What became known as “the Big Eastern Crisis” of 1875-1878 can reasonably be considered as a turning point in the history of all Balkan peoples and states with regards to its scope of events, political decisions, and diplomatic solutions. This is supported by the international significance of the offered solutions and adopted contracts as the agenda of a European policy, which addressed numerous issues of almost all Balkan peoples and ethnic groups in comparison with their earlier historical heritage.  Moreover, it can be said that the decisions of the Congress of Berlin did not bring a series of dramatic events to an end but was rather some way for the Balkan peoples (who were in so much conflict at the time) to start to settle mutual relations on many levels including political, religious, cultural, national, and economic ones. This was true in the exceptionally complex diplomatic and political circles of the powerful European states: Austro-Hungary, Russian, England, France, Germany, and Italy. In fact, the directness of their interest to be involved repulsed (and sometimes roughly interrupted) the political, ethnic, and religious processes of constitution in the areas of the remaining territories of Turkey in the Balkans—Bosnia and Herzegovina, Old Serbia, Macedonia, Albania and Trachia. These territories were actually a stumbling block and touchstone of frequent confrontation for European powers and Balkan states, as well as the source of the very conflicts of the Balkan peoples.

The national indeterminacy and religious indentation of the cited areas (by which the Turkish theocratic state, among other things, kept them within their borders) favored all wards to link their “enlightening ideas” to national and military-political objectives. An example of this is the political constitution of the Albanians, which from the romantic vision of the “rilindi” movement to the maturation of the national and liberation movement from the beginning of the 20th Century, was to travel a long ways to acquire a national identity. For many reasons the historical journey is considered to have delayed national integration, in comparison with the processes that had already achieved their purposes in Europe.

The Albanians were affected and impacted by how the Turkish borders moved during the Eastern Crisis. What until then had been a vaguely defined ethnic, political, and cultural self-consciousness was influenced as the Islamic religious affiliation became identified with a national identity. The weakness of the Osmanli Empire, the political compromise of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian diplomacy (Reichstadt, July 8, 1876), and uncertain outcome of the war in the Balkans determined an Albanian political and intellectual elite in Constantinople. The Big Eastern Crisis had attempted a solution – to adapt to the conservative zeitgeist, and political dictation. The territorial alteration and eventual fall of the Osmanli Empire, which hinted at the possibility of constituting an “autonomous” or “independent” Albanian state, made its’ impact felt. It so happened that starting from 1877, the Committee of the Albanian Literary-Political Circle in Constantinople became a major patron of the territorial-administrative autonomy of Albania in the framework of the Turkish Empire. Externally (and outside its program) the Committee reported at the Assembly in Prizren on the occasion of establishing the “League for Albanian people’s rights protection”. For the next one hundreds years, it marked the territorial and ethnical concepts of Great Albania.

pashko vasa

The influential Constantinople intellectuals Abdul bey Frasheri and Vasa Efendi (Pashko Vasa) were initiators of the political action seeking to acquire Albanian autonomy and independence. Their demands, presented to foreign diplomats in Constantinople, included the following: from all areas where Albanians lived in the Balkan part of Turkey, an Albanian “vilayet” be formed; the administration in such a “vilayet” be entrusted to the Albanians; teaching in schools and court procedures to be in the Albanian language; recruits to carry out their military duty and serve in the territory from which they originated; and the local budget funds to be earmarked mainly for necessities of such a “vilayet”. The project did not precisely define the area encompassed by the borders of the “Albanian vilayet,” but their patrons considered that the territories of the Shkodra, Ioannina, Bitola and Kosovo “vilayets” should be assembled. On these matters, which were not met with the understanding of the Turkish government, the national gathering of the Albanians began.

By propagating the territorial-administrative autonomy of Albania, the leadership of the “Central Committee for ‘Arbanas’ rights defense” (which grew out from the Albanian Literary-Political Circle in Constantinople) created the illusion of solving “the Albanian issue”. But there were no realistic class-social or national assumptions for this. Anticipating that territorial aspects of this issue would effectively “open” and “close” perspectives on possible solutions, the Albanian political and intellectual elite took to searching for guarantees of future Albanian autonomy.

