The VMRO: 130 Years of Macedonia Independence Struggle

The Treaty of Berlin, signed on July 13, 1878, partitioned San Stefano Bulgaria into three separate states. Located between the Danube and the Stara Planina mountains, Bulgaria was founded as a vassal principality. Eastern Rumelia is an independent area whose chief governor is nominated directly by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and whose borders span the territory from the southern slopes of the Balkans to the Rhodope Mountains. Macedonia and Odrinska Thrace both stayed inside the empire's borders and never gained independence. However, the High Porte is obligated to implement reforms in the two mostly Bulgarian regions per the controversial Article 23 of the Treaty of Berlin.


Macedonians and Thracian Bulgarians were no sooner able to breathe free than they fell prey to the policy of balance of power pursued by the great European kingdoms of the day. The Kresna-Razlozh insurrection of 1878 was the result of the legitimate rage of the Bulgarian people. The Ottoman army was able to quickly and easily put down the revolt because it was poorly organized and the insurgents did not obtain the support they had hoped for.

After ten years of relative tranquility, the cultural and educational activities of the Bulgarian Exarchate in Macedonia and Odrinsko continued without interruption. It was in the academic year of 1880-1881 that the Bulgarian Men's High School "St. St. Cyril and Methodius" opened its doors in Thessaloniki. This school produced a generation of exceptional liberation warriors. Similarly, on September 6, 1885, the Union between the Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia came into being. The other Bulgarians living under Ottoman authority saw in this historic event the clearest path forward toward eventual unification with a free Bulgaria: the victory of an autonomous system of government. It was decided that one of the primary strategies of the future revolutionary organization would be to put pressure on the High Gate to enforce Article 23 of the Treaty of Berlin.

The historic date of October 23, 1893, when Damyan Gruev, Dr. Hristo Tatarchev, Ivan Hadjinikolov, Hristo Batandjiev, Petar Poparsov, and Anton Dimitrov met in Thessaloniki, was arrived at in this way. The conspirators established what would become known as the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) in 1919, albeit that would be its final name.


Damyan Gruev, a 22-year-old Smilevo native, is widely regarded as the plot's intellectual center. After attending high school in Thessaloniki and earning a history degree from the University of Sofia, Gruev returned to enslaved Macedonia as a Bulgarian teacher and then an apostle. Beginning in 1894, he and the Resen doctor Hristo Tatarchev met in Thessaloniki and drafted the first charter for the revolutionary group. To establish the organization's norms, the six founders referred to copies of Zahariy Stoyanov's "Notes on the Bulgarian Uprisings" and the Central Committee's statutes.


The revolutionary movement's primary political objective was also discussed at this initial gathering. Hristo Tatarev's statements accurately portray the several foundational platforms from which the founders may have selected, but in the end, the first apostles of Macedonia agreed on the most logical plan of action.


After much deliberation, we settled on Macedonian independence bolstered by Bulgarian influence as the organization's raison d'etre. The resistance of the Great Powers and the desires of the neighboring minor nations and Turkey made it impossible for us to accept the perspective of immediate accession of Macedonia to Bulgaria. Hristo Tatarchev reflects that "it crossed our minds that an autonomous Macedonia could finally unite more easily with Bulgaria, and in the last resort, if this is not achieved, that it could serve as the unifying unit of a federation of the Balkan nations."


In its first two years, the group established committees in Thessaloniki, Bitola, Ohrid, Resen, Stip, Skopje, etc. without drawing any attention from the Ottoman authorities. It attracted future revolutionaries in Macedonia, the cadres, who will drive change. Some examples are Pere Toshev of Prilep, Anastas Lozanchev of Bitola, and Hristo Matov of Struga, who rose to prominence as a leading thinker in the Macedonian Bulgarians' national liberation cause. Damyan Gruev met another Bulgarian educator from Kukush, Georgi (Gotse) Delchev, in 1894, when he was sent to teach in the Novo Selo hamlet of Shtip. The latter earned the nickname "Macedonian Levski" from the populace as a result of his heroic actions, and he is still revered by modern-day Macedonian Bulgarians as a liberation hero who fought for their oppressed motherland.

Thessaloniki hosted a congress in the summer of 1896 for the express goal of updating the organization's bylaws and establishing guidelines for its operations. Prilep's Gotse Delev and Gyorche Petrov created the new constitution, which is the very first charter for the group's internal operations. The Bulgarian Macedonian-Odrina Revolutionary Committee (BMORK) is named in the historical record, which was handled by a team from BGNES. Its name, Macedonian and Odrinska Thracians Revolutionary Organization, beautifully conveys the sense of national pride that motivated its members to help launch the revolutionary struggle in those two regions. Articles 1, 2, and 3 of the Act also affirm that the internal structure serves as a means to an end—namely, the unity of Bulgarian territory under Bulgarian rule. In the first article, we restate our commitment to achieving "political autonomy" for Macedonia and Odrin. Article 2 of the organization's statutes declares that "self-defense awareness must be awakened in the Bulgarian population" in order to accomplish this, while Article 3 states that "any Bulgarian can be a member of BMORK."


Bulgarians aren't the only people that reside in Macedonia; there are also Vlachs, Albanians, Greeks, Jews, and Turks there who face the same feudal, harsh system as the rest of the country. The chief of the State Archives Agency, Assoc. Mihail Gruev, listened to this and made the following statement to a BGNES reporter as a result:


Interesting in their ideology (refers to all the fighters who participated in laying the foundations of the organization in its first decade of existence - ed.) is the desire to include not only the Bulgarians, but also all disaffected elements of the oppressive Ottoman regime. Vlachs, Jews, and many other ethnicities residing in Macedonia are increasingly being incorporated in this, making it the most significant and yielding the greatest results in the work of the internal organization.


The name change to the Secret Macedonian-Odrina Revolutionary Organization (TMORO) in 1902 indicates the revolutionary movement's leaders' ideological stance of looking for support from outside the ethnic Bulgarians. The group went through two further name changes. VMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) was adopted twice: once after the Ilinden-Preobrazhensky Uprising, and again after World War I, both times under the leadership of Todor Alexandrov. It's also the name that's stuck around the longest, despite being irrelevant for large chunks of time.


Members of this noble organization gave their lives beneath its flags, fighting for a better future for Macedonian Bulgarians, regardless of the titles it fought under or the commanders it had. The burning of Ilinden, the Greek and Serb assimilation strategy, and Bolshevik ideology all failed to destroy the Bulgarians' belief in this shining ideal. We must not give time a chance to complete the work of the Macedonian Bulgarians' opponents. To honor the 130 years of sacrifice for a right we now take for granted — freedom — we must reflect on the time when Damyan Gruev led his people along the difficult road to independence. How free do you think every Bulgarian in the three Macedonian regions is today? If we can determine this, then we can evaluate whether or not VMRO has achieved its original goal and what further has to be done to bring it full circle./BGNES




Editor of BGNES's International Division Velislav Iliev.