21 August 2010

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


(See The Timeline for part I.)

In the timeframe of the the struggle for Balkan decolonialization (1804-1912) the West European powers intervened in the region on many occasions. Keeping in line with their interest in preserving the Ottoman Empire they did so on the side of the Ottomans and against the cause of freedom in the Balkans.

The involvement can be divided into two periods. The first one when it was in their view directed against Russia. And the second period after the Russian throne had lost its previous interest in challenging the status quo in the region and West European Powers were to intervene jointly with Russia.

Ottoman Empire in the 19th century was an empire in obvious decline. Territorially it was still enormous covering a vast expanse of land from the Persian Gulf to the Balkans and from the Caucasus to Algeria however it was increasingly unable to hold onto its lands in the face of encroaching rival empires and native revolt.

France and Britain, albeit not loathe to take advantage of the Ottoman decline to win influence and lands in North Africa and the Middle East, did not see that they could profit from the Ottoman retreat in the Balkans and the Transcaucusus and so sought to prevent Russia from profiting there herself. This put them on course of backing the Turks against Russia and internal insurrections.

The Habsburg Empire, which had once seen Turkey as its sworn enemy and its historical mission to lead the fight against the Turk, came in the period to see itself as internally weak and unable to absorb any more Slav land in the Balkans, and as a result loathed above all to see the Ottoman Empire retreat from its borders and see it replaced by national Balkan states – which would in one fell swoop both, eliminate the rationale for its existence, as well as showcase the alternative to it.

Thus the Western powers had their own reasons valid to them to favour the course of action undertaken. Their rationales were not borne of malevolence but of high politics. To the Balkanites however the fight against the Turks was categorically not a matter of grand politics. They knew of no issue such as the "Eastern Question", only the matter of their freedom. And so in their national and class struggle against their imperial overlords the Powers of West Europe were to repeatedly come out on the side of their oppressors and to throw obstacles on their path to liberation.

It is not necessary for a people to be oppressed in order to have the right to break free from an empire, it has the right to self-determination regardless. Christians and non-Muslims in general in the Ottoman Empire however indeed were a subjugated and institutionally oppressed caste. It has become fashionable to speak of something called the "Ottoman tolerance", but this does not match the grim historical reality. Perhaps the aspect of the Christian's oppression that was the most far reaching was that their testimony was inadmissible in court. As such in the case of dispute with any Moslem they could expect the power of the state to assert itself against them. If the role of the state is to defend the property and the lives of its populace then the Ottoman Empire only fulfilled this role in any measure in regard to the Moslems, but did not attempt to provide the Christians even the protection against private, non-state predation. Nominally the Christians were granted the right to testify in court in 1877, but the status on paper and the working of Ottoman institutions in reality were worlds apart. While Christians could now be heard in court, they could not necessarily expect their testimony to count for much. As late as 1904 a British journalist H. N. Brailsford could observe that:

"A man may be imprisoned for months or years without a trial, and as often as not he is released without a trial - particularly if his friends have managed to collect a sufficiently handsome bribe. When a trial does take place before judges who are as corrupt and ignorant as they are subservient and prejudiced, it is, as a rule, a mere formality, particularly if the accused is a Christian. It is not accurate to say, as is sometimes done, that the word of a Christian is not admitted as evidence, but it is true that no evidence is considered at all unless it confirms the preconceptions of the court."

Additionally to being oppressive and a guarantee of chaos rather than of security the 19th century Ottoman Empire was comparatively backward in the economic sense. Thus to the native elites of the Balkan peoples it appeared that leaving its confines was the necessary and urgent precondition if they were to modernize and catch up with the rest of Europe. Once the Turks were expelled this expected rapid level of growth failed to come true, but even so the level of economic advancement was noteable compared to the near stagnation in the last years of Turkish rule.

The revolts of Balkan Christians are to be first and foremost understood as wars of class. As uprisings of the lowly and the unprotected against the empowered and the privileged, seeking to secure a system for themselves where they would have the guarantees for their life and the property that they lacked under the Ottoman regime. After that they are best explained as aiming to cast off obstacles to modernization. Thirdly they were wars of national liberation aiming to secure independent political existence for its own sake.

