The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
EVERYWHERE in the Balkans today is felt the hand, halt hidden, half disclosed, of Rome. Every international event is traced, rightly or wrongly, to the supposed will of Premier Mussolini or his servants. If Rome has been seeking prestige she has won it -- the prestige of fear. A Serbian general is assassinated by Bulgarian comitadjis outside his headquarters in Macedonia; at once people whisper, do not the Bulgarian revolutionaries visit Rome regularly to receive their orders and the funds to execute them?[i] The Albanian Minister to Belgrade and Prague, the too powerful and popular &Cbreve;erna Bey, who though the brother-in-law of Italy's manikin, President Ahmed Zogu, is known to rate the friendship of Jugoslavia above that of Italy, is shot down as he leaves his hotel; had not the assassin been educated in Italy and had he not come to Prague from Rome only four days before he committed the crime? Gen. Averescu attempts to break up the Little Entente and prepares a military coup in Rumania; was it not Italy that by suddenly recognizing Rumania's annexation of Bessarabia furnished him with the prestige that he thought would enable him to seize absolute power and add one more dictatorship to the European list? Wherever Balkan politics are jumpy and worried -- in Albania, in Saloniki, in Macedonia, in Bessarabia, on the borders of Hungary -- there is Italy, in reality or in shadow, to aggravate the worries and augment the fears. Today all Balkan roads lead from Rome.
The main rope in the Balkan tug-of-war stretches across the Adriatic from Rome to Tirana, and thence to Belgrade. Albania is the unfortunate middle marker, first hauled in this direction and then that, and always feeling herself threatened with extinction. For the moment Italy is having her way. Her plans, matured through three stages, move forward with precision.
The first stage, which might be called the stage of legal preparation, dates from the declaration of the Conference of Ambassadors on November 9, 1921. On that occasion the Ambassadors of Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan took the strange course of declaring in advance what the representatives of their governments on the Council of the League of Nations would do in case trouble arose in Albania -- namely, they agreed that their delegates at Geneva should receive "instructions" to entrust the maintenance of Albania's territorial integrity to Italy. Incidentally this agreement was a blow to the League, as it abolished in this particular instance the freedom of the members of the Council to decide what course to pursue in a given situation -- a fundamental part of their right and duty -- and gave one member state a privileged position in the affairs of another.
The stage of direct negotiation first produced the Treaty of Tirana, signed by the governments of Premier Mussolini and President Ahmed Zogu on November 27, 1926. This treaty stated that the maintenence of the status quo in Albania -- "political, juridical and territorial" -- was to be the especial charge of the Italian Government. The Powers in 1921 had assigned to Italy the right of acting on their behalf to maintain the territorial integrity of Albania. Ahmed Zogu now extended Italy's right to include the maintenence of his own personal régime. Belgrade was furious, as Foreign Minister Nintchitch had made friendship with Italy the corner-stone of his policy and had entered into a gentleman's agreement with Sig. Mussolini that neither should act in questions of mutual interest without giving advance warning to the other. London and Paris were also disturbed, but restricted their activity to counselling patience at Belgrade and to securing Sig. Mussolini's promise that he would at once enter into direct conversations with Jugoslavia in order to remove her suspicions that the treaty was primarily directed against her.[ii]
If a further seal on Italian control over Ahmed Zogu's fortunes were needed, it was set by the second Treaty of Tirana, news of which reached the world on November 25, 1927. Actually, it introduced no important new element into the relationship agreed upon by the two governments a year earlier, but it committed Sig. Mussolini more defiantly than ever to his policy of tutelage and made it more difficult for him to back down in case of dispute.
The stage of active exploitation is meanwhile in full swing. Italy's chief instruments are the Albanian National Bank, established as a succursale of a group of Italian banks, with headquarters in Rome, and the Society for the Economic Development of Albania, headed by Sig. Mario Alberti of the Credito Italiano. Forty-nine percent of the stock of this bank -- which acts as treasurer for the Albanian State, has the power to issue money, asks for all bids for public works, and makes all contracts -- was supposed to go to Albania; but none has reached there yet. The euphoniously named Society has given the Albanian Government a loan to finance public works. In return, all revenues from monopolies and customs are pledged as security. The loan was nominally for 50,000,000 gold francs, and to this day it is doubtful whether there are two dozen people in Albania, outside the foreign colony, who understand that the terms were so arranged that the indebtedness of Albania (including bankers' fees, advertising, Italian taxes, etc.) really amounts to 70,500,000 gold francs. The Albanian Minister of Finance last March budgeted 5,636,850 gold francs as interest due on this loan, and President Ahmed Zogu informed the writer on October 1, 1927, that to date Albania had received "about 6,000,000 gold francs" -- not a very advantageous transaction on its face, the more so as no gold has ever actually come into the country, all advances from the loan being in the form of paper bank-notes issued by the aforementioned National Bank.
