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Eastern Question- Part I

Eastern Question- Part I

  • Eastern Question (or Near Eastern Question) was diplomatic problem posed in the 19th and early 20th centuries
  • It arose as a result of the rise of a national feeling of nationality among the Balkan peoples, declining Turkish (Ottoman) Empire and the divergent interests of Great Powers in the near East.
  • The central problem of the Eastern Question was: What was to take the place of Turkish Empire in the event of her disintegration?
  • The Eastern Question has always been an international question because involvement of the interests of many international actors.
    • Any internal change in the Turkish domains caused tension among the European powers, each of which feared that one of the others might take advantage of the political disarray to increase its own influence.
    • This question arose periodically – e.g., during the Greek revolution of the 1820s, in the Crimean conflict (1853–56), the Balkan crisis of 1875–78, the Bosnian crisis of 1908, and the Balkan Wars of 1912–13.
  • In the words of Lord Morley the Eastern Question may be described as a shifting, intractable and interwoven tangle of conflicting interests, rival peoples and antagonistic faiths.

Background and rise of Eastern Question

  • Turkish Empire:
    • In the 19th century, the Turkish Empire in Europe included the whole of what is known as the Balkan Peninsula. Balkan is mountainous countries between the Dunabe and Aegean sea which includes Greeks, Serbs, Bulgars and Albanians. Rumania is also included among Balkan states though it is situated north of the Dunabe.
    • The inhabitants of the Balkans were mostly Christians with only a sprinkling of Muslim Turkish overlords.
    • Although the Turkish rule had not been intolerant in many ways, it was wholly incompetent and unprogressive; at times it could be ruthlessly cruel.

Balkans Eastern Question

  • Decline of Turkish power:
    • In the eighteenth century the Ottoman power in Europe began to decline perceptibly. Turkey had lost Hungary in 1699.
    • Russia had also begun to press southwards. driving back the Turks and had by the Treaty of Bucharest in 1812 acquired Bessarabia. She thus advanced her territory to the river Pruth on the west side of the Black Sea.
  • Increased interest of the Power in Eastern Question:
    • But the interest aroused by the decadence of Turkey and the southward advance of Russia was not general enough to make it a matter of European diplomacy. It concerned the Powers in the immediate neighbourhood viz Austria and Russia.
    • Napoleon familiarised the Eastern Question to Europe:
      • It was Napoleon who turned Europe‘s gaze towards the East.
      • His attempt to seize Egypt and Syria, together with his oft-repeated insistence that Constantinople meant the empire of the world, helped to familiarise European statesman with the importance of the question.
    • Fear of Russian design:
      • Moreover there there was a general fear that the balance of power would be fatally upset if, as the result of Turkey‘s increasing weakness, she was completely absorbed by the expanding power of Russia.
      • The Russians were next door to the Balkans, they were of the same Slav race as most of Turkey’s subjects, and they were members of the same Orthodox Greek Church to which most of the Christian subjects of Turkey belonged.
      • Added to those facts was the well-known ambition of Russia to control the Black Sea and the Straits so that she might command a passage to the Mediterranean.
      • It was this sense of Russian danger that stimulated Europe to an increased attention to the affairs of the Near East.
      • Thus one important aspect of the Eastern Question was the fear of Russian aggrandisement at the expense of Turkey.
  • New factors of the Eastern Question in 19th century:
    • With the changed attitude of the Powers there began to occur new developments of the Eastern Question which confronted Europe with new aspects of the problem.
    • The weakness of Turkey besides inviting external aggression, encouraged the subject nationalities and powerful vassals to make a bid for independence.
    • The nineteenth century ideal of nationality began to touch the Balkan Peninsula, and the Christian nations under Turkish rule became restive under its inspiration.
    • They sought to free themselves from Turkish yoke with the result that wars and atrocities became almost chronic in the Balkan region.
    • Thus was the Ottoman Empire threatened both from within and without, by aggression as well as by disintegration, by Russia as well as by her own Christian subjects.
    • This two fold aspect of the problem and the resulting conflict of interests introduced new factors into what is known as the Eastern Question.
  • The Eastern Question took different shapes at different times, but one of its constant factors was the ambition of Russia at the expense of Turkey.

Interest and attitude of the major powers in the Eastern Question:

  • Russian’s interest in the Balkans
    • The ambitions of Russia at the expense of Turkey were a constant factor in the Eastern Question.
    • Russia was bound to the peoples of Balkans by the ties of religion and race. Russia claimed the rights of protecting them from Turkish misrule.
    • Russia also wanted to secure access to the Mediterranean by seizing Constantinople from Turkey.
    • Hence, Russian policy in the Near East had two aims in view. viz. to dismember Turkey and to seize Constantinople as the prize, and if that would prove impossible, to dominate her by forcing upon Turkey a number of unequal treaties which would keep Turkey in a state of vassalage under Russian overlordship.
  • England’s interest
    • Suspicion about the Russian designs upon Turkey was the key-note of the British policy.
    • Britain began to see in the Russian aggrandisement as a serious menace to British interests in the East. They feared that the Russian control over Constantinople would greatly weaken British hold upon India.
    • They watched every Russian movement with suspicion.
    • Thus over the Eastern Question there developed chronic antagonism between Britain and Russia. Throughout the nineteenth century England stood forth as the champion of Turkey against Russian aggression. British policy aimed at checking Russian advance by preserving the integrity of the Ottoman Empire.
    • It should be noted that England was successful in holding Russia in check but she could not prevent the dismemberment.
    • It is somewhat ironical that while posing at the champion of the integrity of Turkey, England had managed to put a valuable share of Turkish spoils into her own pockets.
  • Austrian interest
    • Austria’s interests in the Balkan region were perhaps more vital than those of Russia and Great Britain.
    • Austria was Russia’s rival in the Balkans because:
      • Being a land locked country with only a short coast line at the head of Adriatic, she badly needed outlet to the sea. It was important strategically as well as economically (for sea borne trade). She needed expansion towards port in the Balkans by stopping Russian influence.
      • The great volume of her trade passed along the Danube valley, and so it was her interest to prevent Russian supremacy at the mouth of Danube which would have happened if Russia expanded towards Constantinople.
      • She feared the growth of the Pan-Slavic movement in the Balkans, which was encouraged by Russia, as it would sap the loyalty of her Slav subjects and could threaten Austrian Empire. Hence she tried to cripple and confine the leading Slav state in the Balkan i.e. Serbia, whose growing nationalism was a menace to the integrity of the Austrian Empire.
    • In the first half of 19th century, Austria did not take any active part in the affairs of the East, but she kept vigilant watch upon Russia’s movement. Metternich sought to counter Russia’s Balkan ambitions with the doctrine of legitimate dynasties. But after the expulsion of Austria from Italy and Germany, she turned with increasing purpose to the South-East in order to find compensation at the expense of Turkey.
  • French interest
    • She had commercial and religious interest in the East rather than political.
    • She was the traditional ally of Turkey and had befriended Turkey. She obtained special trading privileges and she was mainly interested in developing them, especially in Syria and Egypt.
    • She was also traditional protector of the Roman Catholic Christians in the East under Turkish Empire.
    • But in spite of this traditional friendship, France was never a consistent or enthusiastic champion of Turkey. To her the Eastern Question was mainly one which concerned her naval and commercial position in the Mediterranean.
  • German interest
    • The affair of the East did not appeal to her till the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
    • Bismarck had kept himself aloof of the Eastern Question and remarked that the whole Eastern Question was not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.
    • But in 1878, at the Congress of Berlin to solve the Eastern Question, he posed as an “honest broker” and administered a check on Russia in order to befriend Austria.
    • Thenceforth Germany began to develop greater diplomatic activities in the East, befriended with Turkey, trained her army and secured permission to build the Baghdad-Berlin Railways.

The main factors of the decay and hence the sickness of the Turkish Empire

  • Administrative inefficiency:
    • Everywhere the administration was paralysed by insubordination and corruption.
    • The control of the Government over the provincial governors and other agents, was deplorably defective.
    • The Sultan’s representatives in the outlying provinces like Egypt, Algiers and Tunis, behaved more like tributary princes than administrative officials.
    • Thus the process of dismemberment was going on in Turkey even before the rise of the Christian nations in Balkans.
  • Inability to weld together the diverse people:
    • Turkey had subdued many races in south-eastern Europe, but had made no attempt to assimilate them, nor to fuse them to one body-politic.
    • Full of contempt for the conquered people, the Turks cared only to exploit them, leaving them in a kind of semi-independence as far as administration was concerned.
  • Decline of military power:
    • The Turkish Empire was built up by military power, and when this declined, the empire lacking any other cohesive force, began to fall in pieces before the onslaught of the aggressive nationalism of the Balkan people.

Factors which delayed the dismemberment of European Turkey

  • Turkey was still militarily powerful:
    • Although a declining power, the Turks retained their fighting genius, and could as late as 1788 defeat the Habsburg forces.
  • Geographical position of Turkey:
    • By her geographical position Turkey was remote from the centre of European politics.
    • Europe was not primarily concerned with Turkey.
    • It was only in the nineteenth century that the Eastern Question aroused European interest and was lifted into the prominence of an international problem.
  • Conflicting interests and rivalries of the European Powers:
    • These made the question very difficult of solution and prevented the adoption of any agreed settlement.
    • Turkey also was clever enough to make use of the jealousies of the Powers to prolong the longevity of her Empire.
  • British policy:
    • Due to the suspicion about the Russian designs upon Turkey and fear that the Russian control over Constantinople would greatly weaken British hold upon India, Britain watched every Russian movement with suspicion.
    • British policy was to check Russian advance by preserving the integrity of the Turkish Empire which prolonged the longevity of Turkish Empire.
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