Uhljeb (Croatia)

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Location: Croatia
Author: Ružica Šimić Banović
Affiliation: Faculty of Law, University of Zagreb

Original text by Ružica Šimić Banović

An uhljeb is a person who has become a public sector employee through a nepotistic relationship or political party affiliation, normally without the required skills or qualifications for that position. The verbal noun uhljebljenje refers to the general phenomenon of employing uhljebs. There is also a verbal form, uhljebiti, which means earning money from a state position (usually irrespective of competence), or from selling overpriced supplies to the state. The former usually refers to a job position (often lifelong) at a ministry, state agency, local administration body or state-owned company. The latter involves securing a contract with one of the aforementioned bodies that enables an entrepreneur to prosper by relying on his network and party memberships. According to linguists, the noun uhljeb and verb uhljebiti have roots in the pre-Slavic word for bread (xlěbъ). In Russian there are terms with similar meanings that derive from this root: a job that feeds but does not require much work (khlebnoe mesto); someone who has to be ‘fed’ despite lack of real entitlement (nakhlebnik) (see entry on kormlenie). In Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia the derivatives of uhljeb are also used but not as commonly as in Croatia.

An image representing uhljeb taken from the "Uhljeb alert!" website. The first box says "Qualifications", the second box says "Work experience", and the third, final, checked box says "One of us".

Uhljebljenje is associated with the Croatian post-socialist ‘economy of favours’ and its crony capitalism, whereby it is common to place a client relative into a position of responsibility that ‘feeds’ his family while also benefitting the patron. Similar practices can be observed in other transitional societies (see trafika in this volume). One notorious case of uhljebljenje concerns a member of the SDP party and former managing director of the National Park, who employed a relative of the Prime Minister who had been retired for twenty three years prior to his questionable employment. Subsequently, the SDP member was promoted to an Assistant Minister position (Forum 2014). When considered against Ledeneva’s four-part network-based typology of favours, uhljebljenje is best categorised as a ‘favour as commodity’: public resources provided to the recipient that result mostly (although not exclusively) in material gain (Ledeneva 2014: 5[1]). Nevertheless, there may be ambivalence in the precise nature of the uhljebljenje ‘favour’ depending on the circumstances of the individual case and the subjective perceptions of the individuals concerned regarding motivations and expectations. The nature of the favour can become redefined with time and circumstances (say, if the appointee becomes an elected leader), but they are most certainly reserved for those who are ‘one of us’, be it family members, relatives, friends, acquaintances and/or fellow political party members. In the previous example the exchange of favours can be seen at several levels: a managing director position as a reward for party membership; returning the favour by employing the PM’s relative; and finally, the job promotion as an additional in-group benefit. It also illustrates the way in which the circle of uhljebs reproduces itself and expands. The ambivalence of uhljebljenje is grounded in the elusive nature of favours but also in the façade of the application of formal procedures.

Technically, most uhljebs obtain their jobs by formally applying for an advertised position. But it is an open secret that many positions are ‘reserved’ for internal candidates. Such advertised vacancies used to be in the public administration or state-owned enterprises, where an uhljeb rather than the best qualified competitor would get the job. A novel trend is that a position can be specially created on request in order to employ a certain person. The ambiguous, if not non-existent, duties of an uhljeb are reflected in their job titles: a ‘Senior associate for energy management in the Division for systematic energy management in the Department for supply and systematic energy management that belongs to the Office for energetics, environment protection and sustainable development of the City of Zagreb’ is but one example. There is a joke that an uhljeb needs to fold his business card three times if he wants to put it in his wallet (Glas Slavonije 2015[2]), and that an uhljeb needs additional training to memorise his job title.

Not only new job positions, but also new divisions, subdivisions, departments and agencies are reportedly established in order to absorb requests for employment based on network affiliations, but for which there is no real need. There are many examples of public agencies, institutes and departments within ministries with overlapping duties that mainly serve as a mecca for uhljebs. This appears to be a transition driven extension of Parkinson’s Law on bureaucratisation, which states that bureaucracy naturally expands and perpetuates itself even when the tasks it is required to fulfil have not increased.

One policy response to the pervasiveness of uhljebljenje at a corporate level has been to legalise nepotism. Thus, Zagreb Public Transport Company’s Trade Union and Management Board concluded an agreement on giving priority to their employees’ close family members when recruiting. They have already started implementing this agreement and stand by the scheme, despite criticism (Večernji list 2015[3]). Although the examples from the Croatian capital of Zagreb are the most visible (and are probably the most costly for public expenditure), similar practices are spread all over Croatia. The recruiting pool for potential uhljebs derives from: 128 mayors and 213 deputy mayors and their offices; 20 counties plus the City of Zagreb with their administrations; 428 municipalities with their offices. In addition, there are 1,420 companies that are either fully, predominantly or partly state-owned (831 of which are fully state-owned), plus 44 state agencies and numerous other state institutions (new ones appear to be emerging on an ongoing basis). There are ministries with their departments, sub-departments, associate and advisory positions and the like. Public sector jobs in such areas as the education and health systems are also sometimes viewed as places for uhljebs. This apparently inexhaustible list of potential employers for uhljebs does not mean that all of them have an ethically and legally questionable employment policy, but does give a sense of the systemic nature of nepotistic practices and the culture of informal affiliation and influence.

