In diplomatic history, the "Eastern Question" refers to the strategic competition and political considerations of the European Great Powers in light of the political and economic instability in the Ottoman Empire from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. Characterized as the "sick man of Europe", the relative weakening of the empire's military strength in the second half of the eighteenth century threatened to undermine the fragile balance of power system largely shaped by the Concert of Europe. The Eastern Question encompassed myriad interrelated elements: Ottoman military defeats, Ottoman institutional insolvency, the ongoing Ottoman political and economic modernization programme, the rise of ethno-religious nationalism in its provinces, and Great Power rivalries.
The origin of the Eastern Question is normally dated to 1774, when the Russo-Turkish War (1768–74) ended in defeat for the Ottomans. As the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire was believed to be imminent, the European powers engaged in a power struggle to safeguard their military, strategic and commercial interests in the Ottoman domains. Imperial Russia stood to benefit from the decline of the Ottoman Empire; on the other hand, Austria-Hungary and Great Britain deemed the preservation of the Empire to be in their best interests. The Eastern Question was put to rest after World War I, one of the outcomes of which was the collapse and division of the Ottoman holdings.
The Eastern Question emerged as the power of the Ottoman Empire began to decline during the 18th century. The Ottomans were at the height of their power in 1683, when they lost the Battle of Vienna to the combined forces of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and Austria, under the command of John III Sobieski. Peace was made much later, in 1699, with the Treaty of Karlowitz, which forced the Ottoman Empire to cede many of its Central European possessions, including those portions of Hungary which it had occupied. Its westward expansion arrested, the Ottoman Empire never again posed a serious threat to Austria, which became the dominant power in its region of Europe. The Eastern Question did not truly develop until the Russo-Turkish Wars of the 18th century.
The Napoleonic era (1799–1815) brought some relief to the faltering Ottoman Empire. It distracted Russia from further advances. Napoleon I himself invaded Egypt, but his army was trapped there when the British sank the French fleet. A peace interlude in 1803 allowed the army to return to France.
To secure his own domination and to render the rest of Europe virtually powerless, Napoleon established an alliance with Russia by concluding the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807. Russia undertook to aid Napoleon in his war against Britain; in turn, the Emperor of Russia would receive the Ottoman territories of Moldavia and Wallachia. If the Sultan refused to surrender these territories, France and Russia were to attack the Empire, and the Ottoman domains in Europe were to be partitioned between the two allies.
The Napoleonic scheme threatened not only the Sultan, but also Britain, Austria and Prussia, which was almost powerless in the face of such a potent alliance. The alliance naturally proved accommodating to the Austrians, who hoped that a joint Franco-Russian attack, which would probably have utterly devastated the Ottoman Empire, could be prevented by diplomacy; but if diplomatic measures failed, the Austrian minister Klemens Wenzel, Prince von Metternich decided that he would support the partition of the Ottoman Empire—a solution disadvantageous to Austria, but not as dangerous as a complete Russian takeover of Southeastern Europe.
An attack on the Empire, however, did not come to pass, and the alliance concluded at Tilsit was dissolved by the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Following Napoleon's defeat by the Great Powers in 1815, representatives of the victors met at the Congress of Vienna, but failed to take any action relating to the territorial integrity of the decaying Ottoman Empire. This omission, together with the exclusion of the Sultan from the Holy Alliance, was interpreted by many as supportive of the position that the Eastern Question was a Russian domestic issue that did not concern any other European nations.
Serbian revolution or Revolutionary Serbia refers to the national and social revolution of the Serbian people between 1804 and 1815, during which Serbia managed to fully emancipate from the Ottoman Empire and exist as a sovereign European nation-state, and a latter period (1815–1833), marked by intense negotiations between Belgrade and Ottoman Empire. The term was invented by a famous German historian Leopold von Ranke in his book Die Serbische Revolution, published in 1829. These events marked the foundation of modern Serbia. While the first phase of the revolution (1804–1815) was in fact a war of independence, the second phase (1815–1833) resulted in official recognition of a suzerain Serbian state by the Porte (the Ottoman government), thus bringing the revolution to its end.
The revolution took place by stages: the First Serbian Uprising (1804–13), led by Karađorđe Petrović; Hadži Prodan's revolt (1814); the Second Serbian Uprising (1815) under Miloš Obrenović; and official recognition of the Serbian state (1815–1833) by the Porte.
