Is any publicity good publicity – The case of Kazakhstan?

The Republic of Kazakhstan covers an area of central Asia the same size as Western Europe, making it the ninth largest country in the world. Its population of 15.3 million is 60% Kazakh, 25% Russian, with smaller proportions of Ukrainians, Uzbekis and Germans.

The name of the capital, Astana, literally means capital! , although the largest city is Almaty which is the commercial center and is regarded as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Central Asia. Kazakhstan declared independence from the Soviet Union on December 16, 1991, and was the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence. The president and head of state, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been in power since independence. The elections in 1999, 2004 and 2005 fell short of international standards according to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and intimidation and suppression of political opponents is common. The country also has substantial environmental problems ranging from Soviet nuclear testing, industrial dereliction, and the ecological disaster of the Aral Sea, sometimes regarded as the greatest man-made disaster in the world, where water diverted for irrigation for cotton has shrunk the lake and poisoned the land and people with salt.

However, Kazakhstan is undergoing substantial economic development because of its enormous oil and gas reserves. The government is also hoping to promote tourism to the region primarily focussed on cultural and natural heritage attractions as well as coastal resorts on the Caspian Sea. Unfortunately, although the country has become better known in the west in terms of name as a result of Sacha Baron Cohens’ film B orat (sub-title: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) , a mocku- mentary about a fictional Kazakh television journalist character who visits the United States of America in a cheap suit and a bad mustache. The film was designed as much as a satiri- cal perspective of American life, particularly with respect to anti-semitism (Cohen is a Jew who is a grandchild of a holocaust survivor), as it was of Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, mem- bers of both countries failed to see the comic value of such satire.

The Kazakhstan Government were unhappy about the image it portrayed of their coun- try and culture and first tried to sue Cohen and then hired a public relations firm to launch a debunking marketing offensive, including a four-page advertisement in the N ew York Times , both of which failed and instead gave even more publicity to the film and the character. The satirical Barat character had actually been on British television since the mid-1990s but it was the success of the film that led to expressions of concern from the Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry and other members of the government. The film has been banned in Russia and Kazakhstan and the domain name w was suspended in December 2005. The 2006 United States State Department annual human rights report cited the loss of the .kz website as evidence of the Kazakh government’ s efforts to curb free speech. Although actually filmed in Romania the film has nevertheless increased awareness of Kazakhstan in the travel marketplace. For example, since the release of the movie the respected British newspaper The Guardian has provided several stories on the country (which are generally positive) and not on any of the other central Asian republics.

The Kazakhstan government reportedly invested $40 million in the production of the film Nomad, a historical epic set in 18th century Kazakhstan, where a young boy is destined to unite the country’ s three warring tribes and free them from the Dzungars a confederation of West Mongolian tribes. The Kazakh language film premiered in 2005 and the English lan- guage version was released in the United States of America in 2007. Unfortunately, the film was not a box-office success.

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