Politics

Welcome to Uhljebistan: A Foreign Appreciation of the Cult of Uhljeb

By 5 March 2021

Croatia is often described as a very bureaucratic country with a large and inefficient bureaucracy. Ever wondered why? A visit to the wonderful world of Uhljebistan on March 5, 2021

A few years ago, I entered the office of a local government building in search of one of the many stamps that rule the life of a foreigner living full time in this wonderful country. There was one official behind his desk, deep in concentration on something important on his computer. It was actually my second visit to the office that day; having learned that the official break time (or marenda) was from 10:30 to 11:00, I turned up at 11:15, only to find the office still locked, the official delayed in some important coffee drinking exploits. 

On this second occasion, the official glanced in my direction, realised I was not anyone interesting, and returned to his work. There was some regular clicking and I assumed he was in the middle of a complicated spreadsheet, and so I waited patiently. After three minutes of total silence, I coughed and tried to get his attention, which seemed to annoy him. A minute later he deigned to ask what I wanted, then with a theatrical sigh, he rose from his chair, then went to get a form from another room. 

While I was alone in the room, I accidentally dropped my pen on the floor, and it landed behind his desk. As I picked it up, I saw the offical's computer screen, and what he had been working on so diligently. 

He had been playing Solitaire.

Badly. 

Ah, the useless state official with no sense of pride in his job, something I encountered during my time in the Soviet Union and the 18 months I lived in newly independent Russia in 1992 (just thought I would drop that detail in for the benefit of my Greater Serbian conspiracy theorists). But Communism was dead, and this was a supposedly vibrant democracy on the verge of entering the EU back in 2013.

Hmmm...

Welcome to Uhljebistan, a State within the State of the Republic of Croatia, a State that most foreigners are totally unaware of, but every local encounters with frustration on a daily basis.

Although my Croatian is not fluent, I speak well enough to have reasonably intelligent conversations on most topics, but it was only in my 13th year of living in Croatia that I first came across the word 'uhljeb' - in rather unfortunate circumstances.

I had written a blog (the subject is not important now) criticising the non-actions of a local official, and done it in such a way that it attracted the attention of Croatia's leading portal, Index.hr, who published the story in Croatian, with a little twist, and by calling the official an 'uhljeb'. It didn't take long for the official to reply on his official Facebook page, flatly denying that he was an 'uhljeb'. All this led to just one question from me:

uhljeb-brilliance_5.jpg

What the hell was an uhljeb?

At first glance, it seemed to be a combination  of 'u', meaning in, and 'hljeb', a form of the Serbian word for 'bread' (actually hleb). So 'in bread', although a secondary meaning of 'inbred' came to mind when I finally got the hang of what was going on. I took to Facebook for enlightenment from Croatian friends, and perhaps the best explanation I received was this, to describe the corresponding verb 'uhljebiti' and noun 'uhljebništvo':

Uhljebiti - to be fucked around by lazy and incompetent timeservers and dogsbodies appointed to positions in which they hold no qualifications or experience. Uhljebništvo - the act of appointment/employment of such a person to continue to behave in the manner and affect others with it - with an added point that there is no direct english translation because it is so scarcely seen in Western Europe.

(Definition update - an altertnative definition offered by a reader of this artcle - I would have some objections on the definition of "uhljebiti" since in my vocabulary it means "to get/give someone a position, rather than a real job, position that noone needs but you, in order to get a salary and all benefits associated with it")

And as I wrote in a previous article, A Tale of Two Croatias: Before and After the Discovery of Uhljeb, idyllic Croatia changed for me that day, as I began to see a lot more things from a very local perspective, a perspective that - at least in my opinion - any diaspora are blissfully unaware of, as residents in Croatia go about the daily ground of survival in invisible Uhljebistan.

Invisible it may be, but Uhljebistan is everywhere.  

Jobs for the boys, jobs for the family, jobs for those in the know. It is a fault line in Croatian society - you are either included in the Court of Uhljebistan or you are not. If you are, there is no sense of accountability, no need to do a good job - or even a job - for your job is protected by those who put you into the position. You can be as rude as you want, as unhelpful as you want, or take as long as you want on those mid-morning coffee breaks. 

Of course you can choose to be nice. A box of chocolates may elicit a smile, 100 euro cuts through red tape at the speed of light. Life as an uhljeb is pretty comfortable indeed. If you are not an uhljeb and exist without connections, you do not matter. Work as hard as you want, it matters not. It is one of the reasons so many of Croatia's youngest and brightest are emigrating in their thousands. 

