After the unsuccessful war with the Ottoman Empire, the Principality of Serbia needed recovery and respite. On the political level, the question was who would bear the responsibility for the military defeat, which, along with the well-known dissatisfaction of the Serbian ruler with the liberals, caused a conflict between Prince Milan and the government of Stevča Mihailović. The young sovereign tried to use diplomatic complications with Austro-Hungary to change the cabinet in power. After the failure of that plan, the prince, in agreement with the Russian ambassador Karcov and Jovan Marinović, the leader of the Serbian conservatives, convened elections for the Grand National Assembly, to overthrow the government. However, the elections held in mid-February 1877 showed that the parliamentary majority was composed of conservatives, supporters of the Karađorđević dynasty and the Radicals. Prince Milan, now in his twenty-third year, perceptive and well-informed, always interested in party ties and relations, knew political actors and the situation in Serbia extremely well, and such a majority seemed unreliable and dangerous to his government. In a great upheaval, characteristic of his exuberant character, the treacherous Serbian ruler not only decided to reconcile with the liberals and play his former conservative allies, but also to dissolve the assembly whose convocation frightened him. The plan he forged with the government was implemented on February 26th, 1877, at a secret session of the Grand National Assembly, in Belgrade, in the building of the National Theater. After the prince’s greeting and the sermon of Jovan Ristić, the envoys decided to sign peace with the Ottoman Empire. Immediately afterwards, the assembly was dissolved, and the parliament members could not give vent to their complaints against the liberal government. Prince Milan was satisfied with this double intrigue, and he was especially pleased with the hanging way in which he reached out to the assembly and his allies until yesterday. According to Slobodan Jovanović, his mischievous nature, with a developed taste for outwitting and cheating and an acting character trait, loved political feats that resembled theatrical surprises. The relationship between the young Serbian ruler and the liberal government was extremely harmonious from then until the end of its existence. The position of Stevča Mihailović’s cabinet was strengthened in the early summer of 1877, when the regular assembly held in Kragujevac not only gave its consent to the government’s war measures, but also to military procurement, not to mentioning the abuses.
The signing of the peace between the Ottoman Empire and Serbia in February 1877 did not mean that the Eastern crisis was over. The Conference of the Great Powers, which met at the end of December 1876 in Constantinople, a kind of last attempt to quell the uprisings in Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Bulgaria by forcing Porta to reform, ended in mid-January 1877 unsuccessfully. Russia’s belligerent attitude meant that the war of that power with the Ottoman Empire was inevitable. For the purpose of diplomatic preparation for the conflict, official Moscow agreed in January 1877 with Austro-Hungary on the division of spheres of interest in the Balkans. According to the letter of the signed military convention, the neighboring monarchy gained the right to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina, while Russia would return Bessarabia to its possession. It was decided that a great Slavic state should not be created in the Balkans and that there should be no cooperation between the Russian and Serbian armies on the territory of the Principality. After diplomatic preparations and Porta’s refusal to sign the London Protocol, which would guarantee reforms for the rebel provinces, on April 24th, 1877, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Prince Milan immediately informed Tsar Alexander II that Serbia was willing to fight with Russia, but that it lacked time for preparations and money. The Tsar and official Russian diplomacy did not count, at least at first, on the participation of Serbian weapons in the conflict with Turkey. The reason for that was not only the need to avoid diplomatic complications with Austro-Hungary, but also the fact that Russian military experts believed that the army of the Principality only united with the imperial troops could do something, and such cooperation was prevented by the military convention with official Vienna. Finally, the requested financial support was missing.
The attitude of the Russian Empire changed at the end of July 1877, when, before crossing the Balkan Mountains, its army was stopped near Plevna. The Russian Tsar promises financial assistance to the Principality and demands that the Serbian army go to war against the Ottoman Empire within twelve days. The government of Stevča Mihailović accepts financial support and begins preparations for the war, though cautiously, since it is not willing to enter the conflict before the spring of next year. The mission of the Russian General Staff Colonel Bobrikov in September 1877 determined that the Serbian army could not be used immediately for war operations, but that it was better to send regular troops to the border with the Ottoman Empire, which would tie Turkish units to that area. The instructions of the Russian Supreme Command were literally carried out. However, with the improvement of the Serbian army and the need for it to break the link between Sofia and Plevna with its movement, Prince Milan received an invitation from the Russian Grand Duke to declare war on Turkey at the end of November 1877. Although there was no official political agreement between the two sides, nor a firm promise to send financial aid, Serbia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on December 13th, 1877, three days after the fall of Plevna, which had a bad moral impression.
The overture for the Principality’s entry into the war was a revolt in the army, which broke out on December 6th on Stanovljansko polje, when the second Lepenica battalion refused to take the oath. The insurgents took refuge in Topola, which is why the revolt was named Topola Rebellion. Four days later, the rebellion was quelled, and the organizers captured. The participants in the Topola Rebellion were tried by a military court, which sentenced most of them to death and some to detention. The convicts were shot in May 1878 in Aranđelovac, and among them was the convicted hero of the wars with the Ottoman Empire, Jevrem Marković. The inspirer of the showdown with Marković was Prince Milan, who for years had a hatred for that decorated officer. Debting the army to come to the throne, the young ruler wanted the officer corps to be the basis of his power, and Jevrem Marković, a convinced radical, republican, and yet close to Karađorđević, was a bad example to be reckoned with. According to Slobodan Jovanović, all that made Milan cruel, ready to work with insidious perseverance on settling accounts with Marković. The prince showed that he was ready to step into the blood.
