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.
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.
A failed rebellion was not something that the Macedonian people, especially the IMRO leadership could easily reconcile. But as events unfolded, the Ottomans were not the only ones who wished Macedonia to fail. There were more sinister forces at work, like the Vrhovists and the Patriarchate and Exarchate Churches, who equally did not want Macedonia to win. The Great Powers too had their own resolve and all they could do was watch Macedonia burn while offering the Macedonian people no more than their sympathies. They did not even offer aid to the sick, homeless and starving.
For the Macedonians it was a great revolution, a glorious revolution. To paraphrase Georgio Nurigiani, "The Ilinden rising is an achievement of great importance for the Macedonian people. There are things in it which stagger the imagination and cause this general insurrection to be ranked as a 'great historical event'. The whole people rose with a frenzied, irresistible urge for immediate freedom. The Macedonian people's faith made them believe in their creative possibilities, for only a people strong in spirit is able to pluck up courage and with full confidence venture on an historic undertaking. Through this courageous uprising, unique in its kind for noble daring, the Macedonian people expressed not only their love of freedom and justice, but also of moral power. This rising remains even today an unrepeatable human act of supreme self-sacrifice for a people's freedom. Ilinden will remain in history a sacred name for every Macedonian. It is written on the tables of the laws of the Macedonian people and will shine for evermore, because it is a magnificent expression of the Macedonian peoples' limitless love for their native land, their unquenchable thirst for freedom, their inflexible will for a new life, and a real inner essence of their being. It is not possible to speak of the epic of Ilinden without speaking of the man who incarnated it and who set in motion the Macedonian people on the road to revolution, on the road to freedom. That man was Gotse Delchev. He was not only a great revolutionary, he was one of the most upright, noble and idealistic natures born under the Macedonian ski; obedient to every moral principle and self-denying service. These are the characteristic qualities of Gotse Delchev, of a great son of Macedonia." (pp. 46-47).
As expected, the rebellion was strongest in western Macedonia where the population was most prepared. It started in Bitola Region on August 2nd, 1903 and in a few days spread like wildfire south to Lerin and Kostur and north to Resen, Ohrid and Prilep.
Karev and his Cheti stormed and liberated the town Krushevo and then created the Krushevo Republic, the first of its kind in the Balkans. Karev, after being elected president, constituted a provisional government with its own police force, judiciary and financial and welfare bodies. Through the creation of this Republic, Macedonians expressed their desire to national self determination. The fact that the Republic was constituted upon a multiracial basis also demonstrated the readiness of the Macedonian people to lay a multicultural foundation for their state. Sadly the Republic only lasted couple of weeks before the Turkish army destroyed it.
As for Vrhovist involvements in the general uprising, they did not materialize. Sarafov's boasting that at the first sign of struggle the Bulgarian army would storm in and liberate Macedonia, did not happen. All Vrhovist promises turned out to be lies.
Initial IMRO successes during the Ilinden uprising came as a surprise to the Ottomans. Even though they had a numerically superior force in Macedonia it was still no match for the fierce fighting Cheti. Reinforcements were called in and led by the ruthless and skilled war veteran General Baktiar Pasha. Baktiar's solution to the problem was total annihilation, not only of the fighting Cheti but also of the villages that support them.
By the time he was done there were 4,694 civilians murdered, 3,122 women raped, 12,440 houses burned, 201 villages razed, 75,835 people left homeless and 30,000 people exiled. IMRO was reduced to shambles with most of its leaders dead and almost all of the Cheti demolished. To again paraphrase Giorgio Nurigiani, "The tortured slaves, fighting on mass, often without weapons, but on spirit alone, for life and liberty; and the sadistic Pasha and his cohorts, murdering and plundering with rabidity." (p. 47)
Having failed its ambitious rebellion, IMRO was determined to continue the fight for the cause at a diplomatic level.
In September 1903 Pere Toshev was sent to Tsari Grad (Istanbul) to extract certain guarantees from representatives of the Great Powers. Dissatisfied with present conditions, IMRO sought to gain some degree of self-government in Macedonia through the appointment of a Christian Governor. The Great Powers, however, were not interested and hoped to maintain the status quo. A month later they changed their minds and agreed to send a "peace keeping force" to keep the peace in Macedonia. Unfortunately the only thing the peacekeeping force did was put IMRO out of action. Instead of keeping the Ottomans at bay, the peacekeepers kept IMRO's from defending the Macedonian people from Turkish and foreign aggression.
By now the Ottomans were out of favour with the Great Powers and decided to minimize their own aggressive behaviour and invite others like Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia to do it for them, by declaring Macedonia a "multi-interest zone".
What this meant was that Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian terrorist bands, sponsored by their respective churches, were now encouraged to roam Macedonia to murder, rape, pillage and do whatever they felt like without fear of retribution from the Turkish authorities. Greeks and Turks stood side by side as allies while murdering the Macedonian population. The Christian holy man Patriarchate Bishop Karavangelis of Kostur blessed the Muslim owned cannons with Christian words as the Turkish army opened fire on the Christian civilian populated Macedonian villages, killing innocent women and children. The Great Powers, with their military ships docked in the harbours, stood and watched as the mountains were dotted with fires. They watched villages burn and heard cries of suffering and yet did nothing. Such was the fate of the Macedonian people in the aftermath of the Ilinden rebellion.
