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EASTERN QUESTION ~ POLITICAL AND DIPLOMATIC HISTORY

Author: Georgi Genov

 

The "Eastern Question", in European history, encompasses the diplomatic and political problems posed by the decay of the Ottoman Empire. The expression does not apply to any one particular problem, but instead includes a variety of issues raised during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, including instability in the European territories ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

The Eastern Question is normally dated to 1774, when the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774) ended in defeat for the Ottomans. As the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire was believed to be imminent, the European powers engaged in a power struggle to safeguard their military, strategic and commercial interests in the Ottoman domains. Imperial Russia stood to benefit from the decline of the Ottoman Empire; on the other hand, Austria-Hungary and the United Kingdom deemed the preservation of the Empire to be in their best interests. The Eastern Question was put to rest after World War I, one of whose outcomes was the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

 

Background

At the height of its power (1683), the Ottoman Empire controlled territory in the Near East and North Africa, as well as Central and Southeastern Europe. The Eastern Question emerged as the power of the Ottoman Empire began to decline during the 17th century. The Ottomans were at the height of their power in 1683, when they lost the Battle of Vienna to Austria. Peace was made much later, in 1699, with the Treaty of Karlowitz, which forced the Ottoman Empire to cede many of its Central European possessions, including Hungary. Its westward expansion arrested, the Ottoman Empire never again posed a serious threat to Austria, which became the dominant power in its region of Europe.

The Eastern Question did not truly develop until the Russo-Turkish Wars of the 18th century. The first of the wars, which began in 1768, ended in 1774 with the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji. The treaty was interpreted as permitting Russia to act as the protector of Orthodox Christians under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Sultan, and established Russia as a major Black Sea power. Another Russo-Turkish conflict began in 1787. The Empress of Russia, Catherine II, entered into an alliance with the Austrian ruler, the Emperor Joseph II; the two agreed to partition the Ottoman Empire between their respective nations, thereby alarming many European powers, especially the United Kingdom, France, and Prussia. Austria was forced to withdraw from the war in 1791. In the ensuing Treaty of Jassy (1792), Russia's dominance of the Black Sea grew.

During the early 19th century, the positions of the Great Powers on the Ottoman Empire became clear. Russia was the power most directly concerned with the Eastern Question. She was primarily concerned with control of the Black Sea and access to the Mediterranean (especially by acquiring the important port of Constantinople). Russia was especially eager to secure navigation rights for her merchant vessels and warships while denying similar privileges to other European powers. Another more or less important Russian interest was the protection of the many Orthodox Christians in the territories of the Ottoman Empire, given that Russia was the foremost Orthodox world power. Constantinople's status as the home of the most important patriarchate in Orthodoxy added to the Russian desire to possess it.

Austria was most directly opposed to the Russian designs on the Ottoman Empire. Though the Austrian House of Habsburg was the foremost opponent of the Ottomans in prior centuries, Austria deemed the Ottoman threat to be much less serious than a Russian advance along the Danube River. Austria also feared that the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire into several nation states would foster the sentiment of nationalism among the many ethnic groups in her own Empire. Thus, Austria made it one of her primary goals to maintain the unity of the Ottoman Empire.

Similarly, Britain saw the containment of the Russian Empire as vital to the security of British colonial possessions in India (seen also in the prosecution of same interests in Afghanistan). It was also concerned that Russian control of the Bosporus could impede British domination of the eastern Mediterranean, including the Suez Canal. The UK was also concerned with the preservation of the traditional global balance of power, which would have been upset by the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

 

Napoleonic Era

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the attention of Europe was captured by Napoleon Bonaparte. To secure his own domination and to render the rest of Europe virtually powerless, Napoleon established an alliance with Russia by concluding the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807. Russia undertook to aid Napoleon in his war against the United Kingdom; in turn, the Emperor of Russia would receive the Ottoman territories of Moldavia and Wallachia. If the Sultan refused to surrender these territories, France and Russia were to attack the Empire, and the Ottoman domains in Europe were to be partitioned between the two allies. The Napoleonic scheme threatened not only the Sultan, but also the United Kingdom, Austria and Prussia, which were almost powerless in the face of such a potent alliance. The alliance naturally proved incommoding to the Austrians, who hoped that a joint Franco-Russian attack, which would probably have utterly devastated the Ottoman Empire, could be prevented by diplomacy; but if diplomatic measures failed, the Austrian minister Klemens Wenzel, Prince von Metternich decided that he would support the partition of the Ottoman Empire a solution disadvantageous to Austria, but not as dangerous as a complete Russian takeover of Southeastern Europe.

