Posts Tagged ‘San Stefano’

Bulgarian Rhapsody

Posted in General, On This Day on March 3rd, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

March 3rd

If you go into a Bulgarian restaurant tonight, you would notice the festive atmosphere. It is not merely the thrill of finally having a customer. No, you are in the midst of the celebration of Bulgaria’s Liberation Day.

For lack of evidence, most people don’t believe that Bulgaria exists. Unfortunately, for 500 years the Bulgarians were under the same impression. They were just another subjugated people of the Ottoman Empire. Worse, unlike the Greeks, Serbs or Romanians, the Bulgarians couldn’t even cling to nurturing legends and songs of their heroic resistance. Even in the 14th century, Bulgaria wasn’t much of a country. In the Turkish catalog of conquests, Bulgaria was simply swept up. So, when the rest of the Ottoman Empire succumbed to indolence and stagnation, Bulgaria was a trend-setter.

The Ottoman decline began in the late 17th century when the sultans limited their ambitions to the Harem. Over the next two centuries, the Turkish Empire began losing one province after another. Austria “liberated” Hungary and Croatia. France annexed Algeria. Quoting Homer and Byron, Britain helped free Greece. But Russia was the most aggressive and determined enemy of the Ottoman Empire.

As the self-anointed heir of Byzantium and the champion of the Slavic Peoples, Russia vowed to free the Balkans from the Ottoman Empire. Holy Mother Russia even intended to reclaim Constantinople for Christendom. (Of course, there were also some secular advantages to having naval access to the Mediterranean.) Russia had already driven the Turks out of Crimea and Rumania. In 1877, it was ready to complete the crusade. Bulgaria’s independence was at hand.

The Russo-Turkish War was between the two most inept powers in Europe. If Turkey was “the sick man of Europe”, Russia was the stupid lummox of the continent. But a lummox is usually quite strong; and even when it trips over its own feet, it will crush anyone beneath it. Turkey couldn’t move out of the way. After a short but bloody war, Russia nearly achieved her goal. Constantinople had yet to be taken, and the sudden presence of the British navy in the Black Sea was intended to discourage any further Russian ambition. However, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Bosnia were liberated, or at least had changed from Turkish rule to Russian domination.

Acknowledging the obvious, Turkey ceded these territories in the Treaty of San Stefano, signed on March 3, 1878. Bulgaria was once again an independent country (although a presumably Pro-Russian one) and a very large country at that. In addition to its ancestral lands, Bulgaria now encompassed Macedonia and Thrace.

The other Great Powers of Europe-Britain, Austria-Hungary and Germany-were alarmed by the prospect of Russian control of the Balkans. Forming a united front in 1878, they met in Berlin and forced Russia to surrender most of her gains. You almost have to feel sorry for Russia. The Lummox was pitted against the combined wiles of Bismarck and Disraeli. (That does seem an invincible, irresistible combination; in fact, the two brilliant rogues actually liked each other. What a joint press-conference that would have been!)

Bulgaria’s independence was acknowledged but on more humble dimensions. Macedonia and Thrace actually were returned to the Ottoman Empire. (Bosnia’s final status was undecided but would be administered by Austria-Hungary. That certainly would prove eventful.)

Nonetheless, half a Bulgaria is better than none, and Bulgarians still celebrate March 3rd as National Liberation Day. Of course, Bulgaria still coveted that lost territory. In 1912, in alliance with Greece and Serbia, Bulgaria fought and defeated Turkey. The following year, Greece, Serbia and Turkey allied to fight Bulgaria. And in 1914, Turkey and Bulgaria were allied against Serbia AND Russia.

Hey, that’s the Balkans.