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Prologue to the Past: Mürzsteg’s Recurring Intervention

March 14, 2006


Part one in a 10-part series on the Mürzsteg Reform Programme, by Carl Savich and Christopher Deliso.

Right now, it is March of 2006, and Austria is midway through a six-month honorary presidency of the European Union. Among its key stated goals are the “stabilization” and “integration” of the West Balkans into the EU.

Kosovo, presently divided up into pieces controlled by today’s Great Powers, is being administered by an international body, UNMIK, following claims of atrocities and human rights violations in 1999 caused the West to intervene on behalf of the Albanians there.

Yet while no one speaks of it today, there was a UNMIK before UNMIK- way before. It existed 100 years ago today, and was located not in Kosovo but in neighboring Macedonia. It was known as the Mürzsteg Reform Programme, and it too was sparked by allegations of massacres, and criticisms about the misrule of the Ottoman Empire, then the sovereign power in Macedonia.

Incidentally, Austria (as one half of the Dual Monarchy, it was much more powerful than it is today) had a crucial role in setting it up. The original Balkan peacekeeping mission ended in disaster, and was followed by cataclysmic war that changed the world. Today’s interventionists have more modest aspirations for the UNMIK and its legacy. But give them time.

In the following chapters, we will take another look at this curious, neglected and vital episode in Macedonia’s past- one that is ineluctably bound up with developments today and which should be seen as a warning and admonition regarding the dangers and unforeseen consequences of intervention. This first chapter summarizes, in broad strokes, the narrative that we will embark upon in more detail in the following ones.

Atrocities and the Call for Intervention

As the twentieth century dawned on Europe, Macedonia was under the control of a country whose retribution grew more vicious in direct proportion to the weakening of that state’s power. The Ottoman Empire was crumbling, and various factions and brigand bands sought to drive the Turks out of the contested region. The result was massive bloodshed and a violent crackdown on Macedonia’s Christian populations which, while it has been totally forgotten, more than matched the barbarity of the recent wars in the Balkans.

The Armenians in the far east of the empire, who were also rebelling, were not the only ones whose plight captivated Westerners. The cry for intervention in Macedonia grew louder with each failed uprising and each successful Turkish reprisal against already impoverished Christian villagers.

The Vienna and Mürzsteg Plans, in Theory and Practice

Fuelled by popular sentiment, but even more so by colonial self-interest, the Great Powers began in late 1902 to formulate a plan for reforms which the Ottomans would be compelled to accept. The first one, known as the Vienna Plan, proved ineffectual and in early October 1903, following the disastrous Ilinden Uprising of August and resulting political intrigue in Europe’s capitals, that Austro-Hungarian and Russian diplomats finally met in Vienna and Mürzsteg to hammer out a real Macedonian reform program.

The program was jointly announced, and was named after its place of agreement- according to British historian Arthur May, “a dismal hunting lodge in Styria” in central Austria. The Mürzsteg agreement asserted that there would be no changes of borders- just as did the similarly ill-fated UN Resolution 1244 that ended the Kosovo War 96 years later.

Both reform plans basically envisioned a Macedonia still ruled by the Ottoman Empire, but which would be a kinder and gentler place to live for its inhabitants. They called for improving the economic and security status of the oppressed Christian populations and for incorporating more of them into state service. Propositions like insurgent amnesties and tax breaks for returning refugees were also made. But those who expected that the reforms would help preserve a very fragile status quo would soon be disappointed.

As in Kosovo today, the interventionist governments sought to put a positive spin on the situation, despite the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground. In practice, the reforms proved hard to carry out. The international observers in the gendarmes had a delicate role that was almost impossible to perform: they were tasked with reporting on abuses of the Turkish officials, while at the same time remaining dependent upon them for their safety and well-being. They could not execute their mandate effectively because they had only an advisory role and a limited mandate. Their goals under Mürzsteg were to reorganize the gendarmerie and to bring order, safety, and stability. They could only counsel. They could not command.

There were also the inevitable power struggles between the representatives of the Great Powers, which diluted the strength of the mission and ruined its ability to function. Commanding Italian General Emilio Degiorgis sought to maintain “impartiality” in his mandate, but biases were often revealed. The Austrians favored the Albanians, while the Russians favored the Serbs. Germany supported the Ottoman Turkish government. The British shifted during the seven-year interventionist experiment from a position of supporting Ottoman sovereignty to one of a free Macedonia. Throughout, their collective biases and hidden agendas would be a hindrance to the effective implementation of the reforms.

