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A Bulgarian kisses his girlfriend at Sofia's main square early January 1, 2002. Thousands of people crowded the streets of the Bulgarian capital. REUTERS/Dimitar Dilkoff
The Tradition of Intervention in the Balkans.
Europe's Great Powers and the "Oriental Question"
Intervention in the Balkans by European nations is not just a phenomenon of recent years. In conjunction with the "Oriental question," the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of new nation-states, all of which preoccupied European policymakers prior to the First World War, there were not only political but also joint military interventions by the former Great Powers.
From a historical perspective, Europe's present engagement in the Balkans is nothing new. Just as the violent collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s brought efforts at political mediation by the EU and the UN, and ultimately military intervention by NATO, in the years before World War I it was the "Oriental question" which evoked intervention by European powers. Admittedly, that era's "Concert of Nations" which included Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Prussia (subsequently Germany) and later also Italy bears only a remote resemblance to today's supranational institutions. Moreover, the foreign policy of that era was far more strongly influenced by the concrete interests and egoism of the individual powers, which made joint action difficult; nor was there any uncontested leading power back then, as the U.S. is today. Policy toward the Balkans and the "Orient" was characterized far more by competition than by joint action, with the latter arising mostly out of the search for ways to balance the interests of the Great Powers, as was done at the Berlin Congress of 1878. Some joint expert missions were also dispatched, such as the reorganization of the Ottoman gendarmerie in Macedonia by a body of European officers in the years 1904-08.
The Greek War of Independence
Most of all, though, it was the military interventions of that era which are reminiscent of current conditions in Southeast Europe. The first such case occurred in connection with the Greek war for independence, which broke out in 1821. Although European governments in the period following the Congress of Vienna (1815) were essentially anti-revolutionary and initially opposed to the Greek uprising against the rule of the Ottoman sultan, their stance shifted under growing pressure from pro-Hellenicly disposed public opinion. Russia itself, Europe's leading conservative power at that time, became the advocate of the Greek cause. Its efforts to bring about a joint European intervention came up against opposition from Austria and Prussia, but met with approval from Britain, which in previous decades had been strongly protective of the Ottoman Empire. Some of the Greek rebels invested their hopes in assistance from England, actually applying for British protection in 1825. The British capital market financed a number of bond issues on behalf of the rebels. The third big power to join in their support was France, and in July 1827 the Europeans agreed to impose a cease-fire, by military force if necessary, and to introduce an autonomous status for Greece.
Without any declaration of war, on October 20, 1827 a naval battle took place off Navarino, on the western coast of the Peloponnese, in which a joint British-Russian-French fleet commanded by England's Admiral Codrington sank almost the entire Ottoman-Egyptian fleet assembled there. With that, the Greek war of independence was more or less decided. Late in August 1828 a 14,000-man French expeditionary force landed on the Peloponnese to supervise the withdrawal of Egyptian troops from the region. The French remained in the country even after the Egyptians had departed, partly at the request of the Greek government, until the arrival of Bavarian Prince Otto in February 1833 to become the new monarch of an independent Greece, the founding of which had been agreed upon by the three victorious powers in February 1830.
Foreign Troops on Crete
The next collective military intervention did not take place until almost the end of the 19th century, in the course of which there had been repeated uprisings against Ottoman rule by the Christian part of the population of Crete, their ultimate goal being unification with Greece. When the situation intensified in 1896, the European powers stepped in. They persuaded the Ottoman sultan to grant the island autonomous status under a Christian governor and to divide political functions on the island between Christians and Muslims at a ratio of 2:1.
The situation threatened to escalate in February 1897, when Crete's unification with Greece was proclaimed anyway and Greek troops landed on the island. The sultan thereupon ceded his sovereignty to the European powers. An allied squadron sailed for Crete, and 3,000 soldiers landed there in March. The Admirals' Council, the supreme military (and later also administrative) authority, proclaimed the island's autonomy, and Greece was pressured by the European powers to withdraw its troops, which it did in late May 1897. The European troop presence was reinforced and the island divided into five sectors, four of them national, in which the British, French, Russians and Italians assumed responsibility respectively; Germany and Austria-Hungary had pulled back quickly. Those four powers held joint responsibility for the zone surrounding the capital, Chania, and Italian officers helped create a new gendarmerie for the island.
