Kazakhstan: What Borat Missed

05/19/2010 06:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Astana, Kazakhstan - Borat doesn't live here any more.
Actually, he never did, even though more Americans probably identify the boorish, oversexed TV journalist from Kazakhstan with this huge country in the middle of Central Asia than can tell you where it is.
Case in point: When I told Tommy Jacomo, the manager of The Palm who knows everybody who's important in Washington, that I had just come back from Kazakhstan, his immediate response was, "Borat." Another friend said, "Isn't that where they just had a revolution?" (No, that was Kyrgystan, a much smaller country to the south that borders Kazakhstan, which is four times the size of Texas and the ninth largest country in the world.
In fact, Borat Sagdiyev doesn't live in Kazakhstan or anywhere else, except on bargain price DVD's, like the one I bought for $5 at Sears last week.
That's because Sacha Baron Cohen, the British actor who starred in the over-the-top 2006 mockumentary, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," has retired his fictional alter ego because he was too successful.
Cohen, whose brutal satire portrayed America - and by extension, Kazakhstan - as a backward bastion of sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism, told England's Daily Telegraph in December, 2007, "It is hard, and the problem with success, although it's fantastic, is that every new person who sees the Borat movie is one less person I 'get' with Borat again, so it's a kind of self-defeating form, really."
For those who haven't seen the movie, Borat was sent by his government to make a documentary on American society and culture. He traveled across America in a dilapitated ice cream truck on a depraved odyssey worthy of the late Hunter S. Thompson, insulting and ambushing unsuspecting Americans while becoming obsessed with marrying Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, whom he tried to kidnap.
Borat's retirement from movie-making undoubtedly comes as no small comfort to the 15 million people of Kazakhstan, who were deeply offended by the film, as were many Americans, even though millions of Western moviegoers and critics were not. Entertainment Weekly, for example, praised "Borat" as "the most politically influential, culturally important, shockingly tasteless, and gaspingly hilarious movie of the year."
Not surprisingly, Kazakh's foreign ministry denounced the film as "utterly unacceptable, being a concoction of bad taste and ill manners, which is completely incompatible with ethics and civilized behavior." And Kazakh Internet regulators suspended the movie's website because they said Borat was "bad-mouthing our country."
Still, Borat struck one positive note for Kazakhstan, which was to bring it to the world's attention. When President Nursultan Nazarbayev visited London in November, 2006 during the film's debut, he joked at a Downing Street press conference, "The film was created by a comedian, so let's laugh at it. Still, any publicity is good publicity."
As Jonathan Aitken, a former member of the British Parliament and Cabinet, writes in a new critical biography of Nazarbayev, "...Although he may have been privately upset by the parody (which he claims never to have seen), he was probably smart enough to realize that the ridicule might have a upside. For an unknown new nation in Central Asia, to be lampooned was not as bad as being ignored."
Noting that most of the world had hardly heard of Kazakhstan until 'Borat,' Aitken said the movie "offered an opportunity, which was to set out the real story of contemporary Kazakhstan. For better or worse, 'Borat' created an international curiosity to learn the facts behind the fiction" and prompted Nazarbayev "to give new thought to the presentation of his own and his country's international image."
Which ultimately is how I came to spend nine days in Kazakhstan earlier this month. I traveled from Almaty, the former capital and largest city, to Semey, known as Semipalitinsk when it was the base for the nuclear testing site where the Soviet Union detonated 456 nuclear and thermonuclear weapons from 1949-89, to Astana, the second largest city, which became the capital in 1984, just three years after Kazakhstan declared independence from the Soviet Union.
While I traversed only about the eastern third of the country's more than one million square miles - it stretches nearly 1,250 miles from the Caspian Sea on the west to China on the east - I discovered that the Kazakhstan depicted in "Borat" is about as accurate as Kansas was in "The Wizard of Oz."
