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Grumbling and Unease: the Mürzsteg Reforms Implemented

March 24, 2006


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

From January to April 1904, the Great Powers set up the international administrative apparatus dictated by the Mürzsteg Plan in Macedonia. In January, Calice and Zinoviev discussed the terms and conditions for the implementation of the reforms with Abdul Hamid in Constantinople. Hamid accepted the nine articles but reserved the right to agree on the practical details of the implementation. His major concern was over articles 1 and 2, because he felt they harmed the sovereignty and prestige of his dwindling empire.

The sultan was able to win the crucial right that Turkish officials be allowed to accompany the Civil Agents on their inspections- thus overseeing the overseers. Tacit intimidation could thus be enforced by the Turkish officials, ensuring that fearful villagers would put on a brave face for the foreigners. The reorganization plan was put under the command of an Italian general, Emilio Degiorgis, who himself was under the command of Sultan Abdul Hamid. The reforms would be overseen by the two Civil Agents, the Italian general, and the chiefs of the military missions from the Great Powers.

Skepticism and Concerns

The Austro-Hungarian Civil Agent appointed was Heinrich MˆšÃ‰Â¬Âºller von Roghoj, who had earlier been assigned to Bosnia and who spoke Turkish, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian and Russian. The Russian Civil Agent was N. Demerik, who had earlier been the consul to Beirut and Monastir. The Civil Agents arrived in Salonika on January 21, 1904.

Austrian Civil Agent Muller von Roghoj observed that the Muslims showed open hostility and resentment, while the Christians hoped and expected to see results from the reforms. Louis Steeg, French consul in Salonika, noted the skepticism of the Christian population. The Austrian Civil Agent lamented that his field of activity did not go beyond “a demarcation line” established by the Turkish government. At first, Demerik and Muller von Roghoj were restricted to Salonika. Their mandate was limited, and they could not intervene in “the field.”

Heinrich Freiherr von Calice, the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to Ottoman Turkey at Constantinople from 1880-1906, was surprised by the Ottoman Turkish decree. He perceived it to be a “fait accompli.” Chalice did not believe that the self-imposed Turkish reforms would bring meaningful changes. The ambassador noted, correctly, that they would likely be ineffectual because the valis did not have any real power and lacked funds to carry out the reforms. In fact, the diplomats representing the Great Powers saw the Turkish reforms merely as delaying tactics meant to preclude any sterner solutions enforced by the Great Powers themselves.

For his part, the French ambassador dismissed the Mürzsteg Plan, stating that “these reforms are only an illusion.” He lamented that “the new reforms consist in the multiplication of an expensive and mindless machinery; it seems that one wanted to organize not progress, but resistance.”

Ambassador Steeg’s reaction was to write a report which described another, more dynamic programme that could serve as the basis for future diplomatic reforms in Macedonia. He proposed that the valis serve a fixed term of five years, that they be given authority to act, that each vilayet have its own budget, and that foreign inspectors from countries such as Belgium and Denmark be brought in to supervise the implementation of the reforms. He also proposed the creation of a gendarmerie that would be trained by foreign instructors and receive an adequate salary. Under Article 18 of the decree, the inspector general was allowed a contingent of civil and military officials to assist him. Under Article 18, a commission was to be set up to verify and oversee the implementation of the reforms.

Of the Great Powers, only Germany rejected the reforms. Turkey was an ally and client state with which it had long held close military and diplomatic ties, and German military technology and instructors had a major role in attempts to revitalize the Ottomans’ fighting force. Yet all the other Great Powers accepted the reforms as an effective international humanitarian and diplomatic intervention in Macedonia. Turkey hesitantly accepted the program- in fact, it had little other choice due to the diplomatic pressure that was being imposed from without.

However, the announced reforms were not greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm by other Balkan countries. Serbia criticized the new initiative, because it did not provide any guarantees that the reforms would actually be applied. And Bulgaria criticized the “moderation” or perceived laxity of the requirements that the Ottomans had to fulfill. Both held that nowhere near enough had been promised to safeguard the livelihoods of their nationals living in Macedonia.

