C. Racovski

Between Two Thieves

Russia and Austria in Serbia

(April 1909)

Written: 1909.
Source: From Revue de La Paix, April 1909, pp. 4–5.
The following article appears courtesy of the Editorial Board of Revolutionary History [London]
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.

‘Such was the protection provided by St Petersberg; a self-serving protection which doled out liberty to the peoples it protected, so that, condemned to remaining in a precarious state, they could only hope from the Tsar the preservation of the range of independence they owed to his generosity.’ (Henri Thiers, Serbia, Its Past and Future, Paris 1862, p. 112)

‘It must be noted that Russia receives very few thanks for, or acknowledgments of, the benefits it brought to the peoples it liberated from Turkish domination. This does not mean that we must regret these benefits; but it must teach us that we must not go further and that we must not completely emancipate these provinces, which despite the actual independence of their administrations do not thank the hand that has given them this benefit.’ (Note from Baron de Brunow, Russian Ambassador to London, in 1829.) V.S.S. Tatisteff, The Foreign Policy of Nicolas I, St. Petersburg 1887, p. 315)

At the time of writing we do not yet know the outcome of the conflict between Serbia and Austria. But whether or not the latter achieves the submission and humiliation of the little Danubian kingdom, either following pressure by the mediating powers or by force of arms, the Serbian problem—just as the whole problem of the the Balkans—will remain. Seen within a certain context it becomes even more acute and imposes on the Serbs the necessity of seeking effective means to guarantee their political and economic independence. There was a time a few months ago, before the Turkish revolution, when Serbia could hope to obtain, from the eventual dismemberment of Turkey, a portion of Macedonian territory and thereby an outlet to the sea. All the efforts of the government, of committees and of the Belgrade press, were directed at this aim. As we see, this policy was already not very rational as it made the future of the country dependent on events that were not only unpredictable but could even have consequences for Serbia the opposite of those desired. In fact in a general war over Turkish spoils not only Turkey but also the small Balkan states could go down. Thus the traditional Serb policy was fanciful and dangerous. If they clung to this policy so stubbornly it was because it corresponded to the chauvinist madness which has contaminated all nations, great and small. Today the policy of conquest seems even less feasible for Serbia than ever. The diplomats and politicians of Serbia regret at this moment not only the definitive annexation of two Serb provinces by Austria but also and above all the collapse of the dreams they entertained at the expense of Turkey.

What will Serbia do now? Through what policies will it seek the guarantees necessary for its national development? By what means will it resist the aggressive military and economic policies of Austria which squeeze it like pincers from the north and the west?

For some time Serbia has turned its eyes towards Russia, from whom it expects its present and future salvation. But about this the Serbians are mistaken too. One has only to recall Russia’s past attitude to Serbia to realise that the Serbs again entertain an illusion. It’s true that, so long as events cause Serbia to be a source of conflict between Russia and Austria, the former will come to its aid. But there are also many common interests which will impel these powerful neighbours to march together. And whenever such agreements may be concluded between them it will be at the expense of the little nations of Eastern Europe or of Turkey.

Serbia itself or provinces peopled by Serbs have served as bargaining counters between the Romanoff and Harpsburg dynasties. Recent history gives us eloquent evidence of this. Russian diplomacy has not hesitated to submit the Serbian race to painful vivisection whenever it deemed it in its interest. Let us recall some facts. In 1807 Rusia made formal proposals to Austria to cede it Serbia, Bosnia and Hercegovina in exchange for its support in the war against Turkey. Russia reserved the Danubian principalities of Valachia and Moldavia for itself. [1]

This was not the first partition of the Ottoman Empire that Russia proposed to Austria. It had made others before and would later, as it did on the eve of the Crimean War. But what made the 1807 project particularly odious and showed all the perfidy of which Moscow’s diplomacy was capable was the fact that at the very time that it generously promised Serbia to Austria, the former was in a formal alliance with Russia and was fighting side by side with it against Turkey. What little importance Russia attaches to its word is shown by the well-known Reichstadt Convention of 1876 which ceded two Serb provinces to Austria. At the very moment this Convention was about to be concluded Bosnia and Hercegovina, egged on by Russia, were in open insurrection against Turkey, and Serbia itself was joining the war.