And let's put this wonderfully efficient uhljebby system into some kind of bureaucratic perspective, with this fabulous image above. How many people does it take to run the city of New York, whose population is roughly twice that of Croatia, versus how many people does it take to run the local administrations of Croatia so badly? Even if you don't speak Croatian, the numbers speak for themselves. To give you just a small example, the island of Hvar, which has a permanent population of less than 11,000 people, has no less than four separate local administrations, with four mayors and five tourist board directors (well currently only four, as Hvar Town has been unable to choose a director for two years now). And the numbers are very important for the perpetuation of the cult of uhljeb, because there is one scary moment in the life of uhljebs, which occurs every four years. 

Elections.

If their uhljeb masters are voted out of power, then so too goes their patronage, and so the priority of many uhljeb officials is the perpetuation of the status quo. And looking at those numbers of almost 10,000 Croatian officials doing the work of just 57 people in New York is just the tip of the iceberg. So many other administrative jobs rest of who is in charge. Add to that the uhljeb's family, extended family, friends and anyone else who thinks it might be useful to have a friendly uhljeb in a position of authority, and that is quite a formidable voting bloc. Add to that the potential to allocate funds for projects to influential people who can solidify the vote, and the number of voters really begin to add up. 

When we started the Total Project, I used to get frustrated by the lack of financial support from various parts of local authorities, until it was explained to me by a friend that I had no chance as I was not political. Join the right political party and then ask for funding, and it could be a different story. My favourite example of how this works in practice was a foreign company looking for a concession to open a business. They were politely told that the concession would be no problem, but that they had to ensure that a certain person from the town was employed in the company, even thought he did not fit the company profile, and was not suited to the job. He was duly employed. When the company fired him some time later, he was quickly reemployed after the company was reminded of its concession commitment. The uhljeb's power? It is said that his persuasive words control 100 votes... 

The only weapon available to fight the cult of uhljebs is the weapon of shame. If you are in a position to expose their uhljebbiness, they can be remarkably efficient. I first noticed this when I was importing a car into Croatia. The customs official looked at me wearily in his best 'why don't you remove your foreign ass out of my life' look, and getting the stamp looked like a Herculean effort, until I informed him I was a journalist writing a story on customs duties after EU entry for an American newspaper, and could I take his picture and get a quote for the article? I was out of the room with my precious stamped document 30 seconds later.

Try it. Even better, say you are a blogger. The word terrifies them, as does the possibility of exposure on social media. One small contribution to improving the efficiency of Croatian bureaucracy.

I used to be quite jealous of uhljebs - they had the jobs, the perks, the connections, the comfortable life, but then I started to feel a little pity. Looking themselves in the mirror each morning muttering 'I am an uhljeb, I am an uhljeb' must have an effect on the self-esteem, as must telling people you meet what you do. 'Ah, an uhljeb then' - the unspoken reaction, but seen both sides.

And don't forget the satisfaction of a job well done, of real achievement.

"How was your day, Honey?"

"Fabulous. I won 45 games of Solitaire, a new record."

"Bravo."

Croatia would fly if it could dismantle the State of Uhljebistan within its borders, and those newly freed uhljebs would probably find life a lot more rewarding if they had to swim in the seas of the real world. Alas for Croatia (and those uhljebs), that will never happen, so uhljebimo dalje! (Let's uhljeb on!) 

And I leave you with this quite brilliant piece by Sanja Kovacevic, the most detailed look on the web into the word uhljeb - original Croatian version here.

­ Ironically and Educationally on the Origin and Usage of the Word Uhljeb

Since this term will surely make it to the next edition of the Croatian Language Dictionary (unless stopped by language caretakers due to “unsuitable” morphological structure of the term), I decided to deal with the etymology and usage of this new word which has enriched our mother tongue. In addition, I wanted to contribute to the linguistic and feminist endeavour, pointing out the omnipresent gender unawareness – since the word appears only in the masculine form (uhljeb), while statistics show the uhljeb sector, especially its service and most visible areas (which most connect to the term), is dominated by women.

There is no linguistic or social-cultural reason why the term wouldn’t equally be used in the female form – uhljebnica. I see no reason why usage can’t be expanded by using derivatives in other grammar categories – possessive adjective “uhljebnički/a/o:” uhljebnički sector, uhljebnička babetina, uhljebničko dijete (analogue to the anachronism doctor’s child, professor’s child etc.), descriptive adjective “uheljban/a/o” (already mentioned uhljebni sector) or the noun “uhljebništvo” (analogue to working force, as a lifestyle etc.).

