December 27, 2018

The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), Part 2

By Risto Stefov

Bulgaria, through armed Vrhovist intervention, was hoping to provoke Ottoman reprisals against the innocent Macedonian population. Pretending to be IMRO, Vrhovist agents would openly challenge Ottoman authorities who, out of revenge, would attack Macedonian villages. This of course would be mistakenly blamed on IMRO by the European press and would tarnish IMRO's reputation. Great Power pressure would then be leveled against the Ottomans, which the Bulgarians hoped might seriously weaken Ottoman control over Macedonia. This would then create ideal conditions for Bulgarian intervention on Macedonia's behalf and Bulgaria would then carry out Macedonia's liberation, or should I say annexation.


The political climate that produced the "Supreme Committee" (the Vrhovists) was created by the Bulgarian State and by Prince Ferdinand himself.

Bulgarian intervention in Macedonian internal affairs was not limited to Vrhovist activities alone. Vrhovist work was supplemented by the policy of the Exarchate Church, which continued in its attempts to rally young Macedonians to the Bulgarian cause. Further, the Bulgarian bourgeoisie dispatched undercover agents to Solun, to spy on IMRO movements and report them to Sofia.

Having achieved limited success with its spies, the Bulgarians changed tactics and began to infiltrate IMRO itself. To this end the "Revolutionary Brotherhood" was created in Solun, under the leadership of Ivan Garvanov. While pretending to believe in Delchev's principles, Garvanov succeeded in penetrating the IMRO Central Committee and paved the way for the Ilinden disaster. By influencing IMRO policy, Garvanov was responsible for the Organization's weakening and eventual split into hostile factions.

During the summer of 1895, the Vrhovists dispatched armed insurgents into Macedonia and Thrace in hopes of recruiting Macedonian fighters in order to start an early uprising and provoke Ottoman reprisals. Their tactics however backfired and received criticism not only from the Ottoman Grand Pasha himself but also from Britain and Russia. Boris Sarafov, captain of the insurgents, managed to penetrate eastern Macedonia and captured and held Melnik for forty-eight hours. IMRO, at this point, sent the Vrhovists a stern warning to "keep their hands off Macedonia!" realizing that Ottoman reprisals would cost many innocent Macedonians their lives.

In light of these Vrhovist intrusions, IMRO, determined to purify itself of Vrhovist elements, held a congress in Solun during the summer of 1896. Unfortunately, this was only an ideological purification where the basic goals of the organization, mentioned earlier, were reaffirmed. Delchev, among other things, emphasized the need for IMRO's total independence from outside deceivers who pretended sympathy for the revolution while pledging loyalty to the "Supreme Committee" in Sofia.

The IMRO constitution was also redrafted, with help from Giorche Petrov, to include new provisions for uniting all dissatisfied elements in Macedonia and Endrene (Adrianople). It also added provisions for dividing Macedonia into six revolutionary districts (Solun, Shtip, Bitola, Skopje, Serres and Strumitsa). Subsequently Endrene District was also added.

The Congress also expanded the size of IMRO's Central Committee, electing Delchev, Gruev, Petrov, Pop Arsov, Toshev, Matov and Tatarchev to its seats of authority. Matov and Toshev designed the Central Committee seal, which consisted of a banner, swords, rifles and a bomb. Inscribed on it was "Macedonian Central Revolutionary Committee".

The Bulgarian intrusion into Macedonia rang alarm bells in Serbia, prompting King Alexander to conclude an agreement with the Greeks in which Greece and Serbia staked out their future claims over Macedonia. Alexander then did the same with Bulgaria's Ferdinand and Greece later made similar agreements with Bulgaria. The agreements later were shown to be not worth the paper they were written on. There was, however, one matter on which all three states agreed and that was the need to paralyze IMRO.

By early 1897 Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia had their own agents inside Macedonia, some as consular officials in Solun and others traveling across the country incognito, all seeking to obstruct IMRO's recruitment progress. The Vrhovists, under the command of army General Nikolaev, fiercely agitated against IMRO by continuously dispatching their anti-IMRO propaganda to diplomatic missions abroad.

