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Serbia 1878-1889: An Overview

Posted January 26th, 2018 at 01:07 PM by Tsar
Updated January 27th, 2018 at 06:44 AM by Tsar (additional info)

A Short Intro

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Serbia in 1878

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Prince Milan, Princess Natalija and their son Aleksandar (born in 1876)

Since 1868 Prince (Knez) Milan Obrenović has been the ruler of Serbia. Serbian political system was regulated by the Constitution of 1869. According to the Constitution, Serbia was ruled by monarchs from the Obrenović dynasty: the ruler was inherited through agnatic primogeniture. If the dynasty remained without eligible heirs, the ruler was inherited through males from the closest agnatic branch. In case of lack of such heirs, male descendants of the daughters of Prince (Knjaz) Miloš would inherit the country. Otherwise, the prince would be elected. In case of ruler being underage, the state would be led by the Regency Council appointed by the Parliament.

The legislative power was shared between the prince and the Parliament. The prince brought and/or signed all laws. The prince was the chief commander and the representative of the country. The Supreme Administrative Court was known as the State Council and all the members were appointed by the prince. The judicature became independent. Only the prince had the right of legal initiative.

The Constitution proclaimed equality of citizens before the law, personal freedom, inviolability of private property and freedom of press, with the clause that allowed the government to revoke these freedoms in case of emergency.

The Parliament remained unicameral. Two thirds of the MPs were elected, while one third was appointed. The soldiers didn’t have right to vote. Number of the MPs depended on the population (1 MP per 3000 tax-paying households). Any man that paid property or work tax had active voting right, while any man that had over 30 years of age and paid at least 6 talirs as a property tax had passive voting right.

The Grand Assembly had one MP per 750 tax-paying households and all its members were elected. It was convened in five cases only: election of the prince, election of the regents, election of new constitution, change of the territory and the need of the prince to hear advice from its members.

In 1874 Serbia had 1.353.890 inhabitants. The percentage of the urban population started increasing exactly in this period: from 10% in 1866 to 13% in 1878. The share of artisans and merchants also increased, from 4.5 to 6.5. During this period only two cities had more than 10.000 inhabitants - Belgrade and Niš. The number of elementary schools doubled from 1855 to 1875 (274 to 534). In 1879 there were 22 high schools, but only 3 of them were complete. cSerbian government paid more money for schools than for the Parliament. In urban areas literacy rates were 47.7%, while in rural they were 6.4%. The literacy rates of women only were 12.4% in urban and 0.3% in rural areas.

Serbia 1878-1885

Following the decisions of Congress of Berlin (1878), Serbian Parliament declared independence. The Parliament was then disbanded and new elections were called. The old Liberals, that had been leading Serbia through the Great Eastern Crisis (1875-1878) abandoned the political scene, making way for a new generation of Liberals, led by Jovan Ristić. The Liberals won the elections and Jovan Ristić became new Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The new government met with dozens of problems. Newly conquered regions needed new administration, the Ottoman economic system in them had to be disbanded (feudalism, as the contemporaries called him), the war expenses were gravely big, and there was an urgent need for railroads (that didn’t exist at all). The government had a small but very loud opposition in the Radicals, led by a new leader, Nikola Pašić.

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Nikola Pašić

The government had to, therefore, introduce a number of unpopular measures. In order to solve the question of war expenses, the government introduced a new tax, patentarina, through which the shops were additionally taxed. This had grave effects, as the merchants inside the Liberal Party abandoned it. In newly conquered areas the peasants started expelling sipahis and çiftlik sahibi from their fiefs and taking their land. As this was contrary to the decisions of the Congress of Berlin, the representatives of the Great Powers protested. The government then issued a Law on Purchase of Sipahiliks, according to which the peasants were able to purchase their land if they bought it during the period of five years since the date the law was issued. It was up to both sides to agree on the price. This law came to nothing, and in 1882 the government was forced to take a loan and buy all the land from “the Turks”. In 1878 Serbian mints issued first gold coins. The same government managed to negotiate autocephaly of the Serbian Orthodox Church from the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1879.

