Local Elites and Governance in Late Ottoman Bulgaria

By M. Safa Saracoglu
Submitted to Session P4777 (Waqf and Administration in the Ottoman Balkans, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The proposed presentation will connect the Ottoman provincial organizational structure of Vidin County in modern-day Bulgaria with the local elite’s involvement in the politics of administration. By reading the historical evidence from Vidin County’s provincial judicio-administrative sphere against the imperial regulations on local governance, I will analyze how the local elite exerted political and economic influence through the intricate framework of representative bodies and associated offices during the 1840s. The sources for this analysis will include provincial council records, yearbooks, petitions, travelers’ accounts and imperial regulations.

I will explore the rules of provincial governance outlined in imperial regulatory texts and compare them with evidence from local judicio-administrative organizations to examine two related hypotheses:
(a) The offices (and the local elites occupying them) behaved in accordance with these regulations.
(b) The local elite pursued strategies that benefited their interests by following the regulations of local governance. That is, these regulations defined opportunities for them.

Conventional perspectives on 19th -century bureaucratic reform put heavy emphasis on complaints and irregularities to portray Ottoman provincial governance as a failed centralization effort. Reading regular and irregular practices with close attention to the rules that define them as legal or illegal can help challenge this perspective.

The regular functioning of these offices and complaints about irregularities will be key in testing these hypotheses. Provincial correspondence and yearbooks often reflect how the ordinary practices of local offices -- elections, investigations, biddings on purchases, tax collection, etc. -- were carried out. By comparing such textual representations of provincial governance with the regulations that defined acceptable forms, we can get an idea of how closely the local notables were following these rules. Complaints about irregularities in provincial politics—such as corruption and abuse of power -- on the other hand, can inform us about how such allegations of malpractice were articulated and how they were resolved, if they were resolved at all.

A close reading of rules in connection with regular and irregular practices of Ottoman governance in Vidin can help us understand if and how the local elite could use the offices and practices of the judicio-administrative sphere to maintain their influence. By focusing on ordinary practices and procedural justifications in order to problematize irregularities, this paper will diverge from studies that focus on conflicts and irregularities to see if the very design of Ottoman provincial governance provided legal avenues for the local elite to exert influence.