The reign of Prince Mlan Obrenovic

Prince Milan was only fourteen years of age when Prince Mihailo Obrenovic was assassinated, so a Regency was established to rule in his name, consisting of Milivoje Petrovic Blaznavac, Jovan Ristic and Jovan Gavrilovic.

The young Prince was brought back to Serbia from Paris and enthroned in front of the Topcider Assembly. Prominent Serbian nobleman from Dubrovnik, Medo Pucic, was brought to Belgrade to serve as teacher and adviser to the new Prince.

Under Blaznavac’s tutelage, both personally and politically, the Prince deferred to the head of the Regency in all matters of state. On 2 January 1869, the third Serbian constitution, mostly Ristic’s creation, was promulgated.

On 22 August 1872, Prince Milan was declared of age, and he took government into his own hands. He soon demonstrated great intellectual capacity, coupled with a passionate headstrong character. The Principality of Serbia was still a de jure part of the Ottoman Empire though in reality it already had long functioned as a semi-independent state whose politics and economy was much more dependent on other Great Powers, particularly Austria-Hungary and Russian Empire, than on its formal ruler, the declining Ottomans. Prince Milan carefully manoeuvred between the Austrian and Russian geopolitical interests in Serbia, with a judicious leaning towards the former.

When Serbs from the neighbouring Bosnia Vilayet (also part of the Ottoman Empire though a lot more integrated and loyal one due to its large Muslim population) began an uprising in July 1875 on the outskirts of Nevesinje, protesting the tax system as well as harsh treatment under local beys and aghas, Prince Milan condemned the uprising and refused to take part in it. The rival House of Karadjordjevic, whose members lived in exile across Europe, had a different approach, taking part in organising and implementing the uprising. Their actions included the 31-year-old Petar Karadjordjevic going to the Herzegovina region in order to fight under the pseudonym Petar Mrkonjic. As the uprising grew, spreading to the rest of Herzegovina and soon engulfing the entire Bosnia Vilayet, domestic pressure in the Serbian principality increased on young Prince Milan to help his Serb brethren.

Serbian–Ottoman wars

In conjunction with the Principality of Montenegro, Serbia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 30 June 1876. By the intervention of major European powers, ceasefire was concluded in autumn, and the Constantinople Conference was organized. Peace was signed on 28 February 1877 on the bases of status quo ante bellum. After a brief period of formal peace, Serbia once again declared war on the Ottoman Empire on 11 December 1877. Renewed hostilities lasted until February 1878. Final outcome of wars was decided by the Congress of Berlin (1878).

At the beginning of the conflict, Serbian army was poorly trained and ill-equipped, unlike the troops of the Ottoman Empire. The offensive objectives the Serbian army sought to accomplish were overly ambitious for such a force, and they suffered a number of defeats that resulted from poor planning and chronically being spread too thin. This allowed Ottoman forces to repel the initial attacks of the Serbian army and drive them back. During the autumn of 1876, the Ottoman Empire continued their successful offensive which culminated in a victory on the heights above Djunis. During the second conflict, between 13 December 1877 and 5 February 1878, Serbian troops regrouped with help from Imperial Russia, who fought their own Russo-Turkish War. The Serbs formed five corps and attacked Ottoman troops to the south, taking the cities of Nis, Pirot, Leskovac and Vranje one after another. The war coincided with the Bulgarian uprising, the Montenegrin–Ottoman War and the Russo-Turkish War, which together are known as the Great Eastern Crisis of the Ottoman Empire.

Serbia’s independence

The Berlin Congress was a gathering of the representatives of the then great powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Great Britain, Italy, Russia and Turkey, chaired by Otto von Bismarck from 13 June to 13 July 1878 in Berlin.

The Congress was convened to revise the Treaty of San Stefano (signed 3 March 1878), which ended the Russo-Turkish War. According to the negotiations, largely dictated by Russia, Turkey should have lost much of its former control of the Balkans, and a Greater Bulgaria (effectively a Russian satellite) should have been established to include most of present-day Northern Macedonia, and parts of Serbia, Albania. and Greece.

The rise in Russian influence in the region was staunchly opposed by Austria-Hungary and the United Kingdom. Due to international pressure, Russia had to give up and the Treaty of San Stefano was annulled, and negotiations on the territorial organization of the Balkans started from the beginning. Since Germany practically did not have to protect its own interests in the Balkans, Bismarck could appear as “relatively neutral” in the negotiations. Only Great Powers’ delegates participated in the negotiations, while small-countries’ representatives sought to influence the outcome indirectly. Serbia was represented by Jovan Ristic, an envoy of Prince Milan.

The outcome of the negotiations was the Treaty of Berlin on July 13, 1878. It consisted of the recognition of Romania, Serbia and Montenegro as sovereign states and Bulgaria as an autonomous principality under Ottoman sovereignty (until 1908). Macedonia remained under Turkish rule, while Bosnia and Herzegovina was ceded to Austria-Hungary.

Serbia was significantly expanded, gaining four districts: Nis, Pirot, Toplica and Vranje. This, after 74 years, finally ended the Serbian struggle for independence.

