Saturday, April 23, 2016

Changing our country’s name to Czechia won’t solve the problems

‘It is perhaps partly because of our past that people in the Czech Republic have accepted the news with a mood of slightly amused disbelief.’ Photograph: Petr David Josek/AP

Quite fittingly, the Guardian’s story on the Czech Republic’s attempt to rebrand itself as Czechia opened with a reference to the writer Franz Kafka. For when citizens of the country awoke on Friday morning, they found that things had changed. The announcement that the country’s name was to change came as much as a surprise to the citizens of the Czech Republic as to the rest of the world.
You would think such an important decision would be the result of a broad public debate (just think of the long and complicated process New Zealand went through trying to change its flag) – but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In a poll conducted by the newspaper Mladá Fronta Dnes in 2013, 16,845 people said they didn’t like the new name, compared with 6,160 who did. The fact that officials think they can impose something like this shows how little respect they have for those that they govern.

But it’s an attitude the people of the Czech Republic will be all too familiar with. There has long been division about the country’s identity. Even the breakup of Czechoslovakia, although said to be peaceful, left many people on both sides feeling bitter. It happened without a referendum, which was demanded at the time in a petition signed by more than a million Czechs and Slovaks – a huge proportion of the countries’ combined population of 15 million. The breakup happened in an apparent breach of the Czechoslovak constitution and it was imposed without any mandate from the people. Both of the successor countries have since struggled with attempts to define their identity.
The Czech Republic consists of two lands: Bohemia and Moravia (and a little bit of Silesia, too). This results in further complications over our name as most of the Moravians feel that the geographic name describing the country should take this into account, and that “Czech lands” should be the proper geographic title of the country both in Czech and in English.

It is perhaps partly because of our past that people in the Czech Republic have accepted the news with a mood of slightly amused disbelief. There is a long tradition of the Czechs making fun of themselves. But behind this, even those in favour of the name change feel embarrassed by the way the government has once again bypassed the public in this decision. To make matters worse, the name change wasn’t even the result of some expert discussion. The only people they consulted were PRs, who felt the single word title would “sell the country better”. Despite this, on the day the idea was announced, even the head of the official Institute for the Czech language described the planned change as “forced through”.

The question of whether or not you are supposed to – at least in a democracy – have such a debate prior to a decision rather than after it will haunt the officials, and will add to a growing feeling of estrangement between mainstream politics and everyday life. Both from outside and inside the country it looks as if the Czech government does not have anything more important to deal with. But that’s not the case. We have a president who is the Czech equivalent of Nigel Farage. So how about addressing the issues of xenophobia and anti-EU feelings? How about tackling the fact that the police harass journalists and universities just for expressing a dissenting opinion?

A government not capable of facing up to these issues might well have thought that a small distraction – an unnecessary change in the country’s name perhaps – would be worth a little embarrassment. They might think differently about it now.