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The Bloody Road from Krusevo to Mürzsteg

March 22, 2006


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

In the energized manifesto he delivered following the creation of the first republic in the history of the Balkans, at Krusevo, revolutionary President Nikola Karev declared:

“”Freedom or Death’ is written on our foreheads and on our blood-stained banner. We have already raised that banner and there is no way back.”

It was a grim prediction. On August 2, 1903, what would become known as the Ilinden uprising began. The Turks had prepared 150,000 troops in the Macedonian vilayets, arranged in 175 battalions, in anticipation of the rebellion. Parts of the Strandzha Mountains in Bulgaria and several Macedonian villages and towns were taken by the rebels, who euphorically proclaimed a republic in the most important one, Krusevo, on August 3.

Yet it was to end more like the massacre at Crete’s Arkadi Monastery in 1866 than as some triumphant liberation. After only 10 days the Turkish forces retook the town, killing over 100 civilians.

In a show of unprecedented savagery, they burned 366 houses and 203 stores, with over 700 houses pillaged and looted, according to Nadine Lange-Akhund’s The Macedonian Question Christian women were violated, and their fingers and ears were cut off to retrieve the jewelry.

In the aftermath of the revolt, the hills and valleys of Macedonia were bathed in blood. 201 Macedonian villages were burned down by the Turkish forces, 12,400 houses were pillaged, 4,694 people were killed, 70,835 people were left without shelter, and 30,000 refugees fled to Bulgaria. Villagers fleeing to the mountains starved on a diet of grass, and disease took a heavy toll also. The Macedonian fighters had achieved no freedom, but a lot of death.

Karev’s enlightened, if ill-fated vision of rule was a departure from that of the Ottomans; he promised that the Macedonians were trying to liberate “mother Macedonia” for all of its peoples, whether Christian or Muslim:

“we have not raised against the peaceful, diligent and honest Turkish people who, like ourselves, earn their living through sweat full of blood- they are our brothers with whom we have always lived and would like to live again. We have not risen to slaughter and plunder, to set fire and steal- we have had enough of countless derebeyis pillaging and plundering our poor and blood-stained Macedonia. We have not risen to convert to Christianity and disgrace your mothers and sisters, wives and daughters; you should know that your property, your lives, your faith and your honour are as dear to us as our own. Alas, we have taken up arms only to protect our property, our lives, our faith and our honour.”

Karev asked only that those who chose to not participate in the struggle at least not collaborate with the authorities. But fear of Turkish wrath was stronger in most cases than the promises of a relatively powerless revolutionary leader.

Results of the Uprising: The Reaction from Abroad

If the revolutionaries did not achieve freedom, what they did gain was an increase in attention and sympathy from European publics shocked at the Turkish atrocities.

Again, the emotive Western writers played a role in consciousness-raising, as the politicians on the other hand had long sought to keep a positive spin on things to ensure the status quo held. A sampling of what confronted the journalists is described in Englishman John Booth’s 1905 book, Troubles in the Balkans. Take for example Booth’s visit to the destroyed village of Kremen:

“three miles further some strange heaps of rubble lay piled on each side of the path, and we were riding on a thickness of smashed tiles. This was Kremen.

Scrambling to the top of a heap of earth and stones one got the full effect. Shapeless wall-shoulders stood out of the mass, and the end of a charred beam pointed drunkenly into the sky; all down the hillside below the loose piles bulged and the empty, shorn walls gaped; no sound came up from the crushed houses – no figure moved in the choked streets, hardly traceable in the general level of rubbish; everywhere was desolation and black ruin.

