Bureaucrats holding Czechia back but name will catch on, says Professor Petr Pavlínek

Petr Pavlínek, photo: archive of Radio Prague

Earlier this year the Czech government made international news with its plan to promote “Czechia” as a snappy alternative to the cumbersome “the Czech Republic”. So far how has successful has this rebranding exercise actually been? I discussed that question and more with Professor Petr Pavlínek, a geographer who teaches at Charles University and at the University of Nebraska. He’s a member of the group Civic Initiative Czechia, which began by advocating for the Czech-language name Česko before focusing on its English equivalent. I first asked Professor Pavlínek what were the key arguments in favour of using “Czechia”.

Petr Pavlínek,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“The main argument is that it is really standard practice for countries to use their short or geographic names.

“The second argument is that by insisting on the use of ‘the Czech Republic’, many people resort to using incorrect short versions of that.

“For example the use of ‘Czech’ for the country is incorrect, but it has been spreading.

“Czech is an adjective, it’s the name for a person, it’s the name of the language – but it’s not a country name.

“But we see that in the name of businesses for example. We have Hyundai Manufacturing Czech. We have Toyota Peugeot Citroen Czech. Many Czech businesses are using Czech, too.

“Then there are other abbreviations: ‘Czecho’, ‘Czech Rep’, ‘CR’, which is the international abbreviation for Costa Rica. And there are other examples.

“This tells us very clearly that there’s a need for a short name. But for some reason the Czechs themselves, and politicians in the first place, do not like to use it.”

Some people would say that the only real time to introduce “Czechia”, or to promote it, was in 1993, when the country was founded. That that was the kind of window in which to do it. Now it’s too late. After 23 years of people using “the Czech Republic”, it’s now too late to try to bring in a new name.

“First of all, I think it’s never too late to correct mistakes. And this obviously was a mistake.

“The second argument is that ‘Czechia’ is not a new name. ‘Czechia’ is the short name for ‘the Czech Republic’.

“It’s not replacing ‘the Czech Republic’. ‘The Czech Republic’ basically remains unchanged.

“But what we are arguing for is the use of ‘Czechia’, the short name, in all situations in which we are using short names for other countries.

“So I don’t think it is too late. It’s just a matter of getting used to it.

“There’s a clear parallel with the use of ‘Czechoslovakia’ and ‘the Czechoslovak Republic’.

“I’d like to remind our listeners that when ‘Czechoslovakia’ was introduced in 1918, this name was ridiculed. People laughed at it. They couldn’t spell it. They couldn’t pronounce it.

“But by using it, the Czechoslovak state at that time promoted the name. But this did not happen with the use of ‘Czechia’ after the Czech Republic was established.

“So I mainly blame Czech politicians for not using ‘Czechia’. And unfortunately this pattern seems to be continuing even now.”

Some people might also say that outside the Czech Republic people used “Czechoslovakia” way beyond the end of Czechoslovakia and that it’s taken people in other countries up to now to get used to “the Czech Republic” and now, only 20 years later, they’re being told to use a new name.

“First of all, the fact that people use ‘Czechoslovakia’ 23 years after the break-up of the country just shows how important that short name is.

“Despite the fact that it was so difficult to pronounce, so difficult to spell, they still remember it. It was a wonderful brand name for the country.

“Obviously the fact that they do not remember ‘the Czech Republic’, many of them…

“If you tell them, I’m from the Czech Republic, they say, What? Then you say, I’m from Czechoslovakia and they know it.

“So obviously a short name, which does not change every time the political system may be changed, is extremely important for a country, for its brand name, for its marketing.

“What I would argue is that the Czech Republic really needs a short name, even now. And that foreigners are much more willing to accept it if the Czechs start to use it, as we can see right now.”

One argument is that “Czechia” can be confused with “Chechnya”. That argument was made by among others the minister for regional development, Karla Šlechtová.

“A lack of geographical knowledge is not a good reason for not using a short country name.

“I can give you many examples of countries that have similar names and people confuse them, starting with our neighbours: Austria and Australia. They were confused even by the American president.

Illustrative photo: CTK
“Did it lead Austria or Australia to insist only on the political name and Austria saying, From now on call us only the Republic of Austria? No.

