Immediately after the end of the Berlin Congress, Prince Milan became very nervous and his interest in politics declined. According to Slobodan Jovanović, after great war efforts and earthquakes, the young ruler was exhausted and apathetic. In the fall of 1878, Prince Milan went to Niš for a session of the National Assembly and stayed there, with minor interruptions for more than a year. He lived in seclusion, modestly and, surprisingly, sparingly in an old Turkish residence. His only pleasure was hunting in the vicinity of Niš, which he regularly went to. The prince’s life did not differ much from the life of an officer in the garrison.

Milan’s lack of interest in state affairs ceased in the early 1880s. The direction taken by the young ruler, in the field of foreign policy, is a continuation of his direction just before the Berlin Congress. Always trying to rely on some Great Power in his rule, and disappointed with the attitude of Russia, the prince turned to the Habsburg monarchy for sincere support. Milan Obrenović followed a firm course in foreign policy once, until his death in 1901. As early as January 1880, Milan announced to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador that he would come to Vienna in the spring or summer to thank Emperor Francis Joseph for his benevolent support during the Berlin Congress. Before visiting Vienna, at the end of June 1880, the prince hurried to resolve the issue of the railway connection, which, along with the issue of the trade agreement, required an agreement between the Serbian and Austro-Hungarian sides.

Letter from Stevan Luković to MP Miloš Ristić, back page, December 31, 1879, paper in blue ink, 21 x 17 cm, Historical Collection of the National Museum Kraljevo (I-867).

The railway convention was signed on April 9th, 1880, and the Principality undertook to build the Belgrade-Niš railway and the Niš-Vranje railway within three years. During his visit to Vienna in July and August 1880, the Serbian ruler was enchanted by the welcome. Prince Milan spoke several times with the Austro-Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Baron Heimerle, and his chief, Benjamin Kalaj. The main topic, after resolving the railway issue, was the issue of the trade agreement. Official Vienna insisted on the clause of the greatest privilege without reciprocity and threatened to close the border for Serbian goods. The prince tried to persuade the Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs to reach an agreement with Baron Heimerle, but Ristić did not want to give in and believed that the principality could withstand the customs war with a powerful neighbour. As Milan did not accept the reasons of the liberal government why it could not give in to Austria-Hungary, Ristić’s cabinet resigned on October 26th, 1880.

The Progressive Government of Milan Piroćanac and Prince Milan

The fall of the liberal government did not only mean the coming to power of young conservatives gathered around the newspaper “Videlo”, but also represents the moment when Prince Milan got rid of the full tutelage of Jovan Ristić, and the moment when the young ruler will have a decisive role in foreign and domestic politics. True, it should be emphasized that free-minded laws on the press, words and associations, and judges are undoubtedly the work of progressive ministers, while the laws on primary schools, which introduce its compulsory attendance, on the National Bank are a joint work of the prince and government of Piroćanac. Laws on the army, which establish a general military obligation, carry Milan’s seal. The young prince intended to make the army a pillar of the dynasty, and the reforms and the purchase of more modern rifles represent the beginning of the construction of the Serbian army, which had the task of achieving great national goals in the future.

Primary School, 1910, Kraljevo, detail of a composite postcard, 8.8 x 13.8 cm, Avram Ćirić Erdoglija, Historical Collection of the National Museum Kraljevo (I-661).

In the domain of foreign policy, Milan Obrenović undoubtedly had the main say from the end of 1880 until his abdication in 1889. According to Slobodan Jovanović, the prince pretended to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs, he directly negotiated with foreign diplomats, without much regard for Piroćanac’s government. The direction of Milan’s policy was directed towards Vienna. The influence of the young Serbian ruler was obvious when the Progressive Cabinet, in the first days of November 1880, recognized the Austro-Hungarian clause of the greatest privilege without reciprocity, which was the introduction to the signing of the trade agreement on May 6th, 1881. This agreement, concluded for ten years, created exceptional customs ties between the two independent states, where the Austro-Hungarian side protected the interests of its own industry and made concessions to Serbian agricultural exports. No less did Milan Obrenović influence with his authority to accept the offer of the General Union in March 1881, led by Eugene Bontu, for the construction and exploitation of Serbian railways. The concluded loan was not favourable for the Principality, it significantly burdened its already fragile finances.

Secret Convention

The conclusion of the Secret Convention is the exclusive work of Prince Milan, who conducted the negotiations personally with Baron Heimerle in Vienna. By nature, impatient and reluctant to long and difficult agreements about details, and inclined to agree with a powerful neighbor, the Serbian ruler agreed with, almost, the first proposal of the opposite side. The political agreement between the Principality of Serbia and Austria-Hungary was signed in Belgrade on June 28th, 1881, by Čedomilj Mijatović, Minister of Foreign Affairs, confidant and friend of the prince, and Baron Herbert, Ambassador to Belgrade from Austria-Hungary.