The Proclamation (1809) by Karađorđe in the capital Belgrade represented the peak of the revolution. It called for unity of the Serbian nation, emphasizing the importance of freedom of religion, Serbian history and formal, written rules of law, all of which it claimed the Ottoman Empire had failed to provide. It also called on Serbs to stop paying the jizya tax to the Porte.
The ultimate result of the uprisings was Serbia's suzerainty from the Ottoman Empire. The Principality of Serbia was established, governed by its own Parliament, Government, Constitution and its own royal dynasty. Social element of the revolution was achieved through introduction of the bourgeois society values in Serbia, which is why it was considered the world's easternmost bourgeois revolt, which culminated with the abolition of feudalism in 1806. The establishment of the first constitution in the Balkans in 1835 (later abolished) and the founding in 1808 of its first university, Belgrade's Great Academy, added to the achievements of the young Serb state. By 1833, Serbia was officially recognized as a tributary to the Ottoman Empire and as such, acknowledged as a hereditary monarchy. Full independence of the Principality was internationally recognized during the second half of the 19th century.
The Eastern Question once again became a major European issue when the Greeks declared independence from the Sultan in 1821. It was at about this time that the phrase "Eastern Question" was coined. Ever since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, there had been rumours that the Emperor of Russia sought to invade the Ottoman Empire, and the Greek Revolt seemed to make an invasion even more likely. The British foreign minister, Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, as well as the Austrian foreign minister, Metternich, counselled the Emperor of Russia, Alexander I, not to enter the war. Instead, they pleaded that he maintain the Concert of Europe (the spirit of broad collaboration in Europe which had persisted since Napoleon's defeat). A desire for peaceful co-operation was also held by Alexander I, who had founded the Holy Alliance. Rather than immediately putting the Eastern Question to rest by aiding the Greeks and attacking the Ottomans, Alexander wavered, ultimately failing to take any decisive action.
Alexander's death in 1825 brought Nicholas I to the Imperial Throne of Russia. Deciding that he would no longer tolerate negotiations and conferences, he chose to intervene in Greece. Britain also soon became involved, interested in imposing its will on a newly formed Greek state in part to prevent it becoming a wholly Russian vassal. The spirit of Romanticism that then dominated Western European cultural life also made support for Greek independence politically viable. France too aligned itself with the Greeks, but Austria (still worried about Russian expansion) did not. Outraged by the interference of the Great Powers, the Ottoman Sultan, Mahmud II, denounced Russia as an enemy of Islam, prompting Russia to declare war in 1828. An alarmed Austria sought to form an anti-Russian coalition, but its attempts were in vain.
As the war continued into 1829, Russia gained a firm advantage over the Ottoman Empire. By prolonging hostilities further, however, Russia would have invited Austria to enter the war against her and would have resulted in considerable suspicion in Britain. Therefore, for the Russians to continue with the war in hopes of destroying the Ottoman Empire would have been inexpedient. At this stage, the King of France, Charles X, proposed the partition of the Ottoman Empire among Austria, Russia and others, but his scheme was presented too belatedly to produce a result.
Thus, Russia was able to secure neither a decisive defeat nor a partition of the Ottoman Empire. She chose, however, to adopt the policy of degrading the Ottoman Empire to a mere dependency. In 1829, the Emperor of Russia concluded the Treaty of Adrianople with the Sultan; his empire was granted additional territory along the Black Sea, Russian commercial vessels were granted access to the Dardanelles, and the commercial rights of Russians in the Ottoman Empire were enhanced. The Greek War of Independence was terminated shortly thereafter, as Greece was granted independence by the Treaty of Constantinople in 1832.
Just as the Greek Revolt was coming to an end, a conflict broke out in the Ottoman Empire between the Sultan and his nominal viceroy in Egypt, Mehmet Ali. The modern and well trained Egyptians looked as though they could conquer the entire empire. The Tsar of Russia, in keeping with his policy of reducing the Ottoman Sultan to a petty vassal, offered to form an alliance with the Sultan. In 1833, the two rulers negotiated the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi, in which Russia achieved the aim of securing complete dominance over the Ottomans. The Russians pledged to protect the Empire from external attacks; in turn, the Sultan pledged to close the Dardanelles to warships whenever Russia was at war. This provision of the Treaty raised a problem known as the "Straits Question". The agreement provided for the closure for all warships, but many European statesmen mistakenly believed that the clause allowed Russian vessels. Britain and France were angered by the misinterpreted clause; they also sought to contain Russian expansion. The two kingdoms, however, differed on how to achieve their objective; the British wished to uphold the Sultan, but the French preferred to make Mehmet Ali (whom they saw as more competent) the ruler of the entire Ottoman Empire. Russian intervention led the Sultan to negotiate a peace with Mehmet Ali in 1833, but war broke out once again in 1839.
