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Carl Savich | Columns | serbianna.com
International Intervention in Kosovo and Macedonia, 1909-1908
The Murzsteg Reform Plan
By Carl Savich
October 6, 2007

Introduction: Crisis in the Kosovo Vilayet, 1903


By 1903, “the international community”, the Great Powers, sought to maintain the status quo in the Kosovo vilayet, a district or province of Ottoman Turkey, known as Turkey in Europe, by organizing an international intervention. An international peacekeeping force was set up in the Kosovo vilayet to implement the Murzsteg Plan, an international agreement intended to bring peace and stability to the province. The Murzsteg Plan merely perpetuated the status quo, however, as the Great Powers sought to advance their interests in the Balkans. The international intervention was an abject failure that only exacerbated the conflict. The “international community”, the Great Powers, used international intervention and humanitarianism as a guise and a smokescreen to secure and advance their economic, military, political, and strategic interests in the Balkan peninsula. The Great Power rivalry in the Balkans would only increase and intensify until it engulfed the region, the continent, and the world in a global conflict, in World War I.

The Murzsteg Reform Plan

On August 2, 1903, Macedonian insurgents began the Ilinden insurrection or uprising in the vilayets of Monastir, Salonika, and Kosovo. The Turks had amassed 150,000 troops in the vilayets, in 175 battalions, in anticipation of a rebellion. Krushevo was attacked and subsequently taken by the Macedonian insurgents who proclaimed a republic, the “Krushevo Republic”. On August 12, the Turkish forces retook the town, reportedly killing over a hundred civilians. Turkish forces were accused of committing atrocities against Orthodox Christian civilians. They were accused of burning 366 houses and 203 stores. Over 700 houses were pillaged and looted. Women were raped and their fingers and ears were cut off to retrieve the jewelry. In the revolt, 201 villages were burned down, 12,400 houses were pillaged, while 4,694 people were killed, 70,835 people were without shelter, and there were 30,000 refugees who fled to Bulgaria.

A woman and child stand in front of their ruined home in Zagorichani after the insurgency in the Kosovo vilayet, circa 1903.

Turkish forces burned and destroyed villages and towns in Macedonia during the insurgency. This is how John Booth described a visit he made to the destroyed and burned village of Kremen:

“Three miles further some strange heaps of rubble lay piled on each side of the path, and we were riding on a thickness of smashed tiles. This was Kremen.

Scrambling to the top of a heap of earth and stones one got the full effect.

Shapeless wall-shoulders stood out of the mass, and the end of a charred beam pointed drunkenly into the sky; all down the hillside below the loose piles bulged and the empty, shorn walls gaped; no sound came up from the crushed houses - no figure moved in the choked streets, hardly traceable in the general level of rubbish; everywhere was desolation and black ruin. …

A year before, it seemed, a band of insurgents from Bulgaria had been lurking in the neighbourhood and no doubt had come to Kremen for food. The people were accused of having harboured revolutionaries, and a body of troops arrived to execute vengeance on the village, which was not done in any haphazard fashion, but deliberately and with fore-thought. The troops brought with them ponies carrying tins of petroleum lashed to their packsaddles, which were unloaded, and the soldiers, producing squirts, soon covered the walls and roofs with the spirit. After each house had been thoroughly sacked the tins were emptied upon piles of bedding and the whole village was fired at a given signal. Lurid descriptions of the usual horrible scenes followed - old men brained whilst trying to protect their daughters; women's hands cut off and their children murdered before their eyes; outrage, pillage, and massacre let loose. Truly the Turkish soldier - quiet enough in peace time - is a demon out of hell when the lust of blood is on him. The police-officer and the escort had the decency to look ashamed of their countrymen's work, and made no effort to hide the worst evidences of it.

A woman stands outside of her destroyed home in Djupanishte in the Kosovo vilayet, circa 1903.

Kremen is only a sample. The countryside is thick with the ruins of Christian villages stamped out in the same way, with the same old weary details in every case. There is nothing new in it all - it did not happen for the first time that year nor fifty years before. It has been going on for centuries, and always will go on until the Christians in Macedonia are given the right to live a freeman's life and the power to uphold that right by the only people who can give it - the Powers of Europe.”

The French ambassador to Russia in St. Petersburg, M. Maurice Bompard, stressed that France wanted “to take a more active part” in Balkan affairs in the aftermath of the insurgency. The British Foreign Ministry stated that “the moment has arrived when Europe cannot remain indifferent” to the events in the three vilayets. British Foreign Secretary from 1900-1905, Lord Landsdowne, the 5th Marquess, Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, called for the establishment of international military control in Macedonia, sending foreign soldiers to assist Hilmi Pasha.

