March 20, 2006
Part five in a 10-part series on the Mürzsteg Reform Programme, by Carl Savich and Christopher Deliso
It was the great insurrection of Djoumaia Bala in October-November 1902 that convinced the Great Powers to intervene in Macedonia on behalf of the Orthodox Christians. The revolt began in the northern part of the Salonika vilayet, where Ottoman troops came under attack from Macedonian guerrillas. Sultan Abdul Hamid sent 14 Turkish battalions equipped with 30 cannons. The districts or cazas of Djoumaia Bala, Petric, Melnik, and Razlog, comprising seventeen villages, had revolted against the Turkish forces, and an Ottoman Turkish tax collector and a credit agent had been killed.
Punishment was quick and severe. In the engagements between the insurgents and Turkish troops under Ibrahim Pasha, 80 of the former were killed, while 40 were taken prisoner. The Ottoman Turkish forces then carried out reprisals against the Macedonian civilian population, burning 28 villages. Atrocities were alleged to have been committed; the Turks were accused of torturing and murdering civilians, and raping women before the eyes of helpless children and elderly people. There were an estimated 3,000 refugees following the crackdown in what is today southwestern Bulgaria, or Pirin Macedonia.
The Great Powers Finally React
The reaction to these bloody events among the Great Powers was to impress upon the Ottoman Turkish government the urgency for reformative action. The Great Powers were convinced that this was necessary in order to force the implementation of a reform program that would protect the Christian civilian population.
Sir Nicholas Robert O’Conor (1843-1908), the British ambassador to Turkey in Constantinople from 1898 to 1908, proposed in November 1902 that the Great Powers take the lead in police, financial, and judicial administration in the three Macedonian vilayets of the Ottoman Empire. Sir O’Conor proposed that the signatory powers to the 1878 Treaty of Berlin (Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Italy) assume responsibility and control in Macedonia.
In Constantinople, Sir O’Conor personally relayed to Abdul Hamid the necessity of implementing significant and meaningful reforms in Macedonia. The British assessed the situation in Macedonia as “worrisome and grave.” In an ominous prediction, the French ambassador to Russia warned that the Great Powers had to act in order to forestall “the unrest to come” in Macedonia.
The proposal was alarming for the Turks, who rightly regarded it as a further check on their already weakened control of Macedonia. On November 30, therefore, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid promulgated an irade or decree for reform in the three vilayets of Macedonia, in order to preempt the European proposals and potential international intervention.
The decree consisted of 18 articles, divided into four chapters. Abdul Hamid decreed that the administration, instruction, public works, and the judiciary in Macedonia were to remain under Turkish control. He appointed an Inspector General with the rank of vizier, Hussein Hilmi Pasha (1855-1923), to implement the reforms and to remove and discipline any incompetent Turkish officials as well as the valis, or governors of the vilayets.
Born on the Greek island of Mytilini, Hilmi Pasha was at the time governor in far-off Yemen. He was appointed Inspector General of “the Roumelian provinces,” meaning Macedonia and Thrace, serving from 1902 to 1908. After this, he went on to become the Turkish Minister of the Interior in 1908-1909, in the latter year becoming Grand Vizier. It was on Hilmi Pasha’s shoulders that fell the task of implementing the proposed reforms in Macedonia, to bring stability, and to reconcile the Orthodox Christian populations to the resumption of Turkish rule.
The First Intervention: the Vienna Reforms
Nevertheless, the Turkish overtures were not sufficient to dissuade the Great Powers. From December 1902 to February 1903, they began to intervene directly in Macedonia, where the guerrilla insurgency was raging. Pressure was brought to bear to try and rein in the rampaging Turks, whose brutal crackdown on the insurgency had affected mostly civilians while lessening the credibility and control of the Ottoman authorities- a dangerous trend for the European powers, who were still hoping the status quo could be maintained without much further bloodshed.
The Austro-Hungarian and Russian ambassadors at the Porte, Heinrich Chalice and M.I. Zinoviev (ambassador 1898-1909), took responsibility for formulating the original joint plan for reforms in Macedonia. The plan had six points, the key ones being the reorganization of the gendarmerie by introducing Christians into the police force, and the purge of the administrative staff, which would be provided with an adequate salary.
Under this six-point reform programme, known as the “Vienna Plan,” an Inspector-General supplied by the Western powers was also to be appointed for Macedonia for a three-year term of office. He could only be recalled if Austria-Hungary and Russia assented, and the valis had to adhere strictly to his orders. Funds would be raised in each vilayet, with the provincial collections to be administered by local authorities, who would pay for military and civil services. Farm taxes were to be abolished. The collection of tithes was modified and restructured. And a general amnesty for political prisoners was proclaimed.
Most of these ideas were either envisioned in or inspired by the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. Other reforms were even more severe and humiliating for the Turks. The Inspector-General would have the authority to call in the army without consulting the Turkish government, and the Turkish gendarmerie and police were also to be reorganized under the supervision of foreign or international advisors.
In a further body blow to Turkish pride, the gendarmerie was to include Christians as well as Muslims, in proportion to their relative percentage of the local population. The bekchi or rural guards, often Muslims, were to become Christians where the majority population was Christian, since armed Muslim bekchi units had long terrorized and extorted Christian villages. However, as it turned out the reformers were powerless to enforce these reforms, and almost no Christians joined the Ottoman gendarmerie.
These radical changes were a lot for the Turks to swallow, conceived as they were for a land they considered their own. Yet they tried to make the best of their situation. In March, 1903, the Turkish government hired Captain Karl Ingvar Nandrup (1864-1909) from Norway and Viktor Axel Unander from Sweden to organize and oversee the reorganization of the Turkish gendarmerie forces in Macedonia. At that time Sweden and Norway were in a union under King Oscar II (1829-1907).
Nandrup wrote seven reports during his stay in Macedonia, from the early part of 1903 to December 30, 1904. For his part, Unander remained from May 1903 to May 1906. They were given the ranks of Lieutenant Colonel and Major respectively, and were also made inspectors in the Turkish gendarmerie. Nandrup filed regular reports from Skopje to King Oscar II on the conditions in Macedonia, which grew steadily worse.
The increasing power of the Macedonian revolutionaries and the failure of the Vienna Reforms to halt Turkish repression led to a continuing pattern of engagements; in January 1903, the Ottoman railway’s telegraph cable had been destroyed by a bomb, and two others were subsequently detonated on the Salonika-Constantinople railroad line at the Perai station. The amnesty of political prisoners intended for February 1903 backfired, as it only bolstered the ranks of the Macedonian and Bulgarian insurgents. It soon became clear that a general uprising was being planned for the spring of 1903.
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.
Looking for More Balkanalysis.com Publications?