Russian and Ottoman Involvement in the Balkans

The Balkans has always had a turbulent history. It has had conflicts of religion, conquerors that have invaded its lands, and empires that have controlled its people. The Ottoman Empire certainly had a great influence on the region, as did Russia. Both empires’ governmental policies swayed the national conscious of the Balkans as they battled for the loyalties of its citizens. Yet beginning in the nineteenth century, national ideas began to take root in the Balkans and independence seemed like an appealing alternative to Ottoman rule. This nationalist goal of freedom however, would be a long process that would only end after the Balkan Wars.

In 1453, the Ottomans had conquered Constantinople, signaling the death of the Byzantine Empire.[1] However, even before the fall of the Roman capital, Ottomans had conquered parts of Europe in the 1350s.[2] In a dramatic example of their power over the Balkans at that time, the Ottomans had defeated not only Serbs, but Hungarians and Bulgarians at the 1389 Battle of Kosovo.[3]  In the Ottoman Empire’s golden age, it’s territories in southeastern Europe included Hungry as well the Balkans, including Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia.[4] With an influx of new Christian subjects, Catholic and Orthodox, as well as Jewish subjects, the Islamic Ottoman Empire had to come up with an efficient governing system.

The Ottoman Empire’s solution was the millet system. In this system, religious minorities, including Christians and Jews, could govern matters of law and education within their own communities without the Empire’s interference.[5] Religious communities were also present in government affairs though a community representative in the Ottoman capital of Istanbul.[6] Under the Ottoman Empire, farmers had the freedom to grow their own crops and work the land, but they had to pay a tax in the form of agricultural surplus.[7] In addition, the land belonged only to the empire, so peasants could not own or sell land property.[8] Although noblemen and local governors could not technically own the empire’s land, they could have a monetary benefit from land grants for their government services.[9] This unfortunately lead to local lords taking advantage of the peasants working the land and transformed the land into large estates, ultimately leading some peasants to abandon farm land.[10] Since the Ottoman Empire was so vast, the government allowed anyone who was wealthy enough to buy the right to collect taxes.[11] In this system, which was called tax farming, tax collectors collect revenue for the government in exchange for a cut of the profits.[12] Although it was more convenient for the Ottoman government to collect taxes through this method, because of the lack of oversight, it gave the opportunity for corruption.

Life under Ottoman rule had a mixed reaction among its Balkan subjects. On one hand, they were allowed some autonomy from the Ottoman government through the millet system. On the other, they face discriminating policies due to their Christianity. One such policy was the “devshirme”, in which young boys from the Balkans were taken from their homes to convert to Islam and serve the government through military or bureaucratic service.[13] There is debate on whether children were volunteered for service by their parents, so that they may have better opportunities or if they were kidnapped by Ottoman officials; either history is dictated by a Turkish or Balkan national narrative so it is difficult to obtain a clear, objective account.[14] In any case, the Ottomans did place Balkan Christians in a different category than other Christian subjects in the empire. Officials in the government could not enslave Christians due to Islamic law, but they believed that citizens in the Balkans, “had converted to Christianity after the advent of Islam, not before”, so it justified the devshirme. [15] There were also other prejudices in the Ottoman Empire; “Muslim conversion to Christianity was punished by death, there were certain disqualifications from public office, and Christian evidence was not valid before a Muslim court”.[16]

In the seventeenth century, due to the increasing importance of the Atlantic economy, the Mediterranean economy declined and the Ottoman Empire was placed in a financial crisis.[17] In order to help their struggling economy, the Ottomans created more tax farmers and raised taxes, which created discontentment among the empire’s peasant class.[18]

Despite the prejudices that the Ottoman Empire might have had against Christians in the Balkans, there were efforts to reform its government system in the nineteenth century. To strengthen the Ottoman Empire from the threat of Europe’s rising power, officials passed a set of reforms, called the “Tanzimat” starting in 1839, to centralize power within the government.[19] The Ottomans limited tax farming, with an eventual removal of the system all together.[20] Ottoman officials also passed the “Ottoman Land Code of 1858”, which gave farmers “the right to register the lands they were working in their own names as private property.[21] This was a policy created to regulate taxes more efficiently as well as to increase the surplus of farming crops.[22] However, the peasants believed that if they registered their lands to the government, the Ottomans would conscript their children into the military, similar to the devshirme, and would also raise their taxes.[23] Many peasants lost their land, either because they moved away, sold it to a wealthy land owner, or could not pay the new registration tax.[24]