“Look at Slovenia/Slovakia, Mali/Malawi, India/Indonesia, Niger/Nigeria. And the list goes on!

“Most people don’t recognise the difference between Latvia and Lithuania. So I don’t see this as a valid argument.

“And second, of course: Chechnya is not an independent country.

“Any chance for confusion at international sporting events or international conferences is close to zero. Because Chechnya is never there as an independent country.

“So this argument is really a made-up argument and it is used by people who really do not know what they are talking about.”

The government began taking fresh steps to promote the use of “Czechia” in April this year. How do you view the progress since then regarding the use of “Czechia”?

“There has been important progress. First of all, on May 2 the government formally approved ‘Czechia’ as the short name, the geographic name for the Czech Republic.

“Then the United Nations was officially notified by the Czech government about the use of the short name.

“And on July 5 it was included in the official UN database of geographic names as the short name for the Czech Republic.”

But is it being used more? I’m not talking about formal steps, I’m asking about the actual usage of “Czechia”.

“Actually, it has been used more by others than by the Czechs.

“For example, the American State Department now has ‘Czechia’ on its website.

“Also the influential CIA World Factbook included ‘Czechia’.

“But the Czechs themselves have been hesitant to use it. They are making a number of excuses as to why not to use it.

“For example, during the Olympics you can see the Czechs marching under the name ‘the Czech Republic’, or being labelled with ‘Czech’ only on their kayaks and other equipment. Which I think is pretty ridiculous.

“But at the same time, it is the indecisiveness of the Czech government, or maybe the Czech bureaucrats, who don’t want to push the issue and don’t want to say clearly, From now on for sporting events, for non-diplomatic purposes, for purposes that do not relate to international treaties for example, we should use ‘Czechia’.”

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
Should the government be in some way forcing organisations to use the name ‘Czechia’, especially those that receive state funding?

“I think that the Czech government should do that. I think it needs to give clear instructions as to in what situations it is appropriate to use ‘Czechia’.”

I spoke to the head of the Czech Olympic Committee and he said they hadn’t received clear instructions from the government on the name ‘Czechia’ – they haven’t been told that they have to use it. Radio Prague is funded by the Czech Foreign Ministry and we haven’t been told that we have to use ‘Czechia’. Should the government be telling us and other organisations that we have to use it?

“I think the government should be telling you that you should use it and give you some instructions.

“But as I understand the situation, there are many people still in the Czech government and the Czech administration who for some reason do not like ‘Czechia’.

“They obviously believe that by doing nothing, the situation will go away, as it went away for 23 years.”

“So let’s hope that the situation will change.”

Are you optimistic that in, I don’t know, 20 years people will actually be using “Czechia”?

“It really depends on whether the Czech government and Czech bureaucrats start using it.

“If Czechs start using it, then the rest of the world will use it too, as it started to use other names such as, I don’t know, Eritrea, or Belarus or Croatia, that they didn’t know before.

“But these countries have clearly notified the world and told them, This is our country name.”

If you were a betting man, would you bet on the name being commonly used in the future? Do you think it will actually happen?

“I think it will happen. And I’ll tell you why. ‘Czechia’ is very practical.

“There is a need for a short name and I think it will catch on.

“But I think it will take time. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. It’s not going to happen overnight. It will take time.

“But again – it will depend on the usage by the Czechs. If they start using it, then it will catch on.”

Why do you think there is such resistance to the name ‘Czechia’? Every time at Radio Prague when we mention this subject on social media the response is a chorus of voices saying, Stay with ‘the Czech Republic’ – we don’t want ‘Czechia’.

Photo: Vojtěch Berger
“I think the only obvious reason is that people are not used to it.

“Otherwise, maybe some people maybe think that it is ugly. They don’t like the term.

“But to that I would say, Maybe I don’t like Massachusetts, or Lithuania, or Ireland. But I still use it, I accept it.

“The most important argument you can say is, The name was codified and standardised by the terminological committee for geographic names in 1993.

“This committee was composed of 55 specialists – geographers, historians, linguists – who were considering different options and came up with ‘Czechia’.

“The fact that people don’t like it I think could really be explained only by the fact they are not used to it.

“Repeat it 20 times and you will just get used to it.

“I did not use ‘Czechia’ 15 years ago. Now I don’t use anything else. It’s just a matter of getting used to it.”