On 12 June, the governments of Macedonia and Greece announced that they reached an agreement to change the former’s name. This decision comes months after King Mswati III of Swaziland changed his African nation’s name to eSwatini. A nation’s name, like a flag or a national anthem, is part of a country’s identity; thus, changes to any of them are momentous occasions. Recent Changes to Country Names Due to space issues, we will briefly, and solely, list changes to nations’ names that have taken place during the past few decades. (In other words we will not discuss changes to flags, as New Zealand almost did in 2016, or the Czech Republic’s adoption of “Czechia” as a moniker, also in 2016). For example, the late President Laurent-Desire Kabila changed Zaire’s name to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after coming to power in 1997. Two years later, in 1999, the late President Hugo Chavez renamed the Republic of Venezuela to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. A decade later, in 2009, President Evo Morales changed his landlocked nation’s name, from the Republic of Bolivia to the Plurinational State of Bolivia. More recently, in 2012, the Republic of Hungary became simply Hungary. A year later, in 2013, Cape Verde became the Republic of Cabo Verde. Finally, as previously noted, Swaziland is now the Kingdom of eSwatini, while the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) will now be known as the Republic of North Macedonia, assuming that the June 2018 agreement with Athens is approved by both parliaments. Finally, it is worth noting that one more nation, Kazakhstan, may change its name. There have been discussions about renaming it “Kazakh Yeli,” which means Land of the Kazakhs. Why Change? There are several reasons why a government may decide to change the country’s name. For example, Macedonia is changing its name in order to put to rest a decades-old dispute with Greece, which will hopefully mean that Athens will stop blocking Skopje’s attempts to join blocs like NATO and the European Union. Other changes have more to do with new leaders deciding to break away from previous regimes and start “fresh.” This is the case of the DRC, as President Kabila changed the country’s name after the dictator Joseph Mobutu was overthrown (for a good book about Congolese history, see: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa). Other reasons may have to do with a leader’s political ideology, for example, the late President Chavez added the word “Bolivarian” to Venezuela’s name in honor of his hero, the 19th century South American liberator Simon Bolivar. Similarly, President Morales of Bolivia added the term “Plurinational” to celebrate the nation’s linguistic and cultural diversity—he is Bolivia’s first indigenous head of state, which likely influenced his decision. In Kazakhstan’s case, the Kazakh government aims to distance itself from the other “stans,” through its potential name change. A 2014 article in The Economist explains that the Kazakh leadership “puts itself in a different league from its neighbours. ” A Name, An Identity As previously mentioned, a country’s name is part of its national identity, and it is important for any government to keep in mind how its population will react to such changes; there have been mixed reactions to these initiatives. For example, there have already been protests in Macedonia due to the government’s decision, and there was also popular unrest in Hungary when its name change occurred. Conversely, the international media has not reported major unrest in eSwatini surrounding its new name, perhaps because, as a BBC report argued, the population has other, bigger concerns, like poverty and high HIV levels. Similarly, the Venezuelan government’s addition of an adjective to the country’s name, rather than fully changing it, explains the little opposition regarding this decision—in any case, Venezuela’s political and economic meltdown are the population’s main concerns nowadays, and outweigh the praising (or not) of a 19th century liberator. As the aforementioned examples have demonstrated, the very name of a country, the building block of a person’s national identity and sense of patriotism, continues to evolve in the 21st century. Such a change not only has bureaucratic implications—updating passports, driving licenses, maps, anthems, state-owned companies and a plethora of official documents—but also affects a person’s national identity, which can result in negative reactions, as is currently happening in Macedonia. A country’s name tells the history of its people, and in the age of the “global everything,” it is important to understand how these new names came to be and what do they mean, as this will influence how the rest of the world will interact with these newly named nations. About the author: Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.