During the “Tanzimat” period, there was a document called the Hatt-i-Sharif of Gulhane that stated that Muslims and non-Muslims alike had the right to “life, honor, and property” as well as “religious liberty and equality”.[25] The Ottoman Empire wanted to instill a sense of Ottoman nationalism in its citizens.[26] However Christian communities in the Balkans did not enjoy the fact that equality meant that they would have to be conscripted into the army just like Muslim citizens.[27] Once their complaints reached Ottoman officials, they allowed Christians to pay a fee to opt out of military service, which was not allowed to Muslim citizens.[28] However many Ottoman subjects in the Balkans pursued a nationalistic agenda, in order to be freed of Ottoman rule.[29]

Ottoman attitudes towards the Balkans were a contradictory one. They granted Christians in the Balkans rights under the millet system and allowed the population to deal with their own matters in term of religion and law. Yet, there were still restrictions placed upon them by the Ottoman government in matters of law and taxes. Worst of all, some Balkan subjects did not have a choice as to whether they were to join the military or bureaucracy due to the policy of the devshirme.[30] Even if life was better for children in Istanbul, their communities suffered a cultural lost as their boys become engrained in Ottoman ideals that were not their own.  Although Ottoman citizens could rise in the ranks of Ottoman government, “more than half of the grand viziers” came from Christian Balkan families, they still need to convert to Islam as it was the religion of the empire.[31] So while the Ottoman reforms wanted to create equality in its subjects, they ultimately failed in their purpose because of the hypocrisy of the government. The Christians of the Balkans could not trust a government that did not treat them as equally as its Muslim citizens. The search for autonomy from Ottoman rule, combined with the demand for religious conformity within the Balkans, sparked the fire of nationalism that was fueled by rebellion and the Great Powers of Europe.

In 1908, a group of Ottoman officers called the Young Turks took power in the Ottoman government and made attempts to reinstall nationalism in the empire’s subjects and create new reforms, due to failings of the pervious set.[32] This unnerved the Great Powers, especially Austria-Hungry and Russia, which feared that the reforms would discourage nationalist movements in the Balkans.[33] However the Young Turk’s policies simply lead to a new, separate nationalism that relied on the idea of pan-Islam to unit its people, which lead to the rise of Turkish nationalism, at the cost of alienating the Christian majority of the Balkans.[34]

So, what motivated the nationalism moment in the Balkans?  As stated previously, Christians in the Balkans wanted their own autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. The idea of a modern homogenous nation-state had its roots in Western Europe and spread to the Balkans after the Napoleonic Wars.[35] There were clear benefits of being a nation-state; citizens would share a same culture and language and in theory would be united because of these similarities.[36] Balkan states could differentiate themselves between the Christian majority and the Ottoman Muslim elites that ruled over them.[37]  In addition, nation-states were a prerequisite in order to be involved in world affairs.[38] Ottoman power was reaching its twilight years in the nineteen century and it was no longer the great empire it once was. Territories in Balkans understood this lost of power and instead turned to the West for guidance. The Balkan intelligentsia recognized the growing power in Europe, desiring to be a part of Western politics and economy.

The rise of the intelligentsia class in the Balkans also contributed to nationalistic movements.[39]  They fostered nationalistic goals and contributed to the international dialogue of such movements.[40] The intelligentsia “envisioned the restoration of the medieval empires on which they based their nationalist ideas”.[41] However, the intelligentsia’s greatest challenge was to find a way to unite the people of the Balkans. Commonly, people in the Balkans spoke multiple languages and blended into other national groups, resulting in a blurring of cultures.[42]  The Balkan intelligentsia looked to Germany as a model for nation-states.[43] Germany was a nation united by a common language, and therefore, Balkan leaders promoted the national languages in their respective countries.[44] This was done through the development of an official language through the intelligentsia’s research of Balkan linguistics and through the publication of official language grammar literature.[45] The printing press was also used to make periodicals that used language as a way of keeping citizens aware of current events.[46] The intelligentsia in the Balkans promoted national literature and poems to create pride in one’s country and to prove to the world that their individual countries had a history of culture.[47]  The intelligentsia also used violence as a way to rally the people to the nationalist cause.  Often times the intelligentsia would lead a rebellion against the Ottomans, only to be defeated and killed.[48] However this lead to the Ottoman military to arresting and attacking the Balkan civilians, leading to civilian resentment towards their rulers and desire to have their own nations.[49] The creation of national heroes and martyrs contributed to a national image in the Balkans.[50]

In addition to the work of the intelligentsia, the Balkan economy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also experienced a growing economy, which contributed to national movements.[51] Lastly, Balkan nationalism was encouraged by the Great Powers.[52] The greatest influence in the Balkans was the Russian and Habsburg empires, although Great Britain and France were involved to a lesser extent.[53]

