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Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji

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The beginning of the end for the Ottoman Empire—but it was only the beginning—was the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji of 1774. This treaty between the Ottomans and Catherine the Great was a humiliating portent of things to come.  An indemnity was to be paid to Russia, and Russia was given navigation rights in Turkish waters; this gave the Russians access to the Mediterranean. Here was the basis, in the words of Hitti, “for the right of interference in the protection of the Greek Orthodox Christians of the Empire,” and it provided “opportunity for Russia to meddle in the affairs of her neighbor.”

Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji

But Kuchuk Kainarji had a positive side for the Ottomans. It was something of a wake-up call for both the Turks and the Europeans.  For the Ottomans, their defeat at the hands of Russia made them aware that they needed to reform their own military.  Hitti states that “They [the sultans] awoke after the treaty…to the realization of the fact that they had been far outstripped in military science and art by Europeans.”  Two things needed to be done with respect to the army. First, the power of the Janissaries, once a military elite, but now more of a problem than an asset, had to be dealt with. Second, a new force, modeled along European lines, had to be created.  Sultan Selim III made a beginning at both.  Wheatcroft notes that he attempted to create a new and effective army with the help of European advisors and that he also attempted to gain at least a nominal degree of control over the Janissaries.  The latter, however, remained a problem until Mahmud II had the new army turn their guns upon them in 1826.

Civil top-down reforms were also put in place after Kuchuk Kainarji.  These reforms were in a secularist direction with respect to constraining the Muslim clergy’s hold on the classroom and also with respect to curbing their economic power and political influence.  The wave of modernization, military and otherwise, worked to prolong the life of the empire.

The western powers, after Kuchuk Kainarji, also became more involved with the “eastern question” and thereafter balance of power questions worked to ensure Turkish survival. Britain and France discovered that they had “interests” in the Middle East.  In 1791, for example, England’s Prime Minister Pitt (the younger) established a British policy that had as its aim the prevention of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.  This policy was motivated by the fear that the Russians would seize Ottoman ports, gain control over the Eastern Mediterranean, and thus lie athwart Britain’s communications with India.

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