Wednesday, 29 November 2006

KAZAKHSTAN LEARNS TO LOVE BORAT

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By Ryan Kennedy (11/29/2006 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND:Borat, the popular and controversial character developed by British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, has given the Kazakhstan government plenty of reasons not to like him. While claiming to be Kazakhstan\'s second more popular news personality, Borat has said that Kazakhstan\'s national drink is fermented horse urine, that the national game involves throwing Uzbeks into a pit, and that, for 3/4 the price of a prostitute in Amsterdam, a person could purchase the same services from Kazakhstan\'s president. Not surprisingly, the reaction of Kazakhstan\'s government to Borat\'s appearance at the MTV Europe Music Awards in November 2005 was very negative.
BACKGROUND:Borat, the popular and controversial character developed by British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen, has given the Kazakhstan government plenty of reasons not to like him. While claiming to be Kazakhstan\'s second more popular news personality, Borat has said that Kazakhstan\'s national drink is fermented horse urine, that the national game involves throwing Uzbeks into a pit, and that, for 3/4 the price of a prostitute in Amsterdam, a person could purchase the same services from Kazakhstan\'s president. Not surprisingly, the reaction of Kazakhstan\'s government to Borat\'s appearance at the MTV Europe Music Awards in November 2005 was very negative. The Foreign Ministry suggested that Cohen may be acting on the orders of \"a foreign power\" to defame Kazakhstan, and threatened to bring the case to court. When Cohen used the Borat website to respond, saying he fully supported his government\'s decision to \"sue this Jew,\" the government kicked him off of the .kz domain name. And when Borat\'s movie, \"Borat: Cultural Learnings for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,\" came out, officials encouraged local theaters to boycott the film, which has yet to be shown in either Kazakhstan or Russia. Recently, however, the government\'s approach changed dramatically. It started with the popular Kazakh newspaper Caravan, dubbing the movie \"the best film of the year.\" The liberal-leaning, but usually loyal, paper suggested that the government change its tune, quoting Borat\'s advice to his producer -- \"Relax, Azamat!\" Four days later, on November 21st, the Minister of Culture and Information, Ermukhamet Ertysbayev, publicly called the movie \"funny\" and said that its real target was \"American manners and rural people and their intellect.\" The very next day, President Nazarbayev, in a press conference in London, said, \"The film was created by a comedian so let\'s laugh at it, that\'s my attitude.\" With the official acceptance of the film has come other unusual praise, including the nomination of the film for the annual award of the Kazakhstan Club of Art Patrons by a leading national author, novelist Sapabek Asip-uly. IMPLICATIONS:The government had several reasons for changing its attitude towards Borat. Primary among these, in the words of Asip-uly, is that Borat \"has managed to spark an immense interest in the whole world in Kazakhstan, something our authorities could not do during the years of independence.\" For example, a Google news search of \"the real Kazakhstan\" lists 115 articles in the last month, most with headlines like \"Real Kazakhstan is Far Better than Borat\'s Version\" in the Arizona Daily Star and \"Beautiful Kazakhstan (Sorry, Borat)\" in the Florida Sun-Sentinel. A similar search of major newspaper headlines in Lexis-Nexis reveals that from 1996 to 2005, only 690 articles had Kazakhstan in the headline, or about 69 per year. This compares with 117 in just the last six months, of which only 61 do not contain a reference to Borat. The number of visitors to Kazakhstan\'s state news agency, kazinform.kz, has exploded, doubling to 27,000 unique viewers per week in the leadup to the movie\'s release, largely because of a link on Borat\'s homepage. The Kazakhstan Embassy has reported fielding more calls than ever about tourism, and is even promoting tours by the Sayet Tour Agency titled \"Kazakhstan vs. Boratistan\" and \"Jagzhemash!!! See the Real Kazakhstan.\" As Nazarbayev said in London, \"...any publicity is good publicity.\" A second reason for the government\'s change of heart is that criticism of Borat did more to bring attention to the character and highlight Kazakhstan\'s own problems with free press. Both the criticism of Borat\'s performance in the MTV Europe Music Awards and the removal of his website from the .kz domain name produced more news coverage than the ceremony itself, and drew formal protest from Reporters Without Borders. More stories appeared in the Western media about the government\'s spat with Borat than did the three confiscations of opposition newspapers during the December 2005 presidential elections, the banning of the opposition newspaper The Zuma Times for violating laws protecting the honor and dignity of the President (Article 100 of the Code on Administrative Violations), or even the murder of Kazakh opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbayev. The New York Times, for example, wrote two articles mentioning the Sarsenbayev murder, while printing five articles just on Borat\'s MTV Europe appearance and the ensuing controversy. Also interesting is the influence of Dariga Nazarbayeva, President Nazarbayev\'s daughter, and a potential successor to the Presidency, in shaping this response. As Erica Marat reported in the October 18 CACI Analyst , Dariga was among the first to call for accepting the film with a sense of humor. The Independent (London) even suggested deploying Dariga as the way to \"defeat Borat.\" The adoption, and relative success, of her strategy for dealing with Borat in the press may help her gain back some of the favor that she lost when she revealed sensitive family information to the press during the Sarsenbayev investigation. CONCLUSIONS:Both the recent comments on Borat from the President and a high-level minister and their release on consecutive days suggests that these statements mark a complete change in the strategy of dealing with the movie. This change is largely due to hard lessons learned from the criticism of Borat\'s MTV Europe appearance and the unintentional good press the movie has generated for Kazakhstan. The change may also signal that the President\'s media-savvy daughter, Dariga, is back on the rise. It is, however, very unlikely that this change signals any softening in Kazakhstan\'s restrictions on press within its own borders, as these actions have yet to attract large domestic or international attention. President Bush\'s statements that Kazakhstan is a \"free nation\" in his meeting with Nazarbayev in the Oval Office only serve to highlight this further. AUTHOR’S BIO:Ryan Kennedy is a PhD candidate at The Ohio State University, and is currently on a Fulbright Research Fellowship in Moldova. Previous to this he conducted field work in Kazakhstan as part of his dissertation on the relationship between fuel exports and democratic development. His analysis of the 2005 Kazakhstan presidential elections will be included in next month\'s Problems in Post-Communism.
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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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