The most important question for the Liberals was construction of railroads. The plans for the railroads existed earlier: Russia was being offered to build a railroad Niš-Danube that would get connected to Russian railroads through Romania by the Liberal government of Jovan Ristić, but the plans never realized. One of the requests of Gyula Andrássy on the Congress of Berlin was that government of Serbia takes obligations to construct a railroad Belgrade-Niš-Vranje. In 1880 Austria-Hungary and Serbia signed a convention in which Serbia took obligations to construct the mentioned railroad, as well as to connect the Main Train Station in Belgrade to the bridge on the Sava that was supposed to be built by Austria-Hungary. Serbia obliged herself to start the works on the railroad in 6 months and finish the railroad in 3 years. Serbia also recognized the right of Austria-Hungary to control the railroad from the Main Train Station to the bridge, on Serbian territory. In spite of big opposition of the Radicals and a new group of younger MPs who styled themselves as Conservatives, the convention passed the Parliament. The government didn't manage to find loans in Paris and London, and the Rotschilds warned the government that they would get no loans without a grand power, such as Austria-Hungary, as a guarantor. Jovan Ristić was still being against Austro-Hungarian tutorship, but Prince Milan warned him of Russian plans to built a railway from Craiova to Sofia, thus evading Serbia.

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Construction of the railroad in the Sićevačka Valley, 1886

Another important question, the one that managed to down the government, was the question of the trade agreement with Austria-Hungary. According to the Congress of Berlin, Serbia had to keep the 3% tariff towards Austria-Hungary, while the Dual Monarchy was free to change the tariff at will. However, Austria-Hungary insisted that Serbia gives her the status of the preferential partner in the trade. Serbia, however, signed such 1-year-long treaties with the UK, Russia, Italy and Belgium and refused to do so with Austria-Hungary, unless Austria-Hungary gave her identical status. Prince Milan travelled to Vienna in 1880 in order to accept Austro-Hungarian demand, but there he was met with imperial ultimatum: he would either accept the demands or face the customs war, which would drown Serbia. While Prince Milan was ready to accept it, PM Jovan Ristić refused to accept the ultimatum. This resulted in Prince Milan downing the government.

Those young Conservatives were actually close friends of Prince Milan. Mostly they were young intellectuals that were educated in prestigious universities in Europe with money. They were Prince Milan’s intellectual army of a sort. Prince Milan gave mandate to Milan Piroćanac. According to personal wish of the prince, Čedomilj Mijatović became Minister of Finance and Minister of Foreign Affairs, while Milojko Lešjanin became Minister of War. Another two important persons were Milutin Garašanin (Minister of Internal Affairs) and Stojan Novaković (Minister of Education). As the Conservatives, according to wishes of the prince, left the Radicals, the Radicals became the first group to establish a formal party: National Radical Party (1881). The Conservatives reacted with creation of their own Progressive Party (1881). The first move of new government was to accept Austro-Hungarian demands.

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Milan Piroćanac

Independent Serbia found herself without a protector among Great Powers. Prince Milan therefore signed the Secret Convention with Heinrich Karl von Haymerle and Benjamin von Kállay. Serbia obliged herself not to lead any nationalist propaganda activities against Austria-Hungary, including Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Sancak of Novi Pazar. Austria-Hungary took the same obligation, additionally obliging herself to support coronation of Prince Milan as the King of Serbia. Serbia obliged herself not to lead independent foreign policies and not to accept army of any other country on her territory. Both countries obliged themselves not to intervene in case of war with a third country. Austria-Hungary obliged herself to support Serbian ambitions towards south, excluding the Sancak of Novi Pazar (this, however, meant nothing, as the Dreikaiserbund obliged themselves to keep status quo on the Balkans). The Convention was signed on 10 years.

Only after he signed the convention, Prince Milan informed his two most trusted men, Milan Piroćanac and Milutin Garašanin about this. Both of them offered resignation in response. They were appeased only when PM Milan Piroćanac met with Von Kállay and when they made an annex, stating that the article 4, through which Serbia was obliged to harmonize her foreign policies with those of Austria-Hungary, meant only that Serbia was obliged not to make agreements that would be contrary to the spirit of the Secret Convention. Prior to that, Prince Milan sent a letter to Von Kállay, stating that he agreed with the Secret Convention without any annexes.