To prevent France and Britain from gaining the diplomatic initiative in Macedonia, Austria-Hungary and Russia sent Turkey a note on September 24, 1903 declaring that they “insist on the program approved by all the Powers”, referring to the Vienna Plan. Landsdowne proposed in a September 29 letter to the British ambassador in Vienna that a Christian government be nominated for Macedonia without attachment to the Balkans or the signatory powers to the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. An alternative proposal was for an Ottoman Turkish governor with European assessors or advisors. He also wanted a reorganization of the gendarmerie with an increase in the number of officers.

The Murzsteg Reform Plan was an Austro-Hungarian and Russian reaction to these initiatives by Britain and France.

Hussein Hilmi Pasha, the Turkish Inspector General of the Kosovo vilayet from 1902-1908.

On September 30, 1903, the Emperor Franz Joseph I and the Czar Nicholas II met at the hunting-lodge of Murzsteg, near Vienna. The second Austro-Hungarian-Russian Reform Scheme was the result of their deliberations, the Murzsteg Reform Plan or Programme. They met ostensibly to ensure that the February reforms, the Vienna Plan reforms, were adequately followed. What resulted, however, were new reforms that incorporated the recommendations of the other powers. On October 22, they submitted the new reforms to the Turkish government. On November 25, the Turks reluctantly accepted the nine points of what came to be known as the Murzsteg program.

The program consisted of nine articles:

1) Special Civil Agents from Austria-Hungary and Russia were to be appointed to the office of the Inspector General, Hilmi Pasha, for two year terms to accompany him and to call to his attention the needs of the Christian population, report on the abuses of the authorities, send their recommendations to the ambassadors in Constantinople, and report on events in the country. Secretaries and Dragomans were to be provided for the Agents to assist them. The goal of the agents was to supervise the implementation of the reforms and to ascertain the needs of the population;

 2) The Turkish gendarmerie and police was to be reorganized. A foreign general was to assume control of the reorganization of the gendarmerie in the three vilayets. He would be in the service of the Turkish government and could add Deputies to his staff, from the military forces of the Great Powers, who would act as instructors, promoters, and supervisors. They would oversee the actions of the Turkish troops towards the population. They could also request additional officers and sub-officers from foreign countries. The failure of the Swedish officers was noted, due to their lack of knowledge of the local conditions and their inability to speak any of the local languages;

 3) As soon as stability was restored, the Turkish government was to modify the administrative divisions of the country to reflect a regular or nature grouping of different nationalities. The Turkish policy was one of gerrymandering the districts and vilayets to ensure Muslim dominance and to pit one nationality or religious or ethnic group against another. The policy was one of Divide et Impera: Divide and Rule. Moreover, in the Ottoman Empire, there were only two divisions, based on religion. There were the Muslims, who ruled, and the Christians, who were the servants;

The ruins of a village outside of Ochrid in Macedonia in 1904, destroyed during the 1903 insurgency.

 4) Administrative and judicial institutions were to be reorganized to include local Christians. Local autonomy was to be encouraged;
 5) Mixed Commissions formed of an equal number of Christians and Muslim Delegates were to be established in the main cities of the vilayets to review and examine the political and other crimes committed during the insurgency. The consular representatives of Russia and Austria-Hungary were to participate in these Commissions;

 6) The Turkish government was to provide special funds for the return of refugees who fled to Bulgaria and other regions to their places of origin. Christians who lost their possessions and savings and homes were to be assisted. Houses, churches, and schools destroyed by Turkish forces during the insurgency were to be restored. Commissions will decide how the money is to be distributed with the participation of prominent Christians in the community. The use of the funds will be supervised by Russian and Austro-Hungarian consuls;

 7) In Christian villages burned down by Turkish troops and Bashi Bazouks, the inhabitants were to be returned to their homes and be exempt from paying taxes for one year;

 8) The Turkish government was to reintroduce the February reforms of the Vienna Plan and those reforms which were made necessary subsequently; and,

 9) The Turkish government was to lay off ilaves, Redifs of II class, reserve troops of the Turkish army. The formation of groups of Bashi Bazouks, irregular forces, was to be absolutely prevented. Most of the “excesses and cruelties” of the insurgency were ascribed to the ilaves and the Bashi Bazouks.

The St. Sophia Orthodox Church which was converted into a Muslim mosque.

