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Kazakhstan's Borat-style promise and peril

Kazakhstan Deputy Prime Minister Kairat Kelimbetov poses for a photograph in Ottawa.

Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail/dave chan The Globe and Mail

Kazakhstan, the former Soviet republic in Central Asia, has seen the future, and apparently it resembles Canada's capital.

"Ottawa is our target. You can walk the streets during the whole of the night, " Kairat Kelimbetov, the Deputy Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, said with envy. He was in Canada last week to drum up investment for his homeland, and counter persistent myths that his country is a cauldron of eccentricity.

The latter task was made all the more complicated by recent comments from Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's long-time leader, who outlined an ambitious but controversial plan to clean up Astana, his country's own capital. He ordered police to ticket drivers of unwashed vehicles, crack down on gambling dens and discipline anyone found guilty of the most minor of misdemeanours, such as leaving chewing gum at street crossings. The President explained his strategy was meant reduce Astana's crime rate, which is 1.7 times the national average.

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This is Mr. Kelimbetov's third visit to Canada – his first in his capacity as deputy prime minister, a post he has occupied since January after resigning from his job as chief operating officer of Samruk-Kazyna, his country's $80-billion sovereign wealth fund. The fund controls more than 400 companies, including Kazatomprom, one of the world's leading uranium companies and Kazmunaigas, the state oil company.

Mr. Kelimbetov, 43, spent much of his time here meeting with politicians and industry leaders trying to dispel misinformation about his country to lure investment in Kazakhstan's uranium, oil and natural resources. In conference with everyone from Joe Oliver, Canada's Minister of Natural Resources, to officials at the Toronto Stock Exchange, he promised access to lucrative markets in Russia and China.

He also stressed Kazakhstan would like to follow in Canada's footsteps. "We try to repeat, in Kazakhstan, all of your experience," he said.

Mr. Kelimbetov already notes many similarities between Canada and Kazakhstan: relatively small populations that occupy vast territories, cold winters, a wealth of oil and natural resources, and long borders shared with world superpowers – respectively, the United States and Russia. And then there is hockey.

"Me, personally, I like hockey very much," he said. Nik Antropov, the 30-year-old winger for the Winnipeg Jets, was born in Ust-Kamenogorst, the capital of the East Kazakhstan Province, he noted.

All of these affinities make Canada a kind case study for Kazakhstan. Last year, the two countries did a brisk $2.8-billion in trade. But of course, vast differences remain. Despite making significant economic progress since it declared independence in 1991, it is still an autocratic country. In last year's presidential elections, for example, Mr. Nazarbeyev received more than 95 per cent of the vote. Turnout, according to elections officials, was 90 per cent.

"Definitely some people are not happy with the pace of political democratization," acknowledged Mr. Kelimbetov. "I think we are closer to the Chinese and Singaporean story, where they have a strong power to balance economic and social development."

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On the foreign relations front, Kazakhstan is hardly a backwater. The country – the ninth largest in the world – exists in an unusual nexus of promise and peril.

"Kazakhstan is in a part of the world that has yielded great economic opportunities – think Russia and China. But the region has also shown great vulnerability to instability. Look at Afghanistan," said Evan Feigenbaum, an adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Kazakhstan is very lucky, because it has so many natural resources," he added. "But its leadership knows it's not enough to be lucky. They have to think strategically."

Still, Mr. Kelimbetov lamented that his county suffers from underexposure. "I don't know if Canadian companies know about us very well. Kazakhstan should really be a destination," he said. Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, he said, is due to visit Astana in May, when he will address the World and Traditional Religions Congress.

Mr. Kelimbetov highlighted what he argued were signs of his country's economic advancement. When Kazakhstan embarked on its structural reforms in the 1990s, for example, its gross domestic product per capita was $700 (U.S.). Today it is $11,000 (U.S.), according to Kazakh government figures. In the past decade, average monthly wages have increased fivefold. The unemployment rate is lower than the U.S., Britain, France and Germany, says the government, and the literacy rate is close to 100 per cent.

Kazakhstan has 40-billion barrels of proven oil reserves, representing about 3 per cent of the world's oil. In 2009, it became the world's biggest producer of uranium.

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Many outsiders, he lamented, continue to view things like the clean-up of Astana as evidence of the kind of national weirdness that inspired British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen to create "Borat," a fictitious Kazakh journalist who journeys through the U.S. telling stories about his homeland, where the national sport is supposedly not shooting a dog and then having a party.

The wild success of "Borat" hasn't helped his country's public image, Mr. Kelimbetov said. Just last month the parody anthem from the Borat movie, which commends Kazakhstan for its high-quality potassium exports and having the second cleanest prostitutes in the region was played, in error, at the Amir of Kuwait International Shooting Grand Prix at which Kazakh athletes participated.

The mix-up was apparently the result of the wrong song being downloaded from the Internet. When the Kazakh athletes complained, the ceremony was re-staged. But the incident highlighted how Kazakhstan still finds itself victim to parody.

Borat hasn't been all bad news for Kazakhstan. Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov acknowledged there is no such thing as bad publicity when he thanked "Borat" on Monday for massively boosting its tourism. "I am grateful to 'Borat' for helping attract tourists to Kazakhstan," local news agencies quoted him telling a session of parliament, after announcing the number of visas issued by Kazakhstan have increased tenfold since the Borat film was released in 2006.

Mr. Kelimbetov was slightly more circumspect. "I guess it is one way of marketing our country... but I think you pay too much attention to this movie," he said with a pained laugh.

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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