From The Times Online
HOW WONDERFUL that Kazakh buses are back in the news after nearly 90 years. (The last time was in 1918, when the Times man Stephen Graham used one to evacuate himself from Ust Kamenogorsk on receiving word, just a year after the event, of the Russian Revolution.) Now Borat, he of the egregious moustache and eponymous film, has given Central Asia fetishists an excuse to recall their all-time top Kazakh bus journeys in the interests of regional stability and harmonious gender relations.
I shall limit myself to three. The first is Bishkek to Almaty, a post-Soviet classic, starting in the Kyrgyz capital but heading almost immediately into the idyllic Kendyktas hills where Lenin’s henchmen butchered Kazakh nomads by the thousand but their heirs farmed placidly for the next 70 years. Next: the No 18 suburban trolleybus from outside the Panfilov cathedral in downtown Almaty, up into the freeze-dried air and surreal concrete excess of the Medeo ice rink, where steroids and the threat of party excommunication contributed to the setting of more than 150 Soviet speed-skating records. And finally, the two-day run from Semipalatinsk to Berel, near the Mongolian border, where the local herdsmen still grind up maral deer horns for sale to Chinese quacks, who claim the powder boosts fertility and relieves pain in childbirth.
On all these journeys the women sat inside the bus rather than on the roof. And though, statistically, there must have been some homosexuals among us, none wore a blue hat.
Since Borat’s film is distributed by a subsidiary of News Corporation, parent company of The Times, I can hardly accuse him of deliberate falsification. Perhaps his budget did not extend to a researcher. But in either case I don’t believe it was because of his free way with facts that Presidents George Bush and Nursultan Nazarbayev declined his invitation to a screening in Washington last week. The presidents were simply too engrossed in each other’s company because they have so much in common.
Both run big, beautiful countries with long, snow-capped mountain ranges and vast, irradiated nuclear test sites. Both operate world-class spaceports. Both depend for much of their countries’ economic dynamism on energetic ethnic minorities (Latinos in the US; Russians in Kazakhstan). Both have to grapple occasionally with indigenous tribes making tiresome allegations of past genocide and mass expropriation, and both appear to govern from within cocoons of advisers too scared to tell them the truth about the world outside.
In Mr Bush’s case, this is the conclusion we are invited to draw from Bob Woodward’s latest book, State of Denial. In Mr Nazarbayev’s, he is an unreformed ex-Communist autocrat whose daughter is one of the country’s richest oligarchs and whose son-in-law seriously suggested morphing the Kazakh presidency into a monarchy.
One truth Mr Nazarbayev has yet to learn is that for oil-rich backwaters seeking a higher global profile, all publicity is good publicity. You read it here: foreign tourism to Kazakhstan will spike as a result of the Borat project. The challenge for Mr Nazarbayev’s underlings at the Tourism Ministry in his desolate new capital of Astana will be to turn some of that spike into repeat custom.
A few of the new visitors will fall headlong for the sheer exoticism of the only country in the world with two disappearing inland seas (the Aral and Lake Balkhash) and a swath of steppe the size of Wales earmarked for the exclusive purpose of receiving falling debris from space launches at Baikonur.
Others will need more encouragement, and koumis may help. This is fermented mare’s milk (not urine, pace Borat, aka Sacha Baron Cohen, BA Hons, Cantab). And though revolting, koumis is strong. But the real test of Kazakhstan’s welcome to the world will be its people. Can they laugh at being traduced, or will they sulk?
The Kazakh Ambassador to London has said ‘We take it as a comedy.’ Good sign. Let’s hope he keeps his job. Because our own record in the only remotely analogous case that comes to mind is not so positive. Three years ago Craig Murray, our ambassador to Kazakhstan’s odious neighbour, Uzbekistan, had a sense-of-humour failure about Britain condoning torture there. His fate? The Foreign Office fired him.