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The Treaties of San Stefano and Berlin, 1878

The Venetians, the Ottoman Empire including modern Turkey, and Britain occupied Cyprus from the 15th-21st centuries. All occupying powers imposed their own socio-economic, political, and administrative forms of government on the indigenous population.

On January 27, 1878, the Russians and Turks signed an armistice at Adrianople (Edirne) to halt their conflict. The Treaty of San Stefano of March 3, 1878, established peace between Russia and the Ottoman Empire.  When Britain received a copy of this treaty, she was horrified and raised objections to it. Lord Salisbury, the Foreign Secretary, issued a circular on April 1, 1878, opposing Russian gains in Batum, Armenia, and the Trebizond route and the creation of a new Bulgarian state.

Britain was concerned that Bulgaria would greatly impact  Southeast Europe giving Russia a preponderant influence in the Balkans. Salisbury noted that “it will be so constituted as to merge in the dominant Slav majority a considerable mass of population which is Greek in race and sympathy, and which views with alarm the prospect of absorption into a community alien to it not only in nationality but in political tendency and religious allegiance.”

To solve these differences a conference was convoked in Berlin under the chairmanship of German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck playing the role of the ‘honest broker’.

In mid-April, the British Government desired to enter into separate negotiations with the Russians ahead of the Berlin Congress. The British Government offered that “(1) the territory of an independent Bulgaria should not extend south of the Balkan mountain chain, (2) If Russia were to keep its Asiatic conquest, Britain must receive equivalent compensation to safeguard its interests in Asia.”

The Russian Ambassador approached his government regarding the British proposals. In the meantime, the international climate was unfavorable to Russia, as Austria-Hungary and Britain kept up the pressure on Russia to make concessions. It should be noted that Austria and Russia fiercely competed for influence in the Balkans. On May 24 Russian Ambassador Shuvalov returned to London to discuss the British proposal with Salisbury signing a secret Russo-British protocol which amended the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano. What did this mean?

Russia promised not to create a large Bulgaria and to withdraw some of its troops from Western Armenia. Article 7 of the protocol altered the requirements of San Stefano whereby Russia and Britain would be jointly responsible in Western Armenia. Article 10 mentioned that the Alashkert Valley and Bayazid would be returned to Turkey as this was an important transit point for commerce with Persia and “because of their significance to Turkey.”

After the signing of the protocol, Britain was still concerned with the political situation in Asiatic Turkey. Britain was not prepared to go to war with Russia but Salisbury instructed Ambassador Layard in Constantinople to impress on the Sultan that Britain could not guarantee the security of the Ottoman Empire if she did not receive solid guarantees of reforms for Christians and other subjects of the Empire. Britain was attempting to control the Ottoman government by placing some of its troops near Asia Minor and Syria with Cyprus being an indispensable part of its strategy. The British Ambassador was instructed to tell the Sultan that British control of Cyprus would ensure the territorial sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. Layard sent a draft of an Anglo-Turkish agreement on Cyprus for discussion to the Turkish Government. After discussion between Layard and Sultan Abdul Hamid, the agreement was signed on June 4, 1878. It is worth noting that the Grand Vizier opposed this agreement.

This became known as the Cyprus convention which stated:

If Batum, Ardahan, Kars or any of them shall be retained by Russia, and if any attempt shall be made at any time by Russia to take possession of any further territories of his Imperial Majesty the Sultan in Asia, as fixed by the definitive treaty of peace, England engages to join his Imperial Majesty the Sultan in defending them by the force of arms. In return, his Imperial Majesty the Sultan promises to England to introduce necessary reforms, to be agreed upon the later between the two powers, into the government, and for the protection of the Christian and other subjects of the Porte in these territories.

Article 1 of the Cyprus convention stated Britain would come to the assistance of the Sultan “if Russia were to occupy Batum, Ardahan, Kars or any of the Sultans possessions in Asiatic Turkey that were kept under the Sultan’s domination according to the final peace treaty.”

In return Turkey would carry out administrative reforms as agreed between the two governments to protect and guarantee the lives of the Christian population; it also assumed that the Sultan would offer better government. The Sultan agreed to lease Cyprus to the British. Furthermore, Britain paid an annual tribute to the Sultan’s government.

General Simmons prepared a memorandum on July 26, 1878, outlining the British War Office views on the object of the Cyprus Convention. In his communication, he raised some serious concerns about the projection of Russian power and influence in Asia Minor and neighboring regions. If Russia got a foothold in Asia Minor, Syria, and Persia by direct or indirect means, she would be in a strong military position to project her power down to the Gulf of Alexandretta and Eastern Mediterranean, thus threatening British interests in Egypt, Suez Canal, and India.

Once consolidating her power, Russia would then become the mistress of the Straits and Bosphorus by closing “the Black Sea … to … ships of other powers” and thus threatening British commercial interests in the regions “lying between the Black and Mediterranean Seas.”

If a Russo-Turkish conflict occurred in Asia Minor, Britain would likely be drawn into the fray. Control of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus would be crucial for the operation of the British Royal Navy in the Black Sea, thus giving it the ability to interdict and destroy vital Russian military communications in Asia Minor.

Other measures considered were the construction of roads and railways in Asia Minor that would greatly facilitate speedy troop movements and military supplies close to the theatre of war. It was also proposed to train “the native population organized in sufficient strength to oppose the progress of Russian arms in the elevated region of Armenia.” The tone of Simmon’s memorandum shows that Britain was prepared to uphold the integrity of the Ottoman Empire against a Russian attack. No mention is made requiring Abdul Hamid to introduce administrative reforms in the Armenian provinces, however.

When the Ottoman Empire entered World War I, Britain canceled the convention by annexing Cyprus into a Crown Colony.



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