Burgtheater, early 20th century, Vienna, postcard, 14 x 9 cm, Album of Stevan Milosavljević, Historical Collection of the National Museum Kraljevo (I-1757).

According to the Secret Convention, Serbia will not allow any disturbances directed against the neighboring monarchy from its territory and will not sign political agreements with other countries or negotiate about it without a prior agreement with Austria-Hungary. In return, the Viennese court pledged to support the security of the Obrenović dynasty, support the proclamation of Serbia as a kingdom, and diplomatically support the possible expansion of Serbian borders to the south. The gains for the neighboring monarchy were great and immediate. Austro-Hungary established its position in Bosnia and strengthened its hitherto predominant influence in the Principality. With the political agreement, the Serbian prince renounced his territorial claims to Bosnia and directed his aspirations towards a distant and foggy expansion towards Turkish Macedonia. Milan Obrenović received the support of Austro-Hungary to make Serbia a kingdom, and his self-confidence increased significantly after the signing of the Secret Convention, because he believed that the entire Habsburg monarchy stood behind him with all its political and military power. He needed the support of a powerful neighbor to resolve internal political issues.

The Emergence of Political Parties. The Clash of Progressives and Liberals

The elections for the National Assembly held at the end of 1880 brought the victory of the current gathered around the newspaper “Videlo” and the convincing defeat of the Liberals. But already in January 1881, with the formation of the Radical Party, and, somewhat later, the Progressive Party, it became clear that the unity of the victorious current was only temporary. The ability of the Radical leadership, Nikola Pašić and Pero Todorović in particular, the way the party was organized and how it expanded its influence among the people indicated that the party would have a significant, if not dominant, position on the Serbian political scene. Already during 1881, the existence of an organized opposition in the National Assembly can be noticed, which has not yet confronted directly with the government and the majority of members of parliament. The conflict began at the beginning of 1882 with the bankruptcy of the General Union, which brought significant financial losses to the Principality, but also to Prince Milan, who speculated on the stock exchange together with Bontu. The interpellation of the parliamentary minority related to the fall of Bontuov led to obstruction in the parliament, which could not be interrupted by the proclamation of Serbia as a kingdom in March 1882. The exit of the opposition from the Assembly led to the lack of a quorum necessary for normal work, and the solution was seen by the progressive government in the subsequent elections. Without well-developed party activities, the main support of Piroćanac’s government became King Milan. The young ruler intervened in the political fight against the Radicals as the main agitator of the Progressive Party. Even the support of Milan Obrenović did not bring success, so the opposition still had the majority and its members of parliament resigned again, thus leaving the assembly without a quorum. Progressive ministers have lost their spirit, but the king will provide them with resilient strength to fight. Although he was discouraged, Milan will show firmness and perseverance in the conflict with the Radicals. Encouraged by the king, the progressive club in the assembly will entrust the mandate, not to the opposition members of parliament who won the by-elections, but to those candidates who had the largest number of votes after the Radicals. The election of the so-called “two-voters” was illegal, and the progressives drew energy for opposing the regular practice and the radical party from Milan Obrenović, and the king from official Vienna. However, the support of the Habsburg monarchy was not limitless and without measure. Namely, Milan’s plans to use the alarm in the autumn of 1882 after the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Jelena Ilka Marković for a coup d’etat and overthrow the Constitution were thwarted by the restraint of the neighboring monarchy.

Poster of the People’s Radical Party to the National Assembly, March 4, 1882 (according to the old calendar), Belgrade, printed on paper, 65.5 x 48 cm, Historical Collection of the National Museum Kraljevo (I-2544).

New elections for the Assembly were scheduled for September 1883. In the election campaign, both the progressives and the radicals exerted their forces to the last extent, using both legal and illegal means. Despite numerous pressures, the Radicals won a convincing victory. King Milan was extremely angry because of the defeat of the Progressive Party in the elections. A visit to the Austro-Hungarian and German emperors in the summer of 1883, part of which was given to him, raised his self-confidence and improved his mood. He looked at the Radical Party with contempt and prepared for the fight, though not too decisively and without will, given the poor state of state finances and the lack of support in the army. However, the government of Milan Piroćanac was replaced in October 1883 by the cabinet of Nikola Hristić, an experienced police officer and bureaucrat outside the party, who was most called upon to bring order and law to the country. A conflict between the progressive party, supported by the king, and the radical party, backed by the people, was inevitable.

Darko Gučanin
historian, archivist
Director of the National Museum Kraljevo

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