Kingdom of Serbia

On 6 March 1882, Principality of Serbia was declared a kingdom and Prince Milan was proclaimed King of Serbia.

Acting under Austrian influence, King Milan devoted all his energies to the improvement of the means of communication and the development of natural resources. However, the cost of this, unduly increased by reckless extravagance, led to disproportionately heavy taxation. This, coupled with increased military service, rendered King Milan and the Austrian party unpopular.

Political troubles in Serbia were further increased by the defeat in the war against Bulgaria from 1885–1886. In September 1885, the union of Eastern Rumelia and Bulgaria caused widespread agitation in Serbia. King Milan promptly declared war upon the new Bulgarian state on 15 November. After a short, decisive campaign, the Serbs were utterly routed at the Battle of Slivnitsa and at the Battle of Pirot. King Milan’s throne was only saved by the direct intervention of Austria-Hungary. Domestic difficulties now arose which rapidly assumed huge political significance.

Milan married Natalie Keschko on 17 October 1875 at the St. Michael’s Cathedral, Belgrade and their son, Alexander, was born in 1876, but their relationship showed signs of friction right from the start. King Milan was anything but a faithful husband, having many affairs, and in 1886 the couple, mismatched both personally and politically, separated after eleven years of marriage.

Queen Natalija left Serbia, taking with her the ten-year-old Prince Alexander (later King Alexander I). While she was residing at Wiesbaden in 1888, King Milan succeeded in recovering the Crown Prince, whom he undertook to educate.

On 3 January 1889, Milan adopted a new constitution much more liberal than the existing one of 1869. Two months later, on 6 March, thirty-four-year-old Milan suddenly abdicated the throne, handing it over to his twelve-year-old son. No satisfactory reason was assigned for this step. Milan settled in Paris as a private individual. On 11 February 1901, King Milan died unexpectedly and was buried in Krusedol monastery.

The reign of King Alexander Obrenovic

In 1893, King Alexander, aged sixteen, arbitrarily proclaimed himself of full age, dismissed the regents and their government, and took the royal authority into his own hands. His action won popular support, as did his appointment of a radical ministry. In May 1894 King Alexander arbitrarily abolished King Milan’s liberal constitution of 1889 and restored the conservative one of 1869. His attitude during the Greco-Turkish War (1897) was one of strict neutrality.

In 1894 the young King brought his father, Milan, back to Serbia and, in 1898, appointed him commander-in-chief of the Serbian army. During that time, Milan was regarded as the de facto ruler of the country.

In the summer of 1900, King Alexander suddenly announced his engagement to Draga Masin, a maid of honor to his mother, Queen Natalija. Draga was ten years older than the King, unpopular with Belgrade society. So intense was the opposition to Masin among the political classes that the King found it impossible for a time to recruit suitable candidates into senior posts

Before making the announcement, King Alexander did not consult with his father, who had been making arrangements to secure the hand of German Princess Alexandra zu Schaumburg-Lippe for his son, or his Prime Minister Dr. Vladan Djordjevic, who was visiting the Paris Universal Exhibition at the time of the announcement. Both immediately resigned from their respective offices and Alexander had difficulty in forming a new cabinet. Alexander’s mother also opposed the marriage and was subsequently banished from the country.

Opposition to the union seemed to subside somewhat for a time upon the publication of Tsar Nicholas II’s congratulations to the King on his engagement and of his acceptance to act as the principal witness at the wedding. The marriage duly took place in August 1900. Even so, the unpopularity of the union weakened the King’s position in the eyes of the army and of the country at large.

King Alexander tried to reconcile political parties by unveiling a liberal constitution of his own initiative in 1901, introducing for the first time in the constitutional history of Serbia the system of two chambers (Assembly and Senate). This reconciled the political parties but did not reconcile the army which, already dissatisfied with the King’s marriage, became still more so at the rumours that one of the two unpopular brothers of Queen Draga was to be proclaimed heir-presumptive to the throne.

Meanwhile, the independence of the Senate and the State Council caused increasing irritation to King Alexander. In March 1903 the King suspended the constitution for half an hour, time enough to publish the decrees dismissing and replacing the old senators and councillors of state. This arbitrary act increased dissatisfaction in the country.

Apparently to prevent Queen Draga’s brother being named heir-presumptive, but in reality to replace Alexander Obrenovic with Peter Karadjordjevic, a conspiracy was organized by a group of Army officers headed by Captain Dragutin Dimitrijevic, known as “Apis”, and the Black Hand secret society which would assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. Several politicians were also part of the conspiracy, and allegedly included former Prime Minister, Nikola Pasic.

The Royal Couple’s Palace (Old Konak) was invaded and the conspirators eventually discovered the Royal Couple and murdered them in the early morning of 11June 1903. King Alexander and Queen Draga were shot, their bodies mutilated and, according to eyewitness accounts, thrown from a second floor window of the Palace. The King was only 26 years old at the time of his death. King Alexander and Queen Draga were buried in the crypt of St. Mark’s Church, Belgrade