Support of the Austro-Hungary monarchy was founded on the conviction that using Albania and the Albanians would prevent Russian pan-Slavism and supremacy of Slavic states in the Balkan area. The uncertain political fate of the Albanians was emphasized in London. Unacceptable attitudes of including Albanians in any Slavic state in the Balkans were cited, and support was sought in an attempt to “break the chains which tie them to Turkey” through autonomy. The readiness of Albanians “with arms in hand” to defend the territorial integrity of “Albanian areas” was dramatized by the question of “life and death” and, as such, was suggested to the Italian diplomacy. Establishing the borders in a future Albanian state, as well as drawing up the guarantees of its independency, were the primary activities of the Constantinople Committee’s defense for “Arbanas” rights.

Peace accords were reached in San Stefano March on March 3, 1878, with the objective to have influence over the revision at the next congress in Berlin, and resulted in the “League for Arbanas people rights defense” (also under the name “Prizren League”). This was established in Prizren on June 10, 1878. Its self-organization to defend the integrity of the stumbling Empire in wars with Serbia, Montenegro and Russia, and engagement to return “the lost territories”, enabled the League to act as an instrument of Turkish foreign policy. From its’ establishment until its termination in 1881, and under the influence of foreign political circumstances, the League experienced internal transformation from being a pro-Islamic, pan-Turkish organization into a military-political ally in defense of “Arbanas” rights in the territories which their ideological initiators considered “Albanian land”. Coordinating work methods with different program demands of heterogeneous committees from the south, north, and north-west regions (Ioannina, Shkodra, Prizren), the League established itself as a claims representative for territorial Albania in the area of the Shkodra, Ioannina, Bitola and Kosovo “vilayets”, on the promises made by the Porte before the Big Eastern Crisis. After the assembly was founded in Prizren, its’ ideological initiator of the League, Abdul bey Frasheri (in the name of the delegates of south Albania), suggested a radical solution with the aim of creating an independent Albanian state. It would consist of: 1) South Albania, with Epirus and Ioannina; 2) North and middle Albania with areas around Shkodra, Tirana, and Elbasan; 3) Macedonia, with the towns of Debar, Skopje, Gostivar, Prilep, Veles, Bitola and Ohrid. 4) Kosovo with the towns of Peć, Djakovica, Prizren, Mitrovica, Priština, Gnjilane, Preševo, Kumanovo, Novi Pazar and Sjenica. This concept in time became the territorial framework on which all future projects and projections of Great Albania were built. Even after the League reached its end the political programs and grounds that were covered lost nothing in attractiveness for all future “constructors” of ethnical and territorial Albania.

From the national-romantic visions that the founder of the League enjoyed (and the objectives and necessities of the Porte), an ambitious political program arose which staked territorial claims on any ethnic presence in the mentioned “vilayets” where the Albanians did not constitute more than 44% of the total population. It is obvious that ethnic issues were in opposition to the territorial claims. In this way the numerous Slavic and Greek population—in spite of resisting Islamization and keeping the conscience of their medieval states in the mentioned areas—was led to circumstances that influenced the change of existential and political fate by their own violent Albanization. Sacrificing national and religious affiliation in favor of the economic and physical interests of survival resulted in an ethnic mimicry in these regions, which effected favor for various options of former Balkan states and European powers. The terror unleashed by the League was manifested as powers of ethnical supremacy in the areas of the projected Albanian state. On the basis of autocratic expansion to foreign estates (and in the illusory but lasting conversion to Islam and rapid Albanization), emigration that emptied the areas of Kosovo and Metohija—but strengthened the Serbian population within the borders of the newly-established Kingdom of Serbia—was a source of power.

Arising with the objective to disable the war profits of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece, the Prizren League played the role of a distinct anti-Slav and anti-Hellenistic organization throughout its entire campaign. Having gathered the heterogeneous Albanian population for a religious war against the cited states, the Committee of the League in Prizren strived – through persistent propagation of the endangerment of territories it considered Albanian – to homogenize this politically very diverse ally. This they accomplished by focusing on a religious-defensive directive, and putting to an end further destruction of European Turkey. The appearance of a large number of “muhadjirs,”(refugees) from Toplica and other parts of Serbia, arrived in the area of Kosovo and Metohija after 1878. The number was estimated to be about 30,000 people and was said to have contributed to the radicalized mood of the Albanian population, and to have caused hope to fade concerning the survival of an important group of Serbs, eventually stimulating their emigration. It was decisive in forming a special ethnical and religious “rung” at the border of the Osmanli Empire with the Principality of Serbia.