As regards the Reichstadt Conference, I have already mentioned in my article on The Balkan Entente [2] the important admissions of various Russian diplomats and writers. Now I give you another piece of evidence: that of General Count Ignatieff, the well known president of the Slav Society and Russian ambassador to Constantinople in 1876. Questioned during his life time (in 1899) by the editor of the slavophile review The Russian Task (Rousski Troud) on the entente between Russia and Austria, the general, while wishing to deny his own responsibility, confirmed the fact: ‘It was understood’, he said ‘that if the frontiers of Serbia reached those of Montenegro, then Austria would occupy Bosnia. That was the work of the Soumarocof-Elston mission. But later I went to Vienna, declaring that there was no longer any need to occupy Bosnia and Hercegovina. Austria was prepared to agree to my proposition, but I am not guilty as I was not supported. As far as I was concerned all that was left for me to do was withdraw, which I did.’

Thus the facts demonstrate that, more than once, the Russian and Austrian diplomats, now at daggers drawn, were amicably agreed at the expense of Serbia.

Moreover more than one far-sighted Serb politician has understood this. On this it might be of interest to quote part of a report from the English consul, in Belgrade, Hoges (sic), who in 1837 wrote to his government; ‘I have reason to believe that Prince Milosch suspects that an understanding exists between Prince Metternich and the Count of Nesselrode about their policy on Serbia, and he fears that in the event of war Russia will hand Serbia, Bosnia and Hercegovina to Austria on condition that the latter shuts her eyes to what Russia does elsewhere.’ [3]<</p>

Who will disagree that today the same entente could again be immediately arrived at if Russia obtained sufficient “compensation”? Is not her attitude towards the Serb crisis due rather to the failure of the approach made by M. Isvolski at the start of the crisis, very probably with the agreement of Baron d’Aehrental, for free passage through the Straits (of Constantinople) for the Russian war fleet? We know that the Austrian minister informed his Russian colleague of the secret of the Austrian intention to announce the definitive annexation of the two provinces. At that moment M. Isvolski had no comment to make on what he later described in an interview as the “half-confidences” of M. d’Aehrental, believing that he could obtain for Russia compensation in other areas. It is also alleged that he was careful not to share these half-confidences with France and England, whose aid he would later solicit in the struggle against Austria.

So it was a puerile policy which sought to confide to Russia the defence of Serb or indeed Balkan interests. At the first opportunity Serbia would be betrayed as happened more than once and particularly in 1812 and 1878 with the signing of the treaties of Bucharest and Berlin.

On the first of these occasions Serbia was at war with Turkey for its independence.. Eight years before, on 26 October 1804, a Serb delegation consisting of Matei Nenadovitch, Pierre Tchardakli and Ivan Protitch went to St. Petersburg to ask for the protection of Alexander I. They received the reply ‘that the Russian government cannot interrupt its peaceful relations with the Sublime Porte, as this would be equivalent to breaking a treaty.’ But some time later Russia, now at war with Turkey, urged the Serbs to go to war too, and, to assist them, sent them three thousand soldiers under the command of General Michelsohn. In order to reconcile themselves with the Serbs Turkey proposed peace through the intermediary of Schurschid-Pasha, promising them autonomy similar to that enjoyed by the Danubian principalities of Valachia and Moldavia. The Serbs, as faithful allies, replied that these proposals should be addressed to Russia to whom they had confided the defence of their interests. But when, a year later, Russia signed the Treaty of Bucharest with Turkey, which gave it Bessarabia, it completely sacrificed the Serb interests. By virtue of Article 8 of this treaty Turkey demanded of Serbia: 1) the demolition of all the newly built forts and the handing over of their guns to Turkey who would replace them in the old forts; in addition the Serbs would undertake to hand over their arms and also their horses with their saddles; 2) the Turks would regain the right to reside in the Serb towns and villages, regaining all their assets, rights and privileges; 3) the Serbs would become once more subjects of the Sultan and the Turkish authorities would be re-established in Serbia. Any Serbs, who were unwilling to submit to these conditions would be free to leave their country. [4]

These unacceptable conditions forced the Serbs to take up arms again in order to obtain, at the price of new sacrifices, the recognition of their national autonomy.