Expecting no assistance or aid from the Great Powers, remnants of IMRO established temporary centers and distributed urgently needed foodstuffs and medical supplies to the population. While this was taking place, a political struggle for control of IMRO was also beginning to take shape. Bulgaria's wish for a confrontation between IMRO and the Turkish army was granted. Bulgaria no longer needed IMRO and sought ways to liquidate the rest of its leadership. Bulgarian hopes of fully subordinating IMRO to Vrhovist directives were slim at best, so with that in mind Bulgaria sent a number of assassins to eliminate the rest of the IMRO leaders. For a while Sandanski's forces succeeded in repealing them, but their persistence unfortunately paid off as they, in time, succeeded in assassinating all of the important IMRO leaders.
After the rebellion was put down, IMRO still had hopes of better times and perhaps another uprising in the future.
In May 1904 IMRO held a Congress in Prilep and issued "Directives for Future Activity". Among other things, it was decided to decentralize the Central Committee and give more decision making power to the districts. No future uprising would be allowed without consent from the Revolutionary Districts and from the Cheta chiefs themselves.
Not everyone in the IMRO leadership agreed with this resolution which unfortunately caused the Organization to split into a left and right faction. The right faction insisted on pursuing a policy of renewed confrontation, one no doubt suited to the appetites of its Vrhovist patrons, while the left faction pursued the original policies as outlined by Gotse Delchev.
Ironically, both factions operated under the same banner and a showdown was imminent. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and a negotiated settlement was reached during the Rila Congress in November 1905. The Rila Congress, which took place at the Rila Monastery on the Macedonian-Bulgarian border, was attended by 22 elected delegates and had a single item on its agenda: "What was the appropriate direction for the Organization and how was it to perform its role?" After several recommendations were put to a vote, a resolution was reached and a rule book was issued. Some of the more important recommendations adopted included the following goals;
(a) to create an autonomous and independent Macedonia,
(b) to achieve this by a united national front, over a long period of revolutionary activity,
(c) to resist all foreign interference.
Items put forward during the Prilep Congress were reaffirmed and certain safeguards were enacted to prevent irresponsible repetition of the Ilinden episode.
While IMRO was sorting out its own problems, armed terrorist bands from Greece and Serbia were making their way into Macedonia. Wreaking their own special brand of terror, the story was the same everywhere; pillaging, murdering and razing entire villages.
The most violent campaign was undoubtedly waged by the Greek terrorists who, aided by the Patriarchate Church and agents provocateur within Macedonia, penetrated far into Macedonia's south-central regions.
In 1905, sanctioned by the Greek government, one-thousand bandits from the Greek Island of Crete, reinforced by Turkish army deserters, roamed unhindered in Macedonia, razing and slaughtering entire villages, wiping them out completely from the view of the unsuspecting world. The violence wreaked upon innocent Macedonians was staggering.
Relief for IMRO and the Macedonian people came in the form of the Young Turk Uprising, which saw IMRO as an ally in the fight against Ottoman injustices and corruption.
After wrestling power from the Sultan in mid-summer 1908 in Macedonia, the Young Turk regime outlawed armed propaganda and ordered the various terrorist bands to disband. In exchange for their help and for various other reasons, Sandanski and his Cheta helped the Young Turks take Tsari Grad, the Ottoman capital.
With the passing of Gruev and Karev, Sandanski was the natural successor to Delchev and a leading figure in the IMRO leadership. His cooperation with the Young Turk regime earned him the privilege of making recommendations and proposals for reforms.
In July 1908 he proposed the "Nevrokop Programme", a land re-distribution program in favour of the poor landless peasants. To manage the Programme, an offshoot of IMRO called the National (or Peoples') Federative Party (NFP) was formed. Unfortunately the Young Turk regime turned out to be another Great Power ploy in their manipulation of the Balkans and soon began its decline until its final collapse on July 13, 1912.
With the return of the Sultan, Macedonia witnessed the resurgence of the armed bands, this time with renewed vigour.
Frustrated by the repressive stand of the Young Turk regime, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia made a last ditch stand to impose their sovereignty over Macedonian territory and, in the guise of "liberation", occupied Macedonia.
The 1st Balkan war was precipitated by Montenegro's declaration of war against Turkey on October 18th, 1912. It was almost entirely fought on Macedonian soil, where again innocent Macedonians were forced to suffer in someone else's war.
The 2nd Balkan war, a vicious war between Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia over the spoils of Macedonia, was also fought on Macedonian soil, delivering even more pain, suffering and death to an even larger Macedonian population.
Worst of all was Macedonia's partition. August 10th, 1913, the day Macedonia's partition was signed in Bucharest, became the darkest day in history for the Macedonian people.
With the sanctioning of Macedonia's partition by the Great Powers in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, so died IMRO hopes of liberating Macedonia. IMRO, however, did not disappear and subsequently the Serres branch of the Organization, comprising a great number of late Sandanski followers, merged with remnants of the IMRO Provisional Mission of western Macedonia to constitute IMRO (United) under the leadership of Gjortse Petrov and Dimo Hadzi Dimov.
Since IMRO was declared illegal by the occupying states and it was no longer allowed to function on its native soil, from time to time it operated in various countries abroad.
In 1923, under the leadership of Dimitar Vlahov, IMRO (United) was centered in Vienna, Austria.
The legendary IMRO did not liberate Macedonia and the Macedonian people from the clutches of its enemies but it did teach Macedonians not to lose hope for there would be another, a better day.
Dakin,Douglas M.A., Ph.D. The Greek Struggle in Macedonia 1897 - 1913. Salonika: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1966.
Nuriani, Giorgio. Macedonia: Yesterday and Today, Rome: Teleuropa, 1967.
Radin, A. Michael. IMRO and the Macedonian Question. Skopje: Kultura, 1993.