This week, Kafkadesk spoke with Petr Pavlínek, member of the Civic Initiative Czechia (Občanská iniciativa Česko), an organization that stands on the frontline of the decades-long debate surrounding the country’s name. So, the moment has come to settle this once and for all: Should you use ‘Czechia’ or ‘the Czech Republic’?
Hello Petr! Can you first tell us a bit about the origins of Civic Initiative Czechia? Why did you decide to launch this project?
The initiative was launched in 1997 by several people in Brno, the capital of Moravia and second biggest city in the country. These people were concerned that the name Bohemia (which translates as Čechy in Czech) was increasingly used for the entire country even though Bohemia only covers the western half of Czechia. Bohemia does not include Moravia nor (Czech) Silesia. Instead, they wanted to promote the use of Czechia (Česko), which was legally standardized as the short name of the Czech Republic back in 1993 because it includes the entire territory of the country (e.g. Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia).
Let’s dive right into it: What’s the correct name for the country: Czechia or the Czech Republic?
Both Czechia and the Czech Republic are correct. Countries usually have two official names: a formal (political) name and short (geographic) name (see here: https://unstats.un.org/unsd/geoinfo/geonames/). Formal (political) names include the contemporary political system or state form in the name of a particular country, i.e. whether that country is a republic, kingdom, federation, confederation, state(s), commonwealth, principality or sultanate. For example, the French Republic, the Kingdom of Spain, the Swiss Confederation, the Russian Federation, the United Mexican States, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Principality of Liechtenstein, the Sultanate of Oman, etc. The Czech Republic falls into this category.
On the other hand, short (geographic) names refer to a particular territory irrespective of its current political regime or state form. Examples include France, Spain, Switzerland, Russia, Oman and Czechia.
Both formal and short country names are official if they are internationally standardized by the International Organization for Standardization and included in the ISO database of country names (Standard: ISO 3166 in the case of Czechia) and included in the United Nation’s database of country names. Geographic names are usually one-word names but not always (e.g. New Zealand, Ivory Coast, Bosnia and Herzegovina). This is why geographic names are labelled as short names at the United Nations.
What’s the main difference? Do Czechia and the Czech Republic convey a different image of the country?
The main difference is in what situations and how these two types of country names should be properly used. We are convinced that Czechia should follow the established international norm of how other countries with short names use them. In short, the use of the formal name (the Czech Republic) should be limited to international treaties and the diplomatic protocol.
In all other situations, including the everyday speech, media, sports, schools, academia, administration, written documents etc., Czechia should be used. It’s not an accident that it is mainly internationally unrecognized and fictitious states or dictatorial regimes that use exclusively formal names in an attempt to increase their legitimacy. Recently, this has included the People’s Republic of Donetsk, the Republic of Artsakh, the Republic of Srpska, the Republic of Logone and, of course, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The Dominican Republic and the Central African Republic are the only two countries in the entire world that do not have readily available geographic short names. Czechia is not in the same category since it has a short geographic name that has been internationally standardized and recognized since 2016.
Simply put: what’s wrong with using ‘the Czech Republic’?
Short names are much more practical than formal names (e.g. the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), and that is why short names, not the formal ones, are used by people in every day speech, writing etc. for the vast majority of countries. Not surprisingly, both foreigners and Czechs therefore tend to shorten the formal name of ‘the Czech Republic’. But most of the time, they shorten it incorrectly and distort it into various forms and abbreviations such as Czech, Czech R., Czech Rep., Czech rep., Rep. Czech, Republic CZ, CR, Czecho…
These different abbreviations of the formal name are not only confusing to most people, they are also grammatically incorrect. Czech is an adjective, a member of the Czech nation or the language itself, but it is not a country name. The biggest problem is that in the end, no one knows what the proper name of the country is in English. When Czechs travel abroad and are asked where they are from, many foreigners often recognize neither the Czech Republic nor Czechia, but Czechoslovakia.
This indicates that the country brand is virtually non-existent. If Czechia was used consistently since 1993, we would have been in a similar position as Croatia, Slovakia and all newly created countries in Central and Eastern Europe since 1990. No one is questioning or discussing their short names because all these countries have consistently used them.
Another major problem with using ‘the Czech Republic’ is that we cannot correctly use this name in historical contexts. The Czech Republic has only existed since 1993, but the Czech state has existed in various forms and under different political names for more than one thousand years. As such, the formal (political) name can never fully replace a geographic name that is related to a particular territory and that does not change in response to changing state and regime forms in that territory.
Would you say this debate is a divisive topic?