The culture of double standards for insiders and outsiders is both the cause and the consequence of the overly bureaucratised system. It continues the legacy of ‘hidden unemployment' inherited from the socialist era (when people were employed in needless positions in order to maintain the illusion of full employment), but also maintains social peace and sustains tolerance towards politicians who ensure, if not prioritise, gains for their families and friends in a Machiavellian way. Thus, the informal practices of uhljebljenje function to undermine but also to support the existing system. Although incidents of uhljebljenje are extensively covered in the media (see for example the popular Croatian tabloid 24 sata’s list of ‘Top 10 uhljebs’ (24 sata 2015)[4]), they are under-researched in the academic literature, which has not yet acknowledged the practice as a systemic phenomenon. Nevertheless, research exploring the contextual factors underlying uhljebljenje do support anecdotal claims that it is an omnipresent practice. State agencies, for instance, have been found to operate in a non-transparent way, with strategies and action plans that are mostly facades; they continually increase their number of employees and related costs; they do not present their results or financial reports in a satisfactory form (Bajo and Kolarec 2014[5]).

In terms of material gain for the employee, state agency jobs are in great demand, as they offer better salaries and working conditions than the ministries. Public enterprises are another highly sought-after employer in the public sector as their average net salaries are about 40 per cent higher than in private enterprises, despite their productivity being approximately 30 per cent lower (Vizek 2015[6]). It is estimated that in public enterprises alone, incumbent politicians through their influence employ approximately 20 thousand people during one four year term in office (ibid.). When the public sector as a whole is considered, unofficial estimates (Slobodna Dalmacija 2015[7]) suggest that 40 thousand new public employees with appropriate political party / network affiliations are appointed in a four year term. For the sake of comparison, at the time of writing there are about 390,000 public sector employees and only about one million private sector employees in Croatia. Regardless of the party in power, a common sentiment before every election is that it does not make sense to change the incumbent as the taxpayer will then need to provide for a new wave of uhljebs. These numbers are additionally worrisome as an uhljeb is not usually associated with professionalism or competence. This lack of competence facilitates dependence on protection, group affiliation, contacts and ‘jobs for life’. Uhljebs are seen as a major reason for the inefficiency of the public sector and an obstacle to the prosperity of the Croatian economy. In effect, the best-placed uhljebs usually negotiate lucrative contracts with options equivalent to ‘golden parachutes’ in the private sector.

There are further, long-term consequences of every uhljeb being employed. An uhljeb at any position in the hierarchy repays the favour by his inclination and/or obligation to cooperate primarily with his ingroups. The reciprocity of the relationships proves an uhljeb’s loyalty, but also expands uhljebljenje as a practice with its accompanying material gains. Newly recruited uhljebs contribute to the systemic nature of uhljebljenje as well as the hypocrisy flourishing in Croatian society, dwelling on what Ledeneva describes as ‘attitudinal ambivalence on the part of both individuals and governments, relying on economies of favours, but also denying engagement, criticizing economies of favours but also accepting them’ (2014: 5-6[8]). One of the rare examples of expressed disapproval and uhljeb-related NGO activism is the web site www.uhljeb.info dedicated to raising awareness about this issue by highlighting all the aspects of the problem and providing updates on uhljeb cases.

References and Bibliography

  1. www.uhljeb.info
  2. http://www.tportal.hr/vijesti/hrvatska/356140/Vise-hljeba-manje-uhljeba.html
  3. http://blog.dnevnik.hr/poslovnainteligencija/2012/11/1631258204/uhljebljenje.html


  1. Ledeneva, A. (2014). Beyond Russia’s Economy of Favours: The Role of Ambivalence. WP 2013-14. UCL, Centre for European Politics, Security and Integration. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ssees/docs/cepsi-documents/Beyond-Russias-Economy-of-Favours
  2. Glas Slavonije (2015). Hrvatska praksa uhljebljivanja: Kumovi i prijatelji važniji od države! http://www.glas-slavonije.hr/261626/11/Hrvatska-praksa-uhljebljivanja-Kumovi-i-prijatelji-vazniji-od-drzave
  3. Večernji list (2015). Sindikat ZET-a pohvalio se nepotizmom, Bandić: Ne mogu vjerovat' da su to napravili http://www.vecernji.hr/zg-vijesti/dogovoreno-da-prednost-pri-zaposljavanju-u-zet-u-imaju-djeca-i-supruznici-radnika-1016738
  4. 24 sata (2015). Top lista uhljeba: 10 najboljih poslova dobivenih preko veze http://www.24sata.hr/politika/top-lista-uhljeba-10-najboljih-poslova-dobivenih-preko-veze-413213
  5. Bajo, A. & Kolarec, M. (2014). Status i financijsko poslovanje državnih agencija. Institut za javne financije. Newsletter No. 85. March 2014 http://www.ijf.hr/upload/files/file/newsletter/85.pdf
  6. Vizek, M. (2015). Poslovanje javnih poduzeća i njihov značaj za ekonomsku aktivnost u RH http://www.manjiporezi.hr/poslovanje-javnih-poduzeca-i-njihov-znacaj-za-ekonomsku-aktivnost-u-rh/#more-314
  7. Slobodna Dalmacija (2015). Uhljebi, naprijed! Partije zaposle 40.000 ljudi kada ugrabe vlast, na red su došli HDZ-ovci http://www.slobodnadalmacija.hr/Hrvatska/tabid/66/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/277485/Default.aspx
  8. Ledeneva, A. (2014). Beyond Russia’s Economy of Favours: The Role of Ambivalence. WP 2013-14. UCL, Centre for European Politics, Security and Integration.https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ssees/docs/cepsi-documents/Beyond-Russias-Economy-of-Favours