An attack on the Empire, however, did not come to pass, and the alliance concluded at Tilsit was dissolved by the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Following Napoleon's defeat by the Great Powers in 1815, representatives of the victors met at the Congress of Vienna, but failed to take any action relating to the territorial integrity of the decaying Ottoman Empire. This omission, together with the exclusion of the Sultan from the Holy Alliance, was interpreted by many as supportive of the position that the Eastern Question was a Russian domestic issue that did not concern any other European nations.

 

Serbian Revolution

Serbian revolution or Revolutionary Serbia refers to the national and social revolution of the Serbian people between 1804 and 1815, during which Serbia managed to fully emancipate from the Ottoman Empire and exist as a sovereign European nation-state, and a latter period (1815-1833), marked by intense negotiations between Belgrade and Ottoman Empire. The term was invented by a famous German historian Leopold von Ranke in his book "Die Serbische Revolution", published in 1829. These events marked the foundation of modern Serbia. While the first phase of the revolution (1804-1815) was in fact a war of independence, the second phase (1815-1833) resulted in official recognition of a suzerain Serbian state by the Porte, thus bringing the revolution to its end. The above mentioned time frame covers several phases of the revolution: First Serbian Uprising (1804-13), led by Karadjordje Petrovich; Second Serbian Uprising (1815) under Milos Obrenovich, followed by the official recognition of the Serbian state (1815-1833) by the Porte.

The Proclamation (1809) by Karadjordje in the capital Belgrade represented the peak of the revolution. It called for unity of the Serbian nation, emphasizing the importance of freedom of religion, Serbian history and rule of law all of which Ottoman Empire couldn't or has denied to provide, being a non-secular Muslim state. It also called on Serbs to stop paying taxes to the Porte because they were based on religious affiliation.

The ultimate result of the uprisings was Serbia's suzerainty from the Ottoman Empire. Principality of Serbia was established, governed by its own Parliament, Government, Constitution and its own royal dynasty. Social element of the revolution was achieved through introduction of the bourgeois society values in Serbia, which is why it was considered the world's easternmost bourgeois revolt, which culminated with the abolition of feudalism in 1806 just 15 years after the French revolution. First constitution in the Balkans and its oldest university, Belgrade's Great Academy (1808), added to the achievements of the young Serb state. By 1833, Serbia was officially recognized as a tributary to the Porte and as such, acknowledged as a hereditary monarchy. De jure independence of the Principality was internationally recognized during the second half of the 19th century.

 

Greek Revolt

The Eastern Question once again became a major European issue when the Greeks declared independence from the Sultan in 1821. It was at about this time that the phrase "Eastern Question" was coined. Ever since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, there had been rumours that the Emperor of Russia sought to invade the Ottoman Empire, and the Greek Revolt seemed to make an invasion even more likely. The British foreign minister, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, as well as the Austrian foreign minister, Metternich, counseled the Emperor of Russia, Alexander I, not to enter the war. Instead, they pleaded that he maintain the Concert of Europe and the spirit of broad collaboration in Europe which had persisted since Napoleon's defeat. A desire for peaceful co-operation was also held by Alexander I, who had founded the Holy Alliance. Rather than immediately putting the Eastern Question to rest by aiding the Greeks and attacking the Ottomans, Alexander wavered, ultimately failing to take any decisive action.

Alexander's death in 1825 brought Nicholas I to the Imperial Throne of Russia. Deciding that he would no longer tolerate negotiations and conferences, he chose to intervene in Greece. The United Kingdom also soon became involved, interested in imposing its will on a newly formed Greek state in part to prevent it becoming a wholly Russian vassal. The spirit of Romanticism that then dominated Western European cultural life also made support for Greek independence politically viable. France too aligned itself with the Greeks, but Austria (still worried about Russian expansion) did not. Outraged by the interference of the Great Powers, the Ottoman Sultan, Mahmud II, denounced Russia as an enemy of Islam, prompting Russia to declare war in 1828. An alarmed Austria sought to form an anti-Russian coalition, but its attempts were in vain.

As the war continued into 1829, Russia gained a firm advantage over the Ottoman Empire. By prolonging hostilities further, however, Russia would have invited Austria to enter the war against her and would have resulted in considerable suspicion in the United Kingdom. Therefore, for the Russians to continue with the war in hopes of destroying the Ottoman Empire would have been inexpedient. At this stage, the King of France, Charles X, proposed the partition of the Ottoman Empire amongst Austria, Russia and others, but his scheme was presented too belatedly to produce a result.