From 1904-1908, the joint military commission continued to meet twice a year, and sent their reports to the Austrian and Russian embassies, who in turn passed them on to the Turkish government. But a low-intensity guerrilla war continued to rage throughout the duration of the Western intervention, and the self-appointed guardians of the moral order remained powerless to stop it.

Indeed, while the Christian population had at first held out high expectations for the reform program, it later felt disappointed, betrayed and even deceived. It became clear that the Great Powers were acting to advance their own interests in Macedonia, and not to achieve any meaningful reform or to help the Christian population.

The 48 officers dispatched to the Macedonian region did however give the Christian population a minor sense of security. The police reforms did improve the quality of the gendarmerie. The actual Western officers in the field carried out their mission in good faith, in spite of its ambiguous and complex character of their mandate. However, they continued to meet with obstruction from the Turkish officials.

The Turkish officials continued to oppose the reforms through obstructionism and delay, through passive resistance and through general inertia. The Sultan, Abdul Hamid, refused to accelerate the pace of the reforms and did everything to discourage their implementation. At first, he believed he could wait out the reforms by employing stalling and delaying tactics. Turkish officials sought to intimidate and pressure Christians from making complaints and from voicing their grievances to the officers. Turkish officials showed bad faith at every turn.

There were, however, exceptions. Some of the best cooperation came from Ottoman officials who were not natives of the Balkans and who could thus act more impartially. The vali of Kosovo, Mahmoud Chevket Pasha, was a native of Baghdad; he actively supported the reforms, as did the commander of the Skopje zone, Osman Fewzi Pasha, a Tartar.

The problem with the reforms was that 48 international officers were an inadequate number to monitor the huge area of the three Macedonian vilayets. The Turkish government kept the number of the reorganized gendarmerie intentionally low to minimize their impact and effectiveness.

The introduction of Christians in the gendarmerie, one of the stipulated reforms, was generally not successful. They were undisciplined and unpopular in both Muslim and Christian areas. They were seen as traitors and lackeys by the Christians, and were despised by Muslims who detested the thought of letting Christians controlling them. They were said to be lacking in “moral value” and “political conviction.” In 1907, the fifth year of the reform programme, they made up only 10 percent of the gendarmerie. Christians also were issued gun licenses infrequently, while Muslims were well-armed and carried firearms openly. The reforms did not prevent abuses against Christians or ensure their safety. The abuses of the gendarmes were, however, lessened due to the reforms.

The Failure of the Reform Programme

By September of 1909, the Mürzsteg Reform Plan was officially dead. Its tepid results meant that it would only be a matter of time before the lackluster intervention — and the status quo it propped up — would be overtaken by events. Among these the most important were the Young Turk revolution of July 1908, and the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia three months later.

The Great Powers, which had gone into Macedonia with the stated hope of making benevolent rulers of the Turks, instead abetted the bloodshed and followed their interests. Yet their interpretation of their own best interests was antiquated; it was based on obsolete conceptions of the world and the relation of states with one another.

At this feverish time of transition, however, each of the Great Powers followed its own interventionist and colonialist intuition on a quixotic quest deep into the Balkans. None of the states would come out of it unscathed, even if the full brunt of the blowback only arrived five years after the end of the Mürzsteg Programme, with the onset of the Great War.

Partial Bibliography

Booth, John. Troubles in the Balkans. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1905.

Brailsford, Henry Noel. Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future. London: Methuen & Co., 1906.

Curtis, William Eleroy. The Turk and His Lost Provinces. Chicago: Fleming Revell Co.

Fraser, John Foster. Pictures from the Balkans. London: Cassell and Company, 1906.

Lange-Akhund, Nadine. The Macedonian Question, 1893-1908: From Western Sources. NY: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Macartney, Carlile Aylmer. The Habsburg Empire, 1790-1918. NY: Macmillan, 1969.

Mazower, Mark. Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims, and Jews, 1430-1950. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

May, Arthur J. The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1867-1914. NY: W.W. Norton, 1951.

Sakellariou, M.B., ed. Macedonia. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon S.A., 1983.

Shea, John. Macedonia and Greece: The Struggle to Define a New Balkan Nation. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1997.

Sonnichsen, Albert. Confessions of a Macedonian Bandit: A Californian in the Balkan Wars. NY: Duffield & Co., 1909.

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