The Progressive Party issued a set of laws in 1881, bringing independence to the courts, freedom of press, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. In 1883 the government introduced compulsory education and founded the National Bank. In the same year the standing army was introduced, together with 2-year-long conscription for everyone.

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The National Bank Building, 1883

The government, despite initial success, suffered a great embarrassment in 1882. In order to start constructing railways, the government signed a very unfavorable loan with French Union générale in 1881. The government didn’t accept the loan easily, and it was the pressure from the prince that played the key role. Not only did Union générale give a loan, it also practically constructed the railway and got rights to use it freely. The press wrote about alleged large sums of money that were put in progressive pockets. However, in 1882 Union générale proclaimed bankruptcy. The Radical press was celebrating for days.

In order to appease the public opinion, Prince Milan decided to proclaim Serbia kingdom. In 1881 Romania became a kingdom. On March 6th, 1882 the Parliament declared Serbia kingdom and Prince Milan king. With Austro-Hungarian support, whole Europe recognized this act.

The Progressive government, however, remained unpopular. It was not just the railroad scandal that was making them unpopular. The Progressives were illegally installing their MPs after other MPs resigned; they removed clerks that didn’t belong to their party. Together with the prince, they even managed to replace (1881) and expel (1883) Metropolitan Bishop of Belgrade Michael, a Liberal and a Russophile. All three Serbian bishops then refused to elect another metropolitan bishop, and all three were replaced. This was done with knowledge and support of Austria-Hungary. Russia was prompted to act, and probably with her auspices Petar Karađorđević got married with Princess Zorka of Montenegro.

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Declaration of the Kingdom of Serbia

In 1882 the struggle between the Progressives and the Radicals sharpened, and the Radicals organized first big rally in Kragujevac. At the meantime, a women called Jelena-Ilka Marković, widow of Jevrem Marković who was executed in 1878, made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate King Milan in front of the Belgrade Cathedral. During their struggle with the Radicals, the Progressives issued a set of new laws and amendments to old laws, canceling most of civic liberties they brought. After the assassination attempt, King Milan needed to be stopped by Austria-Hungary and Progressives themselves in order not to introduce personal regime.

New elections were called in 1883. The Progressives were decisively defeated by the Radicals, and Milan Piroćanac gave resignation. However, in order to prevent the Radicals from forming the government, King Milan gave mandate to Nikola Hristić, infamous for his service to the autocracy of Prince Mihailo.

The Timok Revolt

Eastern parts of Serbia were especially discontent with King Milan, as they were heavily raided during the Serbian-Ottoman War of 1876-1877. After the war the clerks and the official introduced various kinds of abuse. When the government ordered that all private weapons be handed over and founded commissions to take weapons from the conscripts (October 1883), the population arose to rebellion. King Milan issued a decree declaring the state of emergency in the District of Crna Reka. A kangaroo court was founded and personal liberties were abolished. The rebels founded new government in the town of Boljevac with local Radicals. The District of Boljevac became the center of the rebellion, but the rebellion spread soon to District of Banja and County of Aleksinac. The rebels didn’t want an armed conflict, but the government sent a regular army against them. While the rebels were setting up the main camp near the small town of Čestobrodica, the army attacked them and destroyed the camp. After about two weeks, the army managed to suppress the uprising.

The role of the Radical leadership, who supported the rebellion in newspaper, remains unclear, but whatever it may have been, the government was suspicious of Pašić. The kangaroo court issued a large number of death sentences, including Radical leadership (Nikola Pašić, Raša Milošević, Pera Todorović). Nikola Pašić, thanks to the informations provided by the Russian consul, managed to escape to Bulgaria together with some other Radicals. Others, like Pera Todorović, were arrested and sent to Belgrade Fortress (Kalemegdan) to wait their execution. However, due to pressure by Russian and Austro-Hungarian consuls, leaders of the Progressives and the Liberals, and even Queen Natalija herself, King Milan was forced to issue a decree, changing the sentences to 10 years of prison.