Thus, Russia was able to secure neither a decisive defeat nor a partition of the Ottoman Empire. She chose, however, to adopt the policy of degrading the Ottoman Empire to a mere dependency. In 1829, the Emperor of Russia concluded the Treaty of Adrianople with the Sultan; his empire was granted additional territory along the Black Sea, Russian commercial vessels were granted access to the Dardanelles, and the commercial rights of Russians in the Ottoman Empire were enhanced. The Greek War of Independence was terminated shortly thereafter, as Greece was granted independence by the Treaty of Constantinople in 1832.

 

Revolutions of 1848

The Great Powers having reached a compromise to end the revolt of Mehmet Ali in Egypt, the Eastern Question lay dormant for approximately a decade until revived by the Revolutions of 1848. Though Russia could have seized the opportunity to attack the Ottoman Empire France and Austria were at the time occupied by their own insurrections she chose not to do so. The Emperor Nicholas instead committed his troops to the defence of Austria, deeming that the goodwill established in the process would allow him to seize Ottoman possessions in Europe at a later date.

After the Austrian Revolution was suppressed, an Austro-Russian war against the Ottoman Empire seemed imminent. The Emperors of both Austria and Russia demanded that the Sultan return Austrian rebels who had sought asylum in the Empire, but met with refusal. The indignant monarchs withdrew their ambassadors to the Sublime Porte, threatening armed conflict. Almost immediately, however, the United Kingdom and France sent their fleets to protect the Ottoman Empire. The two Emperors, deeming military hostilities futile, withdrew their demands for the surrender of the fugitives.

 

Crimean War

A new conflict was ostensibly provoked during the 1850s by an obscure religious dispute. Under treaties negotiated during the eighteenth century, France was the guardian of Roman Catholics in the Ottoman Empire, whilst Russia was the protector of Orthodox Christians. For several years, however, Catholic and Orthodox monks had disputed possession of the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Palestine. During the early 1850s, the two sides made demands which the Sultan could not possibly satisfy simultaneously. In 1853, the Sultan adjudicated in favour of the French, despite the vehement protestations of the local Orthodox monks.

The Emperor Nicholas dispatched a diplomat, Prince Menshikov, on a special mission to the Porte. By previous treaties, the Sultan was committed "to protect the Christian religion and its Churches", but Menshikov attempted to negotiate a new treaty, under which Russia would be allowed to interfere whenever she deemed the Sultan's protection inadequate. At the same time, however, the British government sent Stratford Canning, 1st Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe, who learnt of Menshikov's demands upon arriving. Through skilful diplomacy, Lord Stratford convinced the Sultan to reject the treaty, which compromised the independence of the Ottomans. Shortly after he learnt of the failure of Menshikov's diplomacy, the Emperor Nicholas marched into Moldavia and Wallachia Ottoman principalities in which Russia was acknowledged as a special guardian of the Orthodox Church using the Sultan's failure to resolve the issue of the Holy Places as a pretext. The Emperor Nicholas I believed that the European powers would not object strongly to the annexation of a few neighbouring Ottoman provinces, especially given Russian involvement in suppressing the Revolutions of 1848.

When the Emperor sent his troops into Moldavia and Wallachia (the "Danubian Principalities"), the United Kingdom, seeking to maintain the security of the Ottoman Empire, sent a fleet to the Dardanelles, where it was joined by another fleet sent by France. At the same time, however, the European powers hoped for a diplomatic compromise. The representatives of the four neutral Great Powers United Kingdom, France, Austria and Prussia met in Vienna, where they drafted a note which they hoped would be acceptable to Russia and the Empire. The note met with the approval of the Emperor of Russia; it was, however, rejected by the Sultan, who felt that the document's poor phrasing left it open to many different interpretations. The United Kingdom, France and Austria were united in proposing amendments to mollify the Sultan, but their suggestions were ignored in the Court of Saint Petersburg. The United Kingdom and France set aside the idea of continuing negotiations, but Austria and Prussia did not believe that the rejection of the proposed amendments justified the abandonment of the diplomatic process. The Sultan proceeded to war, his armies attacking the Russian army near the Danube. Nicholas responded by dispatching warships, which destroyed the entire Ottoman fleet at Sinop on 30 November 1853, thereby making it possible for Russia to land and supply its forces on the Ottoman shores fairly easily. The destruction of the Ottoman fleet and the threat of Russian expansion alarmed both the United Kingdom and France, who stepped forth in defence of the Ottoman Empire. In 1854, after Russia ignored an Anglo-French ultimatum to withdraw from the Danubian Principalities, the United Kingdom and France declared war.

The Emperor Nicholas I presumed that Austria, in return for the support rendered during the Revolutions of 1848, would side with him, or at the very least remain neutral. Austria, however, felt threatened by the Russian troops in the nearby Danubian Principalities. When the United Kingdom and France demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Principalities, Austria supported them; and, though it did not immediately declare war on Russia, it refused to guarantee its neutrality. When in the summer of 1854, Austria made another demand for the withdrawal of troops, Russia, fearing that Austria would enter the war, complied.

