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Intrigue, Diplomacy and Rivalry: Macedonia Divided by the Great Powers

March 27, 2006


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

On February 1, 1904, Italian Lieutenant General Emilio Degiorgis arrived in Constantinople as the head of the military commission charged with reforming or reorganizing the Turkish gendarmerie. Enrico Albera and Major Rodolfo Ridolfi were also part of the Italian mission. Ridolfi directed the Salonika school for chiefs of station. The first meeting of the military commission took place on February 8, 1904.

Each Great Power sent a military delegate, referred to as “military deputies.” Six military attaches from the embassies also were part of the commission. Two more attaches were added to the commission, one for Degiorgis and another for the Russian officer on the commission, making a total of 15. The military commission met on a daily basis from February 8-April 9, 1904. Brigadier General Osman Nizami Pasha and Colonel Zia Bey of the Turkish General Staff also attended the meetings, which were conducted in French.

MˆšÃ‰Â¬Âºrzsteg and its “Opportunities” for the Great Powers

Each of the six European Great Powers used the reforms to strengthen its own position in Macedonia, ideally at the expense of the others. They were all jockeying for dominance, something which could be manifested in terms of various diplomatic or trade outcomes and zones of strategic control.

Germany sent a military deputy to Macedonia but did not commit itself to a larger presence, wishing to preserve its relations with Turkey. Austria-Hungary and Russia, who had sponsored the reforms, were the most active but the latter, preoccupied with an emerging conflict in the Far East with Japan, was unable or unwilling to maintain the crucial balancing role it had sought. This left Austria-Hungary as the dominant player in Macedonia, and the one most determined to implement the Mürzsteg Reforms.

The Dual Monarchy sought to advance its interests in the Balkans. Its objective was to exclude the Macedonian districts which had Albanian populations from the purview of the Mürzsteg Reforms, and it also sought to prevent Monastir from being assigned to its rival, Italy. Both powers had designs on the Adriatic coastline, and especially the Albanian Adriatic ports.

For its part, Britain wanted to reduce Austrian influence in the Balkans. To counter the Austrian and Russian bloc, Britain sought to form a bloc with France and Italy. Britain opposed the “encroachment” of Austria and Russia into “European Turkey” as Macedonia was sometimes called. Britain also opposed an Italian presence on the Adriatic coast and, in the larger picture, in Tripolitania (western Libya), because it wanted above all to safeguard the Mediterranean sea lanes to India.

After becoming king of Italy in 1900, Victor Emmanuel III pursued a more aggressive policy towards the Balkans. He married Princess Helen of Montenegro and sought to exert greater Italian influence on the Adriatic coast, Albania, and in parts of Macedonia. Since the Italians opposed an Austrian presence in Salonika, another source of conflict and tension thus emerged between the Italian and Austrian members of the commission.

General Degiorgis proved hostile to Austrian initiatives and proposals. The lack of consensus and divisions between the powers only helped the Turkish government in scuttling or diminishing the effectiveness of the reforms. France supported the Austrian and Russian position because it wanted to maintain the status quo in Macedonia. The Ilinden Uprising of the previous August had a galvanizing effect, however, and all of the powers began to realize a lot more was at stake than an oppressed bunch of Christian peasants.

However, the crucial factor was that, all good intentions aside, in 1904 no European power was willing to risk war with Ottoman Turkey by intervening militarily to help the Christian populations of Macedonia. It was not because they would have been defeated by the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Rather, it was because the balance of power among themselves was too finely calibrated to risk upsetting. Balkan military intervention could realistically lead to an all-out, continent-wide war.

This indeed eventually came to pass, after one of the powers – Austria-Hungary – grew too confident in the influence it had gained in the region, partially as a result of the Mürzsteg meddling and especially after the 1908 annexation of Bosnia. But this hubris would be decisively rewarded in 1918, in the aftermath of the Great War, when the glorious empire of the Hapsburgs was dismantled once and for all.

Nevertheless, 14 years earlier it had seemed to the imperialists that fortune indeed favored the bold. The immediate victims of Austro-Hungarian ambitions were the peoples of Macedonia.

