Four years after the release of Borat (or Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan as the full title is), Kazakhstan still doesn’t seem to have gotten over it.
Borat, by and with Sacha Baron Cohen, pretended to show a Kazakh journalist dispatched to the USA to find out what Kazakhstan might learn from the West. Kazakhs are portrayed as backwards, simple-minded, ant-Semitic and perverse. The few shots of purported Kazakhstan show a slum-like village with an inbred population. The film ends with a spoof of Kazakhstan’s national anthem that takes pride (among other things) in Kazakhstan’s prostitutes.
Although Borat depicted much more aspects of America that are worthy of poking fun at or even criticism, and although it seemed clear that Kazakhstan was just chosen for the fact that not many people know anything about it, thus allowing Borat to create an image that his counterparts were ready to believe, the government and the people of Kazakhstan were quite insulted. The film was not released in Kazakhstan (it was also banned in all Arab countries, except for Lebanon) and the Kazakh government started a multi-million dollar campaign to foster its image – thereby only coming across as lacking any sense of humour.
Apparently, Kazakhstan is still deeply hurt in its pride: The Kazakh director Erkin Rakishev is filming a documentary My Brother, Borat which features Bilo, Borat’s younger brother, about whom Borat had not revealed much more than that he lived in a cage. In this film, an American becomes interested in Kazakhstan after watching Borat and decides to travel to the country to see for himself, where he will of course be positively surprised.
I am looking forward to that film, but I would prefer if the world take note that Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country in the world, an increasingly important exporter of oil and gas, and currently chairing the OSCE, has quite a strange character at its helm. His name is neither Borat, nor Bilo, it’s Nursultan Nazarbayev. He has been the country’s only president since the country’s independence in 1991 and although elections are taking place, it’s more of an autocracy than a democracy:
- The president can veto any legislation passed by parliament.
- Part of the members of the senate are not elected, but appointed by the president.
- In the parliamentary election of 2004, opposition parties won a single seat in parliament. The OSCE said these elections “fell short of international standards.”
- The OSCE had the same verdict about the presidential election of 2005, in which Nazarbayev won more than 90 % of the vote.
- In the last parliamentary election in 2007, the ruling party Nur-Otan won every one of parliament’s 98 seats. There is no more opposition representative serving in parliament.
- In 2007, any term limits for the president were removed from the constitution. To be bothered less often with these annoying elections, the president’s term was also extended from 5 to 7 years.
- President Nazarbayev expanded his presidential powers by decree: only he can initiate constitutional amendments, appoint and dismiss the government, dissolve Parliament, call referendums at his discretion, and appoint administrative heads of regions and cities.
Kazakhstan also has a dismal human rights record:
- Political opponents are arrested and detained without trial.
- There are no independent broadcast media.
- Many independent newspapers have had trouble finding printing houses. Some of them had their contracts with their printers cancelled.
- Newspapers are being sued by the government after running critical reports.
- Websites that are critical of the president have been blocked.
- Corruption is widespread. When former minister Zamanbek Nurkadilov announced that he wanted to speak about corruption, he was found shot dead.
- The religious minority of the Hare Krishna is persecuted.
- Civil society groups have been closed by the government.
- The independence of the judiciary is in serious doubt.
You wonder why such a country is given the chairmanship of the OSCE? I wonder too. Could it be the oil? Could it be the gas?
Next time you enjoy a re-run of Borat or when you will see My Brother, Borat and of course when you visit the country, spare some thoughts about the political system and the lack of human rights.