Britain and France opposed this process. They did so with the view to check Russia assuming any Balkan national states would be only appendages of Russia. This was a presumption that was to prove mistaken. Even Bulgaria, which as a country liberated by the Russian soldier in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War was the prime candidate to remain for decades to come a Russian dependency, in 1883 already broke for the first time with the Russian throne. In truth the Balkan elites quickly came to the view that their interest were best fulfilled by courting all of the Powers. In as much as they chose to lean on Russia it was because their room for manoeuvre had been narrowed given the fact that only Russia was favourably predisposed to them while the other Powers were predisposed towards the Porte. Russian military and diplomatic aid and intervention was actively sough but the subsequent paternalistic tutelage of the Russian throne was resisted and relatively quickly shaken off.

The basic presumption on which the policy of Britain and France rested – that the retreat of the Turkish empire and its replacement by Balkan national states was bound to empower Russia and was therefore unfavourable for their geostrategic position - was ill-founded. With an approach that in the Balkans championed the struggle for decolonialization rather than the receding Turkish Empire the Balkan states could have proven as useful obstacle to Russian control of the Straits as were the Ottomans.

However the path chosen was not only the result of strategic thinking. To a lesser extent it was also a matter of sentiment. The politics of most European countries in the 19th century Europe were set by the respective country's aristocratic class. While the aristocratic Europe had little in common with the upper class Turks who they found themselves dealing with, it had even less in common with the tattered, rebellious, near universally illiterate Christians of the Empire. The Turks were "Orientals", but they were aristocrats, if of an inferior variet. Besides the Balkanites reminded them too much of the troublemakers in Ireland, in Algeria and in their other imperial possessions. In the end any eventual co-religionists solidarity was overpowered by a class solidarity of the conservative classes and the solidarity of colonial empires when presented with a band of insurrectionists.

Naturally this feeling was not universal. Most commonly dissenters were to be found in the ranks of liberals. The British liberals, bourgeois in sentiment if not always in lineage, famously and with great vigour argued during the Great Eastern Crisis that the pro-Turkish path undertaken by the ruling conservatives was immoral. And further west in the solidly bourgeois United States Mark Twain in 1869 plainly wrote:

"If ever an oppressed race existed, it is this one we see fettered around us under the inhuman tyranny of the Ottoman Empire. I wish Europe would let Russia annihilate Turkey a little—not much, but enough to make it difficult to find the place again without a divining-rod or a diving-bell."

The shift in the attitude of official Russia towards the Balkans can be symbolically dated to the year 1881 when it entered the League of the Three Emperors linking it with Austria and Germany. From then on it consistently favoured the preservation of the Ottoman Empire. Seeing that it could realise gains more easily in Asia where it would not have to face opposition of a coalition of Great Powers. In the light of this the regime of the Straits, open to commercial shipping, but closed off to war vessels of all flags, ceased to be a real irritant, it even performed a vital defensive function for it since it had no Black Sea fleet to speak of, ever since it had been sunk in the Crimean War.

It became only more determined to act in the interest of the status quo in the Balkans as the importance of the Bosphorus trade route for it was increasing rapidly, making it more sensitive to the issue just as the future status of the zone and it ability to trade through uninterrupted and for the long term was growing more insecure.

In the last few decades before the First World War Russia was developing rapidly. Its exported grain and raw materials funding the importation of machinery. Its industrialisation thus depended on the grain exports, which in turn depended on the free passage through the Bosphorus. Up to one half of all of its exports and more than three quarters of its grain exports passed through the Straits. Even a crisis that did not involve it could temporarily threaten this commerce - during the Italo-Turkish War the Turks in response to Italian naval raids mined the Bosphorus thus also cutting off Russian trade. But what was truly alarming to the Russians was the possibility of a strong, third power establishing itself on the Straits. Russia could not allow this and remain an independent power.

However its felt that in the case that the Ottoman Empire would be brought down and partitioned its was poorly positioned to secure its vital interest and seize the Straits, but that they would instead probably fall to some other player. For that reason its sought to postpone the end of the Turkish Empire doing what its could to preserve it and intended to stay on this course for the foreseeable future. If Russian leadership still dreamed of crushing the Turks and capturing Constantinople, it was now no more a potential policy goal, but for the foreseeable future indeed just a day dream.

This aligned its policies with the other Powers which ironically sought to preserve the Ottoman Empire in order to check Russia. No West European Power wished to see Russia on the Straits. This continued to be an important guide for French and British foreign policy even after they allied with Russia in 1904 and 1907 respectively.

