The Czechs, pushed and pulled between East and West over the centuries, have long suffered from an identity crisis.
It doesn’t help that many foreigners consistently confuse their proud country, the Czech Republic, with its predecessor, Czechoslovakia, or its poorer cousin, Slovakia.
Or that, in 2013, some analysts mistakenly described the suspects in theBoston Marathon bombing as hailing from the Czech Republic — confusing it with Chechnya, a restive region of Russia nearly 2,000 miles away, andalarming Czech diplomats who issued a clarification.
So Czech leaders have proposed a new name that they hope will give the birthplace of Milan Kundera, Franz Kafka and Martina Navratilova greater recognition on the global stage: Czechia (pronounced CHECK-iya).
While the new name does not necessarily resolve the potential confusion with Chechnya — it might even cause more confusion, some critics say — proponents hope Czechia rolls off the tongue in English more easily than Czech Republic.
Variants that did not make the cut included “Czechlands,” “Bohemia” and, simply, “Czech.” (Pilsner Urquell, the storied beer maker, uses “Brewed in Czech” on its cans.)
“It’s not good when a country does not have any clearly defined symbols, or cannot say clearly what its name is,” Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoraleksaid on Tuesday, unveiling the proposal. “It would be good to set the record straight once and for all. We owe this to ourselves and to the world.”
On Thursday, Czech officials said they would have the name added to the United Nations database of geographical names, which records country names in the world body’s six official languages.
Mr. Zaoralek had hoped to see Czechia on athletes’ jerseys at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer, but was dismayed to learn that uniforms emblazoned with “Czech Republic” had already been designed.
Mr. Zaoralek has found an ally in President Milos Zeman, who referred to his country as Czechia on a 2013 trip to Israel, saying it was shorter, “nicer” and less “cold-sounding” than the Czech Republic.
Proponents of the new name have already produced a website, “Go Czechia.” It notes that the name was used as early as 1634, and is derived from Latin.
“Czechia might sound strange to some people the first time they hear it, but so do numerous geographic names derived from foreign languages that are commonly used in English,” the website says, citing, among other examples, Idaho, Massachusetts and Zimbabwe.
The Czech Republic is hardly the only country to grapple with the word “Republic” in ordinary parlance. It is joined by the Central African Republic, the Dominican Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name a few.
But there is something distinctively Czech about the soul-searching. Czechoslovakia was created only in 1918, out of the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The nation suffered the seizure of territory by Hitler in 1938 and a Soviet-led invasion in 1968. In 1989, its people ended decades of Communist rule in the Velvet Revolution. But in 1993, it split — amicably — into separate Czech and Slovak states.
Czechs began to refer to their newly truncated country as “Cesko” (CHES-ko), but there was no universal agreement over how to translate that into English. (Czechia is the correct translation, the foreign ministry says.)Vaclav Havel, the writer turned president, who opposed the split, hated the name Cesko, which, aides say, reminded him of Czechoslovakia’s dismemberment; Havel said it made him feel “as if snails were crawling” over him.
Jiri Pehe, a political scientist and former Havel aide, who directs New York University’s program in Prague, applauded the proposed change. The name Czech Republic has always been viewed, he said, as a messy compromise, an uneasy accommodation of three distinct regions: Moravia in the east, Bohemia in the west, and Silesia in the northeast. The French, he noted, do not commonly call their country the French Republic, its official name.
“When I meet people from abroad, I say I am from Prague,” Mr. Pehe said. “If you say you are from the Czech Republic, people scratch their heads and ask where that is in Yugoslavia. It creates an identity crisis when people don’t know the name of your country.”
Petrit Selimi, the foreign minister of Kosovo, who helped lead the country’srebranding after it declared independence from Serbia in 2008, noted the branding potential, saying that Czechia was easy to remember and pronounce, and would work equally well on a soccer jersey, during a diplomatic meeting or in a Facebook post.
Others, however, were less persuaded.
David Cerny, a Czech sculptor who has satirized European identity — portraying Slovakia as a Hungarian sausage and Bulgaria retooled as a Turkish toilet — called the new name misguided and “idiotic.” He said the rebranding was a cynical distraction from pressing problems like corruptionand right-wing extremism.
“This whole renaming exercise is the tail wagging the dog,” he said. “The real problem these days is what is going on with the country — not with the name of the country.” He added: “The name Czechia is neither sexy nor rock ’n’ roll.”
Karel Schwarzenberg, a former foreign minister, suggested simply using the name Bohemia, which was used as early as medieval times. “Why are we avoiding the historic name Bohemia, which for centuries served as the name of our country?” a Czech news site, Aktualne, quoted him as saying. “Why do we have to do this artificially and make up names like Czechia?”
But critics retorted that Bohemia only refers to the historic region in the west. “I think the name Czechlands would be fairer,” said Ondrej Hysek, chairman of the Moravians, a political party that promotes Moravian identity.
Finance Minister Andrej Babis, a Slovak by birth, told Aktualne he did not think the new name would catch on.
“People around the world are used to saying Czechoslovakia or Czech Republic, and changing this to Czechia will be difficult,” he said, adding: “Even I can’t get it out of my mouth.”
Source: The New York Times