No less significant was Russia’s attitude to Serbia’s internal conflicts which, as in the other Balkan countries, was dominated by problems of foreign policy. Here, with a rare perseverence, Russia sought to control men, parties and classes so as to use them for its own political ends. To attain, this Russian diplomacy did not neglect any means, peaceful or violent, reactionary or demagogic. In this respect the intrigues it indulged in for approximately forty years over the constitutional question are instructive!

The second Serbian Prince Milosch Obrenovitch had aspirations to independence and rare diplomatic skills as he was able to wring many concessions from Turkey. He aroused the hostility of Russia who sought to diminish his power and moral authority. Having learnt that he was about to obtain from the Porte his recognition as hereditary prince of Serbia, Russia intervened to turn him away from this objective. ‘You must first settle public issues’, the Russian ambassador to Constantinople, Baron Stroganoff, wrote to him on 13 December 1813, ‘and only then run after personal successes; otherwise you will only have set backs and belated regrets.’ Ten years later, when the Sultan bestowed the hereditary right to the throne of Serbia on the Obrenovitch dynasty Russia opposed this. The Russian ambasador to London, Baron de Brunow, wrote à propos this ‘It was not in our interest to allow a confirmation of the power of the sovereign of a country whose irregular administration had provoked discontent among the Serbs.’

To keep Milosch in check Russia vigorously supported the party of the “Velicoschi”, a sort of peasant aristocracy which demanded the limitation of the prince’s power. The prince instructed his counsellor, Davidovitch, to draft a constitution; but in order to foil the manoeuvres of his opponents and Russia he gave it a far more democratic character than he wanted (1832). The new constitution called for the participation of the peasant masses in the government of the country; it was with the help of these that Prince Milosch hoped counterbalance the influence of the “Velicoschi” and of Russia. He also took decisive steps in foreign policy by attempting to free Serbia from the tutelage of Russia as well as of Austria with the support of England, which had, since 1835 established a diplomatic representation in Belgrade.

The democratic contitution solemnly proclaimed at Cragouevatz on 3/15 February 1835 had the merit of upsetting the Serbian “Velicoschi”, Austria and Russia. Metternich did not want to allow a state with a democratic organisation to exist bordering the frontier of the most legitimist of monarchies, and whose example might “demoralise” its own subjects.

As for Russia, in order to lend more weight to its protest, it dispatched its consul-general in Bucharest, Baron Rickman, to Belgrade, mandated to bring some order to Serbian affairs. In a haughty speech before an assembly of the “Velicoschi”, at which the prince was present, the Russian consul declared that in no way would his government permit the introduction of a constitution based on principles against which Russia and Austria had always fought and which not a single power had dared appropriate for its own country. Then he proceeded to threats, telling the Serbs that they could only expect the protection of the Tsar if they listened to his advice. If they did not do so, not only would he refuse his help but he would even ally himself with Turkey to bring the rebels to heel. [5]

The constitution drafted by Milosch was therefore not brought into force. Two years later, towards the end of 1836, Baron Rickman put forward a draft of a constitution ‘written on a scrap of paper, without date or signature’ in which he forestalled ‘the introduction of any arbitrary reforms’, abolishing the Chamber of Deputies (the Scoupscthina) and substituting for it a Council of State, packed with “Velicoschi”.

