Christian Rakovsky

The Eastern European Question
and the Great Powers

(November 1908)

Written: 1 August 1908
Source: From Revue de La Paix [Paris], November 1908, pp. 1–2.
From the archives of Revolutionary History.
Translated: Harry Ratner.
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Ted Crawford and David Walters, September 2006.
Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2006. You can freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & proofreaders above.


Events in the East have taken a more peaceful turn. It seems that there is no longer the threat of immediate war that has alarmed the whole of Europe for some time. However not to keep a certain scepticism about the future would be evidence of an exaggerated optimism. Not only have the conflicts that were raised by the last changes still not been completely sorted out but, even if they get a satisfactory solution, that still would not mean the end of the fearfully difficult problem of Eastern Europe. Insofar as it remains unresolved new unforeseen events can occur and provoke new complications.

The question that is posed then is of knowing whether these recent changes in the Balkans have helped to solve the problem and to what extent. The two sides of the Eastern European problem are, on the one hand the weakness and internal disorder in Turkey. and on the other, the imperialisms of the great and lesser powers, and we will investigate the relations between these two factors and what influence recent events have had on them.


The reactionary party in Turkey wants to use the actions of Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria against the new regime. In reality they are part of the liquidation of the old regime. Without examining these actions here and considering them only in relation to the Turkish revolution they are far from being evidence against it but rather give an indirect proof of its strength and vigour. If Bulgaria and Austria until recently threatened the authority of the Sultan in Eastern Roumelia and in Bosnia and Herzgovina, here as elsewhere totally fictitious, it was only with the intention of gaining new concessions. With the appearance of the new regime in Turkey this aim was thwarted – there was even talk of taking back the concession given to Austria for the construction of the Sanjak railway line – and these two states were forced to break unceremoniously with this policy

Thus then the interests of the Ottoman Empire and of peace in the East demand the definite triumph of the revolution which has begun in Turkey. The failures, more apparent than real, that Turkey has suffered in its external relations must not divert the Young Turks from their chosen path. It is not by being influenced by the chauvinist incitements of the reactionaries or by their own despair and resentment, that the Young Turks will succeed in their patriotic task but, on the contrary, by seeking to extend liberties and rights which all the Ottoman citizens must enjoy and above all by preventing responsibility for the plots of neighbouring states falling again on the Christians.

In spite of their admirable tact and good sense the Young Turks have committed, or rather allowed to be committed, some very unfortunate errors. The Gueschoff incident – this Bulgarian diplomatic agent who was ejected from a diplomatic dinner – was one of these. It may be that the Bulgarian government would have declared its independence without waiting for a pretext but the Turkish government was no less guilty before history of having been clumsy and given them this pretext. Once the event occurred, the Grand Vizier Kiamil Pasha made things worse by making inappropriate comments where the Bulgarian representative was likened to a Turkish official.

Why was there any need to inflict this humiliation on Bulgaria, of underlining its dependence, which. with the consent of the Turkish government, had in reality ceased to exist for a long time?

In any case it is not a regime that declares that it is inaugurating an era of peace and legality from which such behaviour is expected, behaviour which was at the same time a blow to the rights of other people and a challenge, all the more uncalled for, in that Turkey could not deal with the complications that it produced.

If we have emphasised this incident so much it is because it demonstrates the power of the reactionary party in Turkey. The Young Turks themselves attributed the incident with Gueschoff to the ill-will of the Sultan. In several columns, published in different journals, the details of this intrigue, carried out by the Sultan at Ildiz-Kioske with the aim of damaging the new liberal regime, are told.

But this return of absolute power and the readiness in certain leading Turkish circles to tolerate it are very bad auguries; it threatens to make the Young Turks unpopular who have to pay for the deliberate mistakes of their enemies.

Another danger for the Young Turk Party comes from the economic and financial dominance which Europe has in Turkey. The absolutist regime, which lived from day to day by all sorts of expedients, could adapt itself to this dominance which allowed it just enough necessary resources to prolong its agony. The present regime would only be able to exist on condition that it improves the economic state of the nation. But such a policy is paralysed in advance by the capitulations and the customs arrangements which put Turkey at the mercy of foreign capitalism. We know that there had to be long negotiations to allow Turkey to raise the tariff from 8% ad valorem to 11%. It is an abnormal situation which puts the Ottoman Empire in a state of inferiority and the Young Turks are right to demand the deliverance of their country from foreign influence at the coming planned international conference. It is difficult to foresee how far the concessions of the great powers will go, but the economic independence of Turkey is one of the indispensable conditions of its political consolidation.