Though the original grounds for war were lost when Russia withdrew her troops from the Danubian Principalities, the United Kingdom and France failed to cease hostilities. Determined to address the Eastern Question by putting an end to the Russian threat to the Ottoman Empire, the allies proposed several conditions for the cessation of hostilities, including a demand that Russia was to give up her protectorate over the Danubian Principalities; secondly, she was to abandon any claim granting her the right to interfere in Ottoman affairs on the behalf of the Orthodox Christians; thirdly, the Straits Convention of 1841 was to be revised; and finally, all nations were to be granted access to the river Danube. As the Emperor refused to comply with the "Four Points," the Crimean War proceeded.

Peace negotiations began in 1856 under the Emperor Nicholas I successor, Alexander II. Under the ensuing Treaty of Paris, the "Four Points" plan proposed earlier was largely adhered to; most notably, Russia's special privileges relating to the Danubian Principalities were transferred to the Great Powers as a group. In addition, warships of all nations were perpetually excluded from the Black Sea, once the home to a Russian fleet. Furthermore, the Emperor of Russia and the Sultan agreed not to establish any naval or military arsenal on the coast of that sea. The Black Sea clauses came at a tremendous disadvantage to Russia, for it greatly diminished the naval threat she posed to the Ottomans. Moreover, all the Great Powers pledged to respect the independence and territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire.

The Treaty of Paris stood until 1871, when France was crushed by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War. Whilst Prussia and several other German states united to form a powerful German Empire, the Emperor of the French, Napoleon III, was deposed to permit the formation of a French Republic. During his reign, which had begun in 1852, Emperor Napoleon III, eager for the support of the United Kingdom, had opposed Russia over the Eastern Question. Russian interference in the Ottoman Empire, however, did not in any significant manner threaten the interests of France. Thus, France abandoned her opposition to the Emperor of Russia after the establishment of a Republic. Encouraged by the decision of the French, and supported by the German minister Otto von Bismarck, Russia denounced the Black Sea clauses of the treaty agreed to in 1856. As the United Kingdom alone could not enforce the clauses, Russia once again established a fleet in the Black Sea.

 

Great Eastern Crisis

In 1875, the territory of Herzegovina rebelled against its ruler, the Sultan, in the now famous Herzegovinian rebellion, which led to insurrection in the Province of Bosnia as well as in Bulgaria. The Great Powers believed that their intervention was necessary, lest a disastrous and bloody war break out in the Balkans. The first to act were the members of the League of the Three Emperors (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia), whose common attitude toward the Eastern Question was embodied in the Andrassy Note (named for the Hungarian diplomat Julius, Count Andrassy). The Note, seeking to avoid a widespread conflagration in Southeastern Europe, urged the Sultan to institute various reforms, including one granting religious liberty to Christians. A joint commission of Christians and Muslims was to be established to ensure the enactment of the appropriate reforms. With the approval of the United Kingdom and France, the Note was submitted to the Sultan, whose agreement was secured on 31 January 1876. The Herzegovinian leaders, however, rejected the proposal, pointing out that the Sultan had already made promises to institute reforms but had failed to fulfill them.

Representatives of the Three Emperors met once again in Berlin, where they approved the Berlin Memorandum. To convince the Herzegovinians that the Sultan would indeed keep his promises, the Memorandum suggested that international representatives be allowed to oversee the institution of reforms in the rebelling provinces. Before the Memorandum could be approved by the Porte, the Ottoman Empire was convulsed by internal strife, which led to the deposition of Sultan Abdul Aziz. The new Sultan, Murad V, was himself deposed three months later due to his mental instability, bringing Abdul Hamid II to power. In the meantime, the hardships of the Ottomans had increased; their treasury was empty, and they faced an insurrection not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria (the so-called April uprising). Still, the Ottoman Empire managed to crush the insurgents in August 1876. The result incommoded Russia, which had planned to take possession of various Ottoman territories in Southeastern Europe in the course of the conflict.

After the uprising was largely suppressed, however, rumours of Ottoman atrocities against the rebellious population shocked European sensibilities. Russia now intended to enter the war on the side of the rebels, for she hoped to take advantage of the situation to acquire some of the Ottoman possessions in Southeastern Europe. A further attempt for peace was made by delegates of the Great Powers assembled at the Constantinople Conference in 1876. The Sultan, however, refused to compromise his independence by allowing international representatives to oversee the institution of reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1877, the Great Powers once again attempted to negotiate with the Ottoman Empire, but their proposals continued to meet with rejection.

