Eastern Question


Eastern Question
   A long-term problem in European diplomatic affairs, the Eastern Question involved three sets of interrelated issues having to do with the fate of the Ottoman Empire. The first issue was an international one. Could the Ottomans fend off the territorial and strategic desires of the European Great Powers for pieces of Ottoman territory, and if not then how should the competing Great Powers partition the Ottoman Empire? The resolution of the Eastern Question through a solution of partition became tightly bound up with the maintenance of the European balance of power, because Ottoman losses might not be equitably divided among the European rivals. As a result of Great Power jealousies, the Turks could usually find at least one European power among France, Britain, Russia, Austria, or Germany (after 1871) that would choose to support the territorial integrity and status quo for fear that the demise of the Ottoman Empire would benefit its rivals more than itself. The second issue concerned the continued viability of the Ottoman Empire. Could the Porte reform the Ottoman system sufficiently to reverse its decline, ensure its internal order, and stave off rebellions? The third issue, closely tied up with the second, grew from the challenges posed by nationalisms of the subject Christian peoples in the Balkan s. Should these peoples have their own independent national states, or could they be accommodated within the multinational Muslim Ottoman Empire?
   The origins of the Eastern Question can be traced to Russian military advances against the Ottomans during the eighteenth century. Seeking a position on the lands around the Black Sea coast, Russia, usually in cooperation with Austria, waged a series of wars against the Turks. Eventually, the Russians advanced to the Pruth River, and the Austrians reached the Danube-Sava River line. As a consequence of their defeat at the hands of the Russians in 1774, the Ottomans signed the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainardji, which ended centuries of Ottoman dominance on the Black Sea and gave Russia the right to speak for the Orthodox Christians under Ottoman rule, including Romanians, Greeks, Serbs, and Montenegrins. The Ottoman government promised to protect Orthodox Christians and their churches and allowed the Russian government to construct its own church in Constantinople that would be under the protection of Russian officials. Russia would subsequently use these treaty provisions as the basis to intervene in Ottoman affairs in the name of protecting the Orthodox Christian subjects of the sultan. In contrast, France served as a supporter of the Ottomans in this period, and Britain did not yet play much of a role. Austrian attitudes changed after the Napoleonic Wars. After gaining the Dalmatian coast in 1815, Austria already had difficulties maintaining its hold over the multinational population in its empire and no longer desired to incorporate any more Balkan peoples. Not wanting to expand any further into the Balkans, the Austrians grew wary of further Russian advances against the Ottomans because such Russian gains would give Russia dominance in the Balkan Peninsula and pose problems for Austrian defenses by creating Russian borders to the south and east. As a result Austria had come to support the status quo in the Eastern Question through the first half of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Austria did annex the Ottoman territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina in1908, after having exercised administrative authority there since 1878.
   At the same time that Austrian interests were weakening, British interests in the region were strengthening. As British holdings in India grew, the British government became increasingly preoccupied with protecting the lines of communication to its most lucrative colonial and trading colony, and those routes ran across Ottoman lands. The expanding British concern for its Indian possessions generated a corresponding heightened fear of Russian encroachment. The British feared that a powerful Russian army could deal a mortal blow to the Ottomans and then seize the Turkish straits at the Bosporus and Dardanelles as a prelude to Russian expansion beyond the Black Sea into the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus as part of its Indian defenses, the British generally tried to prop up Ottoman power. Britain encouraged Turkish administrative reform as the means to alleviate grounds for discontent and restiveness on the part of the sultan’s Christian subjects so that the Russians would have no excuse to intervene in Turkish affairs as a prelude to the final dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. For this reason, the British actively encouraged the Tanzimat Reforms (1839–1876), which were intended to promote the equality of all Ottoman subjects, regardless of religion, and strengthen the ef- ficiency and administrative power of the central government. On the other hand, Russia worried that a British naval squadron could force the straits, enter the Black Sea, and threaten the entire Russian southern coast or even the Caucasus. This scenario actually came to pass during the Crimean War (1853–1856), when British troops landed on the Crimean Peninsula.
