After the Russian military victory over the Ottoman Empire in the 1877−1878 Russo-Ottoman War it was signed the San Stefano Treaty between these two states on March 3rd, 1878. According to the treaty, a Greater “San Stefano” Bulgaria, under the direct protection by Russia, had to be established within the borders of the Ottoman Empire.
However, an idea of “San Stefano Bulgaria” directly affected three Balkan nations: the Serbs, Greeks and Albanians as some of their ethnic and historical territories had to become part of a Greater Bulgaria. The “San Stefano Bulgaria” was projected by the Russian authorities to cover territory from the Danube River to the Aegean Sea and from the present-day Albania to the Black Sea, including all of geographic-historical Macedonia, the present-day East Serbia and the present-day Southeast Albania. As a result, the Albanian nation living in the present-day Southeast Albania and the West Macedonia would become part of a Greater Bulgaria that would be governed by the Russian authorities.
It is characteristic of both the San Stefano Treaty and the Berlin Congress that they conceived parts of the Albanian-populated Balkan territories to be given to the other Balkan states according to the principle of ethnic and historical rights. The remained Albanian ethnic space would be within the borders of the Ottoman Empire but without any “special status”, i.e., autonomous rights and ethno-political privileges.
The Ottoman government itself was feeble to protect the Albanian populated territories consisted of more than 80% of the Muslim population, which showed high degree of political and ideological loyalty towards the Sultan and the Sublime Porte in Istanbul. Nevertheless, the decisions of the 1878 San Stefano Treaty resulted in the organization of the Albanian self-defence system by their (Muslim) political leadership, which considered an autonomous status of Albania, similarly to the status of Serbia, Moldavia and Wallachia, as only guarantee for a justifiable administration over the Albanians in the future.
The San Stefano Treaty accorded to the Slavic Bulgaria a portion of the following Albanian-settled lands: the district of Korçë and the Debar area. According to the same treaty, Montenegro was granted with several municipalities at the present-day North Albania and the areas of Bar and Ulcinj. The border between Ottoman Albania and Montenegro was fixed on the Bojana River and the Scodra Lake. Nevertheless, an official representative of the Principality of Montenegro, Radonjić, required in Adrianople (Edirne) the city of Scodra to be included into enlarged Montenegro.
However, what was exactly regarded at that time as Albania, and the Albanians as an ethnic identity, it was not clear to anybody in Europe. The main reason was the fact that the official Ottoman censuses became quite unreliable source to fix such problems because they were based rather on the religious identity than on strict ethno-national (i.e., ethno-linguistic) belonging. Practically, all Ottoman Islamic population, either they were the Albanians, Bosnians or Turks, were selected to one category – the Muslims. A national/ethnic differences were not marked in the Ottoman censuses at all. Nevertheless, regardless on the lack of the official statistics, it is possible to reconstruct the dispersion of the Albanian ethnicity at that time by using other historical sources. One of such sources is a report to the Austro-Hungarian authorities about the northern boundaries of the Albanian language written by the Austro-Hungarian Consul F. Lippich in the mid-1877 during the Great Eastern Crisis and the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877−1878. According to this report, a northern linguistic border of the Albanians run from the city of Bar on the Montenegrin Adriatic littoral towards the Scodra Lake, then through two Montenegrin regions of Kolašin and Vasojevićs, after that towards the Ibar River and the city of Novi Pazar in Sanjak (Raška) up to the area of the South Morava River at the present-day Serbia. The Albanian linguistic borderland was fixed on the East and South-East to be around the Ochrid Lake, the cities of Bitola (Monastir) and Debar, and the upper Vardar River. However, in many of these areas the Albanian language was spoken together with the Slavonic languages as they are today the Serbian, Montenegrin and Macedonian.
Territory of the “San Stefano Bulgaria” as the Russian vassal state
Surely, the San Stefano Treaty provoked the Albanian nationalism and forged the Albanian national renaissance movement. A germ of the Albanian national movement was growing from the 1840’s to the time of the Great Eastern Crisis of 1875−1878 when the first requirements for the establishment of the Albanian-language schools and the preservation of national language were requested by the Albanian public workers in the Ottoman Empire (Naum Panajot Bredi, Engel Mashi, Josiph Kripsi, John Skiroj, Hieronim de Rada, Vincenzo Dorsa, etc). However, the Albanian national renaissance received a new impetus during the Balkan crisis of 1862 at the time of a new Montenegrin-Ottoman war when several members of the so-called “Scodra group” (Zef Ljubani, Pashko Vasa and others) propagated the uprising of the North Albanian tribes in the Mirditë region against the Montenegrin territorial pretensions on the Albanian-populated areas. They also opposed the Ottoman authorities as they relied on the support by the French Emperor Napoleon III (1852−1870). In the case of successful result of the rebellion the independent and united principality of Albania would be created at the Balkans. It would include all Albanian-populated territories in the Balkans. The main Albanian ideologist from that time was Zef Jubani, born in Scutari in 1818, who claimed that the Albanian population already became a nation at that time. However, the Albanians have not been formed as a nation in a modern European sense of the meaning of the term at that time or they are not a nation even today as the main framework of the Albanian national identity was and is primarily Islam – a religion which does not recognize existence of any ethno-linguistic identity among the Muslims who are considered to be one (confessional) “nation”. Nevertheless, his primary political goal was a creation of an autonomous united Albania within the Ottoman Empire. Others, like Thimi Mitko and Spiro Dineja, favoured Albania’s separation from the Ottoman Empire and creation of a dual Albanian-Greek confederation state similar to Austria-Hungary. During the Great Eastern Crisis of 1875−1878, the Albanian uprising in Mirditë in 1876−1877, led by the Albanian patriots from Scodra, had as its ultimate political goal a creation of an autonomous Albania in the Ottoman Empire. The leaders of the uprising visited Montenegrin court in order to obtain a financial support from the Montenegrin Prince Nikola I (1860−1910; King 1910−1918). Such support was promised to the leader of the Albanian delegation, Preng Dochi. What is important to stress is that the Montenegrin Prince stated on this occasion that Montenegro does not have any territorial aspirations towards the “Albanian” territories. At the same time, the Russian diplomat in Scodra, Ivan Jastrebov, pointed out that Europe faced the “Albanian Question”.