Reforms without Substance, Violence without End

Modern viewers of the past 15 years in the Balkans can point to any number of cases, the most flagrant being Kosovo, where a wide gulf exists between the vaunted standards of Western interventionists and their dismal application in reality. The situation was no different a century ago.

Nevertheless, as has been the case in modern Balkan experience, the intervening forces tried to put a rosy spin on things; what was championed was “the spirit of Mürzsteg,” an excessively optimistic picture of the reforms. Agenor Goluchowski, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, saw Mürzsteg as advancing two objectives. First, the February or Vienna reform plan accepted by Turkey had to be enforced by the two Civil Agents sent by Austria-Hungary and Russia. Second, he saw the goal as humanitarian intervention “to come in aid of the Christian populations which suffered so much from the war and devastations.”

The Mürzsteg Programme was thus heralded as a peacekeeping mission to restore stability and order in Macedonia, and to give the Macedonian people a greater say in their future by establishing greater local autonomy. Goluchowski saw the intervention as one that would benefit the population, because the Great Powers would be a benevolent, neutral force separating the Turkish forces and the revolutionary committees. That was the plan, anyway.

What in fact happened was a worsening of the cycle of violence between the Turks and the revolutionaries. Soon it became clear that the key problem with the reforms was that there was no outside supervision or monitoring. The Turks and their co-religionists were free to continue their atrocities against the Christians. The situation thus actually continued to deteriorate further following the reforms.

And the discrimination extended well down the chain of command. Albanian Muslim beys in the Kosovo vilayet rejected the concessions granted to the Orthodox Christians, particularly to the hated Serbian population. These Albanian officials, known as the “dire beys” or “lords of the valleys,” refused to allow Christians into the gendarmerie. Instead, they launched raids and attacks on the already persecuted subject population.

The flaws of the reforms were that the measures proposed were under-funded or not funded at all. The officials, policemen, and soldiers were not regularly salaried. This created an incentive to maintain the status quo. No general amnesty was offered to the insurgents. Article 5 of the program established a commission to review and evaluate amnesty claims, but the uncertainty precluded refugees from returning to face jeopardy. Finally, the British government wanted a Christian governor to supervise the reforms instead of a Turkish subject in the service of the Turkish government. This presented a conflict of interest that made the implementation of the reforms unworkable.

Reception of the Foreigners

The arrival of the international officers was greeted favorably by Macedonia’s Slavic populations. They saw the officers “as protection against the arbitrariness of the Ottoman administration.” The Greeks however were more hostile, having their own different and irredentist interests. The French military attache reported that in the vilayet of Kosovo, “the arrival of Austro-Hungarian officers in the vilayet had irritated the Serbians, and Bulgarians and the Turkish or Albanian Moslems.”

In Skopje, the Muslims of the “well-to-do classes” were hostile to the Austrian officers, offended at the liberties granted to Christians in a city where the official religion was Islam. They saw the increase in rights to Christians as an insult and a humiliation for Islam. Christians were the rayah, or herd, in Muslim society. One of the Western officers wisecracked that “they consider us more or less like a plague from God. As for the Turkish authorities, they hate us, but respect us.” Captain Leon Falconetti noted that the Turks maintain “a conspiracy of silence.”

It was abundantly clear that the Great Powers were determined to use the conflict in Macedonia to advance their own national interests, while neglecting the human and civil rights of the Christian population. Decision-making was hampered by the fact that negotiations, debates, and discussions would be needed before the divergent interests and goals of the six Great Powers could be reconciled. This resulted in compromises and half-measures that led to delays and indecision.

And so as the Programme, fatally compromised from the start wore on, the relations between the interventionists and both the Turkish and Christian populations worsened- though this did not prevent all sides from trying to curry favor with the outsiders.

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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