A couple of years ago, Erlan Idrissov denounced the movie "Borat" for exploiting the West's ignorance of Kazakhstan. Today, Idrissov, who is...
A couple of years ago, Erlan Idrissov denounced the movie “Borat” for exploiting the West’s ignorance of Kazakhstan.
Today, Idrissov, who is now Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United States, has a more sanguine assessment of the “mockumentary” about a fictional Kazakh journalist and his cultural clashes with real Americans.
” ‘Borat’ sends an important message about prejudice in the world and lack of education in some parts of the U.S.,” he said in an interview.
The movie also aroused a lot of interest in his sprawling Central Asian country. “We have to thank ‘Borat,’ in a way, for putting Kazakhstan on the map.”
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Idrissov has reason to be confident. Kazakhstan, perhaps the least-known booming economy in the world, is poised to become the next Singapore, said former Washington state Congressman Don Bonker, introducing the ambassador at a round-table discussion in Seattle this week. The country, almost four times the size of Texas, is an increasingly prosperous crossroads in the middle of Asia.
Golf gains in popularity
Enriched by oil wealth, the former Soviet republic has increased its per capita GDP from about $400 in 1991, the year it became independent, to more than $7,000 today. Its economy has been growing at more than 9 percent a year.
Golf, once frowned upon as a bourgeois activity, is now one of the most popular sports in the country, which boasts an 18-hole golf course resort designed by Arnold Palmer.
The country of traditionally nomadic people on horseback is also home to the fast-growing airline Air Astana, which purchased three Boeing 787s last year and has an option for three more to help meet surging travel demand.
The country’s traditional drink is fermented mare’s milk, but now its premium Snow Queen vodka has become a best seller in bars from Miami to London.
The country expects to more than double its current production of oil from 1.3 million barrels a day to 3 million barrels a day by 2016.
Kazakhstan’s strategy is to take the revenue from exported oil, gas and minerals and invest it into building a technology and service economy over the next 20 years, minimizing its dependence on natural resources, Idrissov said.
While in the Seattle area this week, he met with PATH, Microsoft, Boeing, Russell Investments, the University of Washington and the Pacific Northwest Center for Global Security.
Kazakhstan is looking for partners to invest in economic clusters: energy, metallurgy, transportation infrastructure and telecommunications, construction materials, agriculture, tourism and information technology.
While rich in land and resources, his nation lacks marketing, management and technology skills, Idrissov said, addressing the Trade Development Alliance.
As it develops, the country also faces environmental challenges caused by exploiting its natural resources and the legacy of Soviet-era nuclear development.
Kazakhstan has started a number of investment funds and is building a regional financial center in the city of Almaty, aiming to serve a vast stretch of markets between Hong Kong and Dubai, he said.
The country is already linked to the global economy. More than 20 companies based in Kazakhstan have gone public on the London Stock Exchange. And the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S. has also hit the country, causing a spike in inflation and a slowdown in the construction sector, which relies on banks that borrowed heavily overseas.
Kazakhstan is often caught in a tug of war between the U.S., China and Russia over its energy resources. All three are investing aggressively, though the U.S. commands the largest share, pouring in $15 billion, a quarter of the total foreign direct investment in the country.
“Competition is always very tough when you smell money,” Idrissov said. But Kazakhstan is trying to maintain an equal playing field for all. “If the bridge is skewed, no one will use the bridge,” he said.
Its economy is almost entirely privatized, including the oil and gas sector, where large multinational conglomerates dominate.
A partnership between the government and a group of foreign oil companies to develop the Kashagan Field, one of the most important new oil fields in the world, has been delayed until 2011, with billions in cost overruns. When a Seattle round-table participant asked about the deal, Idrissov blamed the Western consortium for changing the terms of the contract.
He dismissed claims that Kazakhstan’s authoritarian president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, will hold office for life, calling the suggestion a “myth” perpetuated by Western media. Only two terms are allowed for any presidency, and recently the term length was reduced from seven years to five years. But the country’s parliament gave Nazarbayev an exemption, allowing him to stand for a third term.
As for “Borat,” Idrissov joked that the movie was so successful that creator Sacha Baron Cohen owes something to the country he parodied, he said.
“He didn’t share a penny with Kazakhstan of his revenue.”
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org