Now let us look at the other aspect of the Eastern European problem: the imperialist policies of the great powers. Throughout the 19th century it was Russia which personified the policy of conquest in Eastern Europe. The Eastern European Question boiled down to the hostility between the Tsarist Empire on the one hand and the coalition of European powers on the other. Following certain events of which the Russo-Japanese war was the main one, Russia was reduced to second place and it is now Austria-Hungary that has taken its place.

It is true that this is not the first time that Austria has stalked its Turkish prey. It is already nearly forty years ago that, defeated in Germany and Italy, she turned her eyes towards the Balkan peninsula. Clever diplomats, like Count Andrassy, could profit from favourable circumstances to make this “Push to the East” a success. The occupation of Bosnia and Hezgovina was one of its successes. Later, during the period which followed the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, Austrian diplomacy, using alternately threats and blandishments, succeeded in becoming the arbiter of the Balkans. The annual reports that the Austrian Foreign Ministry made to the Delegations, became a sort of military “order of the day” where praise or blame were given to all the Balkan states.

Austria has succeeded in pulling all of them into its orbit. Roumania has been forced to conclude a military alliance with her – this is almost certain despite the denial of the Roumanian government – Serbia has been reduced to impotence and trasformed her economic vassal by a customs war. Montenegro by virtue of the siting of all its main routes of communication, as is already the case for Serbia, is also at the mercy of Austria. Bulgaria, a little further removed than the other Balkan states from the neighbourhood of Austria, has been able to shield itself for some time from the influence of Austria. Freed from Russian control by the revolution of 6 September 1885, it maintained itself for some time with the support of England. At this point the diplomacy of Ballplatie chose to attack the principality with his stooge, King Milan, who declared war to re-establish the balance of power destroyed following the union of southern Bulgaria (the old Eastern Roumelia) with northern Bulgaria, the Principality.

The war going badly for King Milan, Austria came to his aid. By a curious coincidence it was again a Count Kevenhueler who at this point came to Prince Battenberg to tell him that if the Bulgarian army advanced on Belgrade, it would come up against Austrian bayonets. The responsibility of Austria for the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885 can be found in the documents published in the Yellow Book. Austria, as well as Russia, refused to make representations to Belgrade, as Freycinet had proposed, to prevent a declaration of war.

Knowing that an alliance between the Balkan peoples would create a barrier to its economic and military expansion, Austrian diplomacy always worked to make this impossible. The unprecedented uproar raised by the government of Vienna, at the news that Serbia and Bulgaria had concluded a customs union, is still remembered.

Aehrenthal exerted all his efforts to force Serbia to renounce this union.

Austrian policy in Turkey was inspired by the same tactic, flatter the Sultan as it had flattered King Milan, maintain anarchy inside the country and obtain concessions. In spite of its undertaking at Muerzstag not to disturb the status quo, it seized the railway concession in the Sandjak, then several months later, profiting from recent events in Turkey, when the whole world was congratulating the Young Turks on their success, it announced the formal annexation of two provinces.

Austria did not stop there. Its appetite aroused, to sought to obtain new successes, to extend its influence to keep the east as a tributary to its capital.


Austria has found an obliging collaborator in the person of prince Ferdinand.

At first sight there is no analogy as between Bulgaria proclaiming its independence and annexing a Bulgarian Province – Eastern Roumelia united with Bulgaria after a rising of its people – and Austria-Hungary annexing two provinces, against the wishes of their population. Everyone who concedes the right of a people to self determination would not, in principle, disapprove of the Bulgarian action. However if Europe has shown the same disapproval of the young Balkan state as of the old Hapsburg monarchy it is because it has seen in their actions a clear desire to harm the Young Turk revolution.

Austrian diplomacy continues therefore to follow its traditional policy: Bulgaria on the other hand undermines its own interests as a state and the interests of the Bulgarian population in Turkey.

It is clear that everything that makes the new regime in Turkey unpopular eases the task of reaction and, as a result, a return to the old way of things with all its horrors.