Sultan Mahmud II died the same year, leaving the Ottoman Empire to his son Abd-ul-Mejid I in a critical state: the Ottoman army had been significantly defeated by the forces of Mehmet Ali. Another disaster followed when the entire Turkish fleet was seized by the Egyptian forces. Great Britain and Russia now intervened to prevent the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, but France still continued to support Mehmet Ali. In 1840, however, the Great Powers agreed to compromise; Mehmet Ali agreed to make a nominal act of submission to the Sultan, but was granted hereditary control of Egypt.
The only unresolved issue of the period was the Straits Question. In 1841, Russia consented to the abrogation of the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi by accepting the London Straits Convention. The Great Powers — Russia, Britain, France, Austria and Prussia — agreed to the re-establishment of the "ancient rule" of the Ottoman Empire, which provided that the Turkish straits would be closed to all warships whatsoever, with the exception of the Sultan's allies during wartime. With the Straits Convention, the Russian Emperor Nicholas I abandoned the idea of reducing the Sultan to a state of dependence, and returned to the plan of partitioning Ottoman territories in Europe.
Thus, after the resolution of the Egyptian struggle which had begun in 1831, the weak Ottoman Empire was no longer wholly dependent on Russia but was dependent on the Great Powers for protection. Attempts at internal reform failed to end the decline of the Empire. By the 1840s, the Ottoman Empire had become the "sick man of Europe", and its eventual dissolution appeared inevitable.
After the Great Powers reached a compromise to end the revolt of Mehmet Ali, the Eastern Question lay dormant for about a decade until revived by the Revolutions of 1848. Although Russia could have seized the opportunity to attack the Ottoman Empire—France and Austria were at the time occupied by their own insurrections—it chose not to. Instead, Emperor Nicholas committed his troops to the defence of Austria, hoping to establish goodwill to allow him to seize Ottoman possessions in Europe later.
After the Austrian Revolution was suppressed, an Austro-Russian war against the Ottoman Empire seemed imminent. The Emperors of both Austria and Russia demanded that the Sultan return Austrian rebels who had sought asylum in the Empire, but he refused. The indignant monarchs withdrew their ambassadors to the Sublime Porte, threatening armed conflict. Almost immediately, however, Britain and France sent their fleets to protect the Ottoman Empire. The two Emperors, deeming military hostilities futile, withdrew their demands for the surrender of the fugitives. The short crisis created a closer relationship between Britain and France, which led to a joint war against Russia in the Crimean War of 1853–56.
A new conflict began during the 1850s with a religious dispute. Under treaties negotiated during the 18th century, France was the guardian of Roman Catholics in the Ottoman Empire, while Russia was the protector of Orthodox Christians. For several years, however, Catholic and Orthodox monks had disputed possession of the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Palestine. During the early 1850s, the two sides made demands which the Sultan could not possibly satisfy simultaneously. In 1853, the Sultan adjudicated in favour of the French, despite the vehement protestations of the local Orthodox monks.
Emperor Nicholas of Russia dispatched Prince Menshikov, on a special mission to the Porte. By previous treaties, the Sultan was committed "to protect the Christian religion and its Churches", but Menshikov tried to negotiate a new treaty, under which Russia would be allowed to interfere whenever it deemed the Sultan's protection inadequate. At the same time, however, the British government sent Stratford Canning, 1st Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe, who learnt of Menshikov's demands upon arriving. Through skillful diplomacy, Lord Stratford convinced the Sultan to reject the treaty, which compromised the independence of the Ottomans. Shortly after he learned of the failure of Menshikov's diplomacy, Nicholas marched into Moldavia and Wallachia (Ottoman principalities in which Russia was acknowledged as a special guardian of the Orthodox Church), with the pretext that the Sultan failed to resolve the issue of the Holy Places. Nicholas believed that the European powers would not object strongly to the annexation of a few neighbouring Ottoman provinces, especially given Russian involvement in suppressing the Revolutions of 1848.
