The term “Armenian Question” refers to the efforts of Western Armenia directed to the protection of the Armenian nation’s self-determination and their freedom of neighboring communities’ oppressions, and revolutionary movements inside the Ottoman Turkey aimed at regaining the territorial and national individuality of Armenia.
The term used in European history became commonplace among diplomatic circles and in the popular press after the Congress of Berlin in 1878.
The Treaty of San Stefano between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, which ended the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) and was particularly aimed at the fruition of Russia’s pan-Slavist ideas, had great impact on recognition of the independence of the Balkan states which had previously been under the Ottoman Empire’s control and were a part of Russia’s plans, and the emergence of “Armenian Question”.
The Balkans were a major stage for competition between the European Great Powers in the second half of the nineteenth century. Britain and Russia both had stake in the fate of the Balkans. Russia was interested in the region both ideologically as a pan-Slavist unifier and as a way to secure greater control of the Mediterranean, while Britain was interested in preventing Russia from doing exactly that.
Furthermore, the unification of Italy and Germany had stymied the ability of a third European power, Austria-Hungary, to further expand its domain to the southwest. Germany, as the most powerful continental nation after the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and one without large direct interests in the settlement, was the only power which could mediate the Balkan question.
Russia and Austria-Hungary, the two powers most interested in the fate of the Balkans, were allied with Germany in the League of Three Emperors, founded to preserve monarchy and conservatism on continental Europe.
This meant that the Congress of Berlin was mainly a dispute among supposed allies with conflicting goals. Otto von Bismarck and the German Empire, the arbiter of the discussion, would thus have to choose before the end of the congress which of their allies to support. This decision was to have direct consequences on the future of European geopolitics.
Through the Treaty of San Stefano, the Russians, led by chancellor Alexander Gorchakov, had managed to create a Bulgarian autonomous principality under the nominal rule of the Ottoman Empire, thus sparking British “Great Game” – the well-entrenched fears of growing Russian influence in the Middle East.
The new principality, including a very large portion of Macedonia and with access to the Aegean Sea, could easily threaten the Straits that separate the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. This arrangement was not acceptable to London, which considered the entire Mediterranean to be a British sphere of influence, and saw any Russian attempt to gain access there as a grave threat to its power.
The Treaty of San Stefano was the first international pact Armenia and Armenians have been mentioned in. According to the 16th article of the treaty, administrative reforms under Russian supervision were to take place in Western Armenia which would ensure the security of Armenians from assaults of neighboring communities, which had been a part of oppressions of Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire.
Political interests of Great Britain and Austria-Hungary led to the revision of the Treaty of San Stefano, which was extremely disadvantageous for them, at the Congress of Berlin (13 June – 13 July 1878). The Armenian National Assembly and Patriarch Nerses Varjabedyan asked his predecessor on Patriarchal See and future Catholicos Mkrtich Khrimian to present the case for Armenians at Berlin. An Armenian delegation led by Khrimian traveled to Berlin to present the case of the Armenians but, much to its dismay, was left out of the negotiations.
In the Treaty of Berlin, which the Congress of Berlin ended with, the 16th article of the Treaty of San Stefano was represented as the 61st article, in which Armenia was mentioned only as “Armenian-populated territories”. Russia was also obligated to remove its troops from the captured territories of the Ottoman Empire in an attempt to estrange Russia from the plans of establishment of control over Balkans, leaving the supervision of the execution of the article’s tasks on the participants of the congress.
Armenians had hoped that Russian pressure (and threat of intervention) would force the Ottoman government to improve situation in the Armenian provinces. But political interests of European empires and the subsequent rejection of recognition of Armenia as a separate territory gave an end to all hopes of Armenians of security and possible restoration of independence.
Following the Berlin negotiations, where Khrimian witnessed the Christian Balkan peoples (Serbs, Montenegrins, and Bulgarians) achieving independence or some degree of autonomy, he in his famous patriotic speech “The Paper Ladle” advised Armenians to take the national awakening of Bulgaria* as a model for the hopes for self-determination. In his sermon he said that participating nations had been “taking their portion of harissa (an Armenian dish) from a cauldron with iron ladles, while the Armenian delegation hadn’t been able to gather anything with their paper ladle”, symbolizing the insignificance of the Armenian nation’s efforts in global politics.
For him, the freedom of Armenia was only possible through the use of armed force. In particular, he stated: “There, where guns talk and swords make noise, what significance do appeals and petitions have?” He added:
“People of Armenia, of course you understand well what the gun could have done and can do. And so, dear and blessed Armenians, when you return to the Fatherland, to your relatives and friends, take weapons, take weapons and again weapons. People, above all, place the hope of your liberation on yourself. Use your brain and your fist! Man must work for himself in order to be saved.”
The historical example of the failure of the Armenian delegation at the Congress of Berlin once again demonstrates that the self-development and survival of a nation cannot be expected to occur under the good will of foreign states.
Political interests of other countries are the most important aspect of any local or global politics. That is exactly what Khrimian has realized after the Congress of Berlin. Though nowadays armed revolution might not be the best possible way to resolve such a problem, that historical lesson is extremely important for not only today’s Armenia, but every nation as well.
*In Bulgarian historiography, Liberation of Bulgaria means the events of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 that led to the re-establishment of the Bulgarian sovereign state with the Treaty of San Stefano.