In a skilful manoeuvre Prince Milosch pushed away the Russian project and, through the intermediary of the English ambassador to Constantinople, sought to reach a direct agreement with the Porte for the drawing up a constitution. This was in April 1838 while the Russian ambassador, Boutneef, was on holiday. Alerted to Serbia’s demarches, he returned to his post and secured from the Porte the sending away of the Serb delegates and the granting of a constitution on the authority of the Turkish Pasha of Belgrade. [6] This last detail was intended to humiliate Milosch.

At the same time Prince Dolgorouki arrived in Belgrade assigned the special task of “uprooting” the influence on Serbian affairs which Hoges, England’s representative, had succeeded in building up. The Tsar’s special envoy treated Milosch like a servant. According to Hoges’ report he threatened him with exile in Siberia if he did not accept the Russian proposals and did not cease all contacts with England.

Thus was the new constitution imposed which put power in the hands of seventeen Velicoschi making up a State Council, elected with the approval of the Porte. Milosch abdicated on 1/13 July 1839. His successor, Milan, lasted only one month. He was replaced by Michel Obrenovitch who faithfully followed the instructions of Russia.

The reactionary constitution provoked an insurrection. The Obrenovitch dynasty was overthrown and a popular Scoupschtina was convoked in Belgrade on 2/14 September 1842. It elected a Carageorgevici to the Serbian throne.

Russia immediately protested against this “illegal act” and against “this new attack on the sovereign rights of the Sultan”. In order to lend more weight to its will Russia asked Austria permission for a Russian army corps to cross its territory to reach Serbia and re-establish law and order. Naughty Austria refused. But the threat produced results. Prince Carageorgevici abdicated, the leaders of the insurrection were chased out of Serbia and the Belgrade Pasha, accused of weakness, was replaced by another. A new Scoupschtina was convoked but it again elected a Carageorgevici. Nevertheless Russia after further efforts managed to impose its candidate, Prince Milosch, now again in favour with the Tsar.

After the war of 1878 Russia seemed to have lost interest in Serbia, left completely under Austrian influence in accordance with the Austro-Russian agreement of 1876. But after the set back Russian policy suffered in Bulgaria, it became once more a Russian objective to regain its influence in Serbia. It would take us too long to describe all the means it employed to this end. But we shall remind our readers of the shameful comedy it played with the unhappy degenerate, King Alexander, encouraging even his pervert tastes and burdening the Tsar with being witness at his marriage with Draga Maschin. No one can doubt its complicity in the dethronement of the last Obrenovitch.

Russian diplomacy remained true to its traditional politics of sowing anarchy, provoking unrest and internal conflicts, raising dynastic questions and external difficulties, in order to appear later, at critical moments, as the indispensable and unique saviour.

Today, as it did eighty years ago when Baron de Brunow composed the note we quoted at the beginning of this article, it does not want to completely liberate the peoples over whom it exercises its protection, as by doing so it would take away any pretext for intervention.

The Balkan peoples must remain permanently minors so that Russia can play its role of guardian. The French writer M.H. Thiers wrote in 1862 ‘Such was the protection provided by St Petersberg; a self-serving protection which doled out liberty to the peoples it protected, so that, condemned to remaining in a precarious state, they could only hope from the Tsar the preservation of the range of independence they owed to his generosity.’

The help that Serbia today expects from Russia can only be fragile and precarious. The problematic aid it gives it against Austria can only serve to strengthen Russian diplomacy’s harmful influence on the Serbian people. The only policy that will help Serbia, as well as the other Balkan states, liberate themselves from the deadly embrace of Russia as well as of Austria, is an alliance among themselves.

C. Racovski


1. Soloviev, Emperor Alexander I, pp. 144–145 (in Russian).

2. Revue de la Paix, December 1908.

3. Hoges’ report is translated in the Journal of the Royal Academy of Serbia, vol.XVIII, p. 58.

4. Popoff, Russia and Serbia, 1860, pp. 35 and 99 (in Russian).

5. Popoff, pp. 330–345.

6. The Pasha represented the sovereignty of the Sultan in Belgrade.

Last updated on 16.10.2011