Britain, seeking to maintain the security of the Ottoman Empire, sent a fleet to the Dardanelles, where it was joined by another fleet sent by France. Yet the European powers hoped for a diplomatic compromise. The representatives of the four neutral Great Powers—Britain, France, Austria and Prussia—met in Vienna, where they drafted a note which they hoped would be acceptable to Russia and the Empire. The note was approved by Nicolas but rejected by Sultan Abd-ul-Mejid I, who felt that the document's poor phrasing left it open to many interpretations. Britain, France and Austria were united in proposing amendments to mollify the Sultan, but their suggestions were ignored in the Court of Saint Petersburg. Britain and France set aside the idea of continuing negotiations, but Austria and Prussia held hope for diplomacy despite the rejection of the proposed amendments. The Sultan proceeded to war, his armies attacking the Russian army near the Danube. Nicholas responded by despatching warships, which destroyed the entire Ottoman fleet at Sinop on 30 November 1853, allowing Russia to land and supply its forces on the Ottoman shores fairly easily. The destruction of the Ottoman fleet and the threat of Russian expansion alarmed both Britain and France, who stepped forth in defence of the Ottoman Empire. In 1854, after Russia ignored an Anglo-French ultimatum to withdraw from the Danubian Principalities, Britain and France declared war.
Emperor Nicholas I presumed that Austria, in return for the support rendered during the Revolutions of 1848, would side with him, or at the very least remain neutral. However, Austria felt threatened by the Russian troops in the nearby Danubian Principalities. When Britain and France demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Principalities, Austria supported them; and, though it did not immediately declare war on Russia, it refused to guarantee its neutrality. When, in the summer of 1854, Austria made another demand for the withdrawal of troops, Russia (fearing that Austria would enter the war) complied.
Though the original grounds for war were lost when Russia withdrew her troops from the Danubian Principalities, Britain and France continued hostilities. Determined to address the Eastern Question by ending the Russian threat to the Ottoman Empire, the allies posed several conditions for a ceasefire, including that Russia should give up its protectorate over the Danubian Principalities; that Russia should abandon any right to interfere in Ottoman affairs on the behalf of Orthodox Christians; that the Straits Convention of 1841 was to be revised; and finally, all nations were to be granted access to the river Danube. As the Emperor refused to comply with these "Four Points", the Crimean War proceeded.
Peace negotiations began in 1856 under the Emperor Nicholas I's successor, Alexander II. Under the ensuing Treaty of Paris, the "Four Points" plan proposed earlier was largely adhered to; most notably, Russia's special privileges relating to the Danubian Principalities were transferred to the Great Powers as a group. In addition, warships of all nations were perpetually excluded from the Black Sea, once the home to a Russian fleet (which had been destroyed during the war). The Emperor of Russia and the Sultan agreed not to establish any naval or military arsenal on that sea coast. The Black Sea clauses came at a tremendous disadvantage to Russia, for it greatly diminished the naval threat it posed to the Ottomans. Moreover, all the Great Powers pledged to respect the independence and territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire.
The Treaty of Paris stood until 1871, when France was crushed in the Franco-Prussian War. While Prussia and several other German states united into a powerful German Empire, Napoleon III was deposed in the formation of the French Third Republic. Napoleon had opposed Russia over the Eastern Question in order to gain the support of Britain. But the new French Republic did not oppose Russian interference in the Ottoman Empire because that did not significantly threaten French interests. Encouraged by the decision of France, and supported by the German minister Otto, Fürst von Bismarck, Russia denounced the Black Sea clauses of the treaty agreed to in 1856. As Britain alone could not enforce the clauses, Russia once again established a fleet in the Black Sea.
Britain, France, and Austria opposed the Treaty of San Stefano because the Ottoman Empire gave Russia too much influence in the Balkans, where insurrections were frequent. After many attempts, a diplomatic settlement was reached at the Congress of Berlin, and the new Treaty of Berlin (1878) revised the earlier treaty. Germany's Otto von Bismarck presided over the Congress, acting as an "honest broker".
In 1875, the territory of Herzegovina rebelled against the Sultan, in the Herzegovinian rebellion in the Province of Bosnia, and Bulgaria rebelled in the April Uprising. The Great Powers believed they should intervene to prevent a bloody war in the Balkans. The first to act were the members of the League of the Three Emperors (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia), whose common attitude toward the Eastern Question was embodied in the Andrassy Note (named for the Hungarian diplomat Julius, Count Andrassy). The Note, seeking to avoid a widespread conflagration in Southeastern Europe, urged the Sultan to institute various reforms, including granting religious liberty to Christians. A joint commission of Christians and Muslims was to be established to ensure the enactment of appropriate reforms. With the approval of Britain and France, the Note was submitted to the Sultan, and he agreed on 31 January 1876. But the Herzegovinian leaders rejected the proposal, pointing out that the Sultan had already failed his promises of reforms.
