A conference — The International Conference of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization 2006: Results and Prospects, to be precise — took place in Almaty, Kazakhstan, from November 30 – December 1.
An agglomeration of six authoritarian states, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO, includes Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. About 40 delegates from Russia, China and the “stans,” as well as observers from Iran, Pakistan, India, and the U.S., attended the two-day affair, held in the basement conference room at the swank Intercontinental Hotel in Almaty.
All told, the meeting was a pretty dry event. For the most part, discussion focused on prospective areas of energy cooperation among the oil-rich former Soviet Republics and China, and on how these states could together better confront the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism in order to maintain the status quo in the region.
Forty hours roundtrip was a long way to travel for a two-day conference, but the tickets were business class, and I’d never been to Kazakhstan. Besides, this was going to be the first major international conference in the state since the blockbuster November release of Borat: The Cultural Learnings to Make Benefit the Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Of course, I was interested in seeing Almaty, but I found the prospect of observing firsthand how Borat was playing in Kazakhstan even more appealing.
As a Middle East expert, I’d spent time before in authoritarian states doing research, so I was familiar with the awkward pauses — the local’s quick assessment of risks that occurs in these kinds of states — following seemingly innocuous questions. By the end of my trip, I had solicited the opinions of dozens of Kazakhs on Borat. Everyone had something to say; almost no one on the record. Behind closed doors, though, it was apparent that people in Kazakhstan are talking about the meaning of Borat.
Initial Kazakh reactions to Borat were fairly uniform. Most of those I met did not appreciate the image of Kazakhstan that Borat Sagdiyev, a.k.a. Sacha Baron Cohen, was promoting of the former Soviet Republic. Of course, until recently, if you didn’t work in oil or specialize in Russian, Asian, or Central Asian affairs, chances are you would know little if anything about Kazakhstan. And if you did know something, chances are it wasn’t positive.
Indeed, if you Googled “Kazakhstan” before Borat, it’s likely you would have read about James Giffin, the businessman broker indicted by the U.S. government in 2003 for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Giffin was said to have paid $20M to two senior Kazakh officials in 1996 in connection with a $1B oil transaction he negotiated on behalf of Mobil. Or you might have come across the 1997 Harrison Ford thriller Air Force One, in which Gary Oldman plays a Kazakh terrorist who hijacks the president’s airplane. Alternatively, you might have stumbled across the Freedom House website, where Kazakhstan receives the unenviable characterization as “not free.”
For better or worse, today, thanks to Borat, Kazakhstan is on the map. There’s lots of buzz about the movie, and Kazakh officials are eagerly anticipating a boon to the tourist industry akin to what happened in New Zealand after the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The Kazakh government has gone through something of an intellectual transformation about Borat. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s initial reaction to the movie was, according to one local observer, decidedly “Soviet.” During his September 2006 visit to Washington, it was rumored that Nazarbayev would seek assistance from President Bush to suppress the film. More recently, though, Nazarbayev has decided to embrace the shtick: in November, the local Kazakh press started to run some positive articles about the movie. Then, a few weeks ago, Vremya, the Kazakh version of Time, published what one local told me was a “heavily edited” interview with Baron Cohen. In November, the rapprochement was complete when the first vice minister of foreign affairs issued Baron Cohen an invitation to visit Kazakhstan.
Gael Guichard, a freelance journalist who has lived in Almaty for the past five years and was covering the SCO conference for the French daily Liberation, predicted that the film would soon be screened in Kazakhstan. “People in Almaty think it’s a lot of fuss over nothing,” she said, and added that Kazakh artists and intellectuals — and particularly filmmakers — were looking forward to seeing Borat in a theater near them.
In any event, according to Guichard, this wouldn’t be Baron Cohen’s first local appearance. One of Baron Cohen’s other well-known characters, Ali G, had been extremely popular in Kazakhstan some years ago. At the time, interviews with Ali G were translated into Russian from the Internet and printed in Kazakh in under-30 hipster magazines. Even until recently, she said, one could purchase Baron Cohen’s 2002 movie Ali G Indahouse at kiosks in Almaty.
A Kazakh journalist echoed the now-official government line that Borat has been a boon for his country. “Any press is good press,” he said. He told me that he had watched the movie recently at his home in Kazakhstan. His friend had purchased the pirated DVD for $4 in downtown Almaty near the Central Department Store. Among other things, the journalist applauded the creative freedom of the film, describing it as “a positive thing.” He dismissed criticisms by some that the film promoted a negative image of Kazakhstan. “Jews, Kazakhs and Russians always tell jokes about each other,” he said. “Borat is a continuation of this tradition.”
Despite President Nazarbayev’s public reversal, people in Kazakhstan remain cautious when discussing Borat. That’s because, while the former Soviet Republic has adopted free market economic strategies, political liberalization is not yet on the horizon. In typical fashion, this authoritarian environment has generated a cottage industry of conspiracy theories concerning the origins of Borat.
The most colorful of these plots I heard involved palace intrigue dating back to 2001. According to one local interlocutor, the story — which could not be verified — went something like this: President Nazarbayev’s son-in-law Rakhat Aliyev was a privileged and loyal stalwart of the regime, owning television stations and heading the Presidential Guard. Sometime after 2000, however, Aliyev was accused of trying to take over Kazakhstan and was exiled to Vienna, where he was appointed ambassador. In an (unsuccessful) effort to discredit and undermine his father-in-law, Aliyev secreted started funding Baron Cohen during his banishment in Vienna.
Another conspiracy theory purveyed by locals attributes the Borat phenomenon to Kazakh and Western oil companies. In the aftermath of the high profile Geffin corruption case, the government stepped in to fund a massive public relations effort. After the PR campaign failed, so the story goes, the oil companies conceived and bankrolled the concept of the fictional Kazakh reporter. The other theory I heard — confirming the perception of omnipotent rulers so widely held in authoritarian states — was that Borat was in the end a product of President Nazarbayev’s administration, a cynically calculated but ingenious ploy by the sovereign to promote Kazakhstan.
After two days in Almaty, I came to the conclusion that Kazakhs — at least the primarily urban elite with whom I spent my time — appreciate what Borat has done for Kazakhstan. Borat has accomplished what years of effort and millions of PR dollars could not. There is, in a sense, a type of admiration for Borat among this cohort.
Before departing the conference, sponsors hosted a feast at a local restaurant for the U.S. participants. Over a dinner of traditional Kazakh delicacies such as boiled sheep head and horse sausage, during which there were dozens of vodka toasts , one of our Kazakh hosts, hours into the meal, proffered the following toast: “We’re a little Borat, all of us,” he said. “Drink some more, and you’ll be Borat yourself.”
— David Schenker is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From 2002 to 2006, he was the Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestinian affairs adviser in the office of the secretary of Defense.