 

Russo-Turkish War 1877-78

Russia declared war on 24 April 1877. Her chancellor Prince Gorchakov had effectively purchased Austrian neutrality with the Reichstadt Agreement, under which Ottoman territories captured in the course of the war would be partitioned between the Russian and Austria-Hungarian Empires, with the latter obtaining Bosnia and Herzegovina. The United Kingdom, though still fearing the Russian threat to British dominance in Southern Asia, did not involve herself in the conflict. However, when Russia threatened to secure Constantinople, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli urged Austria and Germany to ally with him against this tyrannical war aim. As a result, Russia sued for peace through the Treaty of San Stefano, which imposed harsh terms: the Empire was to grant independence to Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro; to grant autonomy to Bulgaria; to institute reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina; and to cede the Dobrudja and parts of Armenia to Russia, which would also be paid an enormous indemnity. As Russia could dominate the newly independent states, her influence in Southeastern Europe was greatly increased by the Treaty of San Stefano. Due to the insistence of the Great Powers (especially the United Kingdom), the treaty was heavily revised at the Congress of Berlin so as to reduce the great advantages acquired by Russia.

The Treaty of Berlin adjusted the boundaries of the newly independent states in the Ottoman Empire's favour. Furthermore, Bulgaria was divided into two separate states (Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia), as it was feared that a single state would be susceptible to Russian domination. Ottoman cessions to Russia were largely sustained, and Bosnia and Herzegovina (though still nominally within the Ottoman Empire) were transferred to Austrian control. In addition, the Ottoman island of Cyprus was given to the United Kingdom via a secret agreement made between the United Kingdom and the Ottoman Empire. These final two procedures were predominantly forced by Disraeli, who was famously described by Otto von Bismarck as "The old Jew, that is the man", after his level-headed Palmerstonian approach to the Eastern Question.

European opinion wavered over the next 30 years between the comparative stability provided by the Ottoman empire and the volatility of the emerging Balkan states. It can be argued that the Eastern Question caused the First World War. Austria angered Serbia by annexing Bosnia in 1908. Russia helped to organize the Balkan League of Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Greece, which went to war with Turkey in 1912. Militarily they were successful but then fought between themselves. The situation was still unstable when the heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, in 1914. The Austrians blamed the Serbs. Russia backed them. War followed within weeks.

Germany, which had assumed the role of "honest broker" at the Congress of Berlin, became increasingly interested in extending its influence over the Ottoman Empire. The German-Austrian "Drang nach Osten" (drive to the East) policy became manifest in the reorganization of the Turkish army by German officers, the construction of Baghdad Railway, the crisis over Morocco, and the Austrian annexation (1908) of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russian Pan-Slavism in the Balkans and the almost total disappearance of European Turkey in the Balkan Wars caused Turkey to seek German and Austrian support and to join the Central Powers after the outbreak of World War I. The war destroyed the Ottoman Empire and closed the old Eastern Question, but the problem of maintaining stability in the area once ruled by the empire remained.

 

Concert of Europe

Europe's expansion into the Ottoman Empire at times appeared to consist of predators rushing as far and as fast as they could, paying no heed to the risks of collision. Such a judgment, however, belies the realities. Contenders for the same or overlapping districts were sensitive to one another's interests. Avoidance of conflict became the name of the Game as early as the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). At the end of the Congress the conveners Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia styled themselves the Concert of Europe to act as a permanent executive for settling all their disputes by conference or consensual diplomacy.

In 1818, at Aachen, the four powers admitted France to their ranks and promptly instructed the restored Bourbon monarchy to join Britain, as the Concert's sole maritime powers, in suppressing the institutionalized piracy in the western Mediterranean, carried out by the sultan's autonomous garrisons or provinces of Tripoli (Libya), Tunis, and Algiers. A dozen years elapsed before the Barbary garrisons of the Ottoman Maghreb were finally put out of the piracy business.

Only once between 1815 and 1914 did the great powers resort to war over a dispute arising from the Eastern Question. In that case Britain, France, and Russia were the Concert's belligerents in the Crimean War (1854-1856); Austria served as mediator, and Prussia stayed aloof. The entry of the Kingdom of Sardinia, alongside Britain and France, as allies of the Sublime Porte against Russia served, in effect, as its application for membership in the Concert. Having led the Risorgimento for the political unification of the city-states in the Italian peninsula after 1848, Sardinia provided the monarchs following the emergence in 1861 of the Kingdom of Italy, which was promptly made a member of the Concert.