On the other hand Bulgaria must learn, from its unhappy experiences in the past that it is only a policy of friendship with other Balkan states – including Turkey – that will guarantee its economic and social development.

They must also protest, along with Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro against the encroachments of Austria or other powers and not ally with these last against the Balkan peoples.

This is the attitude that in most consonant with Bulgarian interests, despite the mistakes made by Turkey in the Gueschoff affair – mistakes which the Sublime Porte has already acknowledged.

By its ill-considered action, Bulgaria has risked a great deal without gaining anything positive. In fact it is independent and considered so by all the Powers. To understand Bulgarian policy in these circumstances take note not only of the vanity of Prince Ferdinand, for long hoping for the crown but also the bitterness felt by the Bulgarian chauvinists following the Turkish revolution as they lost the hope of one day seeing Macedonia annexed by Bulgaria.

The bitter disappointment of seeing their Turkish prey escape is a factor too in the present policy of Serbia.

No doubt the indignation of the Serbs with the Austrians is altogether justified but the two provinces have been Austrian for thirty years. The changes mentioned, though they have mortified the Serbs have at least had the result of getting rid of the odious Military Government to which Bosnia and Herzogovina were subjected until today. After gaining a constitutional status they at least have the chance of evolving towards a better future.

The Serbs of Serbia and Montenegro found it a good moment to explain to the whole civilised world the sad state to which they had been reduced by the Congress of Berlin which put all their communications with the outside world at the mercy of their neighbours.

Those responsible for this state of affairs were, after Austria and Germany, Britain and Russia. It was Lord Beaconsfield who had given the two provinces to Austria. Russia did not protest Why?; they had already promised them to the Emperor Franz Joseph in the secret agreement made at Reichstadt in 1876. Bismark denounced this for the first time in 1888 and it was later confirmed, several times, by its Russian authors. The Serb writers on their side, often cited the words of the Russian negotiator Count Schavaloff at the Congress of Berlin speaking to the Serb delegates when they had gone to him to ask him his agreement “Ask Count Andrassy: you are in the Austrian sphere of influence.”

Today once again Austrian diplomacy, counting on the complicity of Russia would have shared some half-secrets with Izvolski about its plan to proclaim a formal annexation. On this occasion the Russian minister, no doubt thinking that these events would provide a good opportunity to obtain free passage through the Straits for the Russian war fleet listened favourably to his Austrian colleague’s proposals.

It was only the influence of Britain and that of public opinion in Russia that forced him to change his mind. In fact for Russia, weakened by the war with Japan, the best policy would be to be act as a disinterested party.

Germany is the only great power that openly takes the side of Austria. The Iron Chancellor used to boast, when he was alive, that he never opened the despatches from Constantinople and that the Eastern Question was not worth the bones of one Pomeranian Grenadier. Today Germany has great material interests in Turkey and, while supporting its ally, Austria, it is forced to put a brave face on the gamble of the Young Turks long as power is in their hands.

One could say the same of Italy which, while wanting to lay its hands on Tripoli, does not want the responsibility of provoking a Turkish partition. Italian public opinion already thinks that the government has gone too far in its indulgence of Austria. Thus it is only the latter that a liberal Turkey has to fear. But Austrian imperialism has a weak element which makes resistance to it relatively easy for those who must oppose it: it greatly fears a war. Recent events, the annexation of two provinces, have, while poisoning the struggle between the Germans and the Czechs, provoked the fall of the Beck ministry. How much greater would have been the consequences of an Austrian war against the Slavs of the Balkan peninsula for the conquest of Macedonia!

However if anything is capable of defeating not only Austrian efforts, but all other vague desires of conquest, it undoubtedly would be a close alliance between all the Balkan states including Roumania.

We must hope that the recent changes will bring this solution nearer. It would be one of the happiest results of the Turkish Revolution.

In fact what has up till now prevented a Balkan alliance , or to call it by its correct name, a Balkan federation, is the struggle of the peoples of the East over their Turkish inheritance. The consolidation of Turkey would make this quarrel pointless. So the only serious and lasting guarantee of peace in Eastern Europe is on the one hand, internally, reform on the basis of equality between Christians and Turks and on the other, externally, a close alliance with the Balkan States.

Last updated on 16.10.2011