When the comedy film “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” was released on the world’s cinema screens in 2006, it unleashed a tsunami of international media acclaim. Strongly received by critics and the industry, the film’s chief protagonist, Sacha Baron Cohen, won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in comedy and the film was nominated for multiple awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay at the 79th Academy Awards, and by The Guardian. It was also a huge financial success, grossing $262 million at the box office worldwide.
The global phenomenon called Borat was marred only by the immediate and palpable sense of injury that it generated in Kazakhstan and throughout Central Asia.
To ordinary Kazakhs the enthusiastic reception Borat received among audiences worldwide came as a shocking surprise. Apart from its name, it had no connection whatsoever to Kazakhstan. It was filmed in Romania, not Kazakhstan. The languages spoken by Borat and the lead actors included Hebrew, Armenian, Czech and Polish, but not Kazakh. The azbuka script was cod-Russian, not Kazakh. Even the cast did not contain a single Kazakh actor. For these reasons the Kazakh government was, at least initially, as deeply astonished as its citizens. It was even more puzzled when Borat dominated US news bulletins during the state visit to Washington of the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in 2006.
The underlying reality, however, was that Borat the movie also amounted to a gigantic global branding campaign for Kazakhstan that had the potential, if properly harnessed, to have a dramatic and hugely positive effect on Kazakhstan’s worldwide recognition. Our mission was to convert the widespread negativity generated by Borat in Central Asia into a forceful energy for good that could secure important gains for Kazakhstan in the West. We engaged in a sensitive diplomatic task whose first priority was damage limitation followed by an intensive effort to repair the cultural broken telephones in both East and West. We seized opportunities to convert misunderstandings into informative talking-points placing, among other news items, two op-Ed’s in The Guardian and The Spectator to explain the Kazakh point of view (see below).
Sure enough, over time Borat the movie played an important role in sharpening Kazakhstan’s visibility, as its rapid economic growth helped it to ascend the regional ladder to assume a leadership role in Central Asia. There was a noticeable change of mood and approach in Kazakhstan. In November 2006, on visit to the London, President Nazarbayev displayed his sense of humour when he asked at a press conference in Downing Street if there was a question “from our dear friend Borat”. This gesture, which was widely reported, marked an important new departure for Kazakhstan and will undoubtably influence the way in which the country perceives Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest iteration of Borat, due to be released later in 2020.
Branding of Kazakhstan