Administration by the Great Powers
Following the withdrawal of Ottoman troops and officials in November 1898, Crete was under the direct administration of the Great Powers. In December 1898 the island's new governor arrived: Prince George of Greece, second-oldest son of the Greek king. The question of the governor had long been a matter of dispute. Initially the preference had been for a neutral personality (the first name considered was that of a former Swiss federal councilor, Numa Droz). Prince George exercised his mandate in the name of the European powers, which handed administrative and judicial authority entirely over to the Cretan government in June 1899. European military contingents were reduced, not even fulfilling police tasks any longer. One of their most important remaining jobs was to protect the island's Muslim population. The Admirals' Council was replaced by the Commission of Consuls, officials who operated on direct orders from their respective governments and were now placed in command of the various national military units.
In 1905, when resistance (sometimes armed) arose against the policies and authoritarian behavior of the governor, Prince George, the representatives of the European powers succeeded in ending the conflict through negotiations. The Commission of Consuls declared an amnesty for the rebels, whose weapons were collected by the European troops. For several months, Crete once again was under direct international military government, until general elections were held in January 1906. Following Prince George's resignation, a Greek politician by the name of Zaimis became Crete's governor. The Commission of Consuls was dissolved, and there was a marked decrease of interest in Crete on the part of the European powers.
The withdrawal of European military units began in July 1908 and was completed a year later. Only a small contingent remained behind to guard the flags of the Great Powers and the Ottoman Empire, a last symbol of the island's status under international law. In fact, however, the European powers were prepared to accept a gradual integration of Crete into the Greek state, despite Ottoman protests. Though there was an initial reluctance to do so, they extended full legal recognition of that integration in 1913.
Joint Action in Shkodr
The last joint action prior to World War I came in 1913, during the First Balkan War. A European naval squadron sailed up off the coast of Montenegro to force the end of the siege of the northern Albanian city of Shkodr by Montenegrin and Serbian troops. This demonstration of naval might, however, proved just as ineffectual as the subsequent blockade of the Montenegrin coast. On April 22, the Ottoman garrison at Shkodr surrendered, and Montenegro appeared determined to occupy northern Albania against the will of the Big Powers. Only after massive pressure had been applied did Montenegro's King Nikola back down.
On May 14, an international force of 500 men entered Shkodr, consisting of the crews from the allied squadron's warships; their number was soon doubled. The naval troops were then replaced by army units. At the start of August 1913 there were 1,800 allied troops in Shkodr, with more than 500 men each provided by Austro-Hungary and Italy, two countries that had strongly pushed for the establishment of an Albanian state. There were also British, French and German contingents. Only Russia did not participate, in order not to anger its Southern Slav allies in the Balkans.
Each of the five national contingents was responsible for a different sector. Their principal tasks were to protect northern Albania from Montenegro, to establish a new administration and to maintain law and order. Serving as governor was a British colonel who until October 1913 was responsible to the Admirals' Council which as on Crete was in charge of operations. Following the withdrawal of the allied squadron, the governor was directly responsible to the various foreign governments. The most immediate goals were quickly achieved; beyond that, the foreign troops were used to expand the infrastructure by building or improving roads and rebuilding the bazaar, which had been burned down by the Montenegrins. The military governor strove to maintain close collaboration with local notables and good relations with the local populace.
In August 1914, when the First World War broke out, the foreign troop contingents were withdrawn from Shkodr. The soldiers and officers whose joint efforts had functioned so smoothly, buoyed by an esprit de corps common to all the armies involved, spent the next four years facing one another in the trenches of the European battlefields.