06 August 2010

West European Interference in the Balkans in the Era of Balkan Decolonialization: The Timeline



It is not popularly known, but the history of West European interference in the Balkan region is prolonged and goes back to the 19th century. The level of meddling in those times ranged from mild diplomatic involvement in issues like Romanian unification to the nearly megalomaniacal with the drawing and redrawing of borders of the Balkans from afar at the 1878 Congress of Berlin. The first instance of Western interference in the Balkans dates to distant 1827. Before that tremors of the actions undertaken by West European Powers could be felt on the peninsula – in 1813 Revolutionary Serbia, in constant warfare with the Ottomans and with fluid borders, but independent and holding its own, collapsed shortly after the French invasion of Russia deprived it of Russian aid - but there was no deliberate interference.

In 1821 a Greek revolt flared up in the Ottoman Empire, bringing to the forefront the so called Eastern Question, or how the matter of the obviously declining Turkish Empire was to be resolved. In this instance the West European Powers recognised that the weight of the moral argument was with the subjugated Greeks, but at the same time felt that contraction of Turkish strength was not in their interest and so found themselves in a bind.

In the end Britain and France intervened on the Greek side militarily but only by mistake. Britain's initial approach had been to take action to delay a pro-Greek intervention by Russia - in order to give the Turks the time needed to suppress the revolt. This strategy became unpractical given that meanwhile a new, more adventuristic tsar willing to wage war against the Ottomans on his own if need be was crowned in Russia. So in an attempt to prevent Russia going to war with Turkey – which would surely leave the Ottoman Empire weakened and possibly vulnerable to further territorial losses - it won it over for a joint show of force at sea designed to force the Porte to appease the Greeks by granting them autonomy. The naval demonstration however turned into a battle when, faced with the bellicose British commander, the Turks ended up firing on the combined British-French-Russian fleet which then proceeded to devastate its Turkish-Egyptian counterpart. Russia used this as the pretext to launch its war. After it won it the other Powers did what they could to limit its gains and to preserve as much Ottoman strength as they could.

Before this official intervention there had already been a private intervention. Significant funds were raised via private donations in West Europe for the Greek cause and a few thousand Philhellenes travelled from West Europe to Greece to battle alongside the Greeks – where not uncommonly they were disappointed to find the earthy Greeks to be the farthest thing from the cultured Hellenes of their imagination. And so right from its onset Western interference in the region was fuelled less by understanding of the realities of the region and more by Western preconceptions of it.

The Greek Revolt of the 1820s would mark the first and the only time West Europe was to, even if in a very limited manner, intervene against the Ottoman Empire and in favour of the subjugated Christians. From therefore on it would become a reliable and generous backer of the semi-medieval, oriental empire.
Next in the 1850s the Powers of West Europe went to war with Russia over the Eastern Question. After fighting broke out between Russia and the Ottoman Empire on the Danube, Britain and France came out on the side of the Turks declaring war on Russia. Sardinia joined the war later hoping to win favour with the British and the French for its project of Italian unification. Also Austria while neutral for the duration of the war, was mobilized during much of it and so forced the Russians to keep a large portion of their troops in Galicia, and away from the battlefields.

The war was fought outside the Balkans, in the Crimea, the Caucasus and the Baltics, however the future of the Balkans and other imperial possessions of the Ottomans were very much what it was being fought over. The war was militarily a debacle for all involved and became for its time the showpiece of futility of war, however it was marginally successful in that Russia was eventually forced to yield. A provision of the Treaty of Paris, the settlement that concluded the war stripped Russia of its role as a sole guarantor of the rights of the Christians in the Ottoman Empire – de facto leaving them without one. In the end West Europe found it acceptable to suffer 125,000 dead to prop up the Ottoman Empire against the Russians and keep the Eastern Question closed, entrenching, for the time being, the Turkish hold on the Balkans.

A side episode of the Crimean War consisted of Western gunboat diplomacy directed against Greece. When in 1854 a Greek revolt broke out in Epirus against the Turks, France and Britain responded by dispatching naval squadrons to blockade the Greek port of Piraeus in order to force Greece to cut the aid to the rebels and to ensure its neutrality. Where the Greek revolt of the 1820s had won sympathies in the West, now the Western capitals allied with the Porte were taking forceful action to make sure the Turks would be able to put down a revolt which had sprung up in much the same conditions.

