Serbia, Relations with

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From the first days of the initial Serb uprising in 1804 (against the tyranny of the Janissaries, military units that had evolved from being the elite troops of the Ottoman Empire into semi-independent occupiers) until 1878 (when Belgrade obtained complete independence from the Porte at the Congress of Berlin), relations with Serbia were central to Russia's foreign policy. However, as Serbia pursued both independence from Istanbul and expansion of the state to include all Serb lands (Bosnia, Hercegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Vojvodina), Russia often found itself drawn into Serbian foreign affairs as Belgrade came to depend upon (and use) Russian support for its own ends. This led to a relationship that offered Serbia the greatest advantages as St. Petersburg became captive to two critical forces: 1) the emergence of Panslavism, a movement that stressed the solidarity of the Slavic peoples ostensibly under Russian leadership, and 2) the Eastern Question, the increasing vacuum in southeastern Europe brought about by the rapid decay of the once great Ottoman Empire, which presented an inviting target of opportunity for the great powers.

The romantic image of Orthodox Christians fighting the Muslim Turks for freedom continuously vexed St. Petersburg. On the one hand, advisers generally supported a policy of moderation in the region and a concentration on domestic needs. However, Panslavists, who had a powerful effect upon Russian public opinion, attacked the notion of passivity toward their Christian and Slavic brethren who, they claimed, were suffering at the hands of either the Turks or the Habsburgs.

After the disastrous Crimean War and the subsequent humiliating Treaty of Paris in 1856, Russia was confronted by conflicting goals: the need to deal with internal problems as well as to restore its influence in the Balkans. When a revolt began in Hercegovina against the Turks in 1875, the lore and lure of Slavic Christians rising up against their Muslim occupiers proved to be intoxicating. Russians immediately volunteered to support the insurrection. General M. G. Chernyayev took command of the Serbian army, and by 1876 Serbia was at war with the Porte.

The conflict however was disastrous for Serbia. Not only was the country poorly prepared for war, but friction arose between the Russian and Serbian forces as Chernyayev proved to be an inept commander. While events inside Serbia deteriorated, St. Petersburg concluded a series of agreements with Vienna, providing that in the event Russia went to war with the Turks, the Habsburgs would be neutral.

In April 1877, Panslavist pressure forced Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov to join the conflict, the Russo-Turkish War of 18771878. Despite military setbacks, Russia forced the Turks to sign the Treaty of San Stefano. However, Russia's victory proved to be short-lived as the other great powers quickly blocked St. Petersburg's designs to obtain primacy in the region through the creation of a "big" Bulgaria. At the 1878 Congress of Berlin, the powers compelled Russia to concede on the issue of an enlarged Bulgarian state, while the Turks were forced to grant complete independence to Serbia (as well as Romania and Greece). However, Russian support for Bulgaria had alienated Belgrade. For the next quarter-century, Serbia distanced itself from Russia. Only the murder of King Alexander Obrenovic in 1903 and the assumption of power by Peter Karadjordjevic led to a reorientation of Serbian policy back to regional cooperation and a reliance on Russia (especially after the Bosnian crisis of 19081909, which saw the formal annexation of Bosnia-Hercegovina by Austria-Hungary).

Weakened by the events of the Russo-Japanese War of 19041905 and the Revolution of 1905, Russia could not challenge Vienna in 1908 on behalf of its Serbian client state. Nevertheless, the Bosnian crisis pushed Belgrade and St. Petersburg closer together. The former became solely dependent upon Russia for support among the great powers, while the latter realized that it had to support its Serbian ally in the future lest it lose influence in the region. Russia now sought to foster a regional alliance between Serbia and Bulgaria, an act that led to the formation of a Balkan League and subsequently the Balkan Wars of 19121913. These wars, the unintended consequence of Russia's attempt to create a defensive alliance in the region to counter the Habsburgs, further destabilized southeastern Europe and left Russia even more tethered to Belgrade.

During the days and weeks following the assassination of Habsburg archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, Russia steadfastly backed its sole remaining Balkan ally, a critical factor leading to the outbreak of World War I. In its attempt to support Belgrade against Austro-Hungarian demands, Russia now found itself immersed in a conflict for which it was ill prepared and that would lead to the destruction of the Romanov monarchy.

See also: bulgaria, relations with; montenegro, re lations with; panslavism; turkey, relations with; yugoslavia, relations with


Glenny, Misha. (2000). The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 18041999. New York: Viking Penguin.

Jelavich, Barbara. (1974). St. Petersburg and Moscow: Tsarist and Soviet Foreign Policy, 18141974. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jelavich, Charles, and Jelavich, Barbara. (1977). The Establishment of the Balkan National States, 18041920. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Rossos, Andrew. (1981). Russia and the Balkans: Inter-Balkan Rivalries and Russian Foreign Policy, 19081914. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Richard Frucht