What's In A Name? A Lot If You're A Country

Jun 20, 2013

A flag and a nameplate: Those seemingly innocuous items were apparently the reason that Afghan President Hamid Karzai abruptly refused to participate in peace talks also involving the Taliban and the U.S.

The flag was the same white flag the Taliban used when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The nameplate bore the words "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the name used by the old Taliban government.

The Taliban has removed the nameplate, and the flag was lowered to the point that it couldn't be seen from the street. However, the peace talks are still on hold.

Naming disputes may seem trivial, but opposing factions are often deadly serious about it. Here's a list of some previous disputes:

Taiwan and China: China is home to more than 1 billion people, an economic powerhouse with nuclear weapons and a U.N. Security Council seat. But until 1971, tiny Taiwan represented China at the United Nations. The current divisions are a result of the Chinese civil war in the 1940s. The victorious communists set up the People's Republic of China on the mainland. The retreating Republic of China government fled to Taiwan. Taiwan has few allies, but it still claims sovereignty over the mainland. China considers it a breakaway province.

Greece and Macedonia: Macedonia — or the Republic of Macedonia, as it calls itself — was one of the countries formed when Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s. Trouble is, a Greek province with the same name abuts it. The country's name is also a throwback to the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia (of Alexander the Great fame). Greece wants the country to call itself the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The dispute is among the reasons Macedonia has been denied entry into the European Union and NATO.

Cyprus: Cyprus has been divided since the 1974 Turkish invasion of the northern part of the island. Nearly a decade later, Turkish Cypriots proclaimed their own state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. But it's recognized only by Turkey; the rest of the world regards it as occupied Cyprus. The division has been bitter, and recent attempts at unification have failed. The southern part of Cyprus was until recently doing much better economically than the north. But as reporter Joanna Kakissis noted, "now, the Turks in northern Cyprus have the booming economy, while Greek Cypriots, crippled by exposure to ailing Greek banks" are hurting.

Burma or Myanmar?: The West and Myanmar are now talking after decades of estrangement. But the U.S. can keep up pressure by simply continuing to call the country Burma. The military rulers changed the country's official name to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar in 1989, but many countries continue to call it the Union of Burma. During his visit there in November 2012, President Obama referred to it by both names. As The Associated Press noted at the time, whether "slip of the tongue or intentional remark," top government officials in Myanmar/Burma welcomed Obama's wording.

The Hyphen War: This sounds like a copy editor's nightmare, but it was a dispute between the partners in what was once Czechoslovakia after the fall of their communist government. The Slovaks wanted a hyphen, so the country would be the Republic (or Federation) of Czecho-Slovakia as it was prior to the communist takeover. Parliament's solution? A hyphen in the Slovak language; no hyphen in Czech. Of course, it didn't matter. The countries went through an amicable divorce in 1993 and are both members of the EU.

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