Eastern Question, term designating the problem of European territory controlled by the decaying Ottoman Empire in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th cent. The Turkish threat to Europe was checked by the Hapsburgs in the 16th cent., but the Ottoman Turks still controlled the Balkan Peninsula. With the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699), the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire began, and Russia started to push toward the Black Sea.
In the 18th cent., France supported the Turks against Russia and Austria. The Eastern Question came into sharp focus during the reign of Czarina Catherine II with the first two of the Russo-Turkish Wars (1768–74, 1787–92), when Russia, in alliance with Austria, planned the partition of the Ottoman Empire. Constantinople was the chief prize coveted by Russia, which lacked an adequate warm-water outlet to the sea. These designs aroused alarm in Prussia and, more especially, in Great Britain, which saw its dominance in the Mediterranean threatened by Russian ambitions. (Later it was the strategic importance of the Suez Canal that most concerned Britain.) The formation of a diplomatic alliance by Great Britain, Prussia, and the Netherlands and the Austrian defeats at the hands of the Turks offset Russian successes; yet the first stage of the struggle, terminating with the Treaty of Jassy (1792), left Russia with a foothold on the north shore of the Black Sea.
During the Napoleonic era, when attention shifted elsewhere, Russia, after another war with Turkey, again secured favorable terms in the Treaty of Bucharest (1812). Russian conquests against Persia and in the Caucasus were confirmed in the treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkmanchai (1828). These developments and the outbreak of national aspirations among the oppressed peoples of the Balkans again made the Eastern Question a major European problem. The Holy Alliance was committed to defending the territorial integrity of Turkey, but the rival imperialistic interests of the Great Powers, each of which hoped to profit from Ottoman disintegration, soon caused the abandonment of this principle.
In the Greek War of Independence (1821–30), both England and Russia assisted the Greek insurgents, each trying to impose its influence on the newly formed state. The Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29, connected with the Greek war, ended successfully for Russia (see Adrianople, Treaty of), but the subsequent Russian assistance to Turkey against Muhammad Ali of Egypt, followed by a Russo-Turkish alliance (1833), greatly disquieted Britain and France. Still, the five Great Powers (Britain, France, Russia, Austria, and Prussia) acted in concert in the final settlement of the Egyptian question, and a treaty signed (1840) in London offered international guarantees of the Ottoman Empire's integrity.
In 1853, however, rivalry among Britain, France, and Russia brought on the Crimean War. The treaty that ended it (see Paris, Congress of) attempted to deprive Russia of pretexts for intervention, to check Russia's naval power on the Black Sea, and to place the empire under international protection. By this time, Turkey had become the "sick man of Europe," and its disintegration could not be arrested.
Events in Bosnia and Herzegovina once more led to a Russo-Turkish War (1877–78); the Treaty of San Stefano was so favorable to Russia that Britain went to the verge of war to compel a revision. The Congress of Berlin (see Berlin, Congress of) revised the Treaty of San Stefano—a setback for Russian influence—but it created fresh problems. The new Balkan states, dissatisfied with their borders, turned to individual great powers to back their claims.
Austria, allied with Russia in the late 18th cent., had come to fear Russian influence in the Balkans; after its defeat by Prussia in 1866, it had joined in an alliance with Germany (see Triple Alliance and Triple Entente). Germany, which had assumed the role of "honest broker" at the Congress of Berlin, became increasingly interested in extending its influence over the Ottoman Empire. The German-Austrian Drang nach Osten [drive to the East] policy became manifest in the reorganization of the Turkish army by German officers, the construction of Baghdad Railway, the crisis over Morocco, and the Austrian annexation (1908) of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russian Pan-Slavism in the Balkans and the almost total disappearance of European Turkey in the Balkan Wars caused Turkey to seek German and Austrian support and to join the Central Powers after the outbreak of World War I. The war destroyed the Ottoman Empire and closed the old Eastern Question, but the problem of maintaining stability in the area once ruled by the empire remained.
See M. S. Anderson, The Eastern Question, 1774–1923 (1966); A. J. Toynbee, The Western Question in Greece and Turkey (1970); D. Djordjevic and S. Fischer-Galati, The Balkan Revolutionary Tradition (1981).