IMRO's plans were further frustrated when Bulgaria informed Delchev that they would not sell IMRO arms and that he would have to deal directly with the Vrhovists. To this Delchev did not agree and under no circumstances would he agree to surrender IMRO's sovereignty or obligate his organization to the Vrhovists. Further, Delchev would not even consider enlisting support from Russia, the recent liberator of Bulgaria, especially after he discovered a report tabling the "Goluchowski-Muraviev Agreement. An agreement drawn up in April 1897, by Emperor Franz-Joseph of Austria and Tsar Nikolas II of Russia which called for Macedonia and Thrace to be equally divided by Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia, in some future time.

Direct or indirect attacks on IMRO did not deter the Central Committee's recruitment efforts or its ability to promote itself to the masses. Purchasing arms and ammunition were a problem for the time being, but new means were sought to raise finances and find markets where arms could be purchased and smuggled into Macedonia. A further testament to IMRO's strength was Delchev's resolve to infiltrate and assume control of the "Supreme Committee" in Sofia. Between 1897 and 1901, Delchev and Petrov took several trips to Sofia, attempting to rally Macedonian dissident emigrant forces away from the Vrhovists. They were unsuccessful only because the Supremacists had strong support from the Bulgarian State.

Unfortunately strength alone was not enough to maintain a successful IMRO, finances and arms were also needed. Being unable to align itself with the bourgeoisie in Macedonia, refusing to accept money from Bulgaria and being isolated by the Patriarchate and to some extent, by the Exarchate Churches in Macedonia was a real impediment for IMRO. As such, for its funding, IMRO relied strictly on token donations, membership dues, small earnings of its teaching staff and extorted donations from the Chiflik estate owners.

Shortage of funds became an impediment in purchasing arms, printing and distributing propaganda, legal fees and bail for interned members and in procuring food and medical supplies. The Central Committee's failure to raise sufficient funds forced some revolutionary districts to fundraise on their own, sometimes by creative methods. Through 1897 and 1898 numerous attempts were made to kidnap wealthy Greeks, Turks and Bulgarians and extract ransoms.

Even if IMRO had the necessary funds it still could not purchase all the arms it needed. Most arms dealers refused to sell arms to IMRO and of those who did, smuggling and transporting became a serious problem.

Desperation forced IMRO to purchase obsolete rifles from the Bulgarian military at a grossly inflated price. But there too they ran into problems when the Bulgarians refused to sell them cartridges. When Petrov complained the War minister said, "We are not idiots to give you cartridges as well; thus we shall keep power in our hands, otherwise you will turn away from us!"

To overcome the arms shortage, Delchev, as the Commander-in-chief of the IMRO forces, recommended a policy of "self arming". In future, new recruits would be required to purchase their own weapons and ammunition.

In late 1897 Delchev took a trip to Odessa, Russia where he learned from Armenian revolutionaries how to manufacture homemade bombs and crude flame-throwers.

Upon his return Delchev enlisted the aid of Kirkov, an explosives expert, and set up a munitions factory in the mountains of eastern Macedonia where six men where employed making bombs full time. The factory operated for eighteen months before it was discovered and destroyed by Ottoman authorities at the instigation of Stoilov, the Bulgarian Prime Minister.

Whatever weapons the Macedonian insurgents lacked they more than made up for in courage. The Cheti (guerilla bands) were very mobile and used their limited guns and explosives with great efficiency, being prepared to commit suicide rather than face capture and torture. This unique disposition terrified the Ottoman forces.

Weapons manufacturing and smuggling was a risky business, the type that would alarm authorities if discovered. Even with all the caution in the world, someone was bound to get caught. Sure enough this happened to IMRO courier Done Stoyanov. Stoyanov was carrying explosives when the Ottoman militia captured him. After severe torture he told them everything.

With that information Ottoman authorities immediately ordered "search and destroy" missions in rural Macedonia, unleashing a reign of terror on the Macedonian villages. To counter this offensive, IMRO responded by mobilizing its Cheti. Each revolutionary district took charge of defending the villages within its sphere of influence.

By 1899, within a year of their mobilization, the Cheti drew heavily from the ranks of the young villagers who were most eager to fight for their freedom. For rapid reaction, in the more active districts, IMRO assigned one Cheta per village.

