December 22, 2018

The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), part 1

By Risto Stefov

The industrial revolution in England and the social revolution in France were two of the most significant factors in the inducement of rapid economic growth and social changes in western Europe. By the early 19th century, western capitalists were making their way into the Balkans looking for investment opportunities and market expansion, just as the Ottoman Empire was experiencing decline.


Penetration of western capital into the underdeveloped Balkans commenced around the 1870's in the form of financial loans, mostly for military and infrastructure projects. Infrastructure upgrades such as road, bridge and rail construction were important but were geared more to Western Powers strategic needs and less to domestic economic development. Army maintenance and government bureaucracies were also important sectors to upgrade but they hardly produced any returns.

With virtually no returns on its investments, the Ottoman State quickly became bankrupt.

To overcome the problem, Western Powers imposed spending restrictions and through the International Finance Commission imposed budgetary controls on the Ottoman State's budget. The Commission was made up of very influential western European capitalists whose first priority in managing the budget was to pay interest on the loans.

The brunt of the ensuing crisis was naturally felt by the rural producing class, which was about 80% of the Macedonian population. Being the main producers of goods, Macedonian villages were the most suppressed and exploited social stratum of the Ottoman population.

The encroaching European markets, able to produce goods cheaper, disrupted the way of life and put much of the Macedonian agrarian sector out of business. Social reform and welfare to aid the unemployed was not there since most of the state budget was redirected to pay returns on foreign loans. As a result, the new economic stratification virtually destroyed the traditional village economy, creating considerable economic and psychological distress among the rural population.

The problem was compounded when higher taxes were introduced. The economically strapped peasant, who could hardly afford to survive on his meager income, was now expected to pay even higher taxes.

The majority of the rural population worked the land as tenants and were subjected to a land tax of no less than 10% of the plot's value, payable to the state. An additional 25% income tax (tithe) was payable on productive labour. Of his total produce, the peasant was entitled to only one half. Out of his half, further taxes were paid to the state, the tax collector, the landlord and the local gendarme. By the time all taxes were paid there was hardly anything left for the peasant for survival. So the incentive for him to work the land was no longer there.

As the Ottoman Empire continued to suffer economically, it could no longer decisively respond to external threats and adequately defend its territories, so it began to slowly lose its integrity.

Since none of the Great Powers desired a new large state to replace the existing Ottoman territories, they allowed the Ottoman Empire to slowly degrade. As it crumbled they did everything possible to encourage new and smaller states to take its place.

Caught in a power struggle and mistrusting one another, the Great Powers could not, without consequences, militarily intervene in the Balkans. So next best thing to do was influence each newly created state by any other means possible and sway them in their direction.

Russia, the most powerful of the Great Powers, often attacked the Turkish State but it never made any real gains. The Western Powers intervened on Turkey's behalf and almost always reversed Russia's actions in Turkey's favour. There were however some exceptions. Russian intervention, for example, was responsible for Serbia gaining its autonomy from the Ottomans and for turning Serbia into a Slavic State.

The Western Powers were afraid of Russia, especially of Pan-Slavism, and often joined forces to keep Russia at bay. Britain took extraordinary measures to keep Russia from gaining access to the Mediterranean waters. Britain strived to keep the modern Balkan States, resulting from the Ottoman breakup, from becoming Russian allies. The creation of modern Greece, with a totally alien national character, is a good example of British intervention.

Frustrated with the Western Powers, Russia in 1878 attacked and overran the Ottoman State creating a Greater Bulgaria (which included all of Macedonia). Again the Western Powers intervened and Russia's actions were reversed. The Western Powers did however agree to allow a smaller autonomous Bulgaria to be created. Macedonia was given back to the Ottomans.

