Czechoslovakia, Czech Republic or Czechia – what’s in a name?

“And I regret some of the recent behaviour that Russia has exhibited, and I’ll be glad to talk about that later including the reduction of oil supplies to Czechoslovakia after they agreed with us on a missile defence system…” That was Republican presidential candidate John McCain talking in New Mexico earlier this summer.

His comments were criticized because he, like so many others, was mistakenly referring to a country that hasn’t existed for more than a decade. This was the response from a programme on US cable show MSNBC:

“I mean, look. Here’s the problem. Czechoslovakia has not existed for eighteen years.”

“That is a problem. Czechoslovakia broke up a while ago. This would sort of be like referring to Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck as ‘Bennifer’ today, you just can’t do that.”

“No, because they split up. We have to call them Jen and Ben!”

A typically shallow analogy there from US cable news, but the point is clear. Why do so many people seem to have trouble knowing that Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia a long time ago? In fact, it is not just politicians that get it wrong, here is ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos making the same mistake, while discussing seemingly crucial Czech participation in the controversial US missile defence shield:

“By pushing for Georgia to be in NATO, by pushing for Ukraine to be in NATO, by putting a missile defence system in Czechoslovakia, this was seen as belligerent and aggressive by Putin, and kind of brought him in…”

Erik Best is an American-born political commentator who has lived in the Czech lands – and by that I mean both the former Czechoslovakia and now the Czech Republic - for seventeen years. I asked him for his take as to why so many people seem to get the name wrong:

“Well, there are a couple of aspects to it. One is, that it used to be Czechoslovakia, so there are people who were born in Czechoslovakia and there are people who consider themselves Czechoslovaks. And there are certain agreements and events that actually took place in Czechoslovakia. So when you are talking about Czechoslovakia, you should properly speak about Czechoslovakia. The problem comes when people don’t realise that there was a transition and they think that they are talking about Czechoslovakia and in fact they are talking about the Czech Republic, which is difficult in and of itself, and that is where all the confusion comes in of course.”

Struggling with the issue, a few years ago, the term ‘Czechia’ was seriously considered as an alternative to The Czech Republic, but thankfully rejected. So is the ‘the’ part of the name what is causing so many problems? Erik Best again:

“I think that makes it difficult, because there is no easy solution as opposed to some other languages. No matter which solution you try to get at, none of them is good. We’ve had readers to try to force upon us the idea of using the term ‘Czechia’ but at least an American speaker has trouble pronouncing that, so it is kind of out for that reason. And it also raises issues of whether it sounds like Chechnya. In other languages it is easier, but in English, the Czech Republic is a mouthful to begin with, but there is no better solution.”

Rostislav Vondruška is the director of Czech Tourism, the organization charged with promoting the Czech Republic overseas. I asked him for his take on the whole controversy:

“I think it is connected to the brand itself. Czechoslovakia was a wonderful brand, and it is still in people’s minds. Obviously, there has not been enough time to change perceptions about a small country in the middle of Europe. I think the influence on decisions related to tourism is minor.”

And why was the Czechia idea dropped?

“I don’t think that it was an issue of renaming the country, it was more like using the name for marketing purposes. And it was not accepted because people might mix up the name with Chechnya. There had been many arguments about it, but it was really that simple. Also, a lot of money had been invested in the name of the Czech Republic.”

Photo: CzechTourism
Mr Vondruška also downplayed the significance of the whole name issue:

“What really counts is the quality of the services and the perceptions of people across the world. The name is not that important.”

But a key question remains. Have the Czechs done enough to promote their name overseas? Erik Best again:

“Well, I wouldn’t blame it on the Czechs themselves. It is a small country and it would take an awful lot of money to have the Czech Republic have instant name recognition among any sizeable amount of the population. Of course, they might devote a few more resources to the English speaking audience because I think it is more difficult in English than, say, German where there is an equivalent that works fairly well.”

I asked him to explain further:

“The Nazis called it die Tschechei, which is a negative connotation, but there is also Tschechien which is actually perfectly usable, but you have some people who confuse the two and that can cause some problems with those who remember the way the Germans spoke about it under Hitler.”

Erik Best also pointed out a unique solution that Brits appear to use quite often:

“In the UK, there is a tendency to call it ‘Czecho’ which I think the Brits even did before as a shorthand name for Czechoslovakia. But Americans, as far as I know, never called it ‘Czecho’ and it sounds a bit odd to our ears, so to get a universal short name for it is going to be extremely difficult.”

Whatever the name, it is clear that some people have no idea that the Czech Republic, not to mention Slovakia even exist. Indeed perceptions about wars (confusion with Yugoslavia), hunger (confusion with Romania) and being a true part of the Soviet Union (confusion with Ukraine) are prevalent among many, even in Europe. I asked Rostislav Vondruška whether this seeming ignorance ever personally annoyed him:

“Not at all. We have an initiative which is called ‘V4’ and we work together within this organization with Slovaks, Poles and people from Hungary. And this Visegrad initiative has some wonderful success stories in remote markets like North America, Latin America or Asia, so we don’t really feel that.”

And what about American misperceptions, in which even a presidential candidate can get his geography or history wrong? Erik Best explains:

“Only twenty-five or thirty percent of Americans have passports. We are not a nation of great travellers, and we relate to things in terms of their significance to us and Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic have not played a great role in our history so they don’t roll off the tongue the way that Russia does or France, or other countries that have been more prominent in our history.”

Of course, with the recent missile defence agreement with the United States, the name of the Czech Republic is certainly about to get more attention, or perhaps infamy. But even so, knowledge about the country’s identity, history and even its name will often slip by the wayside. The Czech lands have had their fair share of history over the decades and centuries, but it seems that at the moment, even getting the name of the Czech Republic out into the global consciousness will be a challenge in itself.