Mary Dejevsky: Why I pity poor old Kazakhstan

The only image the global village will have is the skewed version conveyed by 'Borat Sagdiyev'
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The Independent Online

Forty-eight hours after Russia's star campaigning journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, was viciously murdered in the hallway of the block of flats where she lived, I was still waiting. Not for the gunman to be apprehended, though that would have been a welcome, if unlikely, development. But for a public expression of regret on the part of someone in a position of authority in Russia, preferably from President Putin himself.

It might well have been that Ms Politkovskaya, as Mr Putin subsequently said in a needlessly off-hand way, had little influence in Russia. In a way, this was true. She embraced a cause - Chechnya - that was unpopular in Russia. But she did enjoy enormous influence and sympathy abroad. And while a constituency in Russia might not have mourned her passing, her murder showed Putin's Russia in an appallingly negative light, as a place where such atrocities could happen.

A national leader in today's age of instant global communications has to appreciate the likely impact of an event at home on opinion around the world, even if he cannot appreciate its wider significance. How a country reacts at home projects a certain image around the world. President Bush has learnt the value of global presentation to his cost. The US lost foreign sympathy within six to nine months of 11 September 2001, chiefly through his gung-ho words about taking Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" and his high-handed disdain of the United Nations. He tends to be more careful with his words these days. Especially, he very rarely speaks about God.

At least some of the panic Mahmoud Ahmedinejad prompted in his early days as President of Iran can be explained by his failure to appreciate the world outside. He had been elected as a national demagogue, who cared nothing for the non-Iranian world. At home, that was part of his appeal; he was a primitive, who would not pander to the West. Notice how quiet he has been recently. And Israel's notorious disregard for its foreign image has had a cost in terms of international support. It is not only Israel's deeds, but its tough and high-handed words that have counted against it.

The power of global communications to forge a national image is also why the Central Asian state of Kazakhstan has my immense sympathy. President Nursultan Nazarbayev's regime may have emerged only slowly from its Soviet communist past. It may have bought into the US agenda for Central Asia over Iraq. And its human rights record may leave something to be desired. But nothing - I repeat, nothing - that Kazakhstan has done in the past couple of years has warranted the treatment it has received at the hands of the British comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen, better known in Britain as Ali G.

In his pseudo-Kazakh persona of Borat Sagdiyev - the "star" of a new film that has wowed the United States - Baron Cohen presents a completely fictional state that is backward, corrupt, and worthy of ridicule. It could be argued that he has done for Kazakhstan what Barry Humphries and his Dame Edna Everage did for Australia. The difference is that Australia was big enough, brash enough and on the global map enough to take it. Poor Kazakhstan is not.

The only image that the global village will have of this peaceably emerging country from now on is the skewed version conveyed by "Borat Sagdiyev". Kazakh ambassadors around the world are right to be upset. Kazakhstan has had its identity stolen. And it is hard to know what it can do about it. Invite Borat to see and experience the "real" Kazakhstan, on camera? Adopt the Skoda strategy and have the national tourist board trade on the "hopelessness" of the Kazakh brand? In the end, I doubt that Mr Nazarbayev and his diplomats will have any other option.

And, of course, they - as so many diplomatic representations around the world have done - will be tempted to call in the professionals, if they can afford it. When I was diplomatic editor for this newspaper, I always felt just a little ashamed of my country when I was rung up, not by an attaché of a foreign embassy, but by a public relations company on the embassy's behalf. Can it really be that diplomats based in London find the workings of power in Britain so mysterious and unwelcoming that they feel the need to retain a PR company to negotiate the complexities on their behalf?

I fear so, for more and more foreign governments, either separately or through their embassies, seem to be dealing with government and the media via agents - even relatively small and impecunious countries that should have better things to spend their money on. They understand that image counts, and access to those who hold power and determine image is something they are prepared to pay for on the open market.

One of the most recent foreign governments to hire PR assistance is neither small, nor impecunious. It is Russia. And if any institution needed professional advice on how to present itself to the outside world, it is the Kremlin.

Which is why I ask again: what would it have cost Mr Putin, or the Kremlin in his name, to issue a statement of condolences to Ms Politkovskaya's family and her newspaper with the same alacrity that the US State Department issued its statement deploring her death? Where were Moscow's expensively retained PR people last Saturday afternoon?

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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