Although Russia aiding the nationalistic goals of the Balkans might seem like a gesture of goodwill, as with all politics, there were underlying gains to be had. Historically, Russia wanted access to the Turkish Straits and the Black Sea as a way to gaining entry into the Mediterranean.[54]  At the end of the Russo-Turkish War in 1774, Russia did gain access to the Black Sea and straits, as well as gained ownership of parts of the Crimean Peninsula.[55] With this new freedom in the Mediterranean, Russia could now exert more influence on the Balkan states.[56] Over the span of a century, the Russian Empire encouraged nationalist movements so it could gain allies in the Balkans and weaken its Ottoman adversary with the lost of Balkan territory.[57] Already Russia had influence in the Balkans through the Orthodox Church, as it was “the center of Orthodox Christianity” and considered itself the defender of Orthodox Christians worldwide, including those in the Balkans.[58]

As a Great Power, Russia undertook the effort of supporting Pan-Slavism in the Balkans. The Russian government created the “Moscow Slavonic Benevolent Committee” in 1858 to aid in the formation of Balkan identity and to educate Balkan students in Russia.[59] It was funded by the Russian Ministry of Education and by wealthy private citizens.[60] Through the Committee, students in the Balkans attended conferences in Moscow that dealt with Slavic issues and educated the Balkan intelligentsia with the ideas of “radicals and revolutionaries”.[61] Three other Slavic committees formed in different Russian cities, reaching an even larger audience with the Balkan intelligentsia.[62] Slavs in the Balkans thought of Pan-Slavism in the context of unity, without having a central power.[63] However the promotion of Pan-Slavism to Russia meant that the Slavic population of the Balkans should welcome Russia’s authority in the region.[64] Although these two definitions differed from one another, they illustrate the debate of nationalism in the Balkans.

Russian’s relationship with individual Balkan states also influenced nationalism in the region. When Serbia declared war on the Ottomans in 1876, Russia supplied money and volunteers to the Serbian army.[65] However they lost miserably to the Ottoman army and Russia became disinterested in Serbia.[66] Instead, it focused more on Bulgaria, which was more economically favorable due to its proximity and access to the Turkish straits.[67] However later on in the interbellum of the Balkan Wars, Russia was faced with a dispute over Macedonia between Serbia and Bulgaria.[68] The empire kept a neutral stance on the issue, not wanting to lose either of its Balkan allies.[69] However, after the Balkan Wars, Serbia defeated Bulgaria and the Bulgarians blamed Russia for not coming to their aid.[70] As a result, Russia lost Bulgaria as an ally and was only left with Serbia as an area of Balkan influence.[71]

The Great Powers of Europe regarded Russia as a threat to the current power structure after the 1877 war it had with the Ottomans.[72] After an 1878 conference with German chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, Russia’s influence was limited.[73] However that did not stop the Russian empire from meddling with Balkan affairs.

Russia’s relationship with Austria in regards to the Balkans had been one of rivalry. Both countries wanted the Balkans under their control. For example, on January 15, 1877, both countries promised to take a Balkan territory should the Ottoman Empire fall; Russia was to have Bulgaria, while Austria would have Bosnia.[74] Although that agreement went well with the two empires, their relationship soured in 1908 when Austria forced Russia to agree to only bring out war ships from the Black Sea when Turkey was not at war, creating an uneasy peace between them.[75] After that agreement, Russia considered Austria an enemy and vowed to limit its influence in the Balkans.[76] Russia allied itself with Serbia and Bulgaria against Austria and the Ottoman Empire.[77] In 1911, Greece and Montenegro joined the alliance in a support of pan-Balkanism.[78]  After the alliance was made, Russia also gave military supplies to Balkan states. For example, before the outbreak of the Balkan Wars, they supplied the Montenegro army with guns.[79] These weapons would soon be put into use in the Balkan Wars.

The struggle for power in the Balkans between the Ottoman Empire and Russia would culminate in the Balkan Wars. They were comprised of two wars; one of which began on October 1912 and was between the Ottoman Empire and Balkan states.[80]  There was a period of armistice before the second war began on June 1913 in which Bulgaria fought the Balkan states as well as the Ottoman Empire.[81]  In the first Balkan war, Serbia, along with Montenegrin and Greece gained territories in Macedonia, while the Great Powers allowed for the creation of the Albanian state in order to reduce Serbian and Montenegrin territory.[82] Bulgaria however was left with very little gain, which provoked it to attack Greece and Serbia, starting the second Balkan War.[83] Bulgaria lost the war against the other Balkan states and the Ottomans, ending the war on September 1913.[84] The results were that Bulgaria lost territories gained in the first Balkan War, the Ottomans regained the province of Thrace, and Serbia emerged as Russia’s strongest Balkan ally.[85]

