They'll need new jerseys.

Photographer: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

Let Czechia Be an Example

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The Czech Republic's government has decided to rebrand the country Czechia. Citizens haven't been asked their opinion, but the move makes some sense: It'll be easier to put the new name on hockey jerseys, for example. Perhaps other nations in Europe and the former Soviet Union also should take a long hard look at their geographical appellations: There are a few that make little sense.

Czechia as a short name for the Czech Republic is a case of soft rebranding. The name has been around -- it was used as early as 1634 -- and the full appellation will still be used. Czechia may not be the best option: English speakers will have to be taught how to pronounce it, and in other languages that have used the word for a while, it's spelled in several different ways: Cechia in Italian, Chequia in Spanish. Still, it's not as bad as other options that have been floated, such as Czechlands (reflecting that the country consists of Bohemia, Moravia and part of Silesia) or just Bohemia, which Moravians resented.

Perhaps the government was right to avoid a lengthy public debate. It's nice to be able to skip the unwieldy "republic," and Czech language and history experts gave Czechia their approval. The world probably will get used to it and won't get it confused with the turbulent Russian region of Chechnya.

The Czech Republic needs a rebranding because it's a survivor -- of two world wars that redrew its borders, the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, then the 1993 divorce with Slovakia. Events such as these erode a country's identity and symbols. Many nations in Africa and Asia have renamed and rebranded themselves in search of a better fit with their emerging statehood. Here are a few countries that might want to study the Czech example:

  1. Slovakia and Slovenia. People mix them up. It doesn't help that Slovakia is called Slovensko in the Slovak language. There's even a website that explains the difference to foreigners. The tennis star Martina Hingis is from Slovakia, and Donald Trump's wife Melania is Slovenian -- but how many people know that? Both names speak of the countries' Slavic roots, but that makes them generic, poor descriptors of the two distinct cultures that hide behind them -- one Mediterranean and the other central European. The two countries should talk about disambiguation: Surely there are names in both cultures that would be more distinctive?
  2. Georgia. Apart from constant mix-ups with the U.S. state, Georgians lack true affinity with their country's English-language name, which is a medieval corruption of the Russian Gruzia (still in use in Russia). Georgians themselves call their country Sakartvelo -- a pretty name and much easier on an English speaker's tongue than, say, Hungary's self-description, Magyarorszag. Georgia has already tried to shed the Russian name that stuck to it in a number of languages, and it has persuaded the Japanese, for example, to give up "Gurujiya" -- but in favor of the confusing "Georgia." It would be better off making an effort to get "Sakartvelo" adopted.
  3. Macedonia. The name dispute is keeping the country out of the European Union and NATO. It's a matter of fierce national pride (polls show that Macedonians would rather not join than do so under a different name) and an important issue for a government that has put an enormous statue of Alexander III of Macedon, or Alexander the Great, in the center of the capital, Skopje. And yet the name dispute with Greece, which lays claim to Macedonian glory, is hurting the former Yugoslav republic more than it's hurting Greece. Only about half of all nations call Macedonia by its constitutional name, the other half is sticking to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM -- an unwieldy acronym and an unnecessary reminder of recent bloody history. It's time for the Macedonians to agree to one of the compromise options that have been discussed over the years -- Upper Macedonia or North Macedonia, for example.
  4. Kazakhstan. Two years ago, the country's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, suggested getting rid of the "stan" and calling the country Kazak Eli (Kazakh Nation) so that his oil-rich, relatively modern and dynamic country wouldn't be lumped with other, less successful "stans." Like the Czechs, the Kazakhs had marketing considerations in mind. Yet the new name didn't take and Nazarbayev didn't return to the idea -- perhaps because the country's commodity wealth isn't particularly marketable under any name given the oil price meltdown.

There have been no big wars or upheavals in Europe for more than a quarter-century. Wiping the dust off some countries' names could produce more than a marketing effect: Europe and the post-Soviet space need to keep moving to shed their painful past.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net