But of course none of the 5,636,850 francs thus budgeted were ever actually paid over to Italy, nor was there ever the remotest possibility that they could be. The most successful collector of taxes in Albanian history, Fan Noli, managed to obtain about 17,000,000 francs in his best year. Last year's budget allowed for expenditures of 23,500,000 francs; there was a serious deficit, though just how great is not known as the pay of officials and officers is far in arrears. At any rate it is safe to assume that Ahmed Zogu today does not dispose of revenues in excess of 20,000,000 francs, and the sum is probably much less, particularly as exports have fallen off heavily.[iii] Nevertheless the present budget envisages expenditures of 29,000,000 francs, of which some 12,000,000 are for army and gendarmerie expenses.
Faced with bankruptcy, the only possible course was for Ahmed Zogu to beg off the interest payments due to the Society for the Economic Development of Albania. Happily he found the Italian Government ready to help. By "Decree-Law" No. 521, signed March 3, 1927, the Italian Government authorized the Italian Minister of Finance to advance to the Society for the Economic Development of Albania the sum due from Ahmed Zogu's government to meet the service on the loan (which in this instance is spoken of by its real total, namely 70,500,000 francs, instead of the 50,000,000 francs always referred to in Tirana).[iv] The burden for the first expenditures in Albania was thus shifted to the shoulders of the Italian tax-payer.
According to President Ahmed Zogu, the same course will be followed next spring, but he is confident that by the following year returns on the investment will begin to materialize in the form of larger state revenues and that thenceforward everything will be plain sailing. However, as most of the expenditures are not of a sort to become directly productive, and some, as for instance the small railway being constructed from Durazzo to Tirana, will always remain a heavy liability, it is easy to draw a different picture. In this picture Italy (the Italian Government itself, not merely the Society for the Economic Development of Albania) holds a mortgage on Albania which Albania can never hope to pay off and on which she can never pay a cent of interest. Italy thus is in possession of a new right, beyond that acquired by virtue of the Declaration of the Ambassadors and the Treaty of Tirana, namely the right of foreclosing her mortgage and taking control of Albania in order to protect her financial interests there.
That Italy would not be able to do this without risking a war with the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which has repeatedly stated that it will never tolerate the establishment of an Italian "mandate" in the Balkan peninsula, may account for another phase of Italian activity in Albania, the military.
As soon as the loan had been arranged, Gen. Maglietta, Chief of the Engineering Section of the General Staff of the Italian Army, arrived in Albania and laid out a general scheme of roads, which he then entrusted for execution to Capt. Gorbino of the Italian Army. Subsequently Capt. Gorbino was named head of the Engineering Corps of the Albanian Army, and since July his road-making duties have devolved on another Italian officer. The roads already constructed or in course of construction are in the main directed toward the Jugoslav frontier. In many cases this is natural enough, but it is not natural that some of the most important of them lead from tiny harbors which do not exist in a commercial sense, but which might serve as convenient points for the debarkation of troops.[v] As one Italian officer remarked, "Our object is to connect Durazzo with Kossovo, and Valona with the heart of Macedonia" -- both regions within the Jugoslav frontiers. The undertaking is now being supplemented by the work of fifteen officers of the topographical section of the Italian Army, headed by Col. Feraro, under a contract to map the country during the next seven years at a cost of 200,000 francs per year.
At the beginning of Ahmed Zogu's régime an Albanian army commission inspected the military supplies on hand and found 37,000 rifles and 12 mountain guns in good condition. About half these rifles, all of which were of Austrian make, had never been used. Eight Italian mountain guns were added. All this equipment has now been discarded, even the eight new guns, presumably because they are not of the pattern now used in the Italian Army and so could not readily be coördinated with the artillery of an Italian expeditionary force. Forty new mountain guns (65 millimeters) have now arrived, also 20,000 rifles, also 120 Fiat machine guns. Every uniform that an Albanian soldier now wears is also of Italian origin.