The end of the Timok Revolt brought two years of King Milan’s absolutism. The king didn’t change the constitution, but new measures of the police apparatus brought absolute victory to the Progressives in the 1884 elections. Instead of rigid Nikola Hristić, Milutin Garašanin was given a mandate. This government brought new press laws that brought end to the freedom of the press, while the Law on the Municipalities gave decisive influence to the Gendarmerie in municipal affairs (giving them right to practically choose heads of the municipalities). Due to political dissidents that escaped to Bulgaria and continued agitation against him, the relations between Bulgaria and Serbia became sour.

The end of the Timok Revolt also tied King Milan even more to Austria-Hungary. During the end of 1884 and the beginning of the 1885 King Milan offered to Emperor Franz Joseph to take Kingdom of Serbia for one fief in Austria-Hungary. At the same time King Milan had multiple conflicts with his wife, Queen Natalija. Due to his gambling addiction, he was also with empty pockets. During 1885 he made a proposal to Austro-Hungarian consul to expand the Convention of 1881 – basically offering Serbian throne to the Habsburgs for a sum of money. Austro-Hungarian representatives refused, stating that they would’ve taken Serbia with arms, had they wanted it; they also stated multiple times that King Milan’s offers were inappropriate.

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Milutin Garašanin

The War of 1885

A set of important events happened in Bulgaria during 1885. The Ottoman governor of autonomous province called Eastern Rumelia was overthrown by local Bulgarian population, which then declared unification with Bulgaria in Plovdiv (the capital of the province). Russia didn’t want the unification at that moment, as Prince Alexander von Battenberg sought to get rid of Russian tutorship. The United Kingdom supported the unification for the same reason. Austria-Hungary, having all Balkanic countries in some sort of dependency and being a part of the Dreikaiserbund, had to be against the unification.

Three questions soured relations with Bulgaria in 1844: the question of the emigrants, the stay of Metropolitan Bishop Michael in Sofia and the so-called Bregovo Question. Bregovo was a small village that belonged to Serbia, as Bulgarian-Serbian border was defined by the Timok river. However, the Timok changed its flow and Bregovo was supposed to become Bulgarian. However, Serbian garrison refused to abandon the village and Bulgarian army had to take it by force. Russia backed Bulgarian demand, advising evasion of all negotiations. However, Otto von Bismarck managed to get involved by appealing Austria-Hungary to back Serbia and make consensus with Russia. During December of 1884 Prince Alexander offered to his personal friend, King Milan, following agreement: Bulgaria will return Bregovo in exchange of some other piece of border, and the emigrants will be forbidden to stay less than 50 km from Serbian border. King Milan wanted to accept the agreement, but the government of Bulgaria led by Stoyan Karavelov, under Russian influence, refused to acknowledge the agreement.

Serbian emigrants planned an action during the summer of 1885: 3000 men from Bulgaria and 1000 men from Montenegro were supposed to cross Serbian border under the command of Peko Pavlović. At the same time, Nikola Pašić was preparing arms and recruited new men, while Metropolitan Bishop Michael was trying to find allies in Russian government in order for Russia to support revolt against King Milan. However, Serbian government found out about the conspiracy. Russian government denied any involvement in the plot. The army in the County of Zaječar was prepared, but the action never came. Instead of that, news of Bulgarian unification reached Serbia (September 18th, 1885).

King Milan reacted angrily to the unification. He believed that the agreement destroyed the status quo and the balance of power. He told to Count Kálnoky that if Greater Bulgaria came to being, other nations had to get what belongs to them as well. He stated to the British consul that Serbia would seek for compensation in Bulgaria, but that he would create an alliance with the Ottoman Empire, against the "common enemy of Panslavism". At the same time Russian officers abandoned Bulgaria and Russia demanded Prince Alexander to abdicate, fearing that Constantinople was endangered. On October 4th, 1885 a conference of grand powers was convened in Constantinople. Austria-Hungary sought both to support King Milan's demand for compensation and Prince Alexander as Bulgarian ruler, while Russia had opposite goals. The conference was unsuccessful, and a new one was convened on November 5th, also in Constantinople. As this conference proved unsuccessful as well, Serbia used a minor border incident to declare war on November 14th. King Milan was unsuccessful in securing Romanian and Montenegrin alliance, but he managed to obtain Ottoman guarantee not to intervene in the war. At the same time the Greek government offered alliance, but as she asked for a declaration of war against the Ottomans as well, she was refused.

