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The Eastern Question: An Independent Macedonia or the Status Quo?

March 15, 2006


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

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was well into its twilight years. Once an unstoppable juggernaut that had expanded to the gates of Vienna and taken leading roles in arts, sciences and culture, the empire had been bruised and battered during a series of punishing wars that saw its Balkan territories steadily reduced during the 19th century. But the thorniest and most intractable struggle of all, one which drag down not only the Turks but their Balkan neighbors as well, was the ideological and military battle for Macedonia.

In 1902, the Ottoman state was confronted with an ongoing guerrilla insurgency in Macedonia, while a new insurrection was being planned for the following year. The long-subjugated Christian populations were rising up against an oppressor whose power was waning, something which alarmed the Great Powers. They sought variously, inconsistently and in the end fruitlessly to assert or abrogate the status quo. Austria-Hungary and Russia, both seeking to restore stability and the status quo, took a diplomatic joint leadership position and sought to intervene in the conflict. Both of these Great Powers made it clear to the Turks that administrative reforms were urgently needed in the face of the growing humanitarian crisis.

At the same time, the neighboring Balkan states were warned “to keep their turbulent elements in check in order not to lay themselves open to the suspicion of wanting to create complications” in Macedonia, wrote English reporter H.N. Brailsford. The nations of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Romania, all of which had their own unpleasant memories of Ottoman rule, also had rival and competing claims to Macedonia. Each had sent comitadji guerrilla groups into the region.

Of what exactly did these groups consist? Just over 30 years later, Balkan sojourner Rebecca West met one such former guerrilla, an encounter which gave her the opportunity to describe the character of the comitadji. Her depiction is both witty and telling:

“the comitadji who waged guerrilla warfare against the Turks in Macedonia before the war covered a wide range of character. Some were highly disciplined, courageous, and ascetic men, often from good families in the freed Slav countries, who harried the Turkish troops, particularly those sent to punish Christian villages, and who held unofficial courts to correct the collapse of the legal system in the Turkish provinces. Others were fanatics who were happy in massacring the Turks but even happier when they were purging the movement of suspected traitors. Others were robust nationalists, to whom the proceedings seemed a natural way of spirited living. Others were black-guards who were in the business because they enjoyed murder and banditry.

All intermediate shades of character were fully represented. This made it difficult for the Western student to form a clear opinion about Near Eastern politics; it also made it difficult, very difficult, for a Macedonian peasant who saw a band of armed men approaching his village.”

The comitadji guerrilla raids provoked brutal reprisals by the Turkish military forces, which included the widespread murder of civilians and the burning and destruction of numerous villages and towns in Macedonia. The humanitarian disaster and crisis were worsening, perpetuated by an ongoing insurgency that, while undertaken by a diverse range of groups whose purpose was often opaque, took on broadly nationalist contours as the war continued.

Repression, Unease and the Call for Intervention

The brutal Turkish counter-measures against the Macedonian insurgents created a widespread popular perception in Europe that something had to be done to stop the “murders and rapine” in Macedonia, as a contemporary observer put it. While the British government proposed administrative and judicial reform in Macedonia, the traditionally cautious imperial power was however committed to maintaining the status quo- i.e., Turkey’s continued rule in the Balkans. British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, in a speech before the House of Commons on September 14, 1903, stated that “the balance of criminality lies not with the Turks, but with the rebels.”

There was notable dissonance between the Great Powers, which all sought to protect their own interests in the region. Britain eventually came around to the idea of a sovereign Macedonia under a Christian governor, but Russia and Austria-Hungary opposed this plan. Germany opposed any restrictions on Turkish sovereignty.

For his part, US President Theodore Roosevelt discussed the Macedonian crisis and suppression of the insurgency in his December 6, 1904 State of the Union message before Congress. “In Turkey,” he said, “our difficulties arise less from the way in which our citizens are sometimes treated than from the indignation inevitably excited in seeing such fearful misrule as has been witnessed both in Armenia and Macedonia.” Nevertheless, the United States did not get directly involved with the turbulence in the Balkans.

