Balkanalysis on Twitter

Simmering Discontent, Evasive Actions: the Mürzsteg Programme through 1904

March 29, 2006


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

For all of its intrinsic weaknesses, the Mürzsteg Programme’s Civil Agents did try to make a difference, and they did achieve some results. They obtained 30,930 Turkish pounds in aid money for the thousands of Macedonian refugees and for reconstructing their homes and villages. Hilmi Pasha used 10,630 pounds from the total to reconstruct destroyed homes. On April 4, 1904, 11,648 refugees were registered at the border posts into Macedonia. Hilmi Pasha claimed that 5,000 homes had been reconstructed since February. But this information could not be verified.

French consul Louis Steeg reported that in the Monastir vilayet, the most devastated region, Christians were living in temporary shelters and that the destroyed villages remained in ruins. The villages around Ohrid and Kastoria were in a state of “extreme misery.” Entire villages had been burned and looted and destroyed. Famine and a typhoid epidemic threatened the region. The British and French sent religious missions, the Lazaristes and the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul, to distribute flour.

Meanwhile, the sundry bands of brigands and Macedonian insurgents were not completely disarmed. They kept some of their weapons, secreting them away in mountain strongholds and biding their time. Experience had shown them that the European powers could not be trusted to deliver a safe living environment. Skirmishes and battles between insurgents and Turkish forces continued after the arrival of the international forces, as it was clear to all that the international peacekeepers would not be able to protect the Christians from any Turkish attacks.

Achievements and Obstacles for MˆšÃ‰Â¬Âºrzsteg’s Civil Agents

Among their other achievements, the Civil Agents were able to obtain one-year tax exemptions for 135 Christian and Muslim villages that were damaged during the insurgency. They also were able to obtain a general amnesty in March 1904. The Agents received delegations of Christians who made oral and written requests for action. On February 17, the Austrian one, Muller von Roghoj, claimed that over a hundred requests had been solved.

Using Article 9 of the Mürzsteg Reforms, they also persuaded Hilmi Pasha to pledge to transfer away the ilaves, the Ottoman 2nd class reservists, who were accused of committing atrocities. But Hilmi Pasha denied that the other marauders, the Bashi-bazouk irregulars, were in the Turkish army at all.

The Mürzsteg monitors also tried to reform the bekchi or rural militias, as had initially been proposed under the Vienna Plan of February 1903. The notorious bekchi were armed and used their position to intimidate, plunder and terrorize Christian villages. In March 1904, the French consul to Monastir introduced a reform whereby Christian bekchi would be elected in the villages that had a Christian majority. By 1906, of a total of 6,840 bekchi groups, 3,259 were Christians while slightly more (3,581) were Muslims.The Muslim militias were especially active in the vilayet of Kosovo, where Albanian bekchi existed to deprive Serbian Christians of their civil rights, human rights and very lives. But thanks to self-serving Austrian pressure, the Kosovo Albanians were protected from the reforms.

The Dual Monarchy’s machinations were further displayed by the empire’s desire to destroy the Macedonian revolutionary committees such as the IMRO, and thus the Macedonian nationalist movement. Muller von Roghoj saw the insurgents as “terrorists” and the insurgency as an example of terrorism against a legitimate power, the Ottoman Empire. He wanted to “remove the terrorism of the revolutionaries.”

Along with the Russian Civil Agent, Muller von Roghoj wanted Turkey to institute “a decisive repression” over the revolutionary and nationalist movements. The rival Great Powers saw the insurgency in a common light, as a threat to the reform programme. This by necessity led to vicious contradictions and confusion in the mission, since both warring parties blamed the other for fuelling the fire and both sought to deny responsibility for the civilian carnage that followed. This was the quagmire into which the Western powers had halfheartedly jumped.

Affronts and Sluggish Reforms

Another threat was the resistance and bad will of the Turkish government in the implementation of the reforms. Hazim Bey, the vali of Monastir refused the report of the Civil Agents regarding administrative abuses, acts of violence, and judicial irregularities. Hilmi Pasha refused to act. The embarrassing affair had to be settled by negotiations between the Russian and Austrian governments and the Turkish government.

The Agents could only give advice and make suggestions to Hilmi Pasha. They could not make decisions. Hilmi Pasha had the ultimate discretion on whether to act on the reports of grievances.

