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North Macedonia Referendum: How Many Nations Have Changed Their Names and Why?

© AP Photo / Boris Grdanoski / Macedonian flag in front of the government building in Skopje, Macedonia (File)
Macedonian flag in front of the government building in Skopje, Macedonia (File) - Sputnik International
Voters in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia went to the polls at the weekend to vote in a referendum which would change the country's name. Sputnik looks at various nations around the world which have changed their names, often for political reasons.

When Yugoslavia collapsed in the early 1990s the southern-most part, centered on the city of Skopje, became independent but neighboring Greece had strong objections to it being called Macedonia because the name was linked to an ancient Greek region from which Alexander The Great was spawn.

The compromise was to call it FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) but not only was this is a terrible name but the Greeks still were not happy with it.

A deal with Greece and the EU was finally agreed in June this year which would mean that FYROM would be renamed the Republic of North Macedonia if agreed by the referendum on Sunday, September 30.  

The majority of those who voted said yes, which would mean North Macedonia would be free to apply for membership of the EU and NATO if the deal is ratified by parliament.

But what other countries have changed their names?


Apart from a "golden age" in the 14th century under the Bohemian kings, the Czechs were subjects of other empires for hundreds of years.

But the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after its defeat in the First World War and US President Woodrow Wilson's enthusiasm for "self-determination" led to the creation of Czechoslovakia, which included the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia and neighboring Slovakia.

The Czech and Slovak languages were very similar but in the 1920s and 1930s resentment rose in Slovakia over domination by Prague.

In 1939 Jozef Tiso, an anti-Semitic Catholic priest, became the head of the Nazi puppet state of Slovakia which was formed after Hitler marched into Bohemia and Moravia.

Tiso was arrested, sentenced to death and hanged in Bratislava in 1947 just as Czechoslovakia was recreated under a communist pro-Soviet regime.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism the Czech and Slovak people agreed to an amicable divorce and in 1993 the Czech Republic was created, alongside Slovakia.

In 2016 the government in Prague announced the country would be known as Czechia to make it easier for companies and sports teams to use it on shirts and goods.

The Czech Republic remains its official name just as France is officially the French Republic.


The name Abyssinia comes from the Arabic word habesh which means "mongrel" and the country's original name came from the many different peoples who lived there — Amhara, Oromo, Tigray and Somali among others.

For thousands of years, the people of Abyssinia had remained unconquered by foreign powers.

In 1896 the Italians, desperate to join the European powers' "scramble for Africa", invaded and tried to conquer the east African kingdom.

At the Battle of Adowa the Italian General Baratieri planned to surprise the enemy with an early morning attack but they had woken early for Orthodox Church services and dealt the Italians a crushing blow. 

The Italians held on to Eritrea on the coast and licked their wounds for 40 years.

In 1935 the fascist dictator Mussolini had another go and this time he conquered the whole country and chased out the young Emperor Haile Selassie in May 1936.

Somaliland, Eritrea and Abyssinia were all united under the name Italian East Africa.

But during the Second World War the Italians were driven out by the British and Haile Selassie was allowed to return.

The name of the country was officially changed to Ethiopia — a word with Greek origins, coming from the Greek words Aitho (Burnt) and Ops (Face), possibly referring to the dark skin of the inhabitants.

It remained Ethiopia even when Haile Selassie was ousted by a Marxist regime, known as The Dergue, in 1976.


In April this year, to celebrate his 50th birthday, King Mswati III of Swaziland, a tiny country in southern Africa, changed the name eSwatini.

The king had long complained that people confused his country with Switzerland.

Now they will perhaps confuse it with an online company selling fly swatters.

The new name means "The people of Swatini" and is intended to throw off the last vestiges of its colonial past because under the British Empire many colonies in Africa were simply named after the tribe that lived there — Bechuanaland, which became Botswana when it became independent in 1966, and Basutoland, which became Lesotho. 


The island off the coast of China that is nowadays known as Taiwan was originally called Formosa, a name given to it by the Portuguese and meaning "beautiful island".  The Portuguese, Dutch and the Spanish all had colonies on the island in the 17th century.