The Turks perceived “the foreign encroachment like a real humiliation.” The program was seen as violating the sovereignty of Turkey. The Great Powers acted under the mandate created by the 1878 Congress of Berlin. The imposition of the Civil Agents was seen “as an interference from Russia and Austria in internal affairs.” The vali of Salonika, Hassen Fehmi Pasha, regarded the program as follows: “Rather than humiliate us in this way it would be worth inciting us simply to evacuate Macedonia.” The announcement of the reforms created “a strong impression” in Constantinople. For Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece, it precluded them from having a say in the affairs of the vilayets, while increasing the influence of Austria-Hungary at the expense of Russia. IMRO and the Supreme or Vrhovist Committees rejected the Murzsteg reforms. They saw it as a stop-gap measure that was insufficient to achieve any meaningful goals in changing the status quo. Boris Saravov called the program the establishment of “the Austro-Russian protectorate”. Krste Tatarchev called for the recall of Hilmi Pasha, who he regarded as “too docile of massacres.” IMRO did not disarm and continued to solicit funds for a renewed insurgency.

Was the foreign intervention in the Kosovo vilayet legal? Did it violate the sovereignty of Turkey? Ultimately, the intervention was legitimized by force, military force. The foreign intervention in the Kosovo vilayet was the result of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. The legal mandate of the Great Powers in the Kosovo vilayet was established by force, by war. The unstated assumption was that if Turkey did not abide by the dictates of the great powers, the war against Turkey would be resumed, the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War would continue. If Turkey did not accept foreign intervention in the Kosovo vilayet voluntarily, the Great Powers would use force to make Turkey relent. In many respects, the foreign intervention was merely a continuation of the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War by other means. In other words, foreign intervention was war by other means. Ottoman Turkey had initially occupied the Kosovo vilayet by force, by military invasion and occupation. Now the Great Powers based their right or legitimacy to intervene based on military force. Actual military force or the threat of military force provided the sole legitimacy or legal basis. The language was that of force. The Kosovo vilayet was a spoil of war.

Russian Czar Nicholas II was the co-sponsor of the Murzsteg Plan with Franz Joseph I.

The flaws of the reforms were that the measures proposed were under-funded or not funded at all. The officials, policemen, and soldiers were not regularly salaried. This created an incentive to maintain the status quo. No general amnesty was offered to the insurgents. Article 5 of the program established a commission to review and evaluate amnesty claims, but the uncertainty precluded refugees from returning to face jeopardy. Finally, the British government wanted a Christian governor to supervise the reforms instead of a Turkish subject in the service of the Turkish government. This presented a conflict of interest that made the implementation of the reforms unworkable. The reforms put the vilayets under international control. They also put Macedonia under the control of six European Powers, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. The legal basis for the reforms was as a continuation of the Treaty of Berlin provisions. The Great Powers saw the Macedonian conflict as an ongoing and evolving case that resulted from the Treaty of Berlin. The reforms were imposed upon Turkey. Turkey did not have a choice. Austria-Hungary and Russia informed Turkey that if they did not comply with the reforms, they would request harsher measures be imposed by a joint action of all the signatory powers of the Treaty of Berlin. What Abdul Hamid did was impede and derail and sidetrack the reforms as much as possible.

What emerged was “the spirit of Murzsteg”, an optimistic picture of the reforms. Agenor Goluchowski, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, saw Murzsteg as advancing two goals or objectives. First, the February or Vienna reform plan accepted by Turkey had to be enforced by the two Civil Agents sent by Austria-Hungary and Russia. Second, he saw the goal as humanitarian intervention “to come in aid of the Christian populations which suffered so much from the war and devastations”. The reforms were also pacification or peacekeeping measures to restore stability and order in Macedonia and to give the Macedonian people a greater say in their future by establishing greater local autonomy. He saw the intervention as one that would benefit the population because the Great powers would be a neutral force that would come in between the predations of the Turkish forces and the revolutionary committees.

Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary, was the co-sponsor of the Murzsteg Plan with Czar Nicholas II

From January to April, 1904, the Great Powers set up the international administrative apparatus in Macedonia. In January, Calice and Zinoviev discussed the terms and conditions for the implementation of the reforms with Adbul Hamid in Constantinople. Hamid accepted the 9 articles but reserved the right to agree on the practical details of the implementation. The major concern was over articles 1 and 2. Hamid wanted to maintain the sovereignty and prestige of Turkey. Above all else, he was resolved in preserving them. He was able to stipulate that Turkish officials be allowed to accompany the Civil Agents on their inspections. The reorganization plan was put under the command of an Italian general, Emilio Degiorgis, who himself was under the command of Sultan Abdul Hamid. The reforms would he overseen by the two Civil Agents, the Italian general, and the chiefs of the military missions from the Great Powers.