   As the nineteenth century wore on, it became clear that the Balkan Christian peoples considered national independence preferable to potential equality within a reformed Ottoman system. In their armed struggles, the Balkan peoples received the greatest aid from Russia. The first to rebel against Ottoman rule were the Serbs, from 1804 to 1815, who managed to achieve an autonomous principality within the Ottoman Empire under Russian protection. The Serbian prince still recognized the Ottoman sultan as his sovereign, but the prince exercised control over local affairs. With the help of the Great Powers, the Greek Revolution of 1821–1833 led to the first successful Balkan independence movement. Britain, France, and Russia oversaw the establishment of a Greek kingdom independent of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of the Russo-Turkish War (1828–1829). In the aftermath of that war, Russia also gained administrative control over the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, the core of the future Romanian national state. Serbia, Romania, and Montenegro received recognition as national kingdoms after the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878). Also, at this time Bulgaria was granted autonomous status within the Ottoman Empire. Independence did not bring an end to the nationalist struggles, however, because the borders of these new states did not include all the national lands based on historical or population claims. For example, Serbia desired Bosnia and Greece wanted Crete.
   The conflicting irredentist claims of Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria on remaining Ottoman lands in Macedonia brought intense competition among the Balkan governments for control over that region. In response to the potentially destabilizing set of rivalries among the Balkan states, Russia and Austria found common interest in preserving the status quo in the peninsula. The two Great Powers signed the Austro-Russian Balkan Agreement of 1897 and reiterated their cooperation in the Murzsteg Agreement of 1903. Under these agreements, Austria and Russia agreed to put the Balkans “on ice,” meaning that they would not countenance any territorial changes in the region and they would impose Ottoman administrative reforms in Macedonia to quell the revolutionary potential.
   In 1908, a revolution did break out in Macedonia, but it was a Turkish one. The Ottoman Third Army Corps, stationed in Macedonia, spearheaded the Young Turk Revolution by marching on Constantinople and forcing Sultan Abdul Hamid II to restore the constitution in June–July 1908. The Young Turks held out the prospect that the Ottoman Empire would at last be thoroughly reformed, and they promised that all Ottoman citizens would receive equal constitutional rights and participation in a parliamentary democracy. Therefore, the Young Turk government wanted to reclaim administrative control over Bosnia from Austria on the grounds that Turkish constitutional reforms obviated the need for Austrian administration. The promise of reform meant also that the autonomous Bulgarian principality would find its road to independence blocked. Austria therefore coordinated with Bulgaria to secure their territories against Turkish control. In 1908, Austria declared its annexation of Bosnia while simultaneously Bulgaria declared its national independence from the Ottoman Empire. Serbian officials expressed outrage that Austria had taken Bosnia, and Belgrade appealed to the Russians to force Austria to renounce its annexation. Stymied in their expansion to the east, the Serbs refocused their attention on expansion southward towards the Kosovo region of Macedonia.
   Meanwhile, the Russians encouraged all the Christian Balkan states to come together in an alliance to serve as a check on any further Austrian expansion into southeastern Europe, and these efforts resulted in the formation of the Balkan League in 1912. Having facilitated the military coordination of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro as a defensive bloc against Austria, the Russians watched helplessly as the countries of the Balkan League redirected their energies into an offensive alliance against the Turks. In concert, the Balkan League attacked the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War (October 1912–May 1913) with the goal of driving the Turks from Europe once and for all. Although the Balkan allies were spectacularly successful in pushing the Turks back, the conflicting claims on Macedonia soon divided them against one another. These divisions led to the Second Balkan War (June– August 1913), in which Bulgaria launched an attack against its former allies Serbia and Greece to gain most of the territory of north-central Macedonia. The Romanians and the Ottomans quickly entered the war against Bulgaria too. Beaten back on all sides, the Bulgarians were forced to capitulate. After World War I, the emergence of the Turkish Republic in 1923 brought the Eastern Question to a close.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Anderson, Matthew S. The Eastern Question, 1774-1923. New York: St. Martin’s, 1966;
    Clayton, Gerald. Britain and the Eastern Question. London: University of London Press, 1971;
    Duggan, Stephen. The Eastern Question, A Study in Diplomacy. New York: AMS Press, 1970.
   JONATHAN GRANT

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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