The figures are less important in themselves than as evidence that the Albanian military machine is now armed as if it were a branch of the Italian Army. More important still is the question where the money is coming from to pay for all this new equipment, and for the hundreds of motor camions, the tents and the other supplies that clutter the harbor of Durazzo. We have seen that Albania is hardly in a position to undertake the wholesale reequipment of its army. The answer seems to be that these vast supplies are being charged to the account of the Italian Government with the Albanian National Bank, but no definite information on the matter can be obtained in Tirana and it is never mentioned in the dummy Albanian Parliament nor in any statement of the Minister of Finance or the Minister of War.
Meanwhile the Albanian Army has come largely under the direction of Italian officers, who wear the Albanian uniform but continue to receive their pay from Rome. The writer has a list of 56 such officers, as of October 1, 1927, but it was incomplete even then and is still more so today. The work that most of them are doing cannot by any stretch of the imagination be labeled "instruction," the term recently used by a Tirana correspondent of the London Times. Some of their posts, for example, are commanders of the general army dépôts at Durazzo and Tirana, commanders of the three army groups (Lieut. Cols. of the Italian General Staff Combara, Secui and Nebbia), the commanders of the service of supply, of the artillery, of the engineering corps, commanders of various infantry battalions and companies, even the commander of the President's personal guard!
Connect these military preparations with the privilege which Italy claims to have obtained to act as the guardian of the government of Ahmed Zogu against any threat, external or internal, and the excuse which the non-payment of interest gives her to intervene for the protection of her interests even should Ahmed Zogu or some successor not want it, and you have the answer to the question why Jugoslavia, believing that her safety and the future peace of the peninsula depend on preventing any outside Power from starting again the traditional chess game of Austria-Hungary and Russia, is crying out against the policy of Rome and against the British statesmen who condone and seem to encourage it. The retort that Jugoslavia really has an attack of "sour grapes" and is merely annoyed because she would like to be doing in Albania precisely what Italy is doing has some weight. The answer can only be that after all she is not doing it, that her whole interest is obviously to obtain a period of peace for internal consolidation,[vi] and that in any case she realizes what disadvantages attach to any project involving the termination of Albanian independence.[vii]
Belgrade cannot hide the fact that Italian preëminence in Albania is the more worrying because of the situation in Macedonia, where revolutionary outrages of Bulgarian origin occur every few days and keep the Jugoslav and Bulgarian Governments from arriving at any really cordial understanding. Were they on good terms, the Albanian question would lose much of its importance. Jugoslavia has no great opinion of Italian military prowess, fascist or otherwise, and feels that she could survive the ordeal of a war in which Italy was her sole opponent. She knows the superiority of Italian equipment, and admits that Italy could land in Albania, bombard or capture the Dalmatian coast towns, sink the little Jugoslav gunboats at Kotor, and even start an invasion of Slovenia by way of Longatico and Tarvis. But the Albanian people as distinct from the government do not love the Italians any better than they do the Jugoslavs, and are fond of recalling what they did to Italy's forces of occupation in 1920; indeed, it seems probable that in case of war the Italians would quickly find themselves fighting the Albanians as well as the Jugoslavs. As for Italian exploits on the coast, they would seriously harm but would not endanger the Jugoslav state. Moreover, the Jugoslavs know that their army is esteemed by neutral military experts and that it would have the advantage of fighting a defensive campaign on familiar terrain.
