Thursday 19 October 2017 Last Update: 11:29 PM

The Armenian Problem or Anatolian Reform Within the Framework of Foreign Intervention, Uprisings and Guerilla Activities

Published: 04-09-2017


Ass. Prof. Dr. Yüksel Çelik

The ’93 War and the San Stefano and Berlin Treaties, signed at the end of it, played a great part in the Armenian problem, or Anatolian Reform as the Sublime Porte prefers to call it due to diplomatic sensitivity, becoming an international diplomatic problem.

The autonomy and independence struggles of other nations constituting the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century were followed closely by Armenians. The activities of a group of intellectuals and politicians for the construction of a national identity and preparing their community for a similar struggle speeded up in the 19th century. However, until the year 1878, it wasn’t quite possible to talk about an “Armenian Problem” in international platforms.

As is famously known, Armenians who were called “the loyal nation” in the Ottoman Empire and were employed in the highest positions lived in a wide religious and cultural freedom for centuries. When it was the 19th century, they started looking for opportunities first for autonomy and then for independence with the influence of missionary activities and especially liberal-nationalist movements like other nations. The ’93 War gave this opportunity to them more than expected; Armenians not only fought side by side with Russians in Eastern (Caucasian) Battlefront, but also became hosts and guides for victorious Russian commanders who had their headquarters in San Stefano (Kurat, 1968, p. 157).

When Ottoman delegates started negotiations with Russia in Edirne (January 1878), Armenians took diplomatic action in order to put an article about themselves in the peace treaty and they visited Granduke Nikolay and Count Ignatiyev. Armenian Patriarch Nerses Varjabedyan and his attendants of bishops sent the letters they prepared on 13 February 1878 to the Russian Tsar Alexander which they called “great saver” and Prime Minister Gorchakof. The Armenian Patriarchate Assembly under the leadership of the Patriarch Nerses made these demands from the Tsar in summary during this visit: Russia’s annexation of the provinces inhabited by Armenians in Eastern Anatolia; if this is not possible, the privileges given to Bulgarians to be also given to Armenians; if this is also not possible, urgent extensive reforms in the provinces inhabited by Armenians and the forming of military units.

Russia did not take the demand of Armenians for autonomy positively with the worry that it would make an example for the Armenian community living within its borders. Nevertheless, it put the article “to carry out reforms which are called for by local needs in the provinces inhabited by Armenians and to guarantee their security against the Circassians and the Kurds” in the Treaty of San Stefano (3 March 1878) (article 16). However, when the Treaty of San Stefano abated, due to the opposition of European countries and especially Britain, Armenians started to wait for the decisions to be taken at the Berlin Congress (Uras, 1987, p. 199-216).

The efforts of Armenians for autonomy were also maintained during the Berlin Congress. For this purpose, Patriarch Nerses Efendi met Istanbul Ambassador of Britain Henry Layard and asked for support for the recognition of an autonomous status covering Sivas, Van, Diyarbakır, and Cilicia (Adana region) (Kurat, 1968, p. 157-161). On the other hand, Armenians sent committees to European capitals and started their lobbying activities; in this regard, the activities of Nurias Cheras are important. After these preliminary preparations, Armenians attending the Berlin Congress under the leadership of Mıgırdıç Hrimyan Efendi presented a draft about an “Autonomous Armenia” to be governed by an Armenian governor and its government principals (Uras, 1987, p. 217-251) (Kılıç, 2007, p. 1-9).

While Russia didn’t approach positively to the demand of Armenians for autonomy due to political risks as stated before, especially Britain supported the reform demands in order to weaken the authority of Russia in these regions. Consequently, the demands of Armenians were partially met with the Article 61, of which text is given above, of the Treaty of Berlin.