Of course, especially among Czechs. It’s always challenging to change established behaviour and the way of thinking and speaking. Most people resist changes and feel uncomfortable because old habits die hard. It’s natural. However, it is not as divisive topic abroad as foreigners are not emotionally attached to it and have shown a willingness to go along with the name Czechs choose and use for their country. We’re convinced it’s never too late to make things right especially if they do not work well.
Insisting on the exclusive usage of ‘the Czech Republic’ in all situations has not served the country well as I have already explained. Eventually, this problem has finally been recognized by the Czech political leadership and the government in 2016 and this recognition led to the international standardization recognition of the short name ‘Czechia’ four years ago.
How exactly do you seek to promote the use of the name Czechia? Do you mainly target Czechs themselves or also foreigners?
We target both. We promote Czechia mainly by using it and by educating people and spreading the correct information about it. We operate several web sites, such as www.go-czechia.cz and www.go-czechia.com where we explain the 15 most common myths about the name Czechia, and also http://www.czechia-initiative.com, www.czechia-heart-of-europe.com and https://czechia-cesko.webnode.cz/english/.
We’re very active on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Quora, Pinterest and LinkedIn. We write newspaper articles, use Czechia in our academic publications and in the classes we teach and talk to key persons that have a chance to influence whether the Czech Republic or Czechia will be used in their organizations; we organize public lectures, etc.
We’re doing all this work for free just because we love this country. We are convinced that Czechia will first win abroad and only then in Czechia.
Why do you think people, including many Czechs, still do not use ‘Czechia’, despite the fact it’s been recognized by the U.N. for several years?
It’s fair to say that foreigners have been much more willing to use Czechia than the Czechs themselves. Concerning many Czechs still not using Czechia, the biggest problem is a complete lack of leadership from the Czech government. After 2016, the Czech government did almost nothing to promote Czechia. Most importantly, with some notable exceptions, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Czech government and Czech officials have not started to use ‘Czechia’ and kept using ‘the Czech Republic’ in all situations and circumstances.
It seems that people in the government were naively thinking Czechia would spread by itself without having to use it in the first place. As a matter of fact, after the elections, the new government led by Mr. Babiš backtracked and openly refused to use the name Czechia because Mr. Babiš “does not like it”.
This lack of decisiveness and hesitation from the Czech government is nothing new in this matter and goes back to 1993 when then Czech president Václav Havel said he did not like the word ‘Česko’, a Czech equivalent of Czechia. Athletes keep using Czech Republic (or Czech or CR) on their jerseys and during international sporting events. They claim they have been waiting for a coordinated shift to the usage of Czechia organized by the government. They also said that it would cost a lot of money, which is not true.
It is unclear why the government has not promoted the usage of Czechia in sports, because almost no other countries in the world use formal names in that area. We suspect that it’s simply because it’s easier not to do anything and the country name is mistakenly considered to be an unimportant issue.
Of course, we disapprove of this wait-and-see approach. We think the current government under the leadership of Andrej Babiš does it on purpose since it feels that the short name is not popular with many voters who are not used to it. By not using it at all, the government then claims that the name did not catch up abroad. It’s a vicious circle.
Do you think Czechia will eventually become the most common way to name the country? How much time do you think it might take?
Of course, Czechia will become the most common way to name the country in the future because it is much more practical than the Czech Republic. We would have given up a long time ago if we were not convinced that Czechia would eventually prevail.
We love this country and that is why we are doing it since the Czech state has almost completely failed in this regard. The length of time will depend on whether and when the Czech government will change its attitude.
What more can be done to promote its use among the Czech population?
Start using it wherever other countries use their short names. It’s straightforward and logical. Start using Czechia in an international sporting competition, international exhibitions, conferences, Czech English-speaking media, etc. Start teaching Czechia at schools. English teachers here in Czechia keep teaching their students that Czechia is a wrong word and are marking it as a mistake when students use it. It’s the English teachers, the vast majority of them being Czechs, who are wrong.
If the word Czechia were linguistically wrong it would never have been standardized as the correct translation of the short country name in Czech (Česko) into English and the Czech government would never have approved it. Fortunately, young Czechs are starting to use Czechia despite obstacles they face. They see it on their phones in country settings, on Google Maps, Google Earth, Apple maps, TomTom navigation, international coronavirus statistics and maps, etc. Czechs also see Czechia on the web sites and publications of the United Nations and its institutions, on the web sites of the European Union and all its new publications and statistical data published since the end of 2018.
It’s hard to avoid Czechia any longer. Eventually many Czechs will realize that Czechia makes a lot of sense in a similar way Austria, Slovakia, Croatia, Indonesia, Australia and other short country names do. It’s only a matter of getting used to it. Just wait and see.