In 1895 the Emperor of Japan conquered it and it remained under the rule of Tokyo for half a century.

At the end of the Second World War the Japanese withdrew and the island reverted to rule from Beijing, but only for a few years.

In 1949 the defeated nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek fled there and it became the home of the Republic of China (Chung-hua Min-kuo), as opposed to the People's Republic of China, which Mao set up in Beijing.

The island remains in a permanent state of peaceful war with mainland China, which considers it a renegade province and refers to it as Zhongguo Taipei (China's Taipei).

In recent years some politicians in the capital, Taipei, have called for it to change its name to the Republic of Taiwan but they have not yet done so, fearing it would antagonize Beijing. 


The island of Ceylon gained independence from Britain in 1948 and changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972 when it left the commonwealth and became a republic.

Ceylon was an anglicized translation of Ceilao, the name the country had been given by the Portuguese, who again had set up settlements on it in the 17th century.

In 2011 the government in Colombo decided to rename the last renaming organizations which still had the old name — the Bank of Ceylon, Ceylon Electricity Board, Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and Ceylon Fisheries Corporation.

Lanka was the classical name for the island in the epic Indian poem, Ramayana.

The Tamil Tigers, a rebel group who fought for years for independence for the Tamil minority in the north east, wanted to call their new country Eelam.

But they were destroyed in 2009 and their leader, Velupillai Prabakharan, killed.


In the 19th century, an Englishman named Cecil Rhodes was at the forefront of the British Empire's advance into southern Africa.

Rhodes was a businessman and a mining magnate, who helped set up the diamond firm DeBeers.

But he was loyal to Britain and when he died in 1902 the Empire decided to name two colonies where had done much of his work after him — Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia.

Northern Rhodesia would become independent, like Zambia, in 1964 but Southern Rhodesia, which had far more white settlers, would have a troubled life.

The white settlers' combative leader Ian Smith declared UDI (unilateral declaration of independence) in November 1965 and led a pariah white-rule state for 15 years despite them being outnumbered by the black majority by 20 to 1.

Rhodesia, propped up by apartheid-era South Africa, was faced with a rebellion by the guerrillas of Robert Mugabe's ZANLA and Joshua Nkomo's ZIPRA.

Eventually, Britain forced them to negotiate and in 1980 the country became Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and eventually Zimbabwe with Mugabe gradually Nkomo from power.


Since 1886 Burma was part of the British Empire but the name rankled with many in the country as the Burmese are only one of many nationalities.

Significant minorities are the Chin, Shan, Karen, Mon and of course the Muslim Rohingya, who in recent years have been persecuted and forced to flee into neighboring Bangladesh.

In 1989 the ruling military junta changed its name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 and also renamed the capital Rangoon as Yangon.

The two words mean the same and one is derived from the other.

Burmah, as it was spelled in the 19th Century, is a corruption of the word Myanmar.

Bizarrely the UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt still referred to it as Burma in tweets last week.


A vast chunk of central Africa — with its capital at Kinshasa — is known as the Democratic Republic of Congo nowadays but it has gone through several name changes.

The Portuguese navigator Diogo Cao was the first to explore the area and British, Dutch and French slave traders also exploited the area but it remained unclaimed until the 1870s when Leopold II, King of the Belgians, set up a private company to colonize it largely for his own personal wealth.

His brutal rule was exposed and in 1909 he was forced to hand the area over to the Belgian state.

It remained the Belgian Congo until 1960 when it became independent as the Republic of Congo — not to be confused with the former French colony next door which was known as Congo (Brazzaville).

Colonel Joseph Desire Mobutu took power after the death of the country's inspirational leader, Patrice Lumumba, and turned it into his own personal fiefdom.

In 1971, under an Africanization policy, he changed the country's name to Zaire.

When Mobutu was finally ousted in 1997 by rebels led by Laurent-Desire Kabila the country's name was changed again, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, often shortened to DR Congo.

In recent years the name Zaire has become a popular child's name, especially among African-Americans.

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