King Milan didn’t prepare the troops for war. Only a part of the army was mobilized, as king feared domestic upheaval during the war. Serbian army was underequipped. As King Milan got a number of the opponents in the army, none of experienced officers was active. Serbian soldiers were also unmotivated, as they did not comprehend the goal of the war against fellow neighbors and coreligionists. Serbian army was split into two groups: the Army of the Timok and the Army of the Nišava. The groups were supposed to take positions in the Counties of Vidin and Sofia (respectively) and wait for Bulgarian counterattack there. Serbian army occupied Caribrod, Kula and Trn and defeated Bulgarian army near Vidin. The road towards Sofia laid open, but King Milan became hesitant at the key moment of the war.

Strongly motivated Bulgarian army, bigger and better equipped, undertook a forced march and got close to Serbian border. Serbian army took a position near Sofia in the town of Slivnitsa. The Bulgarian army attacked Serbian left wing and started the 3-day-long Battle of Slivnitsa, decisively defeating Serbian army. King Milan, fearing that the army would get surrounded, ordered Serbian staff to retreat to Pirot. As soon as the Battle of Slivnitsa ended, King Milan asked from Austro-Hungarian government to negotiate truce and ordered retreat to Serbian border. Bulgarian army couldn’t have been stopped and it encircled Pirot. King Milan then ordered the staff to retreat to Bela Palanka. The Dreikaiserbund demanded truce, which Serbia accepted and ceased with war. Prince Alexander, however, rejected the demand and conquered Pirot, aiming to conquer Niš. After the fall of Pirot Serbian army continued with war, but failed to recapture Pirot. Austro-Hungarian government then asked Bulgaria to make truce, threatening to cut the support to Prince Alexander, which should result in Russian invasion. Only then did Prince Alexander sign 2-months-long truce. While Bulgaria held Pirot on the south, Serbian army held surrounding of Vidin on the north. King Milan and Milutin Garašanin aimed to continue with war after the truce, but due to lack of diplomatic support they signed peace on March 3rd, 1886 in Bucharest. The war ended with status quo ante bellum.

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Unification of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia and Serbo-Bulgarian War

Last Years of King Milan's Reign

The war with Bulgaria brought domestic tensions to boiling points. At the moment of nerve breakdown, King Milan wrote a decree about the abdication of whole dynasty, but was prevented from issuing it by Milutin Garašanin. Austro-Hungarian government wanted King Milan to stay at all costs, aiming to make Queen Natalija a regent, due to her huge popularity. Leaders of the opposition, Milan Piroćanac (Radicals) and Jovan Ristić (Liberals) cooperated, asking for changes of political course in both internal and external affairs. They demanded that the king’s rule must come under stronger control of the Parliament and that Serbia become partner of Russia instead of Austria-Hungary. Those two politicians got strong support from the queen, which brought to even bigger conflict of the royal couple.

The Progressive government marked a few successes: in 1885 new plan for propaganda activities in the Old Serbia and Macedonia was adopted, in 1886 Serbian Learned Society became Serbian Royal Academy and in 1887 Serbia opened first consulates in the Ottoman Empire, in Skopje and Thessaloniki. In 1887 Serbia signed a Railroad Convention with the Ottoman Empire, connecting the railways on the border near the town of Vranje.

At the beginning of 1886 King Milan pardoned Pera Todorović, aiming to create Progressive-Radical coalition. Pera Todorović accepted, but he didn’t manage to convince other leaders. Due to internal strife, Milan Piroćanac ended his political career and Nikola Pašić became the sole leader of the Radicals. On the elections of 1886 the Progressives barely managed to create a new government, even though police did a great job.