A key role in the Great Power negotiations was played by the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Count Vladimir Lamsdorff, who went to Vienna to discuss the plan with his Austrian counterpart. The count also visited Belgrade on December 26, 1902, and four days later reached Sofia. The outcome of this shuttle diplomacy was announced in February 1903 as “the Viennese Plan” or Vienna Reform Scheme. The Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid was forced to accept this unpleasant new check on his sovereignty in the Balkans- a sign of how desperate were the fortunes of the once mighty Turkish empire.

The Vienna Plan was the direct precursor to the Mürzsteg Reform Programme, which established zones of responsibility for each of the Great Powers. These states charged themselves with overseeing the implementation of reform and keeping a lookout for any abuses of human rights by the Turkish authorities. However, the mission was fragmented and had no “muscle,’ meaning that the observers were unable to intervene directly to stop the bloodshed.

The Austro-Hungarian and Russian plan included recommendations from Britain as well. But these measures were perceived as merely cosmetic and superficial; it was already a case of too little too late in a wild land on the brink of independence and flirting with chaos. Ultimately, the Vienna Plan and its successor, the Mürzsteg Programme of reforms, would fail.

By 1908, when the Great Powers had lost all confidence in the Macedonian reforms and when Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia, it was clear that a major, region-wide war was in the offing. The former failure led to the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, and the latter provocation to World War I. Given the enormity of these events, it is remarkable that very few pay attention to the role of Western intervention and rivalries in the Macedonia crisis of the first decade of the twentieth century.

The Ottoman Administration and Police Structures

Before getting into the narrative of events surrounding the reform schemes in our next installment of this series, it is necessary to get acquainted with some terms relating to the administrative organization of the Ottoman Empire, and the regions they covered.

The Turkish Balkan possessions were divided according to a precise administrative system, which however generally does not conform to the present borders of today’s Balkan states.

The largest unit was the province or vilayet. The governor of the province was known as a vali, and he had the rank of a pasha– equivalent to a military general. Above the vali, overseeing multiple provinces, was the beylerbey, second only to the vizier. Each vilayet was subdivided into two or three sandzaks or districts, the governors of which were termed mutessarifs, who also had the rank of pasha. The caza was a department, governed by a caimakam or prefect, who had the rank of a bey, equivalent to a military colonel. The nahiye was a group of villages, governed by a moudir or sub-prefect.

In all, there were six vilayets in European Turkey. There were the two Albanian ones in the west, Jannina (Epirus) and Scutari. The three vilayets in the center were largely Macedonian- Salonika, Monastir (Bitola), and Kosovo, with the capital being in Skopje, or Uskub in Turkish. Subdividing the Macedonian vilayets, the territory consisted of 12 sandzaks and 71 cazas– 26 in Salonika, 22 in Monastir, and 23 in Kosovo.

To the east, in Thrace, was the vilayet of Adrianople (Edirne). The Ottoman capital, Constantinople, formed a vilayet in itself. The MˆšÃ‰Â¬Âºrzsteg Reforms were meant to apply only to the three Macedonian vilayets of Salonika, Monastir and Kosovo.

The police entrusted with providing law and order in Macedonia, the Ottoman gendarmerie, fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of War. The gendarmes were made up of males between 25 to 45 years of age, who served for two years. They were organized into regiments, battalions, and companies. Each vilayet was assigned a gendarme regiment, while each sandzak had a battalion, and each caza had a company. They functioned as a rural police under the command of the vali.

These groups patrolled the rural areas to maintain public safety and order, acted as sentries, security guards at banks and post offices, delivered court orders and executed arrest warrants. They were organized in gendarme forts called karakols, or station houses. The officer corps was described wittily by Austrian military attache Gustav Hubka as a “privileged extortionist mob and scourge of brigands.”

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., 1903.

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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