The great-power contest for ownership or denial of the Sultan's strategic realm reflects the pace and the modes of Europe's expansion into Asia and Africa. The Ottoman Empire spanned the heart of the eastern hemisphere by joining its three continents. The desire to control the Turkish Straits, which separate Asia and Europe while linking the Black and Mediterranean Seas, became a fixed, if also thwarted, aim of Russia after 1774. The Black Sea remained closed to Russia's naval power while the Tsardom was exposed to possible attack by hostile maritime powers, as occurred in the Crimean War.

Similarly, on occupying Egypt in 1798, Napoleon declared, in the name of France, his intention to construct and own a manmade waterway from the Mediterranean's landlocked southeast corner to the Red Sea. By cutting across Asia and Africa, such a canal would reduce the distance (and the time) of uninterrupted travel from western Europe, notably from Britain and France, to India by two-thirds, and by lesser amounts to all points along the African and Asian shores of the Indian Ocean.

As the decades passed, Saint Petersburg's aspiration on the Mediterranean became an obsession. In preparation for the expected takeover of the Turkish Straits, Russia continued swallowing Ottoman property that circled the Black Sea in both Europe and Asia, in the latter from the Crimea through the Caucasus; the last bit was the adjacent corner of Anatolia in 1878. To support the quest for the Turkish Straits even before the Crimean War, Russia established precedents to assert its right to protect the sultan's Orthodox subjects in Anatolia and Syria (including Lebanon and Palestine). In 1856, the Islahat Fermani (Reform Edict) of Sultan Abdul Mecit I, reinforced by Article 9 of the Treaty of Paris ending the Crimean War, briefly interrupted, but did not end, the Russian practice.

Meanwhile, over Britain's resolute opposition, French investors in the late 1850s launched the Suez Canal Company, which in 1869 completed the waterway. Backed by the government of France, these entrepreneurs also preempted Britain's moves to take control of the company's policy-framing executive before and after Britain's occupation of Ottoman Egypt in 1882. By 1914 Algeria and Tunisia were part of France's empire, although the Sublime Porte withheld formal recognition of the protectorate in Tunisia. Of the surviving Ottoman provinces in Asia, France's interest centered on Lebanon and Syria from 1860 on. After a lapse of about a century, France in the 1840s had revived earlier treaty rights to custody of papal institutions and their members, covering affiliated eastern Uniate churches as well as Roman Catholicism. Finally, the financial community of France bankrolled railway, harbor, and other concessions in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine and became the dominant shareholder in the Ottoman Imperial Bank, the Ottoman Empire's official agent.

But above all, the overseers of Britain's empire saw the shrinking Islamic state as both a continuing barrier and an unfolding passage to India. In both functions, the Ottoman Empire had grown into a major asset for Britain. Little wonder that, under Britain's persistent lead, the Concert of Europe in 1840 began nearly four decades as guarantor of the integrity of Ottoman Asia and Africa. The chosen formula was that of a self-denying protocol, first used in the Concert's convention of 1840 for "the Pacification of the Levant", which stated that "in the execution of the engagements resulting to the Contracting Powers from the Convention, those Powers will seek no augmentation of territory, no exclusive influence, no commercial advantage for their subjects, which those of every other nation may not equally obtain". Even France, which had upheld Egypt in the crisis, rejoined the Concert in 1841.

Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, the strategy's author, saw in Egypt's threats to the Osmanli dynasty's survival a threat to the British Empire. With the appearance of the steamship in the 1820s, Britain belatedly discovered what the East India Company had begun learning under sail more than half a century earlier: that through the sultan's realm there ran developing routes of communication and transportation between the metropolis and the empire in India. In the regional contest of the 1830s, Russia backed the sultan, and France, the viceroy. The main problem, in Palmerston's diagnosis, was to keep Russia and France apart, for if they joined forces, Britain would suffer along with the Osmanli dynasty. Palmerston preferred a weak Ottoman Empire to a powerful Egypt. He thus responded favorably in 1839 and 1840 to the tsar's proposal for joint military intervention, with the cooperation of the Sublime Porte, to contain an ominous threat to the survival of the Ottoman Empire posed by Muhammad Ali, the viceroy of Egypt, backed by France. Austria and Prussia adhered to this plan of action.

France returned to the fold in 1841, as part of the settlement of the regional crisis. It reduced Muhammad Ali from quasi independence to Ottoman vassalage, but only upon his being recognized as the founder of a hereditary provincial dynasty with full domestic autonomy: "All the Treaties concluded and to be concluded between my Sublime Porte and the friendly Powers," read the Sultan's ferman, "shall be completely executed in the Province of Egypt likewise." This clause immediately imposed on Egypt the Porte's obligations to Britain, France, and the Netherlands to change the basis of Ottoman foreign commerce from protection to free trade. That deprived Muhammad Ali of the assured revenues from his commercial and industrial monopolies and put an early end to his integrated program of economic and military modernization. Those steps reduced the innovative, self-made, ambitious governor to manageable size. Later they enabled Palmerston, as foreign minister and prime minister, to delay for a dozen years execution of Egypt's grant of a ninety-nine year concession to a national of France to build and operate the Suez Canal.