There were other reasons for Great Power posture in regard to the Ottoman Empire. Austria continued to look unfavourably on any victories of South Slavs and also of the national Balkan states – except if they were to prove hostile to Serbia. Italy disliked Greece and did not wish to see its position strengthened. Germany thought to tie Turkey to itself and so preferred there be strength left in the Turks. German activities raised suspicion in Britain and France and Italy similarly worried about Austria expansion.

In general all powers had only limited objectives in the region, but were deeply suspicious about the intentions of their rivals and overestimated the extent of their true ambitions. Consequentially all of them felt that should there be an upset of the status quo the potential downside far outweighed the potential upside. Thus the natural path for all of them was the preservation of the status quo and their own territorial expansion in the areas was for the most part only thought of as a reserve option. A path to pursue only should the disintegration and partition of the empire become inevitable.

The other mayor consideration that guided the policy of Britain, France and of Germany was that Ottoman Empire was in essence a dependency of theirs. The dysfunctional late 19th century Ottoman Empire was not an independent state. It had little room for independent action in matters of foreign policy and foreigners dictated even many of its internal policies. As long as it was intended on clutching to its imperial possessions it was utterly dependant on foreign Powers. Powers provided it crucial diplomatic and financial support which in turn allowed them great sway over its policies. Ottoman Empire was a client state. It was not a client of a single power, but of a multitude of powers. Thus a British liberal minister George Campbell could write in 1879:

"It is not 'easy to realise fully the position of our Consuls in Turkey. Foreign Consuls in this country are nobodies. ... But foreign Consuls in Turkey are Potentates. Not only do they exercise, as we have seen, a jurisdiction of great influence over their own countrymen resident in Turkey, ... they exercise a powerful influence over these authorities, and through them over the native population. It is the aim and object of every foreign Consul in Turkey to extend this influence, in the interests of his own Government."

The Ottoman Empire had fallen into massive debt with France and Britain in the 1850s in order to fund its participation in the Crimean War and to fund its ineffectual Tanzimat reform programme. It continued to lend heavily after that time. In 1875, the year it proclaimed bankruptcy three quarters of its budged went to servicing its debt. After the bankruptcy loans were continued to be made available to it, but only under the condition that it would sacrifice independence in the area of finance. A Council of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration was imposed on it, a massive bureaucracy representing foreign bondholders that controlled some of the Ottoman revenue streams in order to funnel the collected funds to the creditors and so ensure the repayment of loans.

The cash starved Turks lacked the funds to develop infrastructure themselves and so resorted to granting concessions to foreign companies for roads and railways. This brought foreigners material gain and prestige. Such concessions were won by equal parts of wooing and pressure. Aside from its railways, foreigners controlled its banking sector. They also had other commercial ventures such as mines and operation of lighthouses.

A German military mission arrived in 1882 and did not leave until 1918. At one point in time simultaneously an Englishman was in charge of rebuilding the Ottoman navy, a German in charge of reforming its army and an Italian in charge of reforming its police.

Such was the severity of Ottoman semi-colonial position that foreigners, citizens of some of the great power enjoyed extra-territorial legal status and the Porte did not control even such a basic function of the state as tariffs. If they wished to raise tariffs the Turks had to first secure the approval of foreigners.

All of this meant the powers had a great stake in the Ottoman Empire. A stake that was not merely geopolitical but financial, commercial and colonial. They had loans at stake, and operation of monopolist railways projects, and banking ventures and mines. An eventual disintegration of the Empire would have meant the loans extended would never be repaid. The many opportunities for commercial concessions would disappear. And worst of all their power in the region would subside.

Such sway as they held with the Porte would be impossible to replicate if its lands instead fell into the hands of some rival power or were divided among successor national states. On the eve of the Balkan Wars the Balkan national states were confident and ambitious, the Powers did not command even a portion of influence in their capitals that they commanded with the Ottoman Sultan.

Naturally then the Powers were inclined to preserve this client-state of theirs and did not see its retreat as in their interest. As long as the Ottoman Empire was kept in existence they would through it hold great sway in that part of the world. Chiefly France, Germany and Britain competed among themselves which of them would hold the most power, but as long as it seemed that none of them could decisively edge out the rest it was in their mutual interest to preserve the Turkish Empire and thus preserve the arrangement the most opportune for the maintenance and the further growth of their influence in that part of the world.

See part III The outcome here.

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