The Austro-Hungarian Civil Agent appointed was Heinrich Muller Roghoj who had earlier been assigned to Bosnia and spoke Turkish, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, and Russian. The Russian Civil Agent was N. Demerik who had earlier been the consul to Beirut and Monastir. The Civil Agents arrived in Salonika on January 21, 1904. The Austrian Civil Agent noted that the Muslims showed an open hostility and resentment while the Christians expected to see results from the reforms. Louis Steeg noted the skepticism of the Christian population. Muller noted that the field of activity of the Agents did not go beyond “a demarcation line” established by the Turkish government. At first, Demerik and Muller were restricted to Salonika. They could not intervene “on the field”.

Implementation of the Reforms

In March, 1903, the Turkish government hired Captain Karl Ingvar Nandrup (1864-1909) from Norway and Viktor Axel Unander from Sweden to organize and oversee the reorganization of the Turkish gendarmerie forces in Macedonia. At that time Sweden and Norway were a union under King Oscar II (1829-1907). Nandrup wrote seven reports during his stay in Macedonia, from the early part of 1903 to December 30, 1904. Unander was in Macedonia from May, 1903 to May, 1906. They were given the ranks of Lieutenant Colonel and Major respectively and made inspectors in the Turkish gendarmerie, as a result of the Vienna Plan or "Padar's Reforms" of February, 1903.

Nandrup filed regular reports to King Oscar II on the conditions in Macedonia which he sent from Skopje. Nandrup reported that there were twelve massacres and destruction in the region during his one year long stay in Skopje. Whenever any actions occurred against insurgents, the Turkish authorities immediately informed Nandrup, who was supposed to inspect the terrain and see in situ the real situation. In Skopje, Nandrup met Italian General Emilio Degiorgis, the commander in chief of the military mission sent to reorganize the gendarmerie in Macedonia under the Murzsteg Plan. Nandrup was in Skopje on an inspection tour of the vilayet. Nandrup reported that the Ottoman Turkish officials had unlimited confidence in him and regarded him "a very close friend". Degiorgis was also satisfied with Nandrup’s performance as a Turkish gendarmerie officer.

The December 30, 1904 report, entitled "Note by the hand of an archivist", was the last summary report that Nandrup submitted from Macedonia. In this report, Nandrup detailed the policy of the Great Powers, especially the policy of Austria-Hungary, along with their plans for the future of Macedonia and the rest of the Turkish territories.

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 report was 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 newspapers and journals which detailed daily murders, outrages, atrocities, and massacres.

The report claimed that the Civil Agents were able to intervene in the administration and to exercise effective control and that they had been able to insert essential amendments in the administration. They claimed that they were able to enforce the equitable execution of the laws and the fair assessment and collection of taxes. Finally, they asserted that the reorganization of the gendarmerie corps  was making ongoing progress. The report claimed that the presence of the European officers had resulted in increased security and that there was a marked improvement in the situation. The report noted obstacles as well.

Karl Ingvar Nandrup reported that a Potemkin’s village was being created by the Civil Agents to conceal the deplorable and desperate situation in Macedonia following the Murzsteg reforms:

"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 Murzsteg program and the pitiable comedy played by the Powers on the Balkan Peninsula."

Ruined houses in Mokreni after the 1903 insurgency in the Kosovo vilayet.

The report of the Civil Agents 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, 198 Orthodox 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.

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 population faced famine conditions. Most of the destroyed and burned houses were not rebuilt.

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

Very little was achieved in judicial reforms. An unfair system of taxation remained in Macedonia for Christians.  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.

The financial reorganization was not effective even though the military force in Macedonia was reduced. Nandrup calculated that the budget of the three vilayets should have produced a surplus of at least 15 million francs a year. The officers in the army and the public officials did not receive their salaries regularly.

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 tensions between Greeks and Bulgarians.

Nandrup criticized not only the political leaders who did not act decisively and forcefully. He noted a lack of energy on the part of the officers who were charged by the Great Powers to lead the reorganization of the gendarmerie corps in Macedonia.

The assessment of the international intervention in Macedonia by Nandrup in his final summary report was negative:

"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".

Conclusion: Abysmal Failure

The Murzsteg reforms were an abysmal failure. The foreign intervention in the Kosovo vilayet by the Great Powers was futile. The intervention was based more in Great Power rivalry than in genuine humanitarian concern for the condition or plight of Orthodox Christians, Serbs and Macedonians, in the Kosovo vilayet. The members of “the international community”, the Great Powers, were merely jockeying for power. The so-called humanitarian intervention was an attempt by the Great Powers to secure their interests in the Balkans. The intervention by “the international community” only exacerbated and enflamed the crisis. The intervention was a total and utter failure.


Carl Savich
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