Roman Vasilenko, the press secretary at the embassy of Kazakhstan, must rue the day he first heard about the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as the Kazakh character Borat Sagdiyev. Imagine the sheer awkwardness of that first phone call in which Mr. Vasilenko brought the matter to the attention of his government superiors:
Mr. Vasilenko: “Says his name is Borat.”
Mr. Superior: “Who? What?”
Mr. Vasilenko: “Sagdiyev, Borat Sagdiyev. Claims to be the ‘sixth-most-popular-man’ in Kazakhstan. Says he’s a Kazakh journalist exploring Western culture ‘for make benefit for the glorious nation of Kazakhstan’; also says he’s been a ‘Gypsy-catcher’ and ‘equine semen collector.’ And his favorite hobbies are disco-dancing, archery, rape, and table tennis. He’s a raging anti-Semite and misogynist, and can often be seen wearing florescent G-string Speedos.
Mr. Superior (feverishly searching in Kazakh secret service archives): “Never heard of him. But we must stop this menace that has befallen our great nation. [Heavy reflective pause.] Eliminate him.”
One empathizes with the plight of Mr. Vasilenko, battling the absolutely brilliant comedy shtick that has caused such “fabricated malfeasance” to pervade the minds of gullible Westerners. Last week, when President Nazarbayev came to town for talks with President Bush, the Kazakh PR machine kicked into high gear, buying four-page spreads in most respected American news outlets and launching a series of enticing TV commercials about the nomadic beauty of Kazakhstan. Occasionally, a Soviet reflex would creep in, reminding the readers/viewers about agricultural achievements, buttressed by precise statistics.
President Nazarbayev even promised to bring the “image issue” up with his American counterpart — undoubtedly a first in the history of international affairs. One can imagine the absurdity:
Mr. Nazarbayev: “Respected President Bush, our nation stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the American people in the global war on terror. We also promise to divert some of our natural resources to more democratic places, such as the United States of America. In this regard, we understand your concerns about our glorious nation being subjected to an unprecedented Chinese shopping spree in the last few years. We duly note that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a blatantly-obvious effort to subvert American interests in the region. We apologize for the collective misjudgment to invite lunatic-led Iran — but not the world’s only superpower — to join.
Mr. Bush: This is fantastic. Thank you for coming. By the way, where is a good place to get a decent Kazakh meal in town? Is it true that the Kazakh diet consists chiefly of meat? Do you really eat horse?
Mr. Nazarbayev: I will refer this matter to Mr. Roman Vasilenko, our press secretary. Now, about this Borat character, this is an outrage. You must do something, in light of our great support of the war on terror and willingness to share valuable hydrocarbon deposits.
Mr. Bush: I’ve not seen the show, but now I’ll have to. While I’ve heard about it from my new press secretary, Mr. Tony Snow, the White House unfortunately does not have a subscription to HBO — an urgent matter that Mr. Snow is addressing as we speak. We watch Fox News here, mostly, and they’re not too keen on this kind of humor. But about this Borat, you’ve got to understand that here we have free speech. Sorry, nothing we can do.
One question remains: What would possess the Kazakhs to battle seriously and actively the only popular image of their country? The proliferation of the “stans” since the fall of the Soviet Union has not helped them at all; the country’s not even part of a monolith of geographic uniformity, a small chunk of that big red blob you loved to hate.
Borat Sagdiyev is a Madison Avenue dream, and a textbook example of the infamous adage that “bad publicity is better than no publicity.” Sean R. Roberts, Central Asian Affairs Fellow at Georgetown University, admitted as much in a recent interview to the British Daily Mail: “The increased knowledge of Kazakhstan, however, is not due to the country’s economic successes or its role as a U.S. ally in the war on terror. Instead, most Americans who have heard of Kazakhstan have heard of it through a satire of a Kazakh journalist named Borat.” You can’t beat a phenomenon like Borat, especially with official diplomatic notes of protest, neo-Soviet advertisements, and — most shameful of all — lawsuit threats. You only enhance the humor, as the Kazakh government has aptly demonstrated.
After one Kazakh official expressed such a threat to Mr. Cohen following the Borat-hosted European Music Awards last year, the response was quick, painful, and pants-splittingly funny. Said Borat: “In response to Mr. Ashikbayev’s [sic] comments, I like to state that I have no connection with Mr. Cohen — and fully support my government’s decision to sue this Jew.” Borat then praised the progressive thinking from the Kazakh government, exemplified by the (fictitious) “2003 Tuliyakev [sic] reforms” that have allowed women to travel “inside of bus,” while homosexuals would “no longer have to wear blue hats.” Then, in a prescient attempt to counter the most recent PR efforts, Borat invited the “captains of industry” to invest in Kazakh natural resources.
Last week, Borat held an impromptu press conference outside the Kazakh embassy, gathering dozens of journalists to declare that that the recent attempts to portray Kazakhstan as a quixotic, but civilized, country are nothing more than sheer nonsense. Moreover, Borat declared that Mr. Vasilenko and his ilk are “evil nitwits from Uzbekistan” and threatened to deploy “our catapults” should the neighboring “stan” continue meddling in Kazakh affairs. This must have utterly horrified Kazakh representatives cooped up inside the gates — if you watch the video, you’ll notice one official removing the Kazakh (and American) flag from the scene. That is absurdity that transcends even Borat himself — and only serves to reinforce one simple fact: they still don’t get it.
After rushing down to the White House to invite “Premier George Walter Bush” to a screening of his film at the Hooters on 7th Street, Borat departed the scene, but left many questions behind. One such question: Is Uzbekistan next on the list of Cohen’s targets? If so, we should all expect more high-level drama. Catapults or no catapults, President Islam Karimov would probably not be amused. After the horrifying events last year in Andijon, where hundreds of civilians were massacred in the town square, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Karimov is a light-hearted chap who can take a joke.
– Igor Khrestin is a researcher in Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.