The reason why the Balkan Wars were so important is due to the shift of world powers. Although Turkey might have gained Thrace, after the Balkan Wars, the empire essentially lost control of its European territories in the Balkans.[86] The Ottoman Empire had ruled the Balkans for hundreds of years and now it had lost it all due to the spread of nationalistic movements. Russia also faced consequences due to the Balkan Wars. It had fostered the Pan-Slavic movement in the Balkans, so it could gain alliances as well as to gain an advantage against its rivals, the Austrians and Ottomans. Yet that plan of gaining a sphere of influence in the Balkans all came crashing down after the war. Although Russia had courted Bulgaria for its access to the Turkish Straits, it had lost Bulgaria’s support because of its indecisiveness in aiding Bulgaria during the war. [87] Thus, Russia’s sphere of influence in the Balkans was limited to only Serbia.[88] Later on in history this shift of power will change, but during 1913, Russia relied on Serbia on affairs in the Balkans.[89] As for the Balkans itself, it had mostly gained from the wars. Serbia, Greece and Montenegrin established their territories and gained land from their victories.[90]  Albania had also gained new independence as a nation-state.[91]  Bulgaria however ended up not only losing some of its territories, but it also lost its historical ally Russia and the trust of its fellow Balkan states.  However, whether the outcome of the war spelled disaster or triumph, the Balkans was finally free from Ottoman control.

The Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 were the final battle ground between the Ottomans and the Balkan states. Russia too, lost much of its control over the Balkans, so for a time, the Balkans were truly free. The consequences of new alliances and freedoms, however led to one of the greatest world events in history: World War I. It could be said then that the events that brought independence to the Balkans also led to the events of modern world history. The Balkans have, and always will be, relevant in the politics of Russia and the rest of Europe.


Blumi, Isa. Reinstating the Ottomans. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Gelvin, James L. The Modern Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Hall, Richard C. The Balkan Wars 1912-1913. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Ottomans Into Europeans. Edited by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi and Wim Van Meurs. London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd, 2010.

Seton-Watson, Hugh. The Russian Empire 1801-1917. Edited by Alan Bullock and F.W.D. Deakin. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Wachtel, Andrew Baruch. The Balkans in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.


[1] James L, Gelvin, The Modern Middle East, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 339.


[2] James L, Gelvin, The Modern Middle East, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 24.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 32.

[6] Ibid., 32.

[7] Ibid., 29.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Ibid., 29.

[10] Andrew Baruch, Wachtel, The Balkans in World History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 68.


[11] James L, Gelvin, The Modern Middle East, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 30.

[12] Ibid., 30.

[13] Ibid., 27-8.

[14] Ibid., 27.

[15] Ibid., 27-28.

[16] Ottomans Into Europeans, Edited by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi and Wim Van Meurs, (London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd, 2010), 156.


[17] James L, Gelvin, The Modern Middle East, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 40-43.

[18] Ibid., 43.

[19] Ibid., 71, 77.

[20] Ibid., 72.

[21] Ibid., 73.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 80.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 80-81.

[30] Ibid., 27-28.

[31] Andrew Baruch, Wachtel, The Balkans in World History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 59.

[32] Richard C, Hall, The Balkan Wars 1912-1913, (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 7.


[33] Ibid.

[34] Ottomans Into Europeans, Edited by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi and Wim Van Meurs, (London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd, 2010), 160.

[35] James L, Gelvin, The Modern Middle East, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 54.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Richard C, Hall, The Balkan Wars 1912-1913, (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 2.

[42] Andrew Baruch, Wachtel, The Balkans in World History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 73.

[43] Ibid., 77.

[44] Ibid., 77-78.

[45] Ibid., 78.

[46] Ottomans Into Europeans, Edited by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi and Wim Van Meurs, (London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd, 2010), 282-283.

[47] Andrew Baruch, Wachtel, The Balkans in World History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 78-79.

[48] Ibid., 80.

[49] Ibid., 80.

[50] Ibid., 80.

[51] James L, Gelvin, The Modern Middle East, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 54.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., 56.

[54] Ibid., 48.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid., 54.

[58] Ibid., 48.

[59] Hugh, Seton-Watson, The Russian Empire 1801-1917, Ed. by Alan Bullock and F.W.D. Deakin, (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 446.


[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid., 447.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid., 448.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid., 450.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid., 451.

[68] Richard C, Hall, The Balkan Wars 1912-1913, (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 102.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid., 129.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Isa, Blumi, Reinstating the Ottomans, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 96.


[73] Ibid., 97.

[74] Hugh, Seton-Watson, The Russian Empire 1801-1917, Ed. by Alan Bullock and F.W.D. Deakin, (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 452.

[75] Ibid., 690.

[76] Ibid., 691.

[77] Ibid., 692.

[78] Richard C, Hall, The Balkan Wars 1912-1913, (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 21.

[79] Ibid., 18.

[80] Ibid., 1.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Ibid., 74-79.

[83] Ibid., 79.

[84] Ibid., 1.

[85] Ibid., 129.

[86] Ibid., 130.

[87] Ibid., 129.

[88] Ibid.

[89] Ibid.

[90] Ibid., 74-79.

[91] Ibid.


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