But what the Jugoslavs obviously fear is that Bulgaria might take occasion in such a conflict to square accounts for her last two disastrous wars. A war with Italy on one front and with Bulgaria on another would be very unpleasant. Bulgaria is conscious of this Jugoslav fear, and though the Bulgarian Foreign Minister, M. Bouroff, says plainly that he wants a rapprochement with Jugoslavia, he seems to be trying to prolong the present situation in order to get better terms. On the other hand, Belgrade is a bit doubtful about taking Bulgarian protestations of friendship at their face value, not only because of the heritage of the past and because of what it calls the Bulgarian Government's weakness in coping with the Macedonian organizations that operate openly in Sofia itself, but because at this particular moment M. Moloff, the Bulgarian Finance Minister, is trying to get the blessing of Geneva for an international loan and is therefore presumably anxious for his government to appear as pacific as possible. And so we have the old vicious circle of mutual distrust, which can merely suit third parties whose interest it is to keep the Balkan states divided and weak. The only counsel one might give the two governments concerned is to make up their minds firmly whether in principle they desire a rapprochement and whether they would look upon it as a corner-stone of their foreign policy over a period of years. If so, they must on the one hand ignore temptations to reap minor advantages and on the other feel strong enough to be generous. One cannot always sell at the top of the market.
Lacking this settlement with Bulgaria, which would constitute the surest possible guaranty of Balkan peace, Jugoslavia imagines herself faced with the sort of calculated maneuvers that Serbian statesmen remember from before the war, though then they originated north of the Danube instead of across the Adriatic. Her tendency naturally is to magnify the menace. To an outsider it seems hardly possible that Mussolini is deliberately planning a war with Jugoslavia, using Albania as the point de depart. Even supposing that he dared risk mobilizing the country, he cannot be absurd enough to count on English support in the event of an armed conflict where the blame was either mainly his or more or less divided. England may be glad to utilize him as a bogey-man against the Turks and the Bolsheviks, as a counter-weight to France on the Continent, and as a check on the growth of Slav supremacy in the Near East; but only so far, and no further. And without English support even Sig. Mussolini must feel the inadequacy of his position, the more so as France and Jugoslavia are now entering into a five-year treaty of mutual defense similar to the Little Entente treaties.
This treaty was prepared and initialed in March, 1926, after Italy had refused M. Nintchitch's suggestion to enter into a three-cornered agreement with France and Jugoslavia, giving as the reason that her freedom of action in the Adriatic could not be circumscribed. After due notice in Rome, the treaty has now been signed at Paris (Nov. 11, 1927) by M. Briand and M. Marinkovitch, and is to be registered promptly at Geneva. Sig. Mussolini will again be urged to join. But he is not likely to relinquish his point of view so easily, and we shall probably see the present community of interests between France and Jugoslavia intensified. Though the wording of the treaty is most pacific, it is less likely to result in M. Briand's becoming a mediator between Italy and Jugoslavia (a rôle which Sir Austen Chamberlain has not found grateful and which has not added to his prestige) than in a widening of the Franco-Italian rift. News of the forthcoming signature of the treaty with Jugoslavia was favorably received by the French public, which is heartily tired of what it considers a futile but nevertheless aggravating anti-French slant in Italian foreign policy. The Italian press cannot spout bombast about Tunis, Morocco and Corsica on the one hand and Albania and Dalmatia on the other without bringing home to the French and Jugoslav publics their community of interests in the face of a common danger.
The new "unalterable" pact between Italy and Albania, announced two weeks after the signature of the Franco-Jugoslav treaty, does not really change the situation existing between the two countries. Perhaps it was partly what the Journal des Débats termed it, "a gesture of bad humor." But it was much more a device to confuse foreign opinion about the sequence of events in Albania, in other words, to make it appear that the bonds uniting Rome and Tirana resulted from the announcement of a Franco-Jugoslav alliance rather than -- what is the fact -- that the Franco-Jugoslav alliance followed a year after the Italo-Albanian treaty of November, 1926, and that the present pact between Tirana and Rome merely underlines the previously existing situation in the sort of picturesque terms that appeal to fascist sentiment. It is also to be noted that whereas the Franco-Jugoslav treaty makes much of the League of Nations and elaborates the methods of arbitration to be resorted to in case of trouble, the Italo-Albanian pact does not make mention of the League (beyond providing for registration at Geneva) nor of arbitration. Furthermore, it was only when negotiations to bring Italy into a general three-cornered pact were seen definitely to have failed that the French Ambassador in Rome gave notice of his government's intention to sign a separate treaty with Jugoslavia; but the "bad humor" of Rome led it to conceal the imminence of the second Treaty of Tirana just as it had concealed the first, and Paris and Belgrade heard of the matter only when the press communiqué was handed out at the Palazzo Chigi.