A mayor escalation in the level of West European interference in the Balkans followed in the 1870s. Again the Balkanites forced open the Eastern Question by rising up in rebellion against the Turks. First was in 1875 an insurrection (first of Catholics followed by the Orthodox) in Herzegovina, soon joined by a parallel Serbian revolt in Bosnia, followed the next year by what was to be known as the April Rising in Bulgaria. No matter the attempts of the West to keep the Eastern Question closed, the Balkanites had blew open its lid, paving the way for the Great Eastern Crisis of 1875-78.

The revolts were not outright successes militarily, only in the rugged Herzegovina was an exhausting mutual stalemate between the insurrectionists and the Ottomans reached. However as the Turks resorted to great violence in combating them they served to demonstrate that medieval Turkish rule in the Balkans was being maintained only by brutality. Particularly the crimes of the Turkish bashi-bazouk irregulars in Bulgaria or "Bulgarian horrors" received much attention.

The atrocities - and the attention given to them - which accompanied the Turkish suppression of the uprisings against their rule made it impossible for Britain to come to the aid of Turkey once Russia, in a fit of Panslavic enthusiasm, declared war on it. In a hard fought campaign the Russians eventually reached the outskirts of Constantinople.

The ensuing peace settlement, the Treaty of San Stefano, had Turkey relinquish control over Bulgaria whose borders were drawn almost fully in accordance with the ethnographic situation on the ground. Despite this the Western Powers interceded and at the Congress of Berlin supported the Austrian demand for the bulk of this Bulgarian territory be returned into the clutches of the Ottomans. Russia, suffering from war exhaustion was forced to acquiesce and so the larger number of Bulgarians were reverted to Turkish rule, either directly in Macedonia or indirectly in East Rumelia which was to be made an autonomous Ottoman province under a Christian governor but not permitted to maintain an army.

The Congress likewise authorised Austria to occupy and administer rebellious Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the time only under a tenuous Turkish hold, and to station forces in the district of Novi Pazar, thus driving a wedge between Montenegro and Serbia. The actual exercise of putting Bosnia and Herzegovina under their control cost the Austrians 1,000 dead and 4,000 wounded as Muslims of the two regions self-organised a defence against the oncoming occupational army.

The Austrian interest in this expansion was not so much territorial aggrandizement as was preventing any form of South Slav statehood which was important to them for their own domestic reasons. The Austrians had rightly realised that Turkish rule was unsustainable in Bosnia and in Herzegovina, but did not wish to permit the natural alternative to it - autonomy akin to that enjoyed by Serbia, or that of East Rumelia. Thus the rebels who rose up in 1875 to rid themselves of their colonial overlords merely ended up switching one set of colonial masters for another. The main reason which led them to resort to rebellion, the question of land ownership and feudal relations persisted and would in the end not be addressed until 1918 when the Austrian colonialists were finally forced to leave.

The British, which had been at the Congress as combative as the Austrians, likewise rewarded themselves with a bounty and for services rendered demanded, and received, Cyprus which they would go on to occupy until 1960 and which they continue to garrison until this very day. In the end such was the price exacted for the diplomatic support shown that the Turks ended up ceding nearly as much territory to their Austrian and English backers as they did to their Russian enemies.

The arrangement of Berlin passed down by the Powers of West Europe on the Balkanites soon proved unsustainable as in 1885 Bulgarians in autonomous East Rumelia proclaimed their unification with vassal Bulgaria which the Turks were not able to stop, and which uncharacteristically the Western Powers chose not to oppose – owing to Bulgaria having fallen out with the Russian throne two years earlier. They did however oppose the plans of Greece to profit from the situation and move across their state border in the manner of Bulgarians. In May of 1886 they once more resorted to gunboat diplomacy and blockaded Greek ports. At the same time the Austrians encouraged their client Milan Obrenovich of Serbia to attack Bulgaria, which he did. His unmotivated army, which had been initially told was marching against the Turk to the aid of the Bulgarians was quickly routed and the war brief.

The Eastern Question in the Balkans was opened again before the end of the century, via the usual route - a revolt of the downtrodden Christians. In 1897 Crete's Christian Greek majority which, with the island's Greek speaking Turks mostly confined to Crete's towns also dominated nearly all of the island's expanse, rose up in one of their periodic revolts and quickly took control of the island - but for four coastal towns. They proclaimed island's union with Greece which promptly transported small forces of its own to the island to plant the flag.

