What's in a name? Moravian autonomists oppose Czech Republic rebranding itself to "Czechia"

Moravianist movement argues name does not reflect Czech Republic's internal diversity, proposes 'Czechlands' as alternative · Main Moravian party demands implementation of federal system, autonomy for Silesia

A T-Shirt with the "Czechia" name.
A T-Shirt with the "Czechia" name. Author: Blanicky
FEATURE. By David Forniès. All United Nations member states have the right to be officially referred to by a short name of their choice. The French Republic is thus known as France, just as the United Mexican States are simply Mexico. The Czech Republic, however, does not have a specific short name at the UN level. That is set to change: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will ask the UN to inscribe "Czechia" as the country's short name while retaining "Czech Republic" as its official, full name. The decision, however, is raising criticism in Moravia, the territory that covers the country's eastern third. Moravian organizations and parties are calling a demonstration on Saturday 23rd in the Moravian capital Brno to tell the government that "Czechia" does not take into account the diversity of the country. The name debate takes place against the backdrop of demands for recognition and Moravian autonomy.

"The artificial name 'Czechia' (Slavic origin) or historical 'Bohemia' (Latin origin), which is the same, includes only one of the three lands which are together creating the state of the Czech Republic," Ondřej Hýsek tells Nationalia. Hýsek is the president of the main Moravian autonomist party, Moravané, one of the groups calling to protest. The three lands referred to by Hýsek are Bohemia –the largest one, with Prague as its capital–, Moravia and Silesia –most of which belongs to Poland, but has its southernmost region within the Czech borders.

In the Czech language, the word corresponding to "Czechia" is "Česko", which "was used for the first time in 1777 as the other name for Bohemia," Hýsek carries on, "so we don't use it and we don't like it at all." The fact that the name for Bohemia in Czech ("Čechy") sounds so similar and shares the same root with "Česko" does not help, either.

It is also true, however, that it all depends upon one's viewpoint. The Czech government sees it the other way round: according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Czechia" and "Bohemia" refer to different historical and geographical entities, the latter being a part of the former. Professor Vít Hloušek, head of the International Institute of Political Science of Brno's Masaryk University and author of several studies on Moravian identity and politics, holds the same vision: "Some Moravians detest 'Česko' and now detest 'Czechia' because they evaluate it as a word not paying attention or respect to Moravia and Silesia. It is a mistake, since 'Czechia' denotes the entire country," Hloušek tells Nationalia.

According to David Unger, president of the Moravian and Silesian Association (SMS), a cultural organization founded in 1968, the problem lies on the fact that the name issue "should have been resolved 20 years ago, when the Czech Republic was a new country in Europe." Its short name "should have reflected all three historical parts of the Czech Republic." Unger proposes as a solution an alternative name: "'Czechlands', similar to 'Netherlands'". Hýsek agrees.

Moravian identity on the rise, but not having an impact on elections

The name debate mixes purely linguistic issues with political and identity debates, such as the recognition of Moravians –and Silesians– as nationalities of their own. The government does not officially regard them as a distinct ethnic groups, separate from the Czechs. Still, in the 2011 population census –where answers on nationality were not compulsory–, 522,000 people declared themselves to be of Moravian nationality. In some areas of Brno's South Moravian region, more than 30% of citizens chose that definition. The figure marked a significant increase from 2001, when self-declared Moravians were 380,000. However, the figure still lags far behind from that of 1991, when Moravians were 1.36 million.

This recent upward trend, however, has not been matched by significant support for Moravian pro-autonomy parties. On the contrary, those parties have increasingly been losing votes: in the 1992 election, the now extinct Party of Moravia and Silesia totaled 380,000 votes and 14 seats in the Czech Parliament. Since then, Moravist support has collapsed below 30,000 votes. Moravané, in the 2006 and 2010 elections, attracted a mere 12,000 votes. In 2013 the party did not run for election.

"People are still very passive after the bad experiences form the totalitarian regimes and 'wild capitalism' of the 90s," Ondřej Hýsek regrets, "but I am sure that they will understand that Prague centralism takes their money and identity –and they start to say that publicly and vote like this." According to Hýsek, the Czech Republic "is a toughly centralized state which is pretending the autonomy of so called self-governing regions –we have 14 regions for 10 million inhabitants– with only 8 % of the taxes (municipalities have 22 %) while 70 % are usurped in Prague!"

Restoring autonomy or consolidating existing regions?

Until shortly before the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Moravia used to have its own Assembly, or Diet. In the interwar period, Moravia and Silesia constituted, together, one of the four countries of Czechoslovakia, along with Bohemia, Slovakia –now an independent state– and Carpathian Ruthenia –currently a province of Ukraine.

"Czech politicians promised after 1989 that they would restore the autonomy for Moravia and Silesia, [which was] cancelled by the Communist Party in 1948," David Unger points out. "This has not happened so far." According to Ondřej Hýsek, the Czech Republic would better be organized into "three or four lands –we prefer the model of Bohemia, Moravia-Silesia (with the inner autonomy of Silesia) and Prague" within a "Europe of regions." His Moravané party wants the Czech Republic to evolve into a federal state where the central government just manages "a few, expressly enumerated powers."

"We can not expect any substantial move against the basic setting of the unitary state," Vít Hloušek objects. "In fact, no relevant political party in the Czech Republic is striving neither for further regionalisation nor decentralisation". Hloušek recalls that support for Moravianist parties is right now "marginal". However, according to Unger, "the whole discussion only reflects the long-term Czech identity uncertainty."

David Forniès (@davidfornies) is Nationalia coordinator.