In 1840 and 1841 the Concert had thus created a subsidiary system expressly to defuse crises in Europe arising from the rivalry over the Middle East (and North Africa) portions of the sultan's realm. For nearly forty years the great powers, with the Sublime Porte taking part and Britain playing the balancer in alternating alliances with Russia against France or the reverse, met five times in London (1840-1841, 1871), Paris (1856, 1860-1861), and Berlin (1878) and framed obligatory guidelines on policies toward the Ottoman Empire. Military occupation without time limit, commonly unilateral, was denied legitimacy; formal protectorates were legitimated by the powers, not by the Sublime Porte (in the end by the Turkish Republic); direct annexation was invariably solemnized by formal agreement with Constantinople. All three practices rested on general usage under Western international law.

Other styles of Europe's imperialism were particular to the Eastern Question. In the economic sphere the practices derived from the capitulations (non-reciprocal commercial treaties that the Porte had concluded with Europe's governments from the fifteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries), assured Western residents unilateral extraterritorial privileges. They and their enterprises banks, railroads, harbors, the Suez Canal were immune from sultanic and provincial laws and taxes, and subject only to those of home governments. To such built-in dominance by Europe over key developmental aspects of the Ottoman economy was added guardianship of selected religious communities, with Russia and France the leading practitioners. The prevalence in the same districts of resident missionaries and their many charitable, medical, and educational, as well as religious, institutions attested to this.

Strategy apart, Britain's most valuable interest was commerce. As the sole industrializing nation from the last third of the eighteenth century through the Napoleonic wars, Britain speedily moved into first place in the foreign trade of the Ottoman Empire. By 1850, the Porte had become Britain's third-best customer. Britain clung to its commercial lead up to the outbreak of World War I. Financial investment by British nationals lagged far behind. The quest for oil in Ottoman Arab Asia quickened only when the Anglo-Persian Oil Company discovered commercial quantities in Persia in 1908, too late for the find to become practicable before the outbreak of war six years later. Still, the oil potential of the vilayet (province) of Mosul riveted the attention, during World War I and afterward, of Britain's companies and their bureaucratic supporters on the Sublime Porte's promise of a concession, in June 1914, to the Turkish Petroleum Company, a non-operating international consortium of British, Dutch, and German interests registered in London.

Meanwhile, Italy, upon its unification in 1861, promptly entered the fray. After losing a bid for Tunisia in 1878, Italy finally occupied Libya and the Dodecanese Islands in a lackluster war with the Ottoman Empire (1911-1912). One of Italy's primary aims in entering the war in 1915 was to legalize the titles to both and, if possible, enlarge its imperial holdings.

Upon replacing Continent-centered Prussia in 1871, unified Germany was the final entrant into the competition. Otto von Bismarck moved into the role vacated by Benjamin Disraeli. Germany centered its regional activity after 1882 on serving as military and naval adviser and supplier to Sultan Abdul Hamit II. And from 1903, German entrepreneurs, with their government's encouragement and protection, sponsored the building of the Baghdad Railroad to link Europe, across Anatolia through the vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, to the head of the Persian Gulf, with Ottoman assurances of privileged investment rights along the way.

Britain's occupation of Egypt in 1882 helped draw Russia and France together, binding them twelve years later in a formal alliance. In all this time and for a decade longer, France kept urging Britain to fix a date for leaving Egypt, while Britain refused to ratify the 1888 Suez Canal Convention until France accepted, for the duration of the occupation, Britain's exercise of the supervisory powers of the projected international commission. Finally the two quarrelers signed an entente cordiale in 1904 that rested on a trade: Britain's responsibility for the canal's security by occupation in return for France's creating a protectorate in Morocco. Before the year's end, the Concert ratified the amended convention that implied approval of Britain's military presence in Egypt. Finally, Britain and Russia reduced irritants in their relations in the Ottoman Empire by reaching an accord on Iran, Afghanistan, and Tibet in 1907.

The three bilateral instruments underlay the formation of the Triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) on the outbreak of war in 1914 against the Central Powers (Germany and Austria). For the first time, the Sublime Porte, which entered World War I in November 1914 as an ally of the Central Powers, placed itself simultaneously at war with the three countries that had territorial scores to settle with the sultan Britain in Egypt, France in Tunisia, and Russia at the Turkish Straits. The secret accords of the Entente powers (the Constantinople Agreement of 1915 and the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916) proposed assigning the Turkish Straits and eastern Anatolia to Russia, parceling the Fertile Crescent (later Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan) under variable terms among the three allies, and declaring the Arabian Peninsula a British sphere of influence.

