A referendum on Sunday to change the name of a country from the Republic of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia has perhaps raised more questions than answers. The country's prime minister promoted the vote as a key step toward improving relations with Greece and eventually entering the European Union and NATO, while low voter turnout (37 percent of eligible voters) was driven in part by a boycott and political bickering. The vote follows decades of dispute with the Greek government in Athens over use of the name Macedonia.
With less than 50 percent of the voters coming to the polls the referendum did not meet a legal threshhold, even though the vast majority of voters who showed up (91 percent) chose the new name. Supporters of the name change say they will take the fight to the country's parliament next, in an effort to ammend the constitution. That outcome is entirely unclear, analysts say, with many politicians and citizens holding fast that a name change amounts to treason.
So it remains to be seen whether Macedonia will join the list of countries that have changed their names.
Most recently, to celebrate his 50th birthday, Africa’s last absolute monarch changed the name of his country in April 2018. Instead of Swaziland, it became known as the Kingdom of eSwatini.
King Mswati III had long complained that people outside of Africa confused his country with Switzerland. And there are similarities: eSwatini, “the land of the Swazis,” is also landlocked and has some mountains. But it’s much smaller, smaller even than New Jersey, and located on the eastern border of South Africa, just south of Kruger National Park.
Unlike Switzerland’s direct democracy, King Mswati inherited the throne in 1986 from his father, Sobhuza II, who had reigned for 82 years. King Mswati currently has 15 wives. Swiss president Alain Berset only has one.
Changing a country’s name comes with complications. All of eSwatini’s money bears the name of the Central Bank of Swaziland. There is government letterhead and official signage, vehicle license plates, uniforms of the military and national sports teams, and so on. Its airline is Swaziland Airlink. But since there is just one plane, repainting it might not be too challenging.
Why Countries Change Their Names
Marketing, not mistaken identity, is why the Czech Republic now wants to be known as Czechia. Officials there said having a one-word name would make it easier to promote its identity on the national stage. After all, France is officially “The French Republic,” they argued. The Czech Republic itself is relatively new, coming into existence along with the Slovak Republic when Czechoslovakia broke in two in 1993. The use of Czechia became official in 2016.
In another recent country name change, Cape Verde—a nation of 10 islands and a half million people in the central Atlantic Ocean—became “Cabo Verde” in 2013. The new name is actually the original name Portuguese sailors gave the uninhabited islands in 1444. Cabo Verde means green cape.
Perhaps the most complex series of country name changes revolves around a central European country that no longer exists. Yugoslavia was first cobbled together out of the wreckage of World War I and was officially called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. In 1929 it was renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Following World War II, a communist government took control and renamed it the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia. In 1963 it was renamed again as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and a series of brutal internal conflicts, Yugoslavia came apart in 1992. After various boundary changes and more conflicts, the former Yugoslavia territory is today comprised of the modern states of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Serbia's Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija unilaterally declared its independence in 2008.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has also undergone many name changes. From 1885 to 1908 it was called (without intended irony) the Congo Free State while brutally ruled as a private venture by King Leopold II of Belgium. Later it became the Belgian Congo, then Congo-Leopoldville, and finally after its independence in 1960, the Republic of Congo. A few years later that was modified to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1971 the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko named it the Republic of Zaire, perhaps because Zaire was an alternative name for the Congo River. After the fall of Mobutu, the name was changed back to the "Democratic Republic of the Congo” in 1997.
Other significant name changes:
Kingdom of Cambodia → Khmer Republic → Kampuchea → Cambodia (1991)
French Somaliland → Territory of the Afars and the Issas → Djibouti (1977)
Gilbert Islands → Kiribati (1979)
Portuguese Timor → East Timor → Timor-Leste (2002)
German Southwest Africa → Southwest Africa → Namibia (1990)
Upper Volta → Burkina Faso (1984)
This story was originally published on April 20, 2018 and was updated on October 2, 2018 with information about Macedonia.