Carving Up Macedonia: Strategic Objectives of Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire

On February 13, 1904, talks were initiated on the division of the three Macedonian vilayets into five sectors. Colonel Wladimir von Giesl, the Austro-Hungarian military attache and future ambassador to Serbia, requested the Skopje sector, which was attached to Kosovo. The Russian military attache, General Kalnine, requested Salonika. As the most interested parties, Austria-Hungary and Russia naturally sought, and felt themselves entitled to, the most strategic positions in Macedonia: the Skopje-Salonika north-south axis, a vital corridor hugging the River Vardar which connected Central Europe with the Aegean Sea.

The Kosovo vilayet was vital to the Austrian geopolitical strategy in the Balkans. It was an area that abutted the sandzak of Novi Pazar, which Austria had administered and occupied since the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. Moreover, Skopje was important because this territorial unit was one where there was a Serbian majority that had to be kept down if Austro-Hungarian ambitions were to be achieved.

Austria wanted to prevent Serbian expansion and infiltration south into the major urban and transit center along an east-west axis, Kumanovo and Skopje. Whoever controlled these territories not only would enjoy the economic, communicative and other benefits of urban life, but also would control the major route eastwards to Sofia, Bulgaria and to Tetovo in western Macedonia. Skopje was the central location where the east-west and north-south axes met – in modern parlance, they are European Corridor 8 and Corridor 10 respectively – and thus of central importance for any aspiring military power.

But the ambitions of the Hapsburgs were greater still. Their colonial occupation of the Novi Pazar sandzak was undertaken in order to prevent Serbia from connecting with Montenegro and thus winning an outlet to the Adriatic Sea. Austria-Hungary could thereby prevent the emergence of a strong and unified Serbia that would be capable of endangering its drive for power in the Balkans.

The results of the Austro-Hungarian deal-making also meant that foreign officers were to be effectively excluded from the sandzaks of Pec and Pristina in Kosovo, which had a mixed population of Serbians and Albanians. Russia allowed Austrian forces to occupy the southern part of the Kosovo vilayet, in Skopje. But Wladimir von Giesl, the Austrian military attache, was able to exclude the Albanian-populated areas from international scrutiny- thus ensuring that the killing of Christians would go on unchecked and that Austria-Hungary would remain on good terms with its Albanian lackeys. They ensured that there would only be international control in the areas inhabited by “the Bulgarians,” as they referred to the Slavic population in Macedonia.

The French commander Dupont wrote that the Dual Monarchy was guided by an ulterior motive to occupy the Skopje region. He too suspected that the Austrians sought merely to increase their influence and to advance their interests in the region. Skopje was far away from the main hotbeds of unrest where encounters with the Ottomans, and the subsequent imperative to hold them accountable for atrocities, would by necessity occur more frequently. By comparison, Skopje was a relatively “easy” mission. And it coincided perfectly with Hapsburgian imperialist goals.

During the Austro-Hungarian inspection tours, the French military attache accused, their agents were merely trying to establish contacts with the Albanian leaders. According to the French, the Austrians were spying and reconnoitering the area.

The Austrians did not plan to occupy the Kosovo vilayet, but they did strengthen their position in Skopje to prevent Serbian claims on Kosovo. The Austrian-Hungarian mission chief, Lt. Colonel Johann Graf von Salis-Seewis, born in Karlovac in Croatia-Slavonia, “showed a careful attention to the Serbs, and deplored their openly malevolent attitude with regard to the Austrian mission.” He blamed this attitude on “Serbian propaganda.”

Austria-Hungary attempted to “use” the Albanian leaders to preclude Italian involvement and to “oppose the ambitions of Belgrade.” With this policy, Vienna showed its preference for chaos and instability in these areas, because such a state would allegedly justify the Austrian presence. Maintaining instability also worked to obstruct Serbian and Italian designs on the region. From 1904-1908, the Albanian districts between Prizren and Pec, areas contiguous to the Austrian and Italian zones, were thus incited to a state of constant revolt and turmoil; and they were deliberately excluded from the reforms.