Even though Macedonia was given back, it was now only a matter of time before it was taken away again. Unbeknownst to the Macedonian people, the Great Powers had promised to divide Macedonia between Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. Since no agreement was made as to how and when the division was going to take place and which territory was going to which state, Macedonia became the "apple of discord". The only stipulation made by the Great Powers was that Macedonia be divided along national (Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian) lines. In other words, Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian nationalities had to exist in Macedonia before a state could make territorial claims. Since there were no Greek, Bulgarian, or Serbian nationalities living in Macedonia, the competing states sought ways to invent them, which in time escalated the competition between them and propagated the Church Wars.

To get inside Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia made use of an old Ottoman legal provision which allowed Ottoman citizens to pray in a church of their choice. Being Orthodox Christians, the same as the Macedonians, each competing state established its own churches and subsequently its own schools inside Macedonia. Each state then used them to promote its propaganda and carry out denationalization and assimilation campaigns.

For obvious reasons, the Great Powers wanted Macedonia to remain under Ottoman control for as long as possible (so that they could continue to collect interest on their loans). Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia on the other hand, fearful and mistrustful of one other, wanted Macedonia partitioned as soon as possible.

By the 1880's Macedonians were fighting on multiple fronts. Besides fighting the Ottomans and the Great Powers for their economic survival, they now had to fight Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian intervention, which not only threatened the loss of their country but also the erasure of their identity.

These were the conditions under which the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) emerged.

Macedonians were well aware of the situation in their country and in the surrounding Balkans and followed events as they unfolded. So the thought of liberating their country was not something new or too far from their minds. Macedonians had fought in the first wave of insurrections between 1804 and 1830 during which Serbia, Greece and Romania were liberated. They then fought in the second wave of insurrections between 1876 and 1889 in which Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania were liberated. Unfortunately, the Western Powers handed Macedonia right back to the Ottomans. Macedonians had also fought during the Razlog Uprising in May 1876 and during the Kreshna Uprising in October 1878.

Unfortunately most Macedonians were poor and totally dependent on their landlords for their livelihood. They possessed no tactical power, nor the potential to overthrow the system. The bourgeoisie operating in Macedonia was weakened by the competitiveness of European capital and the petit-bourgeoisie was underdeveloped and had its own problems with the hostile Patriarchy. The only choice the Macedonians had was to wait for someone else or for some external power to challenge and remove their oppressors. Unfortunately given the mindset of the Great Powers, no such power existed.

Given the economic conditions in Macedonia, a number of leading Macedonian intellectuals came to the conclusion that Macedonia could no longer afford to wait for external intervention and must act on its own. Macedonians must liberate themselves without dependence on outside help. The most effective way to do that was through a united national front. All of Macedonia must be organized, armed and mobilized so that when the time came it could act as one. To organize such an effort, a central organization would be needed which would have the freedom to operate throughout Macedonia. Naturally it would have to be a secret organization and do its work clandestinely.

The beginnings of such an organization came from a number of Macedonian student groups studying abroad who had fought against the foreign propaganda.

One such student group, stationed in Switzerland, agitated the European bureaucracy by releasing its own virulent propaganda, refuting chauvinist allegations. Another student group, stationed in Sofia, did the same in Bulgaria. This group was organized by Petar Pop Arsov, Kosta Sahov and Hristo Matov in late 1891 and allied itself with the Macedonian pechalbari (migrant workers). An offshoot of this group helped Vasil Glavinov establish the "Macedonian Social-Democratic Party" in Sofia in 1893, which attracted many Macedonians.

Other such Macedonian revolutionary organizations existed in Russia, Greece (the Macedonian Brotherhood in Athens, 1893) and Britain (the Committee for Autonomy of Macedonia and Albania, in London).

The foundation of the first Revolutionary organization inside Macedonia was laid on October 22nd, 1893, when a group of concerned Macedonian intellectuals got together at Ivan Nikolov's house in Solun, sharing opinions on Macedonian issues and what to do about them. Among the intellectuals present were bookstore owner Ivan Nikolov, high school teacher Damian Gruev, former editor of the journal Loza Petar Pop Arsov, high school teacher Anton Dimitrov and Doctor Hristo Tatarchev.

