This is Episode Number 6 of Payitaht Abdülhamid, Immediately after his accession, Sultan Abdul Hamid came up against the Russian ambitions in the Balkans. The Czar, declaring himself the champion of all Slavs and the protector of the Eastern Orthodox Church, encouraged an insurrection in Serbia. The Ottomans successfully put down the uprising in 1876. Realizing that active intervention on behalf of the Serbs carried a risk of war with Austria-Hungary, the Czar shifted his focus to Bulgaria. The excuse for intervention was the supposed mistreatment of Christian Bulgars by the Ottomans, while the objective was the creation of a greater Bulgaria, under Russian domination, extending south from the Danube all the way to the Aegean Sea. The western shores of the Black Sea would then be under Russian domination and the armed forces of the Czar would have access to the Mediterranean. However, this plan too required the cooperation of the Austrians. During the Crimean War of 1853-1856, Austrian troops had occupied Romania with the connivance of the Russians. For Russian troops to reach Bulgaria, they would have to cross Romania, now under Hapsburg domination. Fearing that overlapping Russian and Austrian ambitions might lead to war, Bismarck of Germany proposed a division of the Ottoman Empire, with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia going to the Hapsburgs while Romania and an enlarged Bulgaria would come under Russian domination. The British, fearing that a further expansion of Austrian and Russian influence towards the Mediterranean would threaten their own interests, opposed this plan and proposed instead a conference in Istanbul to reconcile the competing ambitions of the powers.
At the Istanbul Conference, held in November 1876, Britain proposed a series of “reforms” which, while mollifying Russia and Austria-Hungary, would keep them out of the Mediterranean. Bulgaria, while nominally staying within the Ottoman Empire, was to be partitioned into two provinces. The governor of each province would be a Christian, appointed with the concurrence of the European powers. Except for tobacco and customs duty, all revenues would go to the provincial government. The judicial system would be overhauled and new judges appointed with the approval of the powers. Separate police forces would be created for Christian and Muslim villages. Ottoman troops would be withdrawn from the province and their place taken up by Belgian troops. Britain proposed similar “reforms” for Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Ausstria-Hungary would provide oversight for their implementation. These proposals, if implemented, would have meant virtual independence for both Bulgaria and Bosnia-Herzegovina and would have legalized the intervention of the powers into the affairs of these two important Ottoman provinces.
The Bulgarian issue had emerged as an important one due to a Russian engineered insurrection in that province. The Bulgars captured a large number of towns and slaughtered thousands of Turks. Unable to control the uprising, the Ottoman governor of the province, Nadim Pasha, organized local militias to protect Muslim villages. Massacres and counter massacres followed. The Europeans, always quick to point fingers when Christians were killed, while closing their eyes to massacres of Muslims, played up the Christian casualties. In the British parliament, Gladstone, in a rousing speech, referred to the Ottomans as “the unspeakable Turks” and demanded a concerted European action to curb the Ottomans. The Czar threatened military action unless sweeping reforms were implemented in the province under Russian supervision.
To preempt the European powers, the Ottoman Porte (the vizierate) pushed for the promulgation of a constitution that would remove any pretext for foreign intervention. At the request of Midhat Pasha, Chairman of the Council of State, Sultan Abdul Hamid authorized the formation of a Constitution Commission. Working round the clock, the Commission produced a constitution, which embodied far-reaching reforms and touched on every aspect of Ottoman administration.
While retaining the ultimate authority of the Caliph/Sultan and his privileges to mint coins and have his name invoked in the Friday khutba, the reforms guaranteed individual liberty to all citizens, equality before the law, freedom of worship, sanctity of privacy, the right to property and protection from arbitrary arrest. There was to be no discrimination in government jobs and the civil service was to be a meritocracy. A two-tier Parliament was established after the pattern of the liberal European monarchies with a lower house, majlis e mebusan, consisting of elected delegates and a smaller upper house, majlis e ayan, whose members were appointed by the Sultan. Freedom of expression within the Parliament and immunity from prosecution of the deputies for their views was guaranteed. The Sultan appointed the grand vizier and the council of ministers. The grand vizier, as the chief executive officer of the empire, presided over the meetings of the ministers and coordinated their activities. In times of emergency, such as those involving the security of the state, he could issue emergency orders. The Parliament had the authority to approve annual budgets, provide oversight for the expenditures of the various ministries and enforce fiscal discipline. It was empowered to ratify legislation initiated by the Council of Ministers. If ratified, the legislation was then submitted to the Sultan, through the grand vizier, for his final approval. The Council of State, which had come into existence during the earlier phases of the tanzeemat, was retained to provide assistance to the parliament and the Council of Ministers in the drafting, preparation and documentation of legislation.
The deputies of the lower house were elected and had a term of four years, whereas those of the upper house were appointed by the Sultan for life. Except in matters of personal law, wherein the Shariah and millet courts were retained, the jurisdiction of secular courts was expanded to cover all aspects of life. Representative councils were retained at the provincial, district and county levels to provide inputs on education, agriculture, trade and commerce. A Supreme Court was set up with the authority to try wayward judges, members of the parliament and ministers. Islam remained the state religion but freedom of worship was guaranteed to all millets. All citizens were henceforth to be considered Ottomans, irrespective of their ethnic or religious affiliation. Each millet was free to elect its own representative council and organize its internal affairs. Thus a major move was made towards parliamentary democracy that provided a voice to the people, guaranteed individual rights and took significant steps towards mollifying European concerns about the rights of Christians in the empire. To implement the reforms, Sultan Abdul Hamid appointed Midhat Pasha, who had served as chairman of the Council of State and the principal architect of the reforms, as the grand vizier.
The European powers were not interested in reforming the Ottoman Empire. The disaffection of the Christians was merely a pretext for intervention into Ottoman affairs. Russia, in particular, was not satisfied with anything less than an outlet to the Mediterranean. At the Istanbul Conference, the European powers backed Russian demands to divide up Bulgaria and Bosnia-Herzegovina and administer them under European oversight. Sultan Abdul Hamid knew the military vulnerability of the empire and sought to avoid war. In addition to promulgating the constitution in December 1876, he forwarded his own plan to appoint an inquiry commission, with international participation, to look into charges of atrocities in Bulgaria and punish those responsible. Midhat Pasha, who was serving as the principal Ottoman negotiator with the powers, did not present these plans at the conference, but instead submitted the European demands to the Ottoman parliament. The newly elected representatives were furious at this affront to Ottoman sovereignty and rejected the demands. The Istanbul Conference broke up in disarray.