One real affront to the Macedonians was the appointment of Turkish General Baktiar Pasha – the architect of the slaughter in Krusevo the summer before – as commander in Monastir. However, even though the Agents objected, they were powerless to block the appointment. In the end, they had to settle for exercising a certain moral authority, forcing the Turkish officials to account for their actions and hopefully show restraint- at least theoretically.

British journalist Henry Noel Brailsford, who headed the British relief mission to Macedonia in 1903, assessed the initial impact of the Mürzsteg Programme as both a disappointment in practical terms, yet as a promising work-in-progress which was showing a new and more multi-lateral approach to international intervention. Change a few proper nouns, and his words could have been uttered in our times:

“six months of procrastination followed, and it was not until April, 1904, that it came fully into operation in Macedonia. Its results have been as disappointing as those of the first essay in amelioration. The state of Macedonia is if anything worse than it was in 1902. Something, however, has been gained. A further blow has been struck at the direct sovereignty of the Turks; and though the principle of an exclusive Austro-Russian control remains intact, some place has been found in the new scheme for the other Powers. It makes an advance towards the ideal of an international protectorate.”

A key part of the Mürzsteg Reforms was the readjusting of administrative divisions of Macedonia along more nationalist or ethnic lines. However, this objective conflicted with the Russian and Austro-Hungarian policy to preserve the status quo in Macedonia. As a result, very little was actually achieved in restructuring the administrative division of Macedonia along national or ethnic bases.

The Ottomans Stonewall on Finance Reforms, the Powers Take an Island

On May 8, 1904, an international commission was established to oversee Macedonian finance reforms but its efforts were thwarted by the Ottoman Turkish officials. Austria and Russia requested the addition of 23 officers, but the Turks refused. The officers were sent to Macedonia anyway, thus challenging Turkey to recognize the fait accompli. If the Ottomans refused, Goluchowski told them, they that they would recognize the autonomy of the three Macedonian vilayets. The French military attache reported “how highly unpleasant it was to the imperial government to see Russian officers walk in their uniform in the middle of the Orthodox populations in regions so deeply agitated.”

However, the Turks would not budge and it took a display of European naval might elsewhere to force the Turks to accept the reform in Macedonia. On November 11, 1904, the Great Powers staged a naval demonstration off of the Straits. Then, on November 26, they sent five warships to seize the port city of Mytilini on the island of Lesvos.

With little action from the Turkish side, on December 5, 1904, a European naval squadron seized the customs house on the island of Limnos, which was seen as strategically vital to the defense of Constantinople. Limnos sits roughly equidistant between the north Aegean coast of Macedonia and the northeastern coast of Asia Minor; from its location, all maritime traffic heading to or from the Dardanelles can be intercepted.

The blunt warning from the Great Powers jolted the Turks into action, and the Ottoman regime soon agreed to reform Macedonian finances. On December 16, the Turks accepted an international plan, and the Great Powers then evacuated Limnos. The Turkish government finally agreed to accept the 23 officers when Britain, France, Italy, Austria, and Russia made the demand in the form of an ultimatum, with Germany abstaining. To preempt and to sabotage the mission, however, Sultan Abdul Hamid enacted his own reorganization scheme for the gendarmerie in Macedonia.

Reflections on a Failure: the Situation in December 1904

This was abetted in some respects by the Austrians, who for their own interests sought to keep the members of the international mission out of Albanian areas. The Austrians jealously accused General Degiorgis of trying to expand the Italian zone of influence to the Albanian areas, through the person of Norwegian Captain Karl Ingvar Nandrup, who had been installed alongside the Turkish authorities and was tasked with writing reports on the progress of the Mürzsteg Programme for his king, Oscar II.

Therefore, whenever any actions occurred against insurgents, the Turkish authorities would inform Nandrup, who was then sent to make an inspection. In Skopje, Nandrup met General Degiorgis during one such tour of the vilayet. Nandrup was, unlike other monitors, trusted by the Ottomans. General Degiorgis was also satisfied with his performance. Yet others considered him and the reform team in general to be incompetent.

General Degiorgis had received Hilmi Pasha’s permission to send Nandrup to Pristina and his comrade, Major Viktor Axel Unander, to Koritza west of the Italian sector. But after the Austrian complaints, Degiorgis backed down and the decision was made to keep to keep Unander subordinate to the orders of Hilmi Pasha, and to keep Captain Karl Ingvar Nandrup in Skopje.

