Borat: Military intervention against Uzbekistan?

by Bertrand on 9/29/2006 · 12 comments

It’s hard to think there is anyone who follows Central Asia, and reads this blog, who is by now not familiar with Borat – the fictional and satirical character who claims to be a television reporter from Kazakhstan, but in reality is the creation of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Borat the reporter is boorish, anti-Semitic (Cohen is Jewish) and portrays Kazakhstan as an extremely backward country in which the favorite drink is fermented horse urine, the death penalty is given those who make bagels and women are treated almost as well as donkeys. He is also proud that his sister is the fourth best prostitute in Kazakhstan, for which she has been given an award.

Borat is one of three character creations that had allowed Cohen to develop something of a cult audience on HBO and Channel 4 in England. Outside that audience, not all that many paid attention until Borat was featured last fall on the European MTV awards, an appearance that set off the Kazakh government like a bottle rocket. The Kazakh government threatened to sue Cohen and described him as having “mental problems,” likening him to “people who run out of the center of the stadium naked during (soccer) matches.”

All of this, of course, helped Borat gain notoriety, to the point he is the subject of a feature film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” due for release next week.

Kazakhstan’s clumsy reaction to the Borat character has been a publicist’s dream for the producers of the movie, yielding millions of dollars worth of free publicity including coverage on American television networks, major newspapers and all over the blogosphere. For them, things only got better when Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev scheduled a state visit to the U.S. just days prior to the release of the film. Surrounding the visit, Kazakhstan hired U.S. PR firms who produced slick television spots heralding the country and a four-page advertising spread in the New York Times expounding Kazakhstan’s emergence into the 21st century. While becoming somewhat less clueless in their responses, the Kazakh government continues to fuel the Borat phenomenon by trying to refute the fictional character’s crazy claims.

Yesterday, Borat struck again, holding an impromptu press conference outside the Kazakh embassy in Washington (surrounded by a scrum of real journalists – see the Washingtonpost.com video here), claiming that in fact President Nazarbayev and the Kazakh government supported his activities and loved his upcoming movie.

Waving a copy of the NY Times spread, Borat said the “disgusting fabrications” contained in the advertisement were not the work of the Kazakh government, but were the spawn of … the “evil nitwits” from Uzbekistan. Everyone knows, Borat said, that Uzbeks “are a very nosy people with a bone in the middle of their brain.”

Claiming that the Kazakh embassy’s official spokesman is actually an Uzbek imposter, and that if Uzbekistan did not stop its devious activities (“anyone who says we do not drink fermented horse urine is liars”) military intervention could not be ruled out and that Kazakhstan may be forced to bombard Uzbek cities “with our catapults.”

The irony here is that while the Kazakh reaction to Borat has provided publicity for the character far beyond anyone’s dreams, it has also benefited Kazakhstan by allowing an opening for the country to produce positive messages to a newly-interested public, and at the same time diverting attention from some of the thornier questions about the Nazerbayev regime that might otherwise be the center of media attention.

Now, we must wait and see if the Uzbek government joins the fray.


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{ 12 comments }

Josh September 29, 2006 at 7:13 am

A few days ago, Nathan posted about how old Uncle Nazzy’s tour probably wasn’t in reaction or about the Borat movie. I think Cohen got the message, and thought it would be a good idea to keep the controversy alive — as, you say, it is priceless advertising.

Mark September 29, 2006 at 10:50 am

I agree that the whole Borat thing will ultimitely benefit Kazakhstan. If they had a more cutting edge PR firm they might even embrace Borat. A Borat theme park would be great! Halfway between Almaty and Bishkek would be nice to break up the drive. Hiring who ever did the murals on the ceiling of the 2nd floor of the Kyrgyz State history museum would be a nice touch.

Peter September 29, 2006 at 1:02 pm

Well, the Kazakh Ambassador to the United Kingdom just said on Sky News that he plans to see the film. He is also the first Kazakh official to have the gumption to note that the character is, as much as anything, a satire on American and (in the earlier TV incarnation, at any rate) British society. Indeed, I cannot help but feel that the relevance of this film to this blog is fast dwindling as it is now becoming a Hollywood story instead of one that can really interest us Central Asia buffs.
Less Borat, more Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. That’s where the fun’s at.
Yakshimash!

Nathan September 29, 2006 at 1:37 pm

Peter, now that Cohen seems to be trying to create additional controversy, I do think the story’s jumped the shark. However, the media seems bent on playing up the conflict to the point that they are suggesting that just about everything Kazakhstan has done in recent weeks is somehow aimed at countering Borat. I do think that, as another sign of how bad media coverage of Central Asia is, is a story worth discussing.

Mark September 29, 2006 at 2:32 pm

Jak se mas, (pronounced yak say mash) Czech for ‘how are you?’ One of Cohen errors on Kazakhstan. Why aren’t the Czechs pissed?

Jonathan September 29, 2006 at 2:49 pm

In Polish “jak sie masz?” means “how are you” as well.
It’s like ciao. Borat hasn’t quite jumped the shark. I think it will when Borat II: Cultural Learnings of Electric Boogaloo comes out.

David September 30, 2006 at 6:35 am

‘Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – that’s where the fun’s at!’ Its a great new slogan for one of the world’s dullest and most useless international organisations. Elect Borat as honorary chairman, perhaps?

I don’t expect the Uzbeks will react with even the limited sense of humour of the Kazakhs. Its all a bit close to the surreal reality…

Peter September 30, 2006 at 8:14 am

Borat’s supposed Kazalh is indeed Polish. Note that his hello is the Polish “Dziękuję”, as is “Jak się masz”. He probably learnt it off a pizza delivery man or a long-distance bus driver in Britain, all of whom seem to be Poles these days.

Peter September 30, 2006 at 1:03 pm

Oh and David, the SCO is “one of the world’s dullest and most useless international organisations”, is it? Well, it’s exciting enough for the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe to be talking about. For the fascinating transcript, go here:

http://www.csce.gov/index.cfm?Fuseaction=ContentRecords.ViewTranscript&ContentRecord_id=381&ContentType=H,B&ContentRecordType=H&CFID=23517084&CFTOKEN=84508218

Sorry, can’t do hypertext in html.
Anyway, all the speakers are hedging their bets big time, Martha Brill Olcott above all. It does, nonetheless, make for an interesting read. If you like that kind of thing, of course.

yomama September 30, 2006 at 9:21 pm

I wonder who is the 1 st, 2nd and 3 rd best prostitute in
kazakville and what their rates are?

Jeffrey October 2, 2006 at 8:41 am

Let’s not forget that the US media is playing this up to try to boost their box office. The Borat movie is being put out by Fox Searchlight pictures–a pretty big movie studio. Not sure what their affiliations are, but in many cases the studios have a “synergy” with news media companies…

Can’t wait to see the movie!

johnnie b. baker October 2, 2006 at 12:16 pm

Regardless of the idiotic political ramifications of all this, Cohen and his Borat must certainly go down in history as the greatest performance art of all time.

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