Czech Republic or Czechia? The debate goes on

Government officials are fed up with seeing wrong and chaotically used names for the Czech Republic and have launched a campaign that aims to end the dispute once and for all.

A vendor displays a T-shirt with the word “Czechia” in a store in Prague, Czech Republic, on April 27, 2016. The Czech Republic said it was tired of its long and unwieldy name and would like to be called “Czechia” from now on. Michal Cizek. Agence France-Presse
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PRAGUE // Czech Republic or Czechia? Ever since gaining independence after their peaceful split with Slovakia in 1993, the Czechs have been poring over a correct short form for their country’s name.

Led by president Milos Zeman, Czech officials fed up with seeing often wrong and chaotically used names for the Czech Republic launched a campaign this month that aims to end the dispute once and for all.

“I use the word Czechia because it sounds nicer and it’s shorter than the cold Czech Republic,” Mr Zeman once said.

The Czechs are going to propose that the United Nations registers the names of Czechia in English, Tchequie in French, Chequia in Spanish and Tschechien in German as translations of the Czech version, Cesko.

These are still subject to approval by the Czech government, and will be used wherever the longer, formal name is not required.

“The name ‘Czechia’ will not replace the full official name of the Czech Republic,” the foreign ministry said.

The relationship between the two will be similar to that of France with its official name, the French Republic.

But the issue has sparked controversy even inside the Czech centre-left government.

“I disagree with the name ‘Czechia’,” regional development minister Karla Slechtova said. “I don’t want people to confuse our country with Chechnya.”

To which the foreign ministry retorted: “Poor geographical knowledge cannot be a reason for not using a country’s name.”

It pointed out there are plenty of countries with similar-sounding monikers, from Niger and Nigeria to Slovakia and Slovenia.

Czechs living abroad sometimes face other unexpected problems when telling people where they were born.

“I prefer to say I’m from Prague,” says Ivana Schachnerova, living in Italy since 1989.

“When I say I’m Czech [ceca], everyone will help me cross the street,” confusing the word for “cieca” — the Italian word for blind.

Even the Czech language does not have a generally accepted short name for the territory.

In 1918, it was incorporated in the newly established Czechoslovakia and then turned into the Czech Republic, when Czechoslovakia split in 1993, four years after shedding its totalitarian Communist rule of four decades.

The search for a short name has been a puzzler in a land that was founded, according to ancient legend, by the mythological “Forefather Cech”.

It comprises the historic regions of Bohemia (Cechy) with 6.5 million inhabitants, Moravia (Morava, 3 million) and Silesia (Slezsko, one million).

In the end, “Cesko” prevailed as top choice, despite opposition from many including former president Vaclav Havel, who once said he felt like “having slugs creeping down” his body upon hearing the name.

But those promoting greater regional autonomy insist that the word “Cesko” ignores both the historic Moravia and Silesia regions.

Ondrej Hysek, head of small political party The Moravians, argues the country should be called “Czechlands” or even “Czechomoravia”.

For the party, “Czechia” and its non-English equivalents are “an anti-constitutional attack on the identity of the Moravian people”, he said.

The government expects to discuss the new name in May before submitting its request to the UN, says foreign ministry spokeswoman Michaela Lagronova.

Kristina Larischova, a diplomat in charge of the issue, said the Czech Republic was “an exception, even an anomaly among developed democracies” as it still lacks a short informal name that can be used in general conversation.

“It is difficult to make such a decision in our own language and then in foreign languages,” said Karel Oliva, head of the Institute of the Czech Language at the Czech Academy of Sciences.

“At the end of the day, it’s usage that will decide, and it won’t ask whether the ministry has taken this or that decision,” he added.

* Agence France-Presse