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Mediterranean Quarterly 14.2 (2003) 77-94

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Turkish-Bulgarian Relations:
From Conflict and Distrust to Cooperation

Michael B. Bishku

Turkish-Bulgarian relations since the latter part of the nineteenth century and throughout most of the twentieth have been shaped by political changes in the Balkans, affected in large part by the influences of the major powers and secondarily by the treatment of a sizable community of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. Even before the nineteenth century, Turkey (or rather its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire) and Bulgaria shared a long history. Following the Battle of Nicopolis (now Nikopol) in 1396, Bulgaria was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire and ethnic Turks began to settle there. The Ottoman government recognized the authority of the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Istanbul over all Christians within the empire as part of the millet system of confessional autonomy since the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. At the same time, the Balkans became the Ottoman Empire's "center of gravity," to use Bernard Lewis's expression, as more political and military activities took place there than in the Middle East. 1

By the nineteenth century, Christians in the Ottoman Empire, especially in the Balkans, were starting to be influenced by ethnic nationalism and were receiving varying degrees of support from the major European powers. The Ottoman Empire, which had lost territory around the Black Sea to the Russians in the previous century, was under pressure to introduce political reforms. The promotion of the concept of Osmanlilik(Ottomanism) by mid-nineteenth century governmental reformers, in order to establish a multi-ethnic [End Page 77] civic identity, failed to gain acceptance among the population of the empire. Perhaps the most prominent of those reformers, Midhat Pasha was governor of Bulgaria from 1864 to 1869. He invested a lot of money in the construction of roads and bridges and established agricultural cooperative banks for loans to the peasantry, and Bulgarian-populated areas were doing much better economically than other areas of the Ottoman Empire. However, as one noted authority on the Balkans points out, while Midhat "is still regarded among contemporary Bulgarian historians as a progressive influence, . . . their admiration is tempered by dismay at Midhat's uncompromising suppression of any movement smacking of separatism." 2

In 1870, the Ottoman sultan Abdulaziz, obviously believing that such a concession was no threat to the state, issued a decree establishing an autonomous Bulgarian Orthodox exarchate separate from the Greek patriarchate. A nationalist challenge, however, soon came from Bulgarian intellectuals; in April 1876, there was an ill-conceived uprising brutally crushed by Ottoman irregular forces, which was reported with political passion in European newspapers. (There were probably exaggerations of the number of Christian deaths, while nothing was mentioned of the Muslim deaths, which may have been greater.) 3 Liberals in Great Britain, a country that had encouraged the period of Ottoman reform known as the Tanzimat (1839 to 1876), were appalled, while Russia threatened to intervene in support of its Orthodox Slavic brethren.

Abdulhamid II, meanwhile, became the Ottoman sultan in May 1876. The Russians made good on their threat in 1877, advancing to the outskirts of Istanbul and forcing the Ottomans to accept the Treaty of San Stefano in March 1878. Among other things, this treaty called for a Greater Bulgaria extending to the Aegean Sea. Alarmed by this development, Germany, Britain, and Austria-Hungary forced Russia to have the treaty revised at the Congress of Berlin a few months later. While the independence of Serbia, Montenegro and Romania was formally recognized, Bulgaria was made smaller and divided; an autonomous principality under nominal Ottoman [End Page 78] suzerainty was established north and west of the Balkan mountains, while Eastern Rumelia, which was just to the south of the principality and was supposed to remain under Ottoman rule, got a Christian governor. 4 In 1885, as Russian influence diminished in Bulgaria, the two territories were united with British support, and later, in the midst of the Young Turk revolution, Bulgaria's independence was formally recognized in 1909. 5 The...


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