…A year before, it seemed, a band of insurgents from Bulgaria had been lurking in the neighbourhood and no doubt had come to Kremen for food. The people were accused of having harboured revolutionaries, and a body of troops arrived to execute vengeance on the village, which was not done in any haphazard fashion, but deliberately and with fore-thought. The troops brought with them ponies carrying tins of petroleum lashed to their packsaddles, which were unloaded, and the soldiers, producing squirts, soon covered the walls and roofs with the spirit. After each house had been thoroughly sacked the tins were emptied upon piles of bedding and the whole village was fired at a given signal. Lurid descriptions of the usual horrible scenes followed – old men brained whilst trying to protect their daughters; women’s hands cut off and their children murdered before their eyes; outrage, pillage, and massacre let loose. Truly the Turkish soldier – quiet enough in peace time – is a demon out of hell when the lust of blood is on him. The police-officer and the escort had the decency to look ashamed of their countrymen’s work, and made no effort to hide the worst evidences of it.

Kremen is only a sample. The countryside is thick with the ruins of Christian villages stamped out in the same way, with the same old weary details in every case. There is nothing new in it all – it did not happen for the first time that year nor fifty years before. It has been going on for centuries, and always will go on until the Christians in Macedonia are given the right to live a freeman’s life and the power to uphold that right by the only people who can give it – the Powers of Europe.”

The Western political leaders somewhat reluctantly rose to the challenge presented in such accounts. The significant result of Ilinden was that it widened the field of interesting parties, who were no longer limited to Russia and Austria-Hungary. In the aftermath of the spectacular failure of the Krusevo Republic, the French ambassador in St. Petersburg, M. Maurice Bompard, stressed that France wanted “to take a more active part” in Balkan affairs.

The British Foreign Ministry too stated that “the moment has arrived when Europe cannot remain indifferent” to the events in the three vilayets of Macedonia. The government had been stung by criticism following Balfour’s claim that “the balance of criminality lies not with the Turks, but with the rebels.”

The London Daily News attacked the prime minister’s statement immediately on September 14, 1903, editorializing that: “the balance of criminality is surely here in our own land. Britain had denied Macedonia freedom at [the 1878 Congress of] Berlin, knowing that (continued) Ottoman rule was synonymous with cruelty and tyranny, and by adopting a laissez-faire attitude at the juncture, Britain is a consenting party to all the ghastly murders and massacres in Macedonia.”

The British Foreign Secretary from 1900-1905, Lord Landsdowne, and the 5th Marquess, Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, called for the establishment of international military control in Macedonia, sending foreign soldiers to assist Hilmi Pasha, a reassessment of orientation that would become increasingly pronounced over the next four years. By 1907, a British government that had once opposed any reduction of Ottoman sovereignty would actually call for Macedonian autonomy.

Such shifts were major achievements for the revolutionaries. However, at the same time they were self-defeating; every new Great Power to arrive on the scene in Macedonia wanted to expand its own influence, inevitably resulting in internal dissonance and a weakened common front, and slowed impetus for practical reform. This, combined with the Ottoman tactic of playing the different Christian sides against one another, ensured that the bloodshed would continue and that Macedonia would never be free, reforms or no reforms.

Origins and Legal Basis of the Murzsteg Reform Plan

The alleged nobility of the enterprise was indeed undermined by latent rivalries. To prevent France and Britain from gaining the diplomatic initiative in Macedonia, Austria-Hungary and Russia sent Turkey a note on September 24, 1903 declaring that they “insist on the program approved by all the Powers,” a reference to the existing Vienna Plan. Landsdowne proposed in a letter of September 29th to the British ambassador in Vienna that a Christian government be nominated for Macedonia, without attachment to the Balkans or to the signatory powers to the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. An alternative proposal was for an Ottoman Turkish governor with European assessors or advisors. He also wanted a reorganization of the gendarmerie with an increase in the number of officers.

The Austro-Hungarian/Russian reaction to these initiatives by Britain and France was the programme laid out in the Mürzsteg Reform Plan, which built on the model laid out by the Vienna Plan and, six years before that, the interventionist scheme in Crete.

On September 30, 1903, the Emperor Franz Joseph I and the Czar Nicholas II met at Mürzsteg – that “dismal hunting lodge in Styria,” in central Austria – to decide the fate of Macedonia. The second Austro-Hungarian/Russian Reform Scheme was the result of these deliberations, and became known as the Mürzsteg Reform Plan. The two heads of state met ostensibly to ensure that the Vienna Plan reforms of February were being adequately followed.

