After months of battling the negative image created by a fictional Kazakh TV reporter named Borat, the government of Kazakhstan and its president are finally getting a chance to celebrate their highly anticipated trip to the United States.
Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev will meet with President Bush today after what can only be described as a David versus Goliath public relations conflict that has pit the geo-political integrity of the post-Soviet nation against the popular, albeit crude, British comedian named Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator and face behind the fictional character Borat the Kazakh.
However, in a match without clear resolution, it is not readily apparent who is David and who is Goliath. In fact, it is a game of intense one-upmanship where the coveted "good press" is the lucrative reward in this unusual and very public symbiotic relationship.
The Goliath of Central Asia
With a recent public relations blitz perhaps unmatched since the fall of the grand self-promoting Soviet Union, officials at the Kazakh embassy in Washington have pulled out all the stops to build a positive impression for Americans on the eve the Nazarbayev-Bush talks.
"We have organized publications in print and TV spots on many channels to tell the story of Kazakhstan so that many Americans know how important Kazakhstan is for the United States and how important our relationship is," the Kazakhstan Embassy Press Secretary Roman Vassilenko told ABC News.
In the past week, Americans have seen pro-Kazakhstan newspaper advertisements, network and cable television advertisements, and the release of a new book by the Kazakh government called "Kazakhstan's Nuclear Disarmament: A Global Model for a Safer World" that, according to Vassilenko, is being hailed as the story of Kazakhstan's noble nuclear nonproliferation contributions.
Vassilenko says the PR campaign has gone hand-in -hand with President Nazarbayev's diplomatic meetings with former President George Herbert Walker Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Energy Secretary Sam Bodman, multiple congressmen, businesses partners, and religious organizations finally culminating with President Bush's meeting on today.
And in David's Hand
For years Cohen's portrayal of Borat, the anti-Semitic and incestuous Kazakh protagonist-reporter, has used the little known country of Kazakhstan as the butt of his jokes on his popular HBO series "Da Ali G Show" while drawing considerable ire from that county's authoritarian government.
In 2005, after Borat hosted the European MTV Music Awards, it was widely reported that the Kazakhstan government had threatened legal action on Cohen for defamation. The threats never resulted in any real case against the popular cult hero. Moreover, it propelled the widely popular story to front page in both entertainment and politics.
More recently, in Cohen's new "mocumentary" style film, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," he plays the hyperbolic Borat, a blundering Kazakh TV reporter who conducts real interviews on unsuspecting Americans while on a tour across the country.
"My occupation make reportings for Kazakhstan Television. Previous I gypsy catcher and icemaker," Borat writes in his page on MySpace.com
For Cohen, the little known cultural and political image of Kazakhstan is the fodder that has helped make his character so outrageously popular.
"Please, you come see my film. If it not success, I will be execute," Borat "reports" of his possible execution at the end of the film's trailer on his Web site. The film makes its premiere in November.
What's At Stake
Both the United States and Kazakhstan view each other as key assets.
"Kazakhstan is viewed by the United States as the key partner in Central Asia, as a Muslim majority country which is secular and tolerant. The United States is the largest investor in Kazakhstan with 15 billion dollars invested so far and with 400 companies with American participation," according to Vassilenko. "All of these issues are on the agenda for the meeting between the two presidents at the White House."
For Borat, despite Kazakhstan's threats and some criticism about the way Cohen portrays women and Jews, the old adage still stands: any press is good press.
Even Borat's MySpace page seems to hit the giant square between the eyes. On the page, he says: "My heroes is Premier Nazharbayev [sic]," an ironic and self referential disclosure considering Nazarbeyev's rigid hold on the press and limited free speech in Kazakhstan.
As Kazakhstan and the White House continue to do business after today's talks and as Cohen's film builds to be one the most highly anticipated films of the fall, both David and Goliath seem to be winning this modern day war that is playing out nicely in the media.
Vassilenko concluded that Borat's rock-slinging has not necessarily been negative and alluded that it has been an "opportunity" for his country.
"It's not bad, no. We welcome this opportunity to tell our story. It is a challenge, but it is one we embrace."