For example:

While uhljebi, their uhljebnice and descendant uhljepčići undeservedly spend their uhljebnički vacation with their feet in a bowl, numerous entrepreneurs work diligently on their financial advancement. Death to uhljebništvo – freedom to entrepreneurship!

Some of the forms have already made it to the dictionary – the verb uhljebiti (se), verbal noun uhljebljenje (also in use is the version uhljeblji/avanje), with the nouns uhljebitelj (used as a synonym for uhljeb) and uhljebljivač (the one who appoints an uhljeb to uhljebničko workplace).

Also, it is necessary to bring about gender awareness in the use of all derivatives.

The less prevalent media usage (currently only widespread on certain websites and in media careful of their image, such as index.hr) is grace to the very suspicious origin of the word.

To illustrate this, I quote a reader comment:

“The title uhljeb – to me at least – is not fitting. Somehow it sounds like it came from across Drina river (and Sava as well). I can’t understand: why do we use foreign words when we have such wonderful Croatian terminology for this type of social parasites? How does “ukruh” sound, for example? Yuck… awful, this translation would even reward them. Let’s try “uguz”… That’s better, so the world may understand you – global, yet ours – damn it.”

Besides, the term is only used in pejorative sense, with an accented nauseous tone, so I don’t see the problem.

It is obvious the term was created as a composite of the prefix u- and noun hljeb. “U,” naturally, is not the problematic part of this composite. Firstly, the word “hljeb” is not foreign, although foreigners and Tuđman used it much more than average Croats.

This is what the Croatian Language Portal states on the origin of the term “hljeb”, from the current Croatian Language Dictionary: hljȅb – male noun, whose plural nominative is “hljèbovi”.

I will mention that “hljeb” briefly disappeared from the Croatian dictionary between 1991 and 1994, but in the last several edition – it’s back!

Definition: expressive synonym for bread: literary form for a round form of bread [hljeb kruha].

Etimology (origin of the word): the word came from the preslav and old slav word 'xlěbъ' (Russian    xleb,  Polish  chleb), unlike the word “kruh” which came from the gothic word 'hlaifs'.

The word had widespread onomastic usage in Croatia, especially in toponims, so the dictionary cites examples: Hlȅb (280, Zlatar Bistrica, Zagorje), Hlèbār (Koprivnica, Ludbreg), Hlèbec (360, Zagorje), Hlèbetina (Jastrebarsko), Hlèbić (Jastrebarsko), Lèbār (Međimurje,  Z  Slavonija, Zagorje;  v. i rebro), Lèbarić (Rijeka, Karlovac), Lèbec (Čazma, Garešnica, Prigorje, Istra), Lébić (Slavonski Brod), Petohlèb (Buzet).

From these toponym examples it is evident the word “hljeb” was used more often in its ekavian form 'hleb/leb', which is today part of the kajkavski corpus, hence does not belong exclusively to “overdrina” areas. As far as similar south Slavic languages (those on the same dialectal axis) – the official Serbian Language Dictionary marks all the variants (hleb, hljeb and leb), while the Bosnian Language Dictionary (first volume published in 2010) marks only the ijekavski variant hljeb, but also kruh. The announced Montenegrin folk and literary Dictionary is not yet available). Macedonians cite in their dictionary “leb”. Besides the noun “hljeb”, the Croatian language also contains the word “hljebac”.

The differences of the term 'leb/hleb/hljeb/kruh' is noted by Brodnjak’s Distinctive Dictionary of Serbian and Croatian Language in its three editions from the 1990s.

Seriously now. Any good dictionary needs to have good term definitions, but this one could be an issue. I direct the future dictionary creators to the page www.uhljeb.info, which will surely be of great help.

This website quote:

“However, if all are uhljebi, then uhljeb is no one. If it is considered that uhljebljivanje is any work, relationship or means pertaining to the state budget, real uhljebi and their uhljebitelji can peacefully breathe protected in the fog.”

“Some will say the entire state is uhljebnička, most are uhljebi. But, let us step backwards. The state is primarily intertwined with corruption, political clientelism, nepotism, conflict of interest, while uhljeb/uhljebljivanje is a method, tool yeast of such apparitions.”

Note for the end: It is quite nice when dictionaries can be searched online, without going to the library where some uhljebnica will give you a cross look as that very day she had to send her kid to the kindergarten with a fever, considering she cannot afford both kindergarten and sick days.

Fascinating stuff, and now I think we should start a campaign to include the word 'uhljebkinja' in the Croatian language. 

And how to translate the term uhljeb into English? The best I have come up with, taking into account jobs for the cousins, is perhaps 'inbred in bread'.

Do you have a better translation? Contact us on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Subject Uhljeb.

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