In April 1915, Italy associated itself with the Entente for the express aim of legitimizing its occupation of Libya and the Dodecanese Islands. Two years later, after the overthrow of the tsarist regime, Italy concluded a separate agreement with Britain and France, to become a party to the Entente plans for sharing in the Ottoman spoils; to the Sykes-Picot arrangement were added zones for Italy's administration and influence in southern and western Anatolia. But the instrument never won the requisite assent from the Bolshevik regime, which seized power in the fall of 1917. After the war the unratified draft did not deter Italy from trying, but failing, to anchor itself in Anatolia.

Meanwhile, the secret correspondence of Sir Henry McMahon (Britain's high commissioner for Egypt) with Sharif Husayn ibn Ali of Mecca (the Ottoman governor of the province of Hijaz) served as the basis for mounting an Arab rebellion against the sultan. Clearly, Britain perceived McMahon's exchanges with Husayn, which were started and finished (July 1915 - March 1916) before the Sykes-Picot negotiations (December 1915 - April 1916), as a solidifying step in the Arabian Peninsula. They agreed on mutual military commitments but left unsettled their political differences that gave rise to bitter Anglo-Arab quarrels. The later conflicting Anglo-French-Arab claims in the Fertile Crescent were compounded by the Balfour Declaration: Britain's secret understanding with the Zionists and public declaration of sympathy for the formation in Palestine of a Jewish national home. This was the price that Britain's government had to pay for finally acquiring an exclusive mandatory presence in Palestine in defense of the Suez Canal.

The Eastern Question thus was not resolved until the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the empire's formal dissolution in 1922, and the peace treaty of Lausanne the only such settlement negotiated but not imposed after that war that the Entente and associated powers signed with the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and ratified a year later. Even then, Turkey's nationalist regime at Ankara contested the proposed transfer of territories. In between, at Turkey's insistence, in the Montreux Convention of 1936, the naval signatories of the Treaty of Lausanne restored to the Republic of Turkey full sovereignty over the Turkish Straits by dissolving the International Straits Commission.

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Addendum: This is second work from Prof. Georgi Genov presented at our booklist. It's a complex book, written in two parts (1924-1926), and giving a span of time from 1699 (when the expansion of the Ottoman Empire was stopped at Vienna) to 1919 and the Paris Peace Conference (when the Empire was finally dismembered and modern Turkey had appeared as a state). Nor it is an innovative book, since it is based entirely on extra-mural sources proceedings, conferences and notes. However, for the Bulgarian scientific literature this book is an achievement and still exist as the first and only work on the "Eastern Question" written in toto.

As a matter of fact, even the author P. Genov admitted that because of time constraints he couldn't finish the whole project. Thus chronologically the second volume ends at the Congress of Berlin (1878) and the last two chapters, which should have comprised separate volumes, are written only as protocols. At the same time, by the end of the 1920s, two more excellent studies on the "Eastern Question" were published separately: 1) Konstantin Kodjuharov's work on "Diplomatic History 1875-1890" that give detailed agenda on the work of the "Concert of Europe" for the mentioned period. This book follows the aftermath of the Bosnian-Bulgarian revolts, the Russo-Turkish War 1877-78, the rise of Bismarck's new order, and the emerging of "Macedonian Question" in the Balkans; and 2) Ivan Altunov's work on "Partition of Turkey and the Straits Problem". This book ends chronologically at Treaty of Lausanne (1922) but due treatment is given to previous periods, and emphatically on the Balkan Wars and the Great War where Turkey appeared on the losing side.

To complement the literature on the "Eastern Question" we couldn't contain to omit few more extraneous sources. Those are proceedings of the International Committees that dealt with causes of war and delineating frontiers: 1) "Carnegie Endowment for Peace" series, that published exhaustive reports on the belligerent sides in the First and Second Balkan Wars; and 2) "Complaints of Macedonia" series, published by the League of Nations, that gives voluminous information on the Minorities Problem at the Balkan Peninsula. Overall, there appeared several multiethnic states in the Balkans after Paris Peace Conference (1919) that not only couldn't muffle the nationality issues but even exacerbated them by the beginning of World War II. It became a prerogative of the Great Powers, whether to look at the East as still dragging the "Eastern Question" (i.e., truly a matter-of-fact between Russia and Turkey) or to correspond with sovereign states as parts of United Europe.

 

 

Copyright 2010 by the author.