The mission of the international officers was complex and ambiguous and hampered by a lack of communications. It also proved unpredictable, even for the powerful Austrians. There were instances when the gendarmes were attacked. At the Kumanovo station, it was reported by the Austrian officer that it was “unstable” because “Albanian gangs” spread terror in the region.

On July 26, 1904, Colonel Ferdinand Richter was the victim of a murder attempt by an Albanian gendarme, Hassan Emin, who shot up his apartment in Kumanovo. The officers established a network of gendarmerie stations, expanding on the karakols, for greater security. The gendarmes also made agreements with mokhtars, the chiefs of villages. A gendarme school was established in Salonika in 1904, where 3,000 gendarmes would be educated during the years 1904-1908, when the reform program ended.

Zones of Exemption

All in all, the Austro-Hungarian machinations meant that the following Ottoman sandzaks would be excluded from Mürzsteg Programme oversight: Koritza (except the caza of Kastoria), the sandzak of Elbasan, the western part of the caza of Ochrid, the districts of Debar and Prizren, the southwest sector of the sandzak of Pec, and the sandzaks of Tachlidja and Senitza of Novi Pazar.

Great Britain and Italy wanted further clarification as to why the Albanian districts were to be excluded from the reform plan’s purview. They were informed that Article 3 of the Mürzsteg Program, which envisioned a division of the vilayets along homogenous national and ethnic lines, mandated it.

Ever vigilant, Vienna also sought to prevent Monastir from being assigned to Italy. It suggested that Russia control the Monastir sector, but Russia declined to take this, one of the most turbulent areas in revolution-era Macedonia. So at its meeting of April 5, 1904, the commission parceled out Macedonia in five sectors as such: Austria-Hungary would control Skopje; Italy would control Monastir; Russia would control Salonika; France would control Serres; and Britain would control Drama, in the east. But Austria-Hungary was able to place a restriction on the Italian sector, stipulating that General Degiorgis and his contingent should not reside in the same sector. Austria also was able to successfully exclude the Albanian districts from the purview of the reforms.

Tensions and Questions of Authority

Another question soon presented itself. What kind of authority should the Italian, General Degiorgis, have over the Turkish gendarmerie? The commission decided that he should have effective control and direct command. Abdul Hamid, however, rejected this decision. He nominated General Mustafa Pasha to command the gendarmerie in the vilayets. The commission backed down. Degiorgis would act only as an inspector, consultant, providing surveillance, but not making any decision himself. It was another sign of weakness from the allegedly mighty Great Powers.

This failure handicapped the Western mission from the beginning. And power plays between the Great Powers ensured that there would be no common front in negotiating with the Turks. For example, General Degiorgis requested the power to transmit orders to the Ottoman officers and to denounce those who do not obey, to remove officers from the gendarmerie who were unfit or who had displayed bad behavior, and a written consent for the use of the officers and NCOs for a two year term.

However, the Turkish government rejected these proposals as a violation of sovereignty. When Russia and Austria-Hungary argued that the effective implementation of article 2 required this power, Germany intervened on behalf of Turkey. Adolf Frieherr Marschall von Bieberstein, the German ambassador to Constantinople from 1897-1912, met with Tewfik Pasha, the Foreign Minister of Ottoman Turkey, to prevent the Mürzsteg Reforms from coming into force.

The German position was that the general’s request exceeded the authority granted by Article 2. Interestingly, the Germans also argued that the requirements and interests of Islam should be taken into account: it would be blasphemous that a Christian should command a Muslim.

A second demand was made. Some 60 foreign officers were requested for the mission, whose “executive power” was defined; the power to “denounce” gendarmes was defined as “removing” them. The Turkish government accepted 25 officers for each sector, with additional officers brought in as needed. The military attaches considered 5 officers per sector as insufficient. Giesl wanted to increase the amount of Austrian officers in the vilayet of Kosovo. The Italian general accused Austria-Hungary of seeking to advance its own interests and influence in the region at the expense of the reforms. It was not an auspicious start to a joint action that allegedly reflected the best of Europe’s humanitarian impulses.

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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