The London Conference

and the Albanian Question (1912-1914).

The Dispatches of Sir Edward Grey

Edited by Bejtullah Destani and Robert Elsie

Albanian Studies, Vol. 27

ISBN 978-1535304726 Centre for Albanian Studies, London 2016 361 pp. Introduction It was by no means evident in the early years of the twentieth century that Albania in southeastern Europe would become an independent country and would join the family of European nations. After five centuries as a part of the Ottoman Empire, the country was hardly noticed by the other peoples of Europe. This was to change at the time of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and the London Conference, at which Albania played a central role and where its fate was decided. In the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, the thought of political autonomy or indeed of independence had placed Albanian leaders in a dilemma. They were well aware of the possible boomerang effect that independence for the little Balkan country might have. As part of the Ottoman Empire, flagging though it was, the Albanians were at least protected from the expansionist designs of the neighbouring Christian states. Despite the sorry level of corruption and incompetence of the Ottoman administration under which Albanians suffered in the last decades of imperial rule, many Albanian leaders appreciated the tactical advantage of being governed from the distant Bosporus rather than from Belgrade or Athens, or from Cetinje, the nearby mountain capital of the expanding Kingdom of Montenegro, and confined themselves to strengthening national awareness and identity rather than to inciting direct political confrontation with the Sublime Porte. In a memorandum sent by the Albanians of Monastir (Bitola) to the Great Powers in October 1896, Muslim and Christian Albanians alike protested that the Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks enjoyed the support and protection of the Great Powers, whereas the Albanians had no support at all. They were not looking for privileges nor did they desire full independence from Turkey. All they wanted was to be able to live their lives as Albanians. To this end, they demanded the unification of their five vilayets (Kosovo, Monastir, Salonika, Janina and Shkodra) into one administrative unit with its capital at Monastir, a bilingual (Turkish/Albanian) government administration, an assembly of representatives, Albanian- language schools, full religious and linguistic freedoms, and the restriction of compulsory military service to duties in the European part of the Empire. But the Porte showed no willingness to compromise on the issue of Albanian autonomy. As a result, popular uprisings against Turkish rule continued in this period with an almost predictable regularity, in particular in northern Albania and Kosovo. Guerrilla bands throughout the country added to the general confusion and insecurity, destroying what remnants of economic order existed and poisoning inter-ethnic relations in the region. Many Albanian nationalists initially held great faith in the movement of the Young Turks, which was to lead to revolution in July 1908 and to the overthrow of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (r. 1876-1909) the following year. Mid’hat bey Frashëri (1880-1949) called upon Albanian leaders to give their full support to the Young Turks, who had their headquarters in his hometown of Salonica. Indeed, the Albanians played a major role in the Young Turk revolution, which precipitated the demise of this age of stagnation, and which gave the empire a constitution and a semblance of equality among citizens regardless of faith. Yet the hopes that the Albanians had stored in the Young Turks were soon dashed when it became apparent that the new administration was just as centralistic as the old one, or even more so. As the survival of the Ottoman Empire became more and more questionable, the Albanian uprisings continued: 1910 in Kosovo and the northern Albanian highlands, 1911 in the Catholic Mirdita region and the northern highlands, and 1912 in Skopje, Dibra and Vlora (Valona). In October 1912, the final demise of Turkey-in-Europe was signaled by the outbreak of the First Balkan War in which the Greeks, Serbs, Montenegrins and Bulgarians united to drive the Turks out of the Balkans and back to the Bosporus. Within two months, virtually all of Albania was occupied by the neighbouring Balkan states, which, in their anti-Turkish and to a large extent anti-Muslim campaigns, had no intentions of recognizing the waking aspirations of the Albanian people. Amidst the chaos and confusion created by the swift defeat of the Turks, the Albanian political figure, Ismail Qemal bey Vlora (1844-1919), assured of Austro-Hungarian support, convoked a national congress of Albanian leaders at Vlora on the southern Albanian coast. It was attended by thirty-seven delegates, primarily from southern and central Albania. At this meeting on 28 November 1912, Albania was declared independent, and centuries of Turkish rule were brought to an inglorious end. Albania’s declaration of independence was one thing, but the international recognition thereof was quite another. This occurred in London eight months later. The London Conference (1912-1913), also known as the Conference of the Ambassadors, was a gathering of representatives of the six Great Powers (Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Italy) who met in an attempt to resolve the problems in the Balkans that had arisen as a result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It began its work on 17 December 1912 under the direction of the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey (1862-1933), in the wake of the First Balkan War. On 30 May 1913 an agreement was reached under which Turkey would give up all territory west of the Enos-Midia line, i.e. virtually all of the Balkans. With regard to Albania, the Ambassadors had initially decided that the country would be recognized as an autonomous state under the sovereignty of the sultan. After much discussion, however, they came to the formal decision that Albania, though to be deprived of much of its ethnic territory, would be a sovereign state independent of the Ottoman Empire. This decision was reached at the fifty-fourth meeting of the Conference on 29 July 1913 and provided the basis for the international recognition of Albanian independence. Two major problems remained, however. Albania had no government with control over the whole country, nor did it have fixed and recognized borders. An international border commission was thus set up, charged with the awesome task of delineating the frontiers of the new state. Though independence had been obtained and at least temporarily secured at the international level, enthusiasm among the Albanians was soon dampened. More than half of Albanian-settled territory and about thirty percent of the total Albanian population were left out of the new state. Most tragic of all, Kosovo, which had been brutally “liberated” by the Serbian army, was given to the Kingdom of Serbia, an error that haunted the Balkans right to the end of the twentieth century. The new provisional government of Albania, whose sphere of influence hardly extended beyond the town of Vlora, had been formed with Ismail Qemal bey Vlora as prime minister and with a senate composed of eighteen members. Central Albania, i.e. Durrës (Durazzo) and Tirana, remained under the sway of landowner Essad Pasha Toptani (1863-1920), and it was not until 22 April 1913 that the citadel of Shkodra (Scutari) in the north, the last Turkish stronghold in the Balkans, was abandoned by Ottoman forces to the Montenegrins and was then handed over to the International Control Commission. There were initially thus three administrations in Albania with which the Great Powers had to contend. In addition to domestic chaos and intrigue created by conflicts of interest amongst the various feudal landowners, tribes and religious groups within the country, neighbouring Greece, Serbia and Montenegro all strove to exert as much influence – and grab as much land – in Albania as they could. The choice of a head of state for the new Balkan nation recognised at the London Conference fell upon Prince Wilhelm zu Wied (1876-1945). The well-meaning German prince, a compromise solution, arrived in the port of Durrës on 7 March 1914 and was welcomed to the boom of cannons, but in the months to follow, he was unable to gain control of much more than the port city itself. With the outbreak of World War I, Prince Wilhelm lost all semblance of international support and was forced to leave Albania on 3 September 1914, after a mere six months of inglorious reign. During the ensuing ‘Great War,’ Albania was occupied by a succession of Italian, Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Montenegrin, Austro- Hungarian and French troops. The first seven years of Albanian independence were more of an empty formality than anything else, yet the country survived. The present volume brings together British Foreign Office documents focusing on Albania from 1912 to 1914. Among them are the dispatches and private correspondence of the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who chaired the London Conference and endeavoured to keep peace in Europe at an age when the Great Powers were unwaveringly gravitating towards war and conflagration. He was thus a pivotal figure in Balkan affairs at the time. As a word of conclusion, we would like to express our gratitude to the National Archives in Kew near London, without whose support this volume could not have been published. Robert Elsie Berlin, July 2016 Buy this Book on AMAZON
Robert Elsie