Representatives of the Three Emperors met again in Berlin, where they approved the Berlin Memorandum. To convince the Herzegovinians, the Memorandum suggested that international representatives be allowed to oversee the institution of reforms in the rebelling provinces. But before the Memorandum could be approved by the Porte, the Ottoman Empire was convulsed by internal strife, which led to the deposition of Sultan Abdul-Aziz. The new Sultan, Murad V, was himself deposed three months later due to his mental instability, bringing Abdul Hamid II to power. In the meantime, the hardships of the Ottomans had increased; their treasury was empty, and they faced insurrections not only in Herzegovina and Bulgaria, but also in Serbia and Montenegro. Still, the Ottoman Empire managed to crush the insurgents in August 1876. The result incommoded Russia, which had planned to take possession of various Ottoman territories in Southeastern Europe in the course of the conflict.
After the uprisings were largely suppressed, however, rumours of Ottoman atrocities against the rebellious population shocked European sensibilities. Russia now intended to enter the war on the side of the rebels. Another attempt for peace was made by delegates of the Great Powers (who now numbered six due to the rise of Italy) assembled at the Constantinople Conference in 1876. However, the Sultan refused to allow international representatives to oversee the reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1877, the Great Powers again made proposals to the Ottoman Empire which were rejected.
Russia declared war on 24 April 1877. Its chancellor Prince Gorchakov had effectively secured Austrian neutrality with the Reichstadt Agreement, under which Ottoman territories captured in the course of the war would be partitioned between the Russian and Austria-Hungarian Empires, with the latter obtaining Bosnia and Herzegovina. Britain, though still fearing the Russian threat to British dominance in Southern Asia, did not involve itself in the conflict. However, when Russia threatened to conquer Constantinople, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli urged Austria and Germany to ally with him against this war aim. As a result, Russia sued for peace through the Treaty of San Stefano, which stipulated independence to Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro, autonomy to Bulgaria, reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina; the ceding Dobruja and parts of Armenia and a large indemnity to Russia. This would give Russia great influence in Southeastern Europe, as it could dominate the newly independent states. To reduce these advantages to Russia, the Great Powers (especially Britain), insisted that the treaty be heavily revised.
At the Congress of Berlin, the Treaty of Berlin adjusted the boundaries of the new states in the Ottoman Empire's favour. Bulgaria was divided into two states (Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia), as it was feared that a single state would be susceptible to Russian domination. Ottoman cessions to Russia were largely sustained. Bosnia and Herzegovina, though still nominally within the Ottoman Empire, were transferred to Austrian control. The Ottoman island of Cyprus was given to Britain via a secret agreement between Britain and the Ottoman Empire. These final two procedures were predominantly forced by Disraeli, who was famously described by Otto von Bismarck as "The old Jew, that is the man", after his level-headed Palmerstonian approach to the Eastern Question.
Germany drew away from Russia and became closer to Austria-Hungary, with whom she concluded the Dual Alliance in 1879. Germany also closely allied with the Ottoman Empire. Germany took over the re-organisation of the Ottoman military and financial system; in return, it received several commercial concessions, including permission to build the Baghdad Railway, which secured for them access to several important economic markets and had the potential for German entry into the Persian Gulf area controlled by Britain. Germany was driven not only by commercial interests, but also by an imperialistic and militaristic rivalry with Britain. Meanwhile Britain agreed to the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904, thereby resolving differences between the two countries over international affairs. Britain also reconciled with Russia in 1907 with the Anglo-Russian Entente.
In April 1908, the Committee of Union and Progress (more commonly called the Young Turks), a political party opposed to the despotic rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, led a rebellion against the Sultan. The pro-reform Young Turks deposed the Sultan by July 1909, replacing him with the ineffective Mehmed V. This began the Second Constitutional Era of the Ottoman Empire.
In the following years, various constitutional and political reforms were instituted, but the decay of the Ottoman Empire continued.
In October 1908, Austria-Hungary's plans for the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina were opposed by Serbia, which sought Russian assistance. Russia, however, could not comply; a defeat in the Russo-Japanese War had devastated her, and Germany threatened to support Austria-Hungary during a war. Britain and France, who were not directly concerned by the annexation, did not become involved. Thus unaided, Serbia was forced to renounce her opposition to the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.