The royal couple did already have a history of conflicts due to King Milan’s infidelity, but the conflicts turned from emotional to political since the War of 1885. The final conflict exploded over the question of the education of the heir, Prince Aleksandar. The queen didn’t want her son to be upbrought in the Habsburg spirit. In 1887 King Milan decided to exile his wife, but Milutin Garašanin (still being the PM) didn’t want to exile the queen. Therefore, Garašanin was replaced by a Radical-Liberal coalition, led by Jovan Ristić. The only condition was to leave the Radicals that partook in the Timok Revolt outside the government. Jovan Ristić immediately proclaimed his three basic principles: turning to Russia, keeping warm relations with Austria-Hungary and strict respect for the Constitution. The change of government led to people attacking, torturing and occasionally beheading local Progressives in a wave of celebration.

At the meantime Russia and Austria-Hungary were at the brink of war. Austria-Hungary wanted to secure Serbian support, and therefore managed to convince King Milan to dismiss Ristić. A 4-month-long Radical government of Sava Grujić ensued, only to be replaced by a new government of Nikola Hristić in 1888.

The Constitution of 1888

Hristić supported King Milan and managed to secure his divorce with the queen. After that, Nikola Hristić convened a Constitutive Assembly. King Milan prepared this assembly as a prelude to his abdication, a fact that no one in Serbia knew about.

The Constitution of 1888 (brought on January 3rd, 1889; due to the difference in Julian calendar it was officially brought in 1888) defined Serbia as a parliamentary monarchy. All citizens were equal before the law, no one could’ve been prosecuted without the warrant of the court, there was no immunity for heads of local administration, the private property was inviolable, while death sentences were canceled, except in the case of the assassination on the king. The Constitution guaranteed the freedom of press, freedom of assembly etc.

The members of the Parliament were chosen by the general elections. The active right to vote was in hands of all men except the soldiers who had at least 21 years of age and payed census taxes of at least 15 dinars per year. The passive right to vote was in hand of those who had at least 30 years of age and payed census taxes of at least 30 dinars per year. The government, even though appointed by the king, was responsible to the Parliament and had to have support of the majority of the Parliament.

The legislative power was shared between the Parliament and the king, with the Parliament being first. The king had a power of veto, but only once per decision. The Parliament decided about the budget alone. The executive power completely remained in the hands of the king: he appointed all government members and state functionaries, he convened, closed and dissolved the Parliament, he was the chief commander.

The judicature was independent. Serbia was split into 15 counties (okruzi), that were split into districts (srezovi). The districts were then split into municipalities (opštine). All of these units had their own local administrations.

The Radicals, being the majority in the assembly, were against the constitution. They were, however, pressured by the king to vote for it, especially after the king agreed to put an article that claimed that the army was unable to be put into service of another country without the consent of the Parliament.

King Milan’s Abdication

After signing the Constitution of 1888, King Milan informed governments of Austria-Hungary and Germany about his decision to abdicate. Both emperors tried to convince him not to abdicate, but without success. King Milan informed Jovan Ristić about his intention and about the Convention of 1881. Jovan Ristić accepted the Convention with certain modifications regarding military cooperation and with the demand that Austria-Hungary prevent Bulgarian and Greek expansion to Macedonia. In 1889 King Milan signed the Protocol of Prolongation of the 1881 Convention, prolonging its effects until 1895.

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King Milan with his son, Prince Aleksandar

The Protocol brought certain modifications: Austria-Hungary promised to stop the movement of foreign armies on Serbian soil with her arms, and to do the same, but diplomatically, in case of the foreign army residing on the Ottoman soil. The military cooperation would continue, but only in accordance with the new constitution of Serbia. Austria-Hungary also promised to support Serbian expansion in the Vardar Valley and to help stabilization of Serbian economy. Jovan Ristić promised to King Milan to obey all international contracts that the king signed.

Nikola Hristić, who was informed about the king's decision 36 hours prior to the act of abdication, begged the king to down the government, as he didn't want to confirm the king's abdication (as during one of his earlier mandates Prince Mihailo was murdered). That led to "Two Days Government" of Kosta Protić. The Regency Council was formed a couple of days after, consisting of Jovan Ristić, Kosta Protić and Jovan Belimarković. On the Day of the Declaration of Kingdom King Milan read the text of his abdication.
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  1. Old Comment
    JulioClaudian Historian's Avatar
    Its good to read this! Thanks for making this because I need it for my history contest!
    Posted June 19th, 2018 at 02:42 AM by JulioClaudian Historian JulioClaudian Historian is offline

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