After the evacuation of the Russian army, that the Ottoman Empire would make wide reforms in the regions inhabited by Armenians and this process would take place within the observance of great powers was guaranteed. The Armenian Problem became an international diplomatic problem with this article and a new title was added to the Eastern Problem with the manipulations of great powers. When the Liberal Party Leader William Ewart Gladstone, known for his opinions against the Ottoman Empire, came to power in 1880, Britain started to be more interested in Armenian reforms. Gladstone made extra effort to bring the problem into international political platforms and to make it stay on the agenda. The British government, which brought George Joachim Goschen to Istanbul with the title of emergency ambassador in May 1880, gave him instructions especially for closely following the Armenian Problem (Anatolian Reform) along with border arrangements. This political sensitivity would be carried to a step further with the activities of Frederic Hamilton (Lord Dufferin), the successor of Goschen. As a continuation of this politics, Britain started to support the Hunchakian Committee (Hunchak: “jingle, bell”) secretly. On the other hand, a joint note about the rapid execution of the articles about Armenians was sent to the Ottoman Empire as a result of the efforts of the states who signed the Treaty of Berlin (11 June 1880).

In this note involving menacing statements and another following note on 7 September, it was clearly stated that the reforms about the Armenians had not yet started and the Ottoman Empire would be responsible for the consequences of this delay. As a response to this, the Sublime Porte tried to explain in detail the steps taken on this issue to the international community. The increasing foreign intervention for the protection of Armenians against Kurds in this period and the one-sided protection resulted in the increase of conflicts between these two ethnic groups. The precautions that the Ottoman Empire took for the security and public order, on the other hand, were deliberately reflected as “Armenian Massacre.” As a result of this and the intense efforts of Britain, the Armenian Problem came to be among the most significant problems on the international political agenda with individual or joint notes (Küçük, 1986, p. 17-58).

While the Great Powers were making great efforts about Armenian reform in order to break the authority of Russia in Eastern Anatolia, Russians maintained their cautious and calm attitudes, as it would provoke the Armenians within its borders. Within this context, they especially paid attention to recognizing Armenians with a religious identity within Orthodoxy, rather than a racial identity. On the other hand, Germany and Austria, moving in the same direction, similarly had a cautious approach and avoided supporting the pressure on the Sublime Porte about Armenians reforms. France, which evaluated the problem within the context of Catholic Armenians in a more denominational dimension, on the other hand, was not insensitive to the issue (Altıntaş, 2005, p. 21-76), but could not show enough interest to be able to meet the expectations of Armenians as it was preparing for the occupation of Tunisia. Britain, which was left alone under such conditions, became less insistent in terms of diplomacy; and consequently this situation gave the Ottoman Empire the courage for delaying the Anatolian Reform and retarding the process.

In this process, which we tried to explain with the main lines, Britain came to the foreground as the only hope of desperate Armenians. On the other hand, Armenians, who didn’t want to risk their political cause engaged to only one state, prepared a series of long-term activity plans in order to draw the attention of international community and to carry out what they couldn’t politically achieve with terrorist activities. In this regard, they started an active propaganda and organizing campaign under the support and protection of the Armenian Patriarchate. Along with the societies, associations, and parties they founded, they also planned sensational terrorist activities. The United Society of Armenians, the Karahaç Society, the Armenakan Party, and the Hunchakian (Geneva, 1887) and Dashnaksutyun (Dashnaksutiun: “Federation”) Committees, which are terrorist and revolutionist parties, are only some of the organizations established to serve this goal (Karakoç, 2009, p. 60-94) (Tosun, 2003, p. 144-145).

Armenians demanded that an autonomous government was established in the six provinces, called vilayat-i sitte, (Erzurum, Van, Diyarbakır, Bitlis, Sivas and Ma’muretü’l – Aziz) in the east of the Ottoman Empire. However, this demand didn’t have legitimate sources and reasons in terms of international law and diplomacy, because Armenians were living in these regions, which they demanded autonomy for, as a minority and in communities divided into different sects (Kodaman, 2010, p. 134-135). Under such conditions and in accordance with the strategic planning with foreign support, Armenians started the process of resounding activities after a preparation period of about 12 years: the Erzurum Uprising (1890), the Kumkapı Event (1890), the First Sason Event (1894), the Sublime Porte Protest (1895), the Zeytun and Van Uprisings (1895-1896), the Ottoman Bank Incident (1896), the Second Sason Event (1897), the Assassination Attempt to Abdulhamid II (1905), and the Adana Events (1909) are important events in this period.

