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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 October 2006, 14:05 GMT 15:05 UK
'Sick man' Borat divides Kazakhs
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Alamty, Kazakhstan

In a TV studio in Kazakhstan's economic capital, Almaty, artist and musician Jantemir Baimukhamedov is plotting retaliation.

Zhantik Baymukhamedov
The real thing: Kazakh comic Zhantik Baymukhamedov
"He thinks he's funny, we'll show him funny," he murmurs as he takes numerous phone calls, looks through video tapes and books tickets to London - all at the same time.

Jantemir refused to reveal the full scale of the surprise he is preparing for Sacha Baron Cohen's sexist, racist and anti-Semitic character, Borat.

But he says the British comedian is in for a surprise.

"I'll bring his mother to London, I'll give him a chance to taste a special dish - horse meat sausage. And some horse urine as well - that's his favourite isn't it?" Jantemir grins.

This is a rare response to the man who has tested Kazakhstan's ability to laugh at itself.

Since independence, the oil-rich nation has worked hard at creating what is now one of the most successful economies in the former Soviet Union.

For 15 years the government has promoted Kazakhstan as an island of stability, tolerance and prosperity in restive central Asia.

'Sick man'

But it was Borat who put Kazakhstan into headlines by describing it as a place where "hunting dogs is a national sport", "porn is a popular pastime" and "age of consent has recently been raised to ten years old".

We can mock our football team because they are very bad at playing football - but we won't present our country as backward because its not
Comedian Nurtaz Azambaev
The Kazakh government was not amused. And neither were the country's leading comedians.

"He is a sick man, he probably had a difficult childhood" says Nurtaz Azambaev, the leader of the team that represents Kazakhstan at the former Soviet Union's most popular comedy sketch show - the KVN, the Russian abbreviation for the Club of Funny and Witty people.

The show, in which teams compete by presenting comedy sketches, is widely watched across the former Soviet Union.

"Our jokes prove we are not afraid to laugh at ourselves, for example we can mock our football team because they are very bad at playing football," Azambaev says.

"But we won't present our country as backward because it's not. We use our jokes to promote our country as a place which has great resources and wise leadership."

One of Azambaev's recent sketches shows President Nursultan Nazarbaev going through customs.

Sacha Baron Cohen
Baron Cohen has been sending up Kazakhstan at the film's premieres
"That shows that Kazakhstan is democratic because even the president has to abide by the rules," Azambaev says.

But the media is tightly controlled by the state, and the government tolerates little criticism. So the "public" sense of humour is not entirely in tune with that of the people.

National pride

In the jokes that people tell each other in the streets the government is often portrayed as corrupt and sinister, while the representatives of the country's oil elite are mocked for their obsession with money and status.

There is also that traditional Kazakh character, a poorly educated, gullible guy from a village - somewhat reminiscent of Borat.

"We can laugh at ourselves, its just harder when others laugh at us," says 24-year-old Lena from Almaty.

"We are a young nation, sense of national pride is strong and when Borat calls Kazakh women prostitutes many just don't find it funny."

'He's hilarious'

I've seen the government-sponsored ads on CNN, they are so boring - Borat is the best promotion for Kazakhstan
Yestor Nakupbekov
But Sacha Baron Cohen is not without his supporters in Kazakhstan.

Watching clips on the internet, 24-year-old Tamara nearly rolls on the floor with laughter.

"Look at him - he's hilarious," she says.

"Of course its ridiculous to think that people will believe this is real Kazakhstan. The government is so worried that Borat will damage Kazakhstan's image overseas, but I think it's just making people curious about the country."

Yestor Nakupbekov, 22, nods in agreement.

"I've seen the government-sponsored ads on CNN and other channels. And these ads are so boring, so trivial. Borat is the best promotion for Kazakhstan," he says.

"Borat is Cohen's most successful character because of our government's reaction and I think this is the biggest joke," adds 43-year-old Rozlana.

Having banned his website and threatened Baron Cohen with legal action in the past, officials have since changed tack.

Recently the deputy foreign minister invited Baron Cohen to visit and see for himself that horse urine is not a national drink. He also called on his colleagues to look at the matter with a sense of humour.

Many young people in Almaty say this is what the government should have done from the start.

Country profile: Kazakhstan
13 Sep 06 |  Country profiles
Borat bandwagon rolls into town
25 Oct 06 |  Entertainment
Borat brings mayhem to red carpet
25 Oct 06 |  Entertainment
Kazakh invite for Borat creator
19 Oct 06 |  Entertainment
Kazakhs 'see funny side of Borat'
29 Sep 06 |  Entertainment

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