. Bern: Peter Lang, pp. 179-197
  2. Cunningham, R. B., & Sarayrah, Y. K. (1994). Taming wasta to achieve development. Arab Studies Quarterly, 16(3), 29-41.
  3. Hutchings, K., & Weir, D. (2006). Guanxi and wasta: a comparison. Thunderbird International Business Review, 48(1), 141-156.
  4. Ledeneva, A. V. (1998). Russia's economy of favours: Blat, networking and informal exchange. Cambridge University Press.
  5. Ledeneva, A.V. (2008) Blat and Guanxi: Informal practices in Russia and China. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 50(1), 118-144
  6. Ledeneva, A. V. (1998). Russia's economy of favours: Blat, networking and informal exchange. Cambridge University Press.
  7. Aliyev, H. (2013). Post-Communist Informal Networking: Blat in the South Caucasus. Demokratizatsiya, 21(1)
  8. Fitzpatrick, S. (1999). Everyday Stalinism: ordinary life in extraordinary times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. Oxford University Press.
  9. Ledeneva, A. V. (1998). Russia's economy of favours: Blat, networking and informal exchange. Cambridge University Press.
  10. Guliyev, F. (2012). Political elites in Azerbaijan. Challenges of the Caspian resource boom: Domestic elites and policy-making. Houndmills, NH: Palgrave Macmillan.
  11. Yalçın-Heckmann, L. (2010) The Return of Private Property: Rural Life after Agrarian Reform in the Republic of Azerbaijan. Berlin: LIT Verlag
  12. Cunningham, R. B., & Sarayrah, Y. K. (1994). Taming wasta to achieve development. Arab Studies Quarterly, 16(3), 29-41.
  13. Cunningham, R. B., & Sarayrah, Y. K. (1994). Taming wasta to achieve development. Arab Studies Quarterly, 16(3), 29-41.
  14. Hutchings, K., & Weir, D. (2006). Guanxi and wasta: a comparison. Thunderbird International Business Review, 48(1), 141-156.
  15. Guliyev, F. (2012). Political elites in Azerbaijan. Challenges of the Caspian resource boom: Domestic elites and policy-making. Houndmills, NH: Palgrave Macmillan.
  16. Aliyev, H. (2013). Post-Communist Informal Networking: Blat in the South Caucasus. Demokratizatsiya, 21(1)
  17. Safiyev, R. (2013b) Azerbaijan: A Dictatorship Built on a Capitalist Economy. Caucasus Analytical Digest No. 50, 3 May 2013
  18. Hutchings, K., & Weir, D. (2006). Guanxi and wasta: a comparison. Thunderbird International Business Review, 48(1), 141-156.
  19. Ledeneva, A. V. (1998). Russia's economy of favours: Blat, networking and informal exchange. Cambridge University Press.
  20. Aliyev, H. (2013). Post-Communist Informal Networking: Blat in the South Caucasus. Demokratizatsiya, 21(1)
  21. Safiyev, R. (2013a) Informality in a Neopatrimonial State: Azerbaijan. In Giordano, C. and Hayoz, N. (eds.) Informality in Eastern Europe: Structures, Political Cultures and Social practices. Bern: Peter Lang, pp. 433-450
  22. Safiyev, R. (2013b) Azerbaijan: A Dictatorship Built on a Capitalist Economy. Caucasus Analytical Digest No. 50, 3 May 2013
  23. Lepisto, E., & Kazimzade, E. (2008). Coercion or compulsion? Rationales behind informal payments for education in Azerbaijan. European Education, 40(4), 70-92.
  24. Aliyev, H. (2013). Post-Communist Informal Networking: Blat in the South Caucasus. Demokratizatsiya, 21(1)
  25. Sadigov, T. (2013). Corruption and social responsibility: bribe offers among small entrepreneurs in Azerbaijan. East European Politics, (ahead-of-print), 1-20.
  26. Hasanov, R. M. O. (2009). Social Capital, Civic Engagement and the Performance of Local Self-Government in Azerbaijan. Nationalities Papers, 37(1), 89-114.