Pelagonia (Πελαγονία) is a region in modern day North Macedonia, encompassing around the same territory as the “statistical region” in the respective country, directly near the Greek border.
It is not the first thing that springs to mind when one thinks of the Greek homeland. In fact, the region has been forgotten by many Greeks.
However, it has been a Hellenic region since Antiquity.
The Pelagonians were an Ancient Greek tribe that was in the 5th and 4th century BC incorporated into the Greek Macedonian Kingdom and remained part of the Hellenic world under subsequent Roman and Byzantine Rule.
Like the rest of the Balkans, Pelagonia fell to Ottoman conquest in the late Middle Ages and remained part of the Empire for centuries.
During the later times of this rule, the region was part of the so called Monastir Vilayet.
The Monastir Vilayet was an Ottoman administrative region which roughly encompassed the western territory of today’s North Macedonia, as well as parts of eastern Albania and some cities in northern Greece.
The Ottoman demographic census of 1906 put the ethnic distribution in those lands as the following:
- 328,551 Muslims (of any ethnicity)
- 286,001 Greek Christians
- 197,088 Bulgarian Christians
- 5,556 Vlachs / Aromanians
- 5,459 Jews
- 2,173 Others
As you can see, there is no mention of a separate “Macedonian” ethnicity in the Ottoman census.
The people nowadays referring themselves to as “Macedonians” were either counted as Bulgarian Christians, because of their linguistic similarity, or as Greeks (naturally before forced assimilation) by the Turkish administration.
The region, and especially its big city of Monastir (also known as Bitola) retained a certain Greek character, even though the Slavic influence was strong.
When the Greek revolution broke out in 1821, many Greeks from Monastir, but also from cities like Ohrid, volunteered for the national liberation.
And even much later, there were still many Greek schools and cultural organizations.
Balkan Wars and Yugoslavia
The first Balkan War in 1912 saw the defeat of the Ottoman Empire (and the consequent loss of much of its European territory) against the Balkan League, compromised of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro.
After some early victories, the Greek Army decided to head East, liberating Thessaloniki on October 26th just before the Bulgarians could enter the city.
In retrospective, this was the right decision as it secured the most vital positions and ultimately paved the way for the incorporation of much of Macedonia back into the Greek homeland.
However, this came at the cost of abandoning the Greeks living north of our current border, namely the Greeks living in Pelagonia.
On November 16th, the Serbian Army entered Monastir and quickly incorporated it into its own nation state.
Following fighting with the Bulgarians in the Second Balkan War and the first World War, Serbia solidified its position in what it then called “Vardar Macedonia”, sometimes “South Serbia” in the first Yugoslav Kingdom.
From that point on, and increasingly after World War 2 and the establishment of Communist Yugoslavia under Josip Tito, the Greek population was put under enormous pressure.
Tito himself had ambitions over Greek territory, leading to extensive Yugoslav involvement in the Greek Civil War (1946-49), and therefore an intense crackdown on the Greeks living in Pelagonia.
Greek language schools ceased to operate, assimilation was promoted, Greeks were forced to emigrate and anti-Greek hostilities were indoctrinated into the Slavic Macedonian population, sentiment which still exists nowadays.
It is estimated that roughly 300 Greek families left in the 1950s alone.
The question at present
Following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Greece and what is now called the Republic of North Macedonia, did not have a good diplomatic start, with the latter promoting irredentism against Greek territory and the appropriation of Ancient Greek history.
However, it seems with coming EU integration into the Western Balkans, and the Prespa Agreement which nominally put to end hostilities between both countries, relations have softened and can pave the way for cooperation.
The Aromanian question is something that needs to be addressed.
Aromanians (often referred to as Vlachs) are culturally Hellenized with a Greek national consciousness but speak a Romance language, which is nonetheless heavily influenced by Greek.
They are scattered around Western Greece, Northern Epirus and Pelagonia, but generally in the wider Balkans.
There are already many cultural organizations for this cause, such as the Panhellenic Reunion for Aromanians or the Panhellenic Congress of Sarakatsani.
Greece will need to work stronger on connecting with their kin.
For example, in the city of Krusevo (Aromanian: Cruvusha), roughly 20% of the population is Aromanian / Vlach.
Skopje will need to take certain steps into addressing the Greek heritage of Pelagonia and Athens will need to be willing to capitalize on that.
Heavy Greek investment into the region can increase cultural and economic soft power as well as supporting the region itself.
Monastir could return to being a Balkan metropolis like it was before with the strengthening of bilateral trade and prospering due to being a border city.
The reopening of Greek language schools would be a start, which could also serve for educational purposes and opportunities for citizens of North Macedonia to study at prestigious Greek universities.
Those are just some proposals on how to approach these questions.
Both countries should look for ways to address the past and work for meaningful solutions in the future.
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