In 1899 Delchev, as chief inspector, drew up the famous "Rules of the Cheti" which among other things defined the roles and conduct of the Cheta. Besides being responsible for defending, the Cheti were also responsible for educating the people about the cause.

Predictably, arming of the Cheti proceeded slowly but when Gruev arrived in Bitola the process was streamlined and explosives and guns began to arrive. Gruev appointed the legendary Cheta chief Marko, the "Tsar of Lerin", in charge of weapons distribution.

As for the actual fighters that made up the Cheti, their experience varied as much as their backgrounds. Some were outlaws and hardened fighters who lived in the open, slept on the mountains and spent years fighting the Turks, while others were schoolboys barely out of school. Coming as they did from various backgrounds they were a handful for the Central Committee to manage but more than a handful for the Ottoman garrisons. As an American journalist once said, "The Turks fear them with fear that is often comic. They never attack a Cheta except with a vastly overpowering force. As for the Cheti they think nothing of attacking twice their number..."

By 1900 IMRO had formed over thirty Cheti in Bitola, Kostur, Lerin, Ohrid, Krushevo and Prilep Districts, as well as in Thrace. Besides fighting the Turks, the Cheti also proved to be a formidable force against the Vrhovists, especially those who ventured south into Pirin and came face to face with Sandanski.

Unfortunately as the organization's mobilization program quickened, so did Ottoman awareness of its activities. The Ottomans began to build up forces in Macedonia in expectation of an uprising. More search and destroy missions were carried out and, between 1899 and 1903, thirty IMRO munitions depots were discovered and destroyed. Additionally some of the IMRO leaders, including Gruev and Petrov, were being arrested more frequently, which meant that either the Turks were getting better or someone was supplying them information.

Although never proven, Garvanov, the Vrhovist leader of the "Revolutionary Brotherhood", was suspected of supplying the Turks with information. Garvanov was also responsible for Vrhovist deeds blamed on IMRO.

After his failed attempt to start a rebellion in Macedonia in 1895, in 1900 Sarafov sent six assassins to kill Delchev and Sandanski. Unable to successfully carry out their mission, with Garvanov's help, the Vrhovists began a spree of destruction, razing villages and stealing money, while claiming to be an IMRO Cheta. During one such attack, Marko, the Cheta leader from Lerin was killed.

This unsuspecting turn of events with the Vrhovists caught IMRO by surprise, but the next time they tried something similar IMRO was prepared.

When General Tsonched, Sarafov's successor, organized a similar attack in Pirin District in 1902, Yane Sandanski was ready for him and sent him packing. The Turks did the rest and finished him off. Unfortunately the Macedonian villages paid for the Vrhovist meddling. The Turks exacted retribution by razing 15 villages, killing 37 people and torturing 304 men and women. The Vrhovist intrusion was a bitter victory and in future it would prove even more bitter.

To make matters worse the Exarchate Church began dismissing Macedonian teachers suspected of being affiliated with IMRO.

It was no accident that the Ottoman authorities declared IMRO illegal on January 31st, 1903 and had almost all its leaders arrested and given life sentences in the harshest prisons in Asia Minor.

The following month witnessed the staging of the Solun Congress during which the IMRO Central Committee truly rested in Garvanov's hands. Delchev, Petrov and Toshev, about the only true IMRO leaders that had not been jailed, refused to attend the Congress knowing full well that Vrhovists dominated it.

Even though Macedonia was not ready for a general uprising, the Solun Congress set a date for one anyway. In the Vrhovist mind, any determined uprising, preferably a failed one, would weaken the Turks, and ultimately create conditions for intervention by the Bulgarian State. August 2nd, 1903 was the date chosen for the uprising, which coincided with Ilinden an important Macedonian holiday.

After Gruev's release from prison in April 1903 (due to a general amnesty), Delchev desperately tried to postpone the rebellion but was killed before he had a chance to address the assembly scheduled to meet in Smilevo in May. Being outnumbered, Gruev went along with the majority and Macedonia indeed witnessed the beginnings of a tragic end.

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