The political affiliations of the Prizren League were “picturesquely” reflected in its bylaws. The first Article described the reason for establishing the League as the common wish for “defending earthly integrity”. The keeping of “imperial rights” by His Majesty Sultan, “our master”, was explained in Article Three. Article Four emphasized obedient devotion to the Shari’a law on the issues of protecting the life, honor and property of loyal Muslims. Article Six precisely defined the relation towards South Slavic states: “Having in front of our eyes the situation on the Balkans, we shall not allow foreign troops to enter our region. We shall not accept the Bulgarian government even by name. If Serbia does not evacuate voluntarily the parts it has illegally occupied, we shall send “akindjias” (irregular troops) against her and we will lodge final attempts to work out surrender of these areas. We shall act in the same way against Montenegro”. By using the term “illegal occupation” of areas that were political and/or cultural centers of the Serbian medieval state before the Turkish invasion, the Main Committee was effectively announcing all the marked regions as “Albanian land”. While expressing the need for allies “with our martyr compatriots of the same faith in the Balkans”, the League’s leading role in the religious war against the Slavic state (and the necessity of establishing a politically heterogeneous ally that would work in defense of European Turkey) was pointed out.

In accord with the ideas also represented by the surrounding Slavic states linking the completion of national programs with the liberation of their compatriots under Turkish rule, some of the League’s leaders warned the Albanian Islamized stratum to think over carefully their own connections to Turkish inheritance, because it affected their own national survival too. That religious-social and ethnic differences could create insurmountable obstacles to Albanian national unity induced the political usage of the slogan “Albanianship is the only religion of the Albanians”. Within the principle of “the Balkans for Balkan peoples,” that is how Albanian interests began to be settled; it was in accordance to territorial visions of the League, personified by the slogan “Albania of the Albanians”. This motto became a sign that predetermination was to become a hindrance to the ambitions of the South Slavic states (Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria), and Greece. They were to divide amongst themselves the territories of European Turkey, establishing a political concept of territorial and ethnical Albania. From the time of the Prizren League it was renewed in various modalities according to political and military changes.

The Shkodra Memorandum also represented the political affiliations of the Albanian leaders. Appearing at the 1878 Berlin Congress with the aim to serve as a “reminder” to protect the “Albanian issue”, the Memorandum was delivered to the British Minister of Foreign Affairs Lord Beaconsfield. The authors of the Memorandum, convinced that the inactive policy of the Porte placed them in the role of a special military frontier area, strived to point out the need for an autonomous and independent Albania, both ethnically and territorially. Where on “the coasts of the Bojana river to Ioannina a unique and homogeneous people lived”, the Shkodra Memorandum defined the area of future Albania. And this Memorandum underlined that the “Albanian state should stand under the protection of great powers,” and emphasized its predetermination for the role of “front line against Slavic invasion”. With the attitude that “if peace is to be ensured amongst the people of the East, and they are to be reconstructed according to their nationality which calls on their ethnical, geographical and historical laws”, the Shkodra Memorandum undoubtedly served to promote the “Albanian issue”. The political tactics for creating a territorial and ethnic Albania is contained in its messages which, in the events that followed, proved more efficient that the other expansionist visions. The Congress of Berlin, however, did not meet such demands of the representatives of the League. The Albanian issue was not even introduced to the Congress; the representatives of the great powers did little more than register it. The opinion that the issues contained in the Memorandum should be harmonized with gradual solutions to problems caused by the Eastern Crisis prevailed. From the viewpoint of the political and military interests of every great individual power, the objectives and meaning of the existing memorandums was certainly thoroughly analyzed. It all remained at the level of diplomatic-political interests, and became instrumental in future plans referring back to the Balkans.

