From Turkey to Türkiye: What’s in a name change?

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets Russian and Ukrainian delegations before negotiations in Istanbul on March 29.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets Russian and Ukrainian delegations before negotiations in Istanbul on March 29.Anadolu Agency (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Since June 1, the official name of Turkey in the United Nations, and by extension in the international community, has been Türkiye. The new brand will no longer give rise to misunderstandings in the English language, but the zeal of the officials in charge of applying the measure has been such that it has created more than one lost-in-translation situation.

The change at the United Nations was immediate. Secretary General António Guterres received a letter from the head of Turkish diplomacy, Mevlüt Çavusoglu, requesting that “the name of (his) country at the UN, in foreign languages, be registered as Türkiye.” The change was implemented straight away, said Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for Guterres.

The initiative, explained Çavusoglu on his Twitter account, is part of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s initiative, begun in late 2021, to “increase the brand value” of his country. The move comes as the country’s economy is growing cause for concern, with skyrocketing inflation and a depreciated lira. Ankara has spent years wanting to impose the Made in Türkiye brand internationally, instead of the traditional Made in Turkey.

Turkey’s is not the only country name change that the UN has accepted over the years. From the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new independent countries, to the most recent change of Holland for the Netherlands, the UN has quickly responded to the requests. “The process is quite simple: an official representative of a country (in this case, the Turkish foreign minister) simply has to send a letter to the secretary general requesting that the country’s name be officially changed. As soon as the secretary-general’s office confirms that the letter is authentic, the name change will take effect at the United Nations. There have been some examples of this in the past,” explains Ian Johnson, a UN specialist at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.

Johnson points out that in recent years Holland has become the Netherlands; Swaziland is now Eswatini, Czech Republic has become Czechia, and Macedonia is now known as North Macedonia.

But the introduction of a new name is often much more than a change of brand, and the decision has as much to do with the internal politics of the country in question as with its image abroad, whether for political, historical, legal or even tourist-driven reasons. When the Netherlands regained that name in 2020, it did so to let the world know that it is bigger than two of its provinces, North Holland and South Holland. With the change, in addition, the country wanted to tell the world about its national innovation and economic strength, and move beyond the enduring images of windmills, cheeses and tulips.

In 2018, Swaziland, a small country sandwiched between Mozambique and South Africa, became Eswatini out of a desire to break with the colonial past that the first name implied (in fact, the change was announced at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of independence from the British Empire). Officials also argued that the country’s colonial name was often confused with Switzerland in English. In 2016, the Czech Republic, resulting from the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, adopted the name Czechia, and is listed as such in many international organizations.

The dispute in North Macedonia

The case of North Macedonia is more complicated, since it is a change that involves historical, identity and administrative issues. In order for Greece (which has a northern region historically known as Macedonia) to officially recognize its northern neighbor, unlocking its access to the European Union and NATO, the former Republic of Macedonia agreed to call itself the Republic of North Macedonia by virtue of the historic Prespas agreement (2018), later ratified by parliaments in Skopje and Athens. The change forced to rename everything from signage to bank notes and textbooks.

“The name change was not automatic, but happened after constitutional amendments. When they came into force, the name change became official,” explains Andreja Stojkovski, executive director of the PRESPA Institute, from Skopje. “There was no problem with the UN, but because of Bulgaria and its problem with the new name, we made one more change last January. We have passed a diplomatic note explaining that the use of the abbreviated name North Macedonia always refers to the country Republic of North Macedonia.”

But perhaps the most striking example is Turkey, which applied for the name change in the midst of an unparalleled economic crisis, with soaring hyperinflation, further aggravated by the effect of the war in Ukraine (its geographical location and the extensive coastline of the Black Sea place Turkey near the front line of the conflict).

“It is an attempt to demonstrate to the Turkish public at home and to Turks living in Germany and other Western European countries that Erdogan has the power to assert his will beyond the political borders of the country, and to shape the language and define the terms of the debate,” says Mustafa Aksakal, a professor of history at Georgetown University. “The name change has great symbolic value at home, at least in some circles. It may seem silly to some, but it gives Erdogan the role of protector, of safeguarding the country’s international reputation and respect for the country.”

There are other precedents in the same region. It took years for Iran to get rid of the name Persia, without completely succeeding.

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