What resulted, however, was an altogether new and expanded set of reforms that incorporated the recommendations of the other powers. On October 22, they submitted these new reforms to the Turkish government. On November 25, the Turks, who had been blasted by criticism over their heavy-handed response to the Krusevo uprising, reluctantly accepted the nine points of what came to be known as the Mürzsteg Program.

The initiative for the Mürzsteg Reform Plan came from Baron Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador in St. Petersburg, then the capital of Tsarist Russia. He supported the cooperation embodied in the Mürzsteg Program between Austria-Hungary and his own state, and he favored the continuation of a joint foreign policy between the two countries in the Balkans.

What Aehrenthal was hoping for was to extend the entente between Russia and Austria-Hungary that had been established in 1897, thus continuing the policy of Otto von Bismarck which had divided the Balkans into Russian and Austro-Hungarian spheres of influence and control.

Aehrenthal wanted to revive the Dreikaiserbund or Three Emperors Union from the Bismarck era. The entente had been established when Emperor Franz Joseph I and Foreign Minister Agenor Goluchowski met with Czar Nicholas II in St. Petersburg in 1897, agreeing to a policy of carefully defined interventionism. The understanding would exist, however, only until 1908, when Austria-Hungary took the fateful step of annexing Bosnia.

The Mürzsteg Reform Plan thus exemplified the kind of activity envisioned by the agreement reached by Russian and Austro-Hungarian diplomats five years before. The plan was also a natural extension, or the next phase of the Vienna Plan, which had been found lacking in several respects.

Under Mürzsteg, the powers resolved to create an international gendarmerie that would restore order and stability for the Christian populations, however, without infringing on the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire.

According to the plan, the Austro-Hungarian and Russian ambassadors in Ottoman Constantinople would be charged with implementing the reforms. The Austrian and Russian consuls in Macedonia were instructed to be in charge of “watching over a strict application of the agreed reforms.” They were also to “meet as often as possible to discuss in common the measures taken by the Ottoman authorities.” They first had to reach a “preliminary understanding” if they were going to intervene in the Turkish administration in Macedonia. If any disagreements arose, the consuls were to contact their respective ambassadors in Constantinople.

Article 23 of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin was cited as the authoritative legal basis for the reforms and accompanying international intervention. Recourse to the controversial and contested 1878 treaty was taken to preserve the Sultan’s sovereignty over Macedonia. This document was then considered a holy grail of sorts for international relations in the Balkans, and like the UN Resolution for Kosovo more than a century later, carried within it the seeds of regional destruction.

The Reforms in Detail: Articles and Ambiguities

As a key part of the international intervention, administrative and judicial reforms in Macedonia were to be carried out. Austro-Hungarian and Russian agents would participate jointly with Turkish forces in securing and maintaining law and order, in the implementation of police reforms, and in tax collection. In those parts of southern Macedonia where the insurgency was fiercest, a new gendarmerie would be created under the command of foreign international officers. Local Macedonians would have a voice in the local government and in the courts of law. Refugees would be allowed to return to their homes and destroyed villages and towns would be rebuilt and reconstructed. All this was, again, in line with the Treaty of Berlin’s 25 year-old instructions.

Another clause in the Mürzsteg Programme proposed that Macedonia should be subdivided administratively “along lines of nationality.” This would become a highly problematic error of ambiguity, because nationalities at the time were neither distinct nor well-established, and displayed considerable fluidity depending on the local circumstances in the various sub-regions of Macedonia.

Great Power exploitation of this stipulation, especially and most egregiously by Austria-Hungary, ensured that the Albanian-populated areas would be excluded from the reforms, thus ensuring that setting the benchmarks of civilization would be selectively implemented. Indeed, there is a clear line between the disparity codified in 1903 and the failure, one century later, of the latest foreign peacekeepers’ “Standards before Status” program in Kosovo.

