The two face of Kazakhstan

'Borat' weighs heavy on nation

Pity poor Kazakhstan.

It’s faced with a Hollywood movie that poses as a clumsy propaganda effort to improve the Kazakh image abroad, just as it’s mounting its own clumsy propaganda effort to improve its image abroad.

But even when President Nursultan Nazarbayev (re-elected last year with 91% of the vote!) gets an audience with President George W. Bush, the only topic that seems to interest U.S. reporters is “Borat,” the Sacha Baron Cohen spoof of a clueless, racist, misogynist Kazakh TV reporter.

The last time the Kazakhs protested Borat — they yanked his Kazakh-hosted Web site — he responded in a video in which his character condemned “that Jew” Cohen and said, “Kazakhstan is as civilized as any other country in the world. Please, captains of industry, I invite you to come to Kazakhstan where we have incredible natural resources, hard-working labor and some of the cleanest prostitutes in all of Central Asia.”

To coincide with Nazarbayev’s D.C. trip, the Kazakh government (the real one) took out a four-page ad in the New York Times to make a similar case about the booming Kazakh economy (except for that bit about the prostitutes).

It touted its banking system (“Cash machines, credit cards, pay cards … have become as commonplace in Almaty as elsewhere in the world”) and tourist attractions (“many decent restaurants, especially ethnic fare like Korean and Uzbek”).

It’s all free publicity for “Borat,” of course. While Nazarbayev was at the White House, Borat appeared in front of the Kazakh embassy in his own news conference to denounce the Times ad as a “disgusting fabrication” orchestrated by the “evil nimwits” in Uzbekistan.

“If there is one more item of Uzbek propaganda claiming that we do not drink fermented horse urine,” he said, “then we will be left with no alternative but to commence bombardment of their cities with our catapults.”

While the Kazakh ad included a story on religious tolerance (Nazarbayev, who’s effectively been in charge there since 1989, boasted, “In the last 15 years, there has not been a single case of a newspaper or television station harassing the followers of any particular faith”), it did not note recent legal restrictions requiring all religious orgs to register with the government, or a pattern of dissident politicians being killed.

A report in the Times last February on a high-profile political killing noted the shooting followed “the death last fall of another popular opposition figure, who was shot twice in the chest and once in the head. The Kazakhstan police have said that the death was a suicide.”

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