From Almaty, a bustling modern city of 1.6 million, where I witnessed a fashion show that could have held its own in Paris or New York, to Semey, where I accompanied U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to the site of the first Soviet nuclear test in, to the booming new capital of Astana, where skyscrapers are popping up like mushrooms, I saw a country inventing itself after 70 years of Soviet occupation, and eager to make its mark in the 21st century.
Just outside of Almaty, only a two-hour drive from Bishkek, Kyrgystan, where the government was overthrown a day after I left for Semey, I visited a ski resort rivaling Aspen, Colo., where the 2011 Asian Winter Games will be held in the middle of mountains that rise to almost 20,000 feet.
And I visited a medical university specializing in radiation caused by genetic mutilations, gruesome examples of which were on display in formaldehyde jars, as well as a once-secret Radiation Medicine Research Institute, and an oncology hospital where patients with cancer caused by radiation are treated.
On Easter Sunday, I attended a Russian language Mass in a Roman Catholic church, where I met a nun from the Czech Republic who told me she has a brother in my home state of Minnesota. She said Catholics, Jews and other faiths are free to practice their religion in Kazakhstan, a secular country with a Muslim majority, but there are limits. Young people are free to practice the religion of their choice after they reach 18, but must follow the religion of their family before that age.
The geopolitical situation of a country sandwiched between Russia and China that has one of the world's largest recoverable oil and gas reserves and the second largest deposits of uranium was brought home to me by Bolat Sultanov, director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, who said that while Kazakhstan wants closer ties to the U.S. as the world's lone superpower, "we can't afford the luxury of spoiling our relationship with our neighbors of Russia and China."
Sultanov's words reflect Kazakhstan's foreign policy, which Nazarbayev has called "multi-vector diplomacy." In practice, it means a balancing act designed to position Kazakhstan as an even-handed ally of Russia, China, the European Union and the U.S.
But in reality, Kazakhstan's relations with Russia take top priority, as was evident when Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made his first official foreign visit to Kazakhstan in May 2008, shortly after his election, and declared, "Astana did not become the first foreign capital I have visited as President of Russia by chance."
Kazakhstan's leaders are also very aware of the rising power of China, which is paying premium prices for Kazakhstan's oil and natural gas, helping it build pipelines and roads while eyeing the country's vast empty spaces near China's western border for establishing Chinese colonies.
From Almaty, I flew on an aging Russian airliner to Semey, 500 miles to the north, across vast wind-swept steppes where nomadic herdsmen still roam in what is one of the least densely populated countries in the world. There, in a modern retirement home, I met Praskoviya Koloskova, an 85-year-old widow who was among some one and a half million people exposed to dangerous radiation levels from the Soviet nuclear tests.
She recalled what happened on the morning of August 12, 1953, when the Soviets detonated their first thermonuclear bomb at the nearby aptly named "Ground Zero."
"Usually, before a test, they recommended that we open our windows and doors and wait outside of our house," she said through an interpreter. "But this was different. I felt the [pressure] wave and then it was like a cup with smoke and tongues of fire, and after that, the fire was going up and I saw the mushroom and then breathed the air, which was full of ash. It seemed like it was only a hundred meters away."
The radioactive fallout from the 456 tests, a third of which were above ground, left Mrs. Koloskova with health problems and occasional nightmares. "I don't know what happened with me, but from that moment, I felt headaches and nervous disorders, and I imagined it many times," she said.
But she was one of the lucky ones. Still vigorous and able to walk with aid of a cane, she was not afflicted with any of the horrific tumors or radiation-caused genetic mutilations and birth defects that affected many people who lived in the middle of the 7,000-square-mile testing area.
In fact, Kazakhstan's role in the former Soviet Union's nuclear past may be one of the keys to its future.
While it is hardly a shining example of democracy - there aren't many in this part of the world - Nazarbayev, who was made de facto president for life in 2007 with veto powers over any legislation and immunity from criminal prosecution, was the first foreign leader to renounce the possession and use of nuclear weapons.
