Kazakhstan is often a joke: to Kazakh military recruits and foreign diplomats, who groan about assignment to the country's new, Vegas-style capital, Astana (which means literally "capital"); to politically minded Kazakhs, who recall that remote outpost's previous name, Akmola, or "White Tomb."
And, perhaps most of all, it's a joke for British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who portrays a faux Kazakh journalist - "Borat" - on HBO's popular "Da Ali G Show." This month, even the international press hooted when Mr. Cohen performed his Borat shtick before millions of viewers at the MTV Europe Music Awards - and was subsequently threatened with legal action by Kazakhstan's foreign ministry. One official observed darkly: "We do not rule out that Mr. Cohen is serving someone's political order designed to present Kazakhstan and its people in a derogatory way."
According to Borat Sagdiyev - who calls himself the Central Asian nation's "No. 2 top television reporter" - his countrymen regret "the terrible events of 7-11," routinely cage women, punch goats for sport, and get their kicks from fermented horse urine.
For the record, Kazakhstan's national drink is kumys, or fermented horse milk, says Roman Vassilenko, the spokesman for the Kazakh Embassy in Washington. During the five years Borat has been putting the former Soviet republic on the map for tittering Westerners, Mr. Vassilenko has made it his mission to follow in the comedian's wake, making corrections. When Borat laughlingly claims that misogyny is a popular Kazakh pastime, Vassilenko objects. The ancient Kazakh tradition of bride kidnapping, still practiced in some remote areas, he says, is illegal. Allegations of goat abuse hit closer to home, as a polo-like game played with goat carcasses is both popular and legal.
Officials have reason to worry that viewers will take Cohen's parody seriously. After the MTV broadcast, a Kazakh film crew in Washington, D.C., surveyed passersby to see if anyone was familiar with their country. Eight of ten were not, Vassilenko says. Of the two who were, one had served in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, and one said, "I know Borat."
"Most people in the West don't know anything about Kazakhstan," says Rachid Nougmanov, a member of the Kazakh opposition working in London. "They just think we're between China and Dracula somewhere."
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It is small wonder Borat is all many Americans know of Genghis Khan's playground. It can be hard to know where to start. Before embarking on a five-week research trip there last spring, I typed "Kazakhstan" into the St. Louis Public Library database. Four of five books were lost; the last was titled, "Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise."
I settled for a small stack of dubiously translated volumes left by a Kazakh exchange student. A cookbook offered "Delicacies of Horseflesh," a pungent reminder that horses have for centuries been a source of livelihood and calories on the sprawling steppes. The real prize, though, was an illustrated history of the Silk Road, whose caravan routes Middle Eastern and Chinese traders once traveled to meet in southern Kazakhstan. The litany of Central Asian names within might have been drawn from "The Lord of the Rings" - there was even a town called Sauron. I flipped through a section about a trackless desert plateau called the Ust Urt. Dominated by truculent camels, it looked like just the place you might find yourself craving a tall glass of horse milk.
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It's not hard to poke fun at Kazakhstan. Even Vassilenko, its tireless booster, concedes it's hard work to get the American press to take seriously "a 'stan like no other." But for a number of reasons now attracting Western notice, the world's ninth largest nation is no joke. As gas prices climb, Kazakhstan may even have the last laugh: The country sits on the largest oil field discovered in the past 30 years and is expected to match the oil production of Kuwait and Iran within 10 years.
Then there's uranium. Little more than a decade ago, nobody was laughing at the fragile new state with more than 1,400 lightly guarded atomic warheads, a legacy of four decades of Soviet tests. Though Kazakhstan subsequently became the first Muslim nation to voluntarily dismantle its nuclear arsenal, its vast steppes still hold a fifth of the world's uranium reserves. Driven by the high global demand for both fuels, Kazakhstan's GDP has grown 9 percent this year alone.
Bordered by nuclear giants Russia and China, and with volatile neighbors in Afghanistan and the Middle East, this secular Muslim nation is central to the economic and political fortunes of a region where the US needs friends.
This Sunday, a high-stakes presidential election will test Kazakhstan's stability and commitment to democracy. In the past two years, neighbors Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan all have ousted entrenched leaders in popular uprisings (a fourth, in Uzbekistan, was violently repressed).
Now, as Kazakhstan faces its own political watershed, President Nursultan Nazarbayev is embroiled in an international scandal involving billions of dollars of misappropriated oil revenues. And just before Cohen's spoof made headlines this month, prominent Kazakh opposition member Zamanbek Nurkadilov was shot dead after vowing to go public with information about government corruption.
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When I landed in Kazakhstan, one of the first things I noticed was a shared sense of humor that seemed to thrive at the expense of the nation's own post-Soviet quirks. Had I heard the one about the building with the tank parked in front of its sign? The sign reads "Ministry of Defense" - until the tank pulls away, revealing " ... and Attack."
Or that one about Dostoevsky? When moody Russian dissidents were packed off to Siberia, that often meant northern Kazakhstan. Novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky spent four years in exile there, most of it mooning over his future wife, whom he wooed by threatening to throw himself into the Irtysh River. The Irtysh, my translator pointed out, runs just waist-deep.
Or the one about the major wedding hall in Almaty, a round, concrete Soviet edifice in Kazakhstan's most cosmopolitan city. What does an Almaty gal say to guy she doesn't want to date? "Sure, meet me at the corner of the wedding chapel."
Other times, the jokes told themselves. Late on the eve of Nauryz, the Kazakh New Year, some friends and I were crossing in front of the president's residence in Almaty when a car pulled up, disgorging 10 men and boys. They began hurriedly erecting a yurt, the round, wood-and-felt tent used by nomadic herders for centuries before the Kazakhs were forced into collective farms to fill the Soviet breadbasket. A yurt, it turns out, can be lashed together with incredible speed. As we stood gaping, we were approached by Anatoly Cizco, a gray-bearded fellow. He told us he was planning to stay overnight in the yurt, "to guard some high-fashion dresses" being stored there for the next day's festival, and he offered to share the honor. "I've slept in yurts on the steppe," he said, "but in front of the president's house? That's exotic!"
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Whether the Kazakh sense of fun will extend to Cohen, though, remains a question. His feature mockumentary, "Borat: The Movie," is expected to appear in theaters next year. But Vassilenko isn't worried: The Borat flap landed him spots on major US TV and radio networks, and hits on the Kazakhstan Embassy's website tripled as a result.
"[Cohen] has made people more aware of Kazakhstan and he helps spread information," Vassilenko concedes. "I just wish it was the right information."