Balkan Crises (1870s)

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Regional unrest led to independence for much of the peninsula but no permanent solutions.

As the Ottoman Empire decayed in the nineteenth century, various crises erupted in the empire's European regions as a result of the national awakening of its Christian subjects. Religious conflict and economic oppression led the Christian peasants of Herzegovina to revolt in July 1875, and despite Ottoman promises of reform, the uprising continued and soon spread into neighboring Bosnia. Despite diplomatic intervention by the Austro-Hungarians aimed at bringing an end to the conflict in the Ottoman Empire's two western-most provinces, fighting intensified, and within nine months approximately 156,000 refugees had fled to Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and Montenegro. Public opinion in the latter two states demanded intervention on behalf of their fellow Slavs, whose rebellion was joined in May 1876 by revolutionaries in Bulgaria. In that same month, the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German governments, associated in the Three Emperors' League, tried to mediate the conflict. The resulting Berlin Memorandum provided that refugees be repatriated, reforms enacted, and that the great powers supervise both. Nevertheless, the plan ran into opposition from the British government of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who was determined to introduce a new, more active foreign policy and unwilling to approve a plan that his government had not cosponsored. Collective mediation thus failed and the following month, Serbia declared war on the empire and Montenegro quickly followed suit.

Britain clung to its policy of nonintervention even after news of Ottoman mass killings in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Horrors, provoked outrage throughout Western Europe. Public pressure for intervention eventually caused Czar Alexander II of Russia to issue an ultimatum to the Ottoman sultan demanding a six-week armistice for the Serbs. The Turks yielded and accepted the armistice on 30 October 1876, but Disraeli's refusal to accept a peace proposal that would have increased Russia's influence in the Balkans led the Turks to reject the settlement. Russia responded on 24 April 1877 by declaring war on the Ottoman Empire.

Russia's armies marched through Romania and into Bulgaria. Despite several months' delay caused by unexpectedly tenacious resistance by the Turkish garrison at Pleven (or Plevna), the Russians resumed their advance in January 1878. As Turkish defenses withered, armistice negotiations began, and Russian forces moved to within 10 miles (16 km) of Istanbul. Meanwhile, the British countered by sending their fleet to the Sea of Marmara as a show of support to the sultan and as a warning to the Russians. Negotiations between the Russians and the Turks ended in the Treaty of San Stefano, which was signed 3 March 1878. The treaty provided that reforms be enacted in Bosnia-Herzegovina and that Serbia and Montenegro become fully independent and receive more territory. Romania, which had entered the war against Turkey, was to receive part of the region of Dobruja, in return for giving southern Bessarabia back to Russia, which also was to receive Batum, Kars, Ardahan, and Bayazid in eastern Asia Minor. A Greater Bulgaria was to be created as an autonomous principality, with an elected prince.

The treaty, however, aroused the opposition of Britain and Austria-Hungary, who feared Russian access to the Aegean and control over Istanbul, and by Greece and Serbia, who could not accept the notion of a Greater Bulgaria that included areas that they coveted, especially Macedonia. The Russians recognized that the San Stefano settlement infringed upon the Peace of Paris (1856), which had, among other provisions, guaranteed Ottoman independence and territorial integrity, and the Russians now acknowledged the right of the signatories to the Paris treaty to consider the provisions of the new settlement. Meeting at the Congress of Berlin, those powers determined that Greater Bulgaria should be divided into three parts: an autonomous Bulgaria, still under Turkish sovereignty but with its own elected prince; Eastern Rumelia, south of the Balkan mountains, which was to have a Christian governor appointed by the sultan but approved by the powers; and Macedonia, which was returned to direct Turkish rule. Serbia and Montenegro now became fully independent and were enlarged, while Romania did receive part of Dobruja in return for ceding southern Bessarabia to Russia. BosniaHerzegovina and the Sanjak of Novi Pazar were placed under the political administration of Austria-Hungary, and Russia received Batum, Kars, and Ardahan, while Cyprus came under British rule.

Signed on 13 July 1878, the Treaty of Berlin was the single most important agreement for the Balkan nations in the nineteenth century. While allowing the Ottoman Empire to maintain its presence in Albania, Macedonia, and Thrace, it left all of the Balkan peoples, with the exception of the Albanians, with independent or autonomous states. Its provisions, however, were an immediate source of frustration to them, and led to further strife and eventually World War I.

see also berlin, congress and treaty of; bulgarian horrors; san stefano, treaty of (1878).


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

Stavrianos, L. S. The Balkans, 18151914. New York: Holt Rinehart, 1963.

John Micgiel