Over the following months other Macedonians joined the debate and a second meeting was convened on February 9th, 1894 in Solun, during which a Constitution for the organization was drafted with the following resolutions:

(a) The "Society", once properly constituted, would be of a secret and revolutionary nature.
(b) Its revolutionary activities would be confined to within Macedonia's geographic and ethnographic borders.
(c) Any Macedonian citizen might be allowed membership, irrespective of nationality (Albanian, Turk, Vlah, etc.) or religion (Christian, Muslim, Jew, etc.).

The name chosen for the organization was the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (MRO). [It was then changed to TMRO (T for Taina-Secret) and later to VMRO "Vnatrezhno-Makedonska Revolutsionerna Organizatsija". For the purpose of this article we will call it "Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization" or IMRO.]

The group also set the following goals for the organization:

(i) to destroy the Ottoman system
(ii) to remain an "independent" organization
(iii) to seek Macedonian autonomy

These goals were ratified during the organization's first Revolutionary Congress held in Resen in August 1894.

At its onset IMRO had problems recruiting members. But after the Solun congress in 1896 its situation improved dramatically. Initially, due to IMRO's secret nature, it was difficult getting the word out but as interest expanded beyond Solun to regional towns like Ohrid, Bitola and Resen, support became widespread. An early tactic employed successfully by IMRO was the use of teachers in the Exarchate schools, charged with educating the people with revolutionary propaganda. Unfortunately this was not enough. Without mass participation there would be no revolution, so IMRO sought to find a charismatic leader who would attract the attention and capture the imagination of the masses, yet be someone capable of comfortably communicating with them on their own level. Luckily such a charismatic leader was found in Gotse Delchev who had the soul of an anarchist, the convictions of a social democrat and acted like a revolutionary. His induction into the organization enabled IMRO to reshape its image from an organization run by intellectuals to one that would assert itself as a potent revolutionary force and guide Macedonia's destiny.

With Delchev at the helm, IMRO expanded its influence to Shtip, Veles, Kukush and Solun Regions.

Although IMRO had begun life in late 1893 as a secret organization, by 1896 it had developed almost to a point where it acted as a state within a state. In taking part and in leading demonstrations and boycotts against Ottoman State institutions, IMRO became the natural protector of the Macedonian people especially in the many isolated villages. Likewise, it acted as a diplomatic unit informing both Macedonians and outsiders of the injustices of Ottoman rule and the greedy ambitions harboured by the new Balkan States and their benefactors, the Great Powers.

Delchev believed that true revolutions succeed by seizing power by means of institutions established by the revolutionary masses themselves, often spontaneously or at the suggestion of the organization directing the revolutionary fight. Delchev was firmly committed to a long term violent revolution. He believed a frontal battle with the Ottomans would seriously damage the organization. In hindsight, he was correct.

IMRO's success inside Macedonia was becoming a threat to Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian Imperial territorial ambitions towards Macedonia. While each reacted in their own way, the Bulgarian response was unique to say the least. Since Bulgaria became a state it refused to recognize the existence of a separate and distinct Macedonia. It refused to recognize the Macedonian people as ethnically distinct from Bulgarians. Bulgarian policy was and remains to this day, that "Macedonians are Bulgarians". Anything that was Macedonian was Bulgarian, including IMRO. Bulgarians believed that IMRO should be getting its directives directly from Sofia and as such in March 1895 created the "External" Organization, better known as the "Supreme Macedonian Committee in Sofia". Even though this organization's majority membership came from nationalist Macedonian immigrants, its leadership was drawn from the Bulgarian army ranks.

This insidious Organization, better known as the "Vrhovists" (vrhovist means supremacist in Macedonian), through its allegedly "sympathetic" stance sought desperately to undermine and control IMRO by attempting to subordinate its central committee to its Supremacist directives. When that failed it attempted, by covertness and assassinations, to eliminate the subjective forces within the Organization.

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