The Norwegian finished out his term in the full awareness that the Mürzsteg Reform Programme was failing, and that the representatives of the Great Powers were trying their best to keep that fact from the Western public. Captain Nandrup’s intimate final report, written on December 30, 1904 and entitled “Note by the hand of an archivist,’ is a sobering corrective to the positive propaganda being disseminated in the official reports of the Civil Agents. It was translated into English by Swedish Prof. Dr Orjan Lindberger, and excerpted in a 1989 paper by historian Blagoj Stoicovski.

The report would be the last that Nandrup would submit before wrapping up his one-year term in Macedonia. In this report, Nandrup detailed Great Powers aspirations, especially the policy of Austria-Hungary, along with their vision for the future of Macedonia.

As always with multi-national intervening projects, damage control was key for the Great Powers in Macedonia. European newspapers published the report by the Civil Agents, in which the implementation, the progress, and the results of the reforms were depicted as satisfactory and successful. The reports were self-congratulatory and subjective, released to assure public opinion in Europe, to justify and rationalize the international intervention. The report was meant to counter the sensationalistic reports in daily newspapers and journals which had been feeding Western audiences a steady diet of Macedonian murders, outrages, atrocities and massacres.

The December 1904 report of Karl Ingvar Nandrup, however, shows that the results of the Mürzsteg Programme were pitifully meager. He charged that a Potemkin village of sort was being created by the Civil Agents, in order to conceal the deplorable and desperate situation prevailing in Macedonia since the beginning of the Mürzsteg intervention:

“I am sorry to say that we who are in close touch with the events are unable to see the slightest sign of an amelioration; on the contrary, I must assert that the actual state is worse than it has been. In my opinion, the report of the civil agents aims to deceive Europe and cover the deplorable failure of the Mürzsteg program and the pitiable comedy played by the Powers on the Balkan Peninsula.”

The sunnier report of the Civil Agents had concluded that the majority of the refugees had been returned to their homes and that most of the villages and towns destroyed and burned during the insurgency had been repaired and reconstructed. In 1903, according to Stoicovski, 198 Christian villages had been destroyed and 12,241 houses burned. There were 70,000 displaced and there were 30,000 refugees, while 1,500 were imprisoned. Of the refugees, 6,000, or 20%, were estimated to have returned. Food and housing shortages remained.

However, according to critics like Captain Nandrup, the funds allocated by the Turkish government for the reconstruction and relief effort were insufficient to feed and house the refugees and displaced during the winter. The Macedonian population faced famine conditions, and most of the destroyed and burned houses had not in fact been rebuilt.

Public security in Macedonia had deteriorated to a point where it was worse than it had been before the arrival of Nandrup and the other Western reformers. Very little had actually changed on the ground. Murders, assaults, and robberies continued. The Turkish officials were able to do nothing against this, but sometimes got to participate.

Further, very little had been achieved by way of judicial reforms. An unfair system of taxation remained in Macedonia for Christians. The planned financial reorganization had not proven effective, even though the Ottoman military force in Macedonia had been reduced. Nandrup calculated that the budget of the three Macedonian vilayets should have produced a surplus of at least 15 million francs a year. But the officers in the army and the public officials did not receive their salaries regularly. Observers noted that the two Civil Agents were placed in a helpless and awkward position.

Nandrup emphasized four factors which impeded the reforms as explained by the Civil Agents: 1) the resistance and obstruction of the Turkish authorities, 2) the poor economy, 3) the revolutionary propaganda, and, 4) the hostilities between the Christian groups.

Of course, it was not all the fault of the Turks and the Westerners. Nandrup noted how Bulgarian and Greek “propaganda” played a role in the conflict. He noted how Bulgarian Committees agitated in Macedonia and how Greeks sought to “Hellenize” parts of Macedonia. There were obvious tensions between Greeks and Bulgarians and their respective agendas.

Nandrup reported that there were twelve massacres in the region during his year-long stay in Skopje. He criticized political leaders for not acting decisively and forcefully. But he also noted a lack of energy on the part of the officers who were charged by the Great Powers to lead the police reorganization in Macedonia. In his final thoughts, the Norwegian questioned whether the whole mission had not really been a foolish mistake:

“when you have abandoned a position in your own country, hoping to be able to use your capacity in helping a suffering people, and you see yourself reduced to playing the part of a fool in a pitiable comedy, then you cannot feel at ease, and I am longing for the day when I can return home.”

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.

Looking for More Publications?

Find articles in the Central And Eastern European Online Library (CEEOL)

Buy articles and e-books for Amazon Kindle

2004-2009 Back Archives