At the same time, the Albanian tribal chieftains from the South Albania and the North Epirus under the presidency of a prominent Muslim Albanian feudal lord Abdul-beg Frashëri convoked in 1877 a national meeting in the city of Jannina when they required from the Sublime Porte in Istanbul to recognize a separate Albanian nationality, and therefore to give them a right to form an autonomous Albanian province (vilayet) within the Ottoman Empire. They required, in addition, that all officials in such Albanian vilayet should be of the Albanian ethnic origin (but only the Muslims), the Albanian-language schools to be open and finally the Albanian-language courts to be created. The memorandum with such demands was sent to the Sublime Porte, but this supreme Ottoman governmental institution rejected to meet any of these Albanian national requirements.
A publishing of the San Stefano Treaty’s articles caused a great unrest and dissatisfaction among the Albanian people. From that time onward, a previous Albanian movement just for improvement of the social conditions of the Albanians living in the Ottoman Empire became, however, now transfigured into the Albanian national movement (but in essence it was rooted into the Islamic tradition and political dogmatism) requiring either the creation of politically autonomous province of Albania within the Ottoman Empire or a making of an independent Albanian national state (based on the Islamic tradition).
Especially the Northeast and East Albania experienced massive unrest and protests against the San Stefano Treaty that were addressed to the Great European Powers. Thus, in April 1878 the Albanians from the city of Debar sent a telegram to the British and Austro-Hungarian ambassadors to the Ottoman Empire, Layard, Zichy respectively, protesting against the annexation of the region of Debar by a newly projected San Stefano Bulgarian principality. It was emphasized in the telegram that the people from Debar are the Albanians but not Bulgarians. Furthermore, according to the protest memo, the district of Debar encompassed 220,000 Muslims and 10,000 Christians; all of them were the ethnic Albanians. Finally, it was required that the Great European Powers would not allow Bulgaria to annex the Debar region; instead, it should be left in the Ottoman Empire (as a “national” state of all Muslim Albanians).
Similarly to the Albanians from Debar, their compatriots from the city of Scodra and the Northwest Albania asked the Austro-Hungarian authority to foil inclusion of the Albanian territories into Montenegro (whose independence was recognized by the Berlin Congress in 1878). The Albanians from several districts in Kosovo-Metochia (Prizren, Đakovica, Peć) protested in a memorandum to Vienna against partition of their lands between Serbia and Montenegro. On May 8th, 1878 when “…today, we learned from the newspapers that the Ottoman government, unable to resist the pressure of Russia, has been obliged to accept our annexation by the Montenegrins…” a protest of Albanian population of Scodra, Podgorica, Spuž, Žabljak, Tivat, Ulcinj, Gruda, Kelmend, Hot and Kastrat was addressed to the ambassador of France in Istanbul against the annexation of the Albanian lands by the Principality of Montenegro. The Albanian people from the North Albania and Kosovo-Metochia, either the Muslims or the Roman Catholics, started to organize their own self-defence detachments (a territorial militia) and the local committees against incorporation of these territories into either Serbia or Montenegro. Another task of those numerous committees was to help to the Albanian refugees from the areas already taken by the Serbs and Montenegrins according to the San Stefano Treaty. Thus, for example, on June 26th, 1878 from Priština was issued a protest of 6,200 Albanian emigrants allegedly „expelled“ from the districts of Niš, Leskovac, Prokuplje and Kuršumlija, addressed to the Berlin Congress against the „mass murders“ and „rapes“ committed by Serbia’s army and the Bulgarian military units.
However, such official protests by the Albanians were much more a way of a propaganda work but not the reality on the ground at least not to such extend as preseted. The fact was that majority of the (Muslim) Albanian „refugees“ in fact voluntary left those lands ascribed by the Russian-Ottoman Treaty of San Stefano to a Greter Bulgaria for the reason that the Muslims can not, in principle, to leave under non-Muslim government – i.e., the government of the „infidels“.