The Italian position on Albania is founded on the conviction that, by its appearance, the exaggerated claims of the Slavs in the Balkans would be wiped out and the penetration of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy through the Novi Pazar “sanjak”, towards Kosovo, Macedonia and Thessalonica would be stopped. Through the Italian projections of Great Albania Epirus and the section of Kosovo entered, the Balkan and “southeastern” intentions of the Dual Monarchy could be controlled. Kosovo was a key factor to how the Austro-Hungarian progression opened or closed—and acted like a barometer which sensitively and unerringly registered whether the European and Balkan equilibrium was established or disturbed. It should be mentioned that Kosovo, in future Italian projections of Great Albania, acquired a special role and importance. The later Italian engagement, conclusive of the protectorate “Great Albania” in August 1941, became the sign of this determination.

English diplomatic channels considered that the projections of territorial and ethnical Albania should be matched with strategic, but nevertheless gradual, solutions to numerous issues that the Big Eastern Crisis opened. In the global sense of English interest, the League’s concepts were acceptable on two fronts. First, a territorial and ethnic Albania in the role of “front line” (“antimurales”) would be up against the “Slavic invasion” under Russian pan-Slavs. Secondly, they used Albania and the Albanians as guards of Turkish integrity and thus restrained Austro-Hungarian plans in the Balkans. English pragmatics in both policy and diplomacy continued to bear influence in the decades that followed.

Russian diplomacy in the Prizren League came to see how national organization could be used as an instrument in repressing the Turks from the Balkans. In Russian foreign political plans, Albanians could play a role as a “second Montenegro”. Under the auspices of Russia, opposition would thwart the ambitions of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and its penetration in the areas of Balkan Turkey.

The possibility of directing the Albanian national movement prompted the Austro-Hungarian monarchy to consider expanding the influence it already had on the Catholic population of northern Albania to all Albanians. Vienna presented itself to the Albanian leaders as a protector “from Slavic invasion”, but did not satisfactorily express its’ disposition for supporting territorially independent Albania, at least in the manner the representatives of the League requested. This, of course, did not hamper Vienna’s initiative. It engaged in a fight with Italy for prestige on the Adriatic and the Balkans, and sought to gain increasing sympathies of the Albanians. The circumstances created by the First Balkan War made it possible to take over the very major role of creating the Albanian state between 1912 and 1913.

berlin congress

When the Congress of Berlin betrayed the hopes of solving the “Albanian issue”, it in effect forced the Albanian leaders to continue agreements with the Porte about how to acquire the territorial and ethnical autonomy it desired. The obsession of the League with creating a greater Albania within Balkan Turkey was evidenced in the claims made by the Prizren assemblies. In the conclusions of the November Assembly (November 2, 1878), it was stated that the Albanian region would be divided into several “sanjaks” (Priština, Prizren, Skopje, Bitola, Debar, Berat, Ioannina, Gjirokastër, Preševo); that in the cited “sanjaks” “the Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs and Montenegrins were opposed to the Albanians”; that as a result of “both our and our government’s silence” a danger of the hellenization and slovenization of the Albanians loomed; that in the case of establishing Albania the Turkish Empire remained without rampart which protected it for long and persistently. The July session of the League (July 12, 1879) drew a conclusion about throwing off the Turkish local administration if territorial-administrative autonomy was not acknowledged to Albania. These positions were put into effect, and the Turkish rule was suspended in Prizren, Peć, Mitrovica and Vučitrn. The April Assembly of the League (April 10, 1880) drew up a proclamation that expressed in entirety the concept of autonomy. It was not without demands made upon the Porte, which was required to approve of internal autonomy for all “Albanian lands” in the area of the Ioannina, Shkodra, Bitola and Kosovo “vilayets, as a unique “vilayet” – Albania. The Porte was to permit the election of a hereditary prince, and agree to a flat rate tax payment once a year. In concordance, the Porte was to establish an army which would serve exclusively the “vilayet’s” territory and defend it from Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. It was also to regulate mutual relations of the League’s claims for taking over the administration. The situational development contributed to the definitive decision of Constantinople that the League be crushed with arms.

Although defeated in an historical moment when it was being transformed into an ethno-centric strongpoint (and thus becoming a menace to the state sovereignty and integrity of the Turkish Empire), the League nevertheless permanently marked the major political directions of the struggle for territorial and ethnical Albania. The ensuing fate of Albania as a state, and the Albanians as a people, was further marked by contemporary visions that in time were focused on special political and national functions. Their concepts would eventually clash, in 1918, with the idea of creating a Yugoslav state.

Written by Djordje Borozan, Ljubodrag Dimic

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.