On August 29, 1991, four months before the Soviet Union collapsed and 38 years after Mrs. Koloskova witnessed the Soviets' first thermonuclear explosion, he shut down the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site. And four years later, after his country inherited the world's fourth largest nuclear arsenal, he declared that Kazakhstan was a nuclear free country and returned 40 heavy bombers and more than 1,400 nuclear warheads for intercontinental and intermediate range missiles to Russia for destruction.
He later ordered the destruction of 148 ICBM silos across Kazakhstan and underground test tunnels at Semipalitinsk, under the Nunn-Lugar Program and approved a secret operation, code named Project Sapphire, that removed 1,322 pounds of highly enriched uranium, enough to make 24 nuclear bombs, to the U.S. in 1994.
That's why Kazakhstan was front and center at the recent Global Nuclear Summit in Washington, and why he was the second of the 47 heads of state President Obama met with and praised for his leadership in nuclear non-proliferation.
And it's probably no coincidence that Nazarbayev used his meeting with Obama to announce that he would allow overflights by U.S. planes carrying troops and equipment to Afghanistan, an important concession in light of the uncertain status of the huge U.S. air base in Kyrgystan.
My trip ended in Astana, once a small provincial outpost 600 miles northwest of Almaty but now the country's modernistic capital with over 600,000 people, where I watched as Ban Ki-Moon met with members of Kazakhstan Parliament in the Palace of Peace and Accord, a pyramid structure designed by Britain's Norman Foster. Speaking in English, he praised Kazakhstan for giving up its nuclear weapons and for fostering diversity and tolerance among a population domnated by Kazakhs, Russians, Uighurs, Uzbeks and Mongols.
And when the U.N. Secretary General met with Nazarbayev in the opulent Presidential Palace at a ceremony attended by members of the foreign diplomatic corps, I spoke with the Apostolic Nuncio to Kazakhstan, Archbishop Miguel Maury Buendia, who represents some 250,000 Roman Catholics in Kazakhstan.
The Spanish prelate, who praised Kazakhstan's religious diversity, added, "Most of them come from Germany, Poland and Ukraine," descendants of those deported to gulags in Kazakhstan by Stalin and Khrushchev's "Virgin Lands" policy, which sent millions more to Kazakhstan between 1955-65 to grow food for the Soviets. "Without Stalin, we would have no Catholics here," he joked. "He is the father of the Catholic Church in Kazakhstan."
I also met in Astana with Mirbulat Kunbayev, a 47-year-old former journalist and Rep. Bart Stupak look-alike who is president of the Club of Editors, an independent association created three years ago to represent the interests of Kazakhstan's mass media, including some 3,000 newspapers that are both private and government-owned.
When I asked if he would feel free to criticize Nazarbayev if he were still a journalist, he said, "Newspapers are able to openly criticize our government," although some newspapers have been forced to close because of suits brought against them by the government.
But he said many journalists are reporting on corruption, which he called "the main disease of our country." When I asked if he was referring to corruption in government or the private sector, he replied, "We have both, unfortunately."
Meanwhile, Kazakstan is flexing its diplomatic muscles after becoming in January the first predominantly Muslim nation and the first former Soviet Union state to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
It's an important part of Nazarbayev's ambition to elevate Kazakhstan's international profile and repair the damage done to its image by the Borat movie. "Nazarbayev is both a hands-on President immersing himself deeply in the day-to-day details of government and a strategic President who has dreams and visions for his country's long-term future," Jonathan Aitkin writes in his biography, "Nazarbayev and the Making of Kazakhstan.
"The latter side of his political persona is coming into prominence as he approaches his 70th birthday in July 2010, and the 20th anniversary of Kazakhstan's independence in December, 2011. As he says, "The period of putting out the fires is over. It is now time for us to stop and imagine what our country is going to be like in 20 and 30 years time."
Few Americans may only know where it is, and many who do only because of the outrageous antics of a British actor, but Kazakhstan is clearly ready to awaken from its role as the sleeping giant of Central Asia.