The attempts to eliminate the Armenian terror appearing in the forms of guerrilla activities, uprisings, and terrorist activities, which took place in a broad area and targeted the political authority and Muslim population, were transmitted to the European public opinion via media as “Armenian massacre” and “Christian massacre” as it was before. Due to the difficulties in topography, climate conditions, and transportation facilities in Eastern Anatolia, it was very difficult for regular army troops to eliminate the guerrilla activities of Armenians. For this reason, Abdulhamid II implemented a new socio-political project which would eliminate the Armenian guerrilla groups and strengthen the central authority in the region through time with the paramilitary groups called Hamidiye Troops made up of Kurdish and Turkmen tribes in the region. This project of a light cavalry troops formed, by taking Russia’s Kazakh Troops as a model, was put into force in 1891 under the responsibility of the 4th Army Commander Mehmed Zeki Pasha (Klein, 2013…) (Ergül, 1997, p. 43-78) (Kodaman, 1979, p. 427-480).

Among the sensational protests by the Armenians, the Kumkapı Attack, the Sublime Porte Protest, and the Ottoman Bank Incident had more political and social effects compared to others as they took place in the capital. That the church inside the Patriarchate in Kumkapı was attacked during the service by the Hunchakian committee members under the leadership of Artin Cangülyan on 28 July 1890 and that the Patriarch Aşıkyan was kidnapped to deliver the autonomy demands of Armenians to the sultan, that the security forces surrounded the cart and fought with the militants and casualties were quite worrisome for Istanbul residents who weren’t quite accustomed to terror (Şaşmaz, 2004, p. 101-118).

As such terrorist activities increased, the targeted European intervention was finally accomplished. After all, since the Sason Events broken out in 1894 the rebels and violent protests by guerrilla groups increasing in Eastern Anatolia were being done only to invite the foreign intervention. As a result of the studies of the investigation committee under the leadership of the British ambassador Philip Currie, Britain, France, and Russia asked for the urgent implementation of the reforms decided in the Treaty of Berlin with a joint memorandum they sent to the Sublime Porte on 11 May 1895. Sultan Abdulhamid II, who resisted in the beginning, had to accept a general reform program after applying to the opinions of Said Pasha and Kamil Pasha in order to solve the Armenian problem which was gradually becoming more threatening and which became the most significant agenda point and intervention device of foreign consuls on duty in the region (September 1895). A general amnesty would be declared, a general inspector would be sent, and Christian governors would be appointed to the region. The reform program called the Anatolian Reform, and cleared of ethnical and separatist and more importantly foreign intervention connotations, was ready to be implemented. Armenians started preparations for a more sensational protest in order to speed up the process and not to fall off the international agenda. They took action on 30 September 1895 with the encouragements of the Patriarch Madteos III and the organization of the Hunchakian Committee. Fortunately, their goals of protesting the government by marching to the Sublime Porte with the slogans “Long Live Armenia” with around 5000 people and doing propaganda on the massacre in the Ottoman capital failed thanks to the effective precautions and the common sense of the Muslim population (Engin, 2004, p. 47-48).

In the meantime, Sultan Hamid wanted to gain time and determine a strategy by appointing Mehmed Kamil Pasha to the office of Prime Minister Küçük Said Pasha. However, as a result of disturbing intense foreign interventions and pressures, sending the reform program titled “Reform Bill about the Reform of the Six Provinces” to the relevant public and military officers was approved (20 October 1895). However, Armenians showed to the internal and foreign public opinion with the Ottoman Bank Attack (26 august 1896) after a year that they wouldn’t be content with the reforms in the regions where they live (Eldem, 2007, p. 113-146).

In order to implement the Anatolian Reform that he reluctantly approved, Abdulhamid II appointed Müşir Ahmed Şakir Pasha from the statesmen he trusted as general inspector of Anatolian provinces on 27 June 1895 and gave him the instruction of traveling to the region. This was not a sudden and hasty appointment as Şakir Pasha had started to handle the Armenian Problem after July 1890 when he was appointed as a gracious assistant in the Yıldız Palace and closely followed the activities abroad from European media through an Italian journalist named Agustine Danisso. Şakir Pasha, who also sent Danisso to Caucasia, gave detailed reports to Sultan Hamid in accordance with the information he gained about the Armenian guerrilla activities.