The supreme commander of the Serbian army was Prince Milan, who, according to Slobodan Jovanović, showed great interest in military matters, true as a gifted civilian, and not so much as a true soldier. The Serbian army is divided into five corps: Šumadija with 16,000 fighters, Moravian with 18,000 fighters, Timok with 13,000 fighters, Drina with 19,000 fighters and Javor with 15,000 fighters. There was also the Timok-Zaječar army with 8,000 people. According to the war plan, the Drina and Javor corps had the task of guarding the border with Bosnia and Novi Pazar, because the attack in that direction was prevented by Austria-Hungary. The Timok-Zaječar army had the task of attacking Kula and Vidin, and the other three corps marched southeast with the task of cutting the connection between Niš and Sofia and capturing the fortified Niš. By conquering Bela Palanka and Pirot on December 24th and 28th, the Serbian army completed the set task and continued its advance towards Sofia. In the first days of January 1878, the Russian army occupied Sofia, after which the participation of the Serbian army in their war operations ceased.
The basic political goal of the Principality was fulfilled by capturing Niš on the night between January 9th and 10th, 1878. The Serbian army is moving towards Kosovo, with the Moravian and Timok corps being sent in the direction of Kuršumlija, and the Šumadija corps in the direction of Vranje. After the capture of Kuršumlija, Serbian troops were stopped at the fortified position of Samokovo. The Šumadija Corps had more success, broke through the Grdelica gorge, conquered Vranje and Gnjilan and headed for Priština. On the last day of January 1878, Russia and the Ottoman Empire signed an armistice, which meant the cessation of war operations of the Serbian army. The plan of the Serbian liberal government to expand the state by gaining the Novi Pazar Sandžak, Old Serbia, parts of Macedonia and Vidin, failed by concluding the San Stefano Peace Treaty between Russia and the Ottoman Empire on March 3rd, 1878. With this document, Serbia gained the recognition of independence and Niš, while Vranje and Pirot, Serbian war achievements, became part of Greater Bulgaria. For more than seven decades, Russian state policy has seen Constantinople as its greatest goal, and Greater Bulgaria is conceived as the basis of its future operations in the Balkans, while Serbia has become much less important for Russia’s plans.
The San Stefano peace treaty provoked sharp protests from Austria-Hungary and Great Britain. Frequent negotiations of the Great Powers, during the following months, did not lead to the harmonization of their interests, so once the Eastern question was raised, it had to be discussed at the congress in Berlin, starting in mid-June 1878. The basic directions of the policy of the Great Powers were obvious: Russia was committed to saving as much as possible from the Treaty of San Stefano, and Austria-Hungary and Great Britain to change it. Serbia was not officially a participant in the congress, but its interests were defended by Jovan Ristić, who, like Prince Milan, was in favor of approaching the neighboring monarchy. But no matter how much Ristić considered that direction a temporary, forced current situation, the young Serbian ruler was determined to be permanently attached to it. Milan’s russophilia, present at the beginning of his government, turned after the San Stefano Treaty and the discovery of the conflicting interests of Russia and Serbia, into a consistently austrophilic policy that he followed until his death. The direction of that change was unequivocally shown by the prince’s letter, which Ristić handed over to Gyula Andrássy, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria-Hungary, in Vienna. Negotiations between Ristić and Andrássy, which began in Vienna, led to the signing of an economic agreement on July 8th, 1878 in Berlin. According to the letter of the agreement, Serbia has committed to build the Belgrade-Niš railway within three years, which would be extended to Pirot for the connection with the Constantinople railway and to Vranje for the connection with the Thessaloniki railway. Serbia would get a railway connection with Austro-Hungary near Belgrade. Furthermore, Ristić committed Serbia to conclude a trade agreement with a powerful neighbor, and, in the end, Austro-Hungary was given the right to regulate the Đerdap issue. In return, Serbia received the support of Austria-Hungary at the Berlin Congress. By the decisions of the mentioned congress, Serbia gained independence and territorial expansion in the form of four districts: Niš, Vranje, Pirot and Toplica. According to Slobodan Jovanović, the second war between the Ottoman Empire and Serbia, which killed 708 people, wounded 2,999, missing 159 and died in hospital 1534, showed great endurance of the Serbian army, improvement of its readiness, and a shift in the ability of command staff. Great military successes were followed only by partial diplomatic successes. But the Berlin Congress changed the situation in the Balkans. Instead of the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan states, the two Great Powers, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, began to have the main say with their occupations, protectorates and spheres of interest. Gaining independence and territorial expansion meant a lot to Serbia, but the loss of Bosnia and the beginnings of a later rivalry with Bulgaria, and the pressure of the Great Powers complicated the position of the Principality. Serbia and Prince Milan faced years of significant temptations.
Director of the National Museum Kraljevo