Despite these events it still seems likely that Sig. Mussolini's view extends much less far than both those who most admire him and those who most fear him are prone to imagine, that he pursues little successes here and there rather than une politique de grande envergure, that he aims chiefly at maintaining a "nuisance value" so that sometime the people who want peace will beg that he be given something somewhere to keep him quiet. In fine, he probably is playing for prestige, keeping the Balkan pot and every other possible pot boiling in Mr. Micawber's hope that something will turn up. If this thesis is correct, then the chief danger is that, as in the case of the Kaiser, either men or events may be too strong for him. A chance attempt on his life by a Jugoslav "Miss Gibson" or the assassination of the Italian Military Attaché in Albania near the Jugoslav frontier might force the Fascist Government to execute some of the threats with which it has kept flaming what Sig. Nitti calls "the Mediterranean fever" of its disciples. Nor on the other hand is the recent quiet attitude of Belgrade proof that a popular furor would not force it to some desperate step in case, let us say, a bomb were put under the royal palace by an Albanian who, like the assailant of Cerna Bey, was popularly suspected of having traveled the road from Rome.
The problem, then, seems to be to devise a way of introducing some League of Nations cold water into the Albanian kettle before the lid suddenly blows off. Looking back, one wonders why what the League thought necessary for Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Greece was not thought necessary for the weakest, least experienced and most menaced of the Balkan states, and why instead of arranging for the international supervision of Albanian finances the League allowed the country's destiny to be placed in the hands of the Credito Italiano and the Banca Commerciale Italiana. True, the League could not have forced financial control on the country against its will, but there was more than one difficult period when London and Paris might easily have persuaded Tirana to ask Geneva's help, the more so as a League financial adviser had already been on the spot. The Jugoslav Government also made a mistake in not insisting on referring the whole Albanian matter to Geneva, under Article 11, at the time last spring when Italy made her famous complaint to London, Paris and Berlin about alleged Jugoslav encouragement of frontier incidents. Sir Austen Chamberlain and M. Briand urged them not to, for reasons still obscure, but they probably were wrong to acquiesce, especially as the evidence of British gendarmerie officers and other neutrals on the spot is that nothing out of the ordinary was on foot to justify the Italian complaint.
Today the best hope seems to be that Great Britain and France will be able to maintain such a situation in Europe generally that Sig. Mussolini will not be tempted and cannot be forced into adventures, and that meanwhile some way will be found of introducing the League of Nations into the bankruptcy proceedings toward which Albania is now headed.
[i] Nor does the jubilation of the Italian press give the lie to such a theory. A Bulgarian statesman said to the writer the other day in Sofia: "I am grateful to Italy for her support, but the enthusiasm of the Italian papers every time a Serbian is killed seems to me too obvious to be good taste."
[ii] The new Jugoslav Minister, M. Rakitch, sent to Rome eight months ago for the purpose of beginning these negotiations, has not been received by Sig. Mussolini, Minister for Foreign Affairs, since his formal call to present his letters of credence last April.
[iii] In 1925 Albanian exports were valued at $3,112,503 and imports at $4,208,380, an unfavorable balance of roughly a million dollars. In 1926 exports were $2,309,649 and imports $4,800,121, an unfavorable balance of nearly two and a half million dollars. The decrease in exports was due to the bad olive crop. The crop has again been a failure this year.
[iv] For text of "Decree-Law" 521 see Raccolta Ufficiale delle Leggi e dei Decreti del Regno d'Italia, Vol. I, 6-12 Marzo, 1927, pp. 930-931.
[v] For example, Patok, Pali, Divjak, Porto Semeni, Porto Palermo.
[vi] In this connection it is instructive to compare Jugoslav and Italian military expenditures. The Jugoslav budget for 1927-28 carries military items to the amount of 2,349,000,000 dinars, about 114,000,000 dinars less than last year. The Italian budget for military purposes is 4,625,000,000 lire, which when it was adopted was the equivalent of over 12,500,000,000 dinars -- i.e. more than five times the Jugoslav expenditure.
[vii] It will be recalled that M. Trumbitch refused Scutari as a sop for not getting Fiume at the Peace Conference, and that M. Nintchitch in 1924 refused an Italian offer of Northern Albania in compensation for a proposed Italian annexation of Valona.