No later than this the European Powers intervened. They blockaded the island to all fleets, at a time that Greece had a naval advantage over Turkey in the Aegean and contemplated blockading Greece itself. Likewise, troops from the six Great Powers were dispatched to the island bringing about the first instance of what we now know under its propagandistic label of "multinational peacekeeping".

They would go on to stay for over a decade, but for the troops of Austria and Germany which were withdrawn the next year, but with the understanding that they would be consulted about any mayor changes in regard to the island's status and the remaining foreign troops would continue to act as the guarantee of Sultan's sovereignty over the island. The legal status of Crete enforced by the fleets and the occupation of the Powers was that of an autonomous protectorate, nominally subordinate to the Ottoman Empire.

Terms as they were soon proved unsustainable and anti-occupation disturbances in 1905 led to a passing of a new statue the next year that granted further concessions to the Greeks. The occupiers began departing in 1908, their intervention cut short by the Young Turk coup. Even before their evacuation was complete Crete once again declared its ties to Turkey void, proclaiming union with Greece instead. Due to the protestations of the Powers however Greece did not allow this to become fully a reality, only formally incorporating Crete in 1913.

The remarkable thing about the intervention in Crete was that Russia went along with it with no less energy and motivation than the Powers of West Europe. Previously the traditional patron of the Balkan peoples Russia had, roughly since its defeat at the negotiation table at the Congress of Berlin, abandoned this role coming instead to be preoccupied with Central Asia and the Far East. Consequentially it came to believe the existence of the Ottoman Empire was in its interest since it precluded the possibility of a rival Great Power establishing its presence on the Bosphorus which it felt it could ill afford, the Bosphorus representing a major trade route of its.

In 1904 followed what was to be the last foreign intervention in the Ottoman era Balkans. In 1903, after some years of low scale fighting, there had been a general Bulgarian rising in Macedonia. It was quickly put down in blood with all the settlements speedily recaptured to Turkish control, but the fighting failed to subside as numerous guerrilla bands continued to offer resistance. The Turks responded with violence against the population that supported them.

The Powers in turn demanded of Turkey to implement a programme of reform drawn by Austria and Russia in 1902 and dispatched to the region a mission consisting of military officers and gendarmes to report on the progress of the reforms and to help carry them out. Turkey accepted this very unwillingly and only after a show of force, correctly seeing it as a severe violation of its sovereignty, however this was decidedly not an anti-Turkish intervention in the minds of the Powers. On the contrary, the Powers saw their interest as in maintaining the status quo, which meant also continuing the unpopular Turkish rule in Macedonia. However since Turkey was proving incapable of maintaining its authority, they moved in themselves intending to pressure Turkey to create conditions – appeasement of Christians coupled with better policing and administrative reform - which in their view would be a better guarantee of the status quo.

The Powers first centred on the reform of the Turkish gendarmerie which was an institution of particularly ill repute, considered to be violent, corrupt and ineffectual. Shortly after they also drew up something called the 'International Commission of Finance' to oversee, inspect and advise the Turkish bureaucracy in regard to taxation and anti-corruption measures. To carry out the programme the five intervening Powers; Austria, Russia, Britain, France and Italy divided up Macedonia into areas of responsibility which their respective personnel would centre on. Austria additionally secured that the reform would not apply to all areas where downtrodden Christians lived. Western districts of villayets of Kosovo and Monastir whose wretched Christians who being subject to banditry by Albanian tribesmen probably needed protection the most, were left out due to Austrian desire to carry favour with the Albanians. Towards the end of the intervention the Powers were intent on widening the reform programme to encompass judicial institutions as well, but in the end this came to nothing.

Not much came out of the rest of the intervention either. The lot of the Christians was not improved as the reform programme was very moderate to begin with and additionally little of it was ever implemented in practice. To the end the personnel of the Powers in Turkey had only a surveillance role, but no direct authority and the Turks resenting having the Powers interfere with the running of their empire, only did so much so as to have an alibi before the foreign agents. Thus the reforms were a mirage that was useful for the Powers to feign humanitarian concern, but one that did nothing to improve stability and reassure the geopolitical status quo as the Powers had hoped. Macedonians after initially having their hopes raised came quickly to regarded the ineffectual foreign efforts as irrelevant and contrary to the hopes of the foreign reformers continued to place their faith with the comitee guerillas. Rebellion in Macedonia continued for the duration of the Power's stay. In 1909, following the Young Turk coup in Constantinople and the loss of credibility with the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina - up until then still nominally Turkish - the Powers departed.

See part II The Context here.
See part III The Outcome here.

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