Specifically, the Mürzsteg Reform Plan consisted of nine articles. They can be summarized as follows:

1.) Special Civil Agents from Austria-Hungary and Russia were to be appointed to the office of the Ottoman Inspector General, Hilmi Pasha, for two-year terms to accompany him and to call to his attention the needs of the Christian population, report on the abuses of the authorities, send their recommendations to the ambassadors in Constantinople, and report on events in the country. Secretaries and Dragomans were to be provided for the Agents to assist them. The goal of the agents was to supervise the implementation of the reforms and to ascertain the needs of the population.

2.) The Turkish gendarmerie and police was to be reorganized. A foreign general was to assume control of the reorganization of the gendarmerie in the three vilayets. He would be in the service of the Turkish government and could add deputies to his staff, from the military forces of the Great Powers, who would act as instructors, promoters, and supervisors. They would oversee the actions of the Turkish troops towards the population. They could also request additional officers and sub-officers from foreign countries. The failure of the Swedish officers was noted, due to their lack of knowledge of the local conditions and their inability to speak any of the local languages.

3.) As soon as stability was restored, the Turkish government was to modify the administrative divisions of the country to reflect a regular or nature grouping of different nationalities. The Turkish policy was one of gerrymandering the districts and vilayets to ensure Muslim dominance and to pit one nationality or religious or ethnic group against another. The policy was one of Divide et Impera: Divide and Rule. Moreover, in the Ottoman Empire, there were only two divisions, based on religion. There were the Muslims, who ruled, and the Christians, who were the servants. The reform sought to address this.

4.) Administrative and judicial institutions were to be reorganized to include local Christians. Local autonomy was to be encouraged.

5.) Mixed Commissions formed of an equal number of Christians and Muslim delegates were to be established in the main cities of the vilayets to review and examine the political and other crimes committed during the insurgency. The consular representatives of Russia and Austria-Hungary were to participate in these Commissions.

6.) The Turkish government was to provide special funds for the return of refugees who fled to Bulgaria and other regions to their places of origin. Christians who lost their possessions and savings and homes were to be assisted. Houses, churches, and schools destroyed by Turkish forces during the insurgency were to be restored. Commissions would decide how the money was to be distributed, with the participation of prominent Christians in the community. The use of the funds was to be supervised by Russian and Austro-Hungarian consuls.

7.) In Christian villages burned down by Turkish troops and Bashi-bazouk irregulars, the inhabitants were to be returned to their homes and be exempt from paying taxes for one year.

8.) The Turkish government was to reintroduce the February reforms of the Vienna Plan and those reforms which were made necessary subsequently.

9.) The Turkish government was to lay off ilaves, redifs of II class, reserve troops of the Turkish army. The formation of Bashi-bazouk irregular forces was to be absolutely prevented. Most of the “excesses and cruelties” of the insurgency were ascribed to these two units.

Not surprisingly, the Turks perceived “the foreign encroachment [to be] a real humiliation.” The program was seen by them as violating the sovereignty of Turkey. The imposition of the Civil Agents was seen as “interference from Russia and Austria in internal affairs.”

The vali of Salonika, Hassen Fehmi Pasha, regarded the program as follows: “Rather than humiliate us in this way it would be worth inciting us simply to evacuate Macedonia.” The announcement of the reforms created “a strong impression” in Constantinople. For Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece, it precluded them from having a say in the affairs of the vilayets, while increasing the influence of Austria-Hungary at the expense of Russia.

However, the revolutionaries in the IMRO and the pro-Bulgar Vrhovist Committees rejected the Mürzsteg Reforms. They saw these as a stop-gap measure insufficient to achieve any of their goals. Boris Saravov called the program the establishment of “the Austro-Russian protectorate.” Krste Tatarchev called for the recall of Hilmi Pasha, who he regarded as “too docile [in tolerating] massacres.” Despite the failure of the summer offensive in Krusevo, the IMRO did not disarm and continued to solicit funds for a renewed insurgency.

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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