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The Treaty of San Stefano, a Peace Treaty That Could Not Be Implemented

The Treaty of San Stefano was a peace treaty between Russia and Ottoman Empire signed on March 3, 1878 after the end of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. It took its name from San Stefano, a village west of Constantinople (Istanbul), where it was signed. By signing this treaty, the governments of Russia and the Ottoman Empire intended to reshape the Balkans after the defeat of the Ottomans. However, the treaty of San Stefano was problematic from the beginning and could not be implemented. This treaty realized the vision of the “Great Bulgaria” to the detriment of neighboring ethnic groups and promoted Russia's interests in the Balkans. This, of course, provoked the strong reaction of the Great Powers of Europe. This article will briefly discuss the effects of the Treaty of San Stefano and the reasons why it could not be implemented.

The signing of the Treaty of San Stefano.
The signing of the Treaty of San Stefano.

Terms and Effects

During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, the Russians reached the threshold of Constantinople by occupying Edirne in eastern Thrace. Wanting to maintain their strong influence in the Balkans and gain access to the Aegean, they proposed the establishment of a strong Bulgarian state that would act as a bastion of Russian interests in the region. The treaty established the autonomous self-governing Principality of Bulgaria, with a Christian government and the right to keep an army. Although in theory it was not completely independent of the Ottomans, the Principality functioned as an independent nation. Its territory stretched from the Danube to the Aegean and from the Black Sea to Albania. It included the plain between the Danube river and the Balkan mountain range, the region of Sofia, Pirot, and Vranje in the Morava valley, Northern Thrace, parts of Eastern Thrace and nearly all of Macedonia. Ottoman troops were to withdraw from Bulgaria, while Russian troops would remain for two more years (Berstein & Milza, 1992/1997).

The treaty also introduces other changes to borders. Under the treaty, Montenegro doubled its territory by acquiring formerly Ottoman-controlled areas and the Ottoman Empire recognized its independence. Serbia gained some cities in Moravian Serbia and became independent. Turkey also recognized the independence of Romania. Romania gained Northern Dobruja and ceded Southern Bessarabia. In exchange for the war reparations, the Porte ceded Armenian and Georgian territories in the Caucasus to Russia. The region of Bosnia and Herzegovina was supposed to become an autonomous province. Bosporus and Dardanelles were declared open to all neutral ships in war and peacetime (Berstein & Milza, 1992/1997).

Borders of Bulgaria according to the Treaty of San Stefano in 1878.
Borders of Bulgaria according to the Treaty of San Stefano in 1878.


The Treaty of San Stefano could not be implemented from the beginning, as it promoted the interests of only Russia (mainly) and Bulgaria, ignoring other countries and nations. Russia and Austria-Hungary were rivals in the Balkans. Austria also feared that the treaty would weaken the Ottoman Empire, which would eventually collapse. However, the dissolution of a multinational empire was not in Austria's interest, as it would give many nations the opportunity to become independent. Nationalism was already rife among the various nationalities of Austria-Hungary. Thus, it was very dangerous for the Austro-Hungary to accept the independence of Bulgaria, as the nations under its control would also demand national independence from the Habsburgs. On the other hand, the treaty did nothing to advance Austria-Hungary's influence in Bosnia-Herzegovinia (New World Encyclopedia, 2020).

Great Britain and France were not prepared to allow the whole region to deteriorate into instability. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire would pave the way for Russia to expand its influence in the Middle East. This would set in danger the interests of France and Great Britain in the wider region (Britannica, 2022). Romania, which had contributed significantly to the Russian victory in the war, was extremely disappointed by the treaty. The Romanian public opinion could not trust Russia anymore, as it broke the Russo-Romanian pre-war treaties that guaranteed the integrity of Romanian territory. The Albanians objected to what they considered a significant loss of their territory to Serbia, Bulgaria, and Montenegro. They realized they would have to organize nationally to attract the assistance of other European powers instead of Russia (New World Encyclopedia, 2020).

Ethnographic Map of Turkey in Europe.
Ethnographic Map of Turkey in Europe.


It can easily be understood that the treaty of San Stefan was doomed from the beginning. For this reason it was modified by the terms of the Treaty of Berlin, four months later (July 13, 1878, this treaty will be discussed in a future article). The weakening of the Ottoman Empire put in danger the interests of France and Great Britain in the Middle East because of Russian expansionism. Satisfaction of Bulgarian nationalism by the Russians would bring crisis to the Austro-Hungarian state. In addition, within the enlarged borders of the new Bulgarian state lived populations, such as Greeks, Serbs, Albanians, Turks, Jews, etc., who did not want to be under the Bulgarian rule. Bulgarian nationalism received much more than it hoped for and this is one of the many reasons that led to the outbreak of the Balkan Wars 35 years later (1912-13). Even the Russians, after realizing the magnitude of the reactions, intended anything more than a temporary rough draft, so as to enable a final settlement with the other Great Powers.


Image Sources

Bozhinov, T. (2010, April). Borders of Bulgaria according to the Treaty of San Stefano in 1878. [Map]. Retrieved from:

Ravenstein, E. (1880). Ethnographic Map of Turkey in Europe. [Map]. Retrieved from:

Sputnik. (1964, June). The signing of the Treaty of San Stefano. [Print]. Retrieved from:

Author Photo

Miltos Spiratos

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