Essays 2009 - Activism Reloaded Reflections on Ubleha


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Reflections on Ubleha

Anastas Vangeli

Introduction: Ubleha as a reference point

If there is an adequate explanation of the state of the civil society in the Post-Yugoslav (Western) Balkans, then it is the one offered by the authors on the topic of the Ubleha. The essence of the concept, is the deconstruction of the distorted self-centrism and the lack of purpose the civil society actors are facing; at the same time it is a very accurate observation of a failed translation of a western ideal into a post-communist context.

From the reflections on Ubleha by the original authors Šavija and Milanovi?, and from the further analysis offered by Stubbs, one clearly has in mind what the Ubleha means -  it is a cause for itself far from any known system of values and ideals. Its soul is humane, but it smells like clientelism; it declares a sincere quest for a better world, but the real driving force behind it is the quest for an immediately better life of its actors.

However, the point of this paper is to argue that even though the image of the civil society in the region can be described as Ubleha, it still is a progressive phenomenon that plays mostly a constructive role in the peace-building processes. The Ubleha of the Western Balkans may be considered to be not even close to the ideal of civil society, but at the same time, it is an inevitable and a major step towards a western liberal-democratic type of civil society that is proclaimed to be the goal all the Post-Yugoslav countries pursue.

The Benefits

What the Ubleha brings, first of all, is what every conflict and post-conflict environment lacks: a common sense. Although some of the work by the servants of the Ubleha can seem to be rather pointless (writing reports and paperwork, contemplating in small groups and gravitating around the flip-charts among others), it is still a major breakthrough in societies that were torn apart by ethnic conflicts. Especially important is the role of the segments of the civil society that deal with peace-building and reconciliation, as they are promoting a discourse that is rather different, not to say most of the times even opposite to the mainstream political, but also public debate discourse.

Thus, it is important to note that the post-yugoslav political discourses have been dominated by narratives of mythological and ideological thinking which promoted the pre-modern values of tribal and religious loyalty and solidarity, while having perpetuated the prejudices and the hostile out-group behavior. In those kind of irrational social settings, there is no just a lack, but a desperate demand of a more reasonable attitude which was provided in the first place by the actors of the Ubleha (peace-builders, activists, trainers, facilitators, project-managers and so on). The common sense was brought on two levels: first, at the functional one (functioning through decentralized networks instead of the leadership-mass complex typical for political parties and movements); and at a substantial one (promoting alternative viewpoints and challenging the core values of the society).

However, the most important novelty brought by the Ubleha is the importance of the self-criticism (the coining of the concept of the Ubleha itself). Although the impact the civil society to be already had, authors like Šavija and Stubbs present a very critical stance towards the whole scenery of NGOs and activism; yet their perspective is the one of an insider. Self-criticism, or even awareness of one's own shortcomings and deficits is a virtue that the pillars of the societies in the region seriously lack (referring mostly to political subjects). Hence the Ubleha is an example of an advanced concept in the Post-Yugoslav societies: its self-referentiality includes a good portion of self-criticism

At the same time, the existence of the critique of the whole concept, protects the Ubleha from mythologization. I would dare to say that in a place where the myths and generally, the irrational narratives are omnipresent take over the biggest portion of the public debate, the Ubleha stands as the most important un-myth; while every other faction (parties, religious institutions and radical movements – the ones that occupy the majority of the public debate) in society pleads for their sacredness, the Ubleha bravely admits its profanity; in fact, that makes her so appealing.

Challenges and perspectives

However, the purpose of this essay is not to glorify the Ubleha and the depart from the critical note brought by Šavija and Stubbs. As a part-time member of my local Ubleha, combining the insights of the two authors with my own impressions, I would argue that the capacity for change within the Ubleha lies in every one of its actors.

What a civil society needs to be a civil society, is civil missions, civil values and civillians as the main bearers of its burden. Hence it is important for every single member of the Ubleha, no matter if it is a first week intern, or a chairperson, or a project-manager not to forget his civil-ness. It means, to stay focused on the initial goals (not on the paperwork or the fundraising), to remain dedicated even after failures or unlikely successes.

The civil-ness is not that banal though. It is a core characteristic of the civil society. One common mistake in the regional interpretation is the arbitrary definition of the civil society as the space between the State and the Market; which suggests that every organization, group or idividual that does not function within the government/politics framework or within the market regulation is a subject of the civil society. However, such individuals and groups that are not government nor market players, are for instance organized crime networks, or football hooligans or the extreme right. Nonetheless, they can not be attributed with the civil society adjective, since they lack civil-ness: they spread animosity and they are dangerous to other people's safety and integrity. So what makes an NGO or an interest group a civil society subject, is not its nongovernmentality, but its civility, more precisely its civil-ness. That is why the notion of civil-ness has to be maintained as the core virtue of everyone that intends to participate and improve the Ubleha.

One concrete way of maintaining the values of civil-ness for the Ubleha is the opening up. Some of the main remarks from within, but also from outside the civil society is that it functions in a rather clientelist/elitist way (in the jargon, it is known as “the scene”). So one important goal to be achieved by the Ubleha is to open up even more and to make itself more accessible to the ones that did not have an earlier opportunity to join it. In addition, the Ubleha needs to open up not just in terms of accepting new members, but also in terms of values. Colloquially said, the Ubleha needs to be more Balkan if it wants to change something within the Balkan context; it needs to embrace some of the most important hallmarks of the culture where it exists. So far, it seemed that the Ubleha tried to run away from the Balkans – starting with adopting a whole new terminology which is not understandable outside its boundaries, adopting a western-style behavior that is in a way orientalist towards the domestic cultures and generally nurturing the self-image of a vanguard or elite.


The results attempts for establishing a fully functional civil society are yet to be seen. So far, we have achieved the status of Ubleha – a condition that is beyond the context of conflict and mythological thinking, but struggles to meet to norms of the liberal-democratic ideal of what civil society should be. The paper engaged in a broad discussion on the various aspects of the concept of the Ubleha as described by Šavija and Stubbs, including an analysis of the benefits, challenges and perspectives of the regional civil society to be. An emphasis was made on the encouraging self-criticism of the actors of the Ubleha; another one was made on their lack of inclusion towards the different segments on society as a challenge to be met. All in all, the paper tried to sum up some of the opposed characteristic of the regional processes and offer some reflections for the days to come.