The inspection committee, which constituted of inspector Şakir Pasha, his assistant Dimitri Mavrokordato Efendi, and other members, set off for the first stop Trabzon from Istanbul on 24 August 1895. With the provocations of the revolutionist and separatist Armenian groups, there were many protests from Trabzon to Bitlis on the route of the committee. On the other hand, the practice of the Reform Bill, amnesty for Armenians, the inspection committee to the six provinces were criticized by European countries, especially Britain, on the ground that a separate reform committee made up of Muslims and non-Muslims was not created. As a result of this, a Reform commission was created in Istanbul on 3 November 1895 in order to follow and inspect the activities of Inspector Şakir Pasha in the region. Then the Tesr-i Muamelat Commission was formed as a unit to speed up the investigation of the reports and other documents to be sent from the inspection committee to the central government and the acceleration of bureaucratic processes and therefore, the reform process were aimed.

The decision of Sultan Hamid that the reform program was to be implemented in all provinces except for Hejaz was a tactical move in order to destroy the image that this was dependent on the foreign intervention and to show that it was put in practice not only for Armenians, but for the security and welfare of all subjects living in all the provinces. Within this atmosphere, the Reform Inspection Committee under the leadership of Şakir Pasha, who performed this critical duty for about five years and died while on duty (20 October 1899), made the practice of some reforms possible, though with ups and downs, without allowing foreign intervention. Despite rebel and guerrilla activities as in the example of the Van province, the inspection committee didn’t skip its duty. The formation of some new administrative units in six provinces, the appointment of non-Muslims to administrative, public, and legal positions and assemblies, security units and vice province governor positions, county governors, court officers, policemen and village watchers, the recovery of jail conditions, the increase in salaries, regulation of the legal system, establishment of justice in taxing, the positioning non-Muslim inspectors and officers in tax control and collecting, the acceleration of services of mainly roads, education, public health, transportation, communication and prosperity facilities, the establishing of peace between the tribes with hostility, and the general amnesty for all convicts except for death convicts are significant actions of the inspection committee under the leadership of Şakir Pasha to be underlined in this context (Karaca, 1993, p. 37-203) (Ed. E. Afyoncu, 2001, p. 9-90) (Küçük, 1986, p. 59-175).

Despite the reform program put in practice, Armenians didn’t give up their demands of autonomy and independence under the available conditions. They decided that the time for carrying out their most sensational protest had come in 1905. This assassination planned by Hirstofor Mikaelyan (Samuel Fein), his daughter Robina Fein and Konstantin Kabulyan under the protection of the Troshak Revolution Society and carried out by the Belgian terrorist Edouard Jorris against Sultan Hamid on 21 July 1905 (The Event of Bomb, Yıldız Assassination) became a sensational terrorist activity which held the Armenian Problem on the agenda and drew the attentions of the Western public opinion to the Ottoman capital once again (prep. Gündüzoğlu, 2007…) (ed. Tuncer, 2010…) (Birecikli-Maden, 2007, p. 399-424) (Bağçeci, 2011, p. 279-301) (ed. E. Afyoncu, 2001, p. 115-132).

The efforts of Britain for keeping the Armenian reform on the agenda and engaging other states in this in order to intervene in the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire and ensure the passivation of Russia in Eastern Anatolia didn’t give a complete result due to the reasons explained above. In the meantime, Abdulhamid II who closely followed the Russia-Britain rivalry and knew that the reforms to be done within the framework wanted by London would bring the demands of foreign support and protection and firstly autonomy and then independence in a short amount of time, approached Russia as a balancing element for Britain. The Sublime Porte started to closely follow the Armenian middle class and wealthy people who didn’t support the uprisings in the beginning but didn’t refrain from supporting them both morally and materially later on. The government had a more tolerant attitude towards Catholic Armenians who relatively stayed distanced from the uprisings and terrorist activities; it applied martial law for people engaging in or supporting protests and terrorist activities and the schools and churches used for this purpose. However, despite positive steps the intervention of European countries in the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire was not able to be prevented. The Armenian Problem of which scope widened with the new developments after the Second Constitutional Monarchy and of which political demands became evident turned into a more complicated, controversial, and political problem with the Deportations during the First World War (Bakar, 2009…) (Halaçoğlu, 2001…).

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