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Can Kazakhstan's Sabina Altynbekova Banish Brand Borat?

Screenshot from Altynbekova's Instagram.

Screenshot from Altynbekova's Instagram.

Teenager Sabina Altynbekova, a tall, attractive member of Kazakhstan's youth volleyball team, stole hearts from Japan to the Philippines and everywhere in between when playing in an international tournament in Taipei, Taiwan last summer. For many observers of Sabina-mania, including her parents, it was all a bit too much. 

But while Sabina was playing volleyball and communicating with a new flood of fans from other Asian nations watching the tournament, she was unconsciously building brands, both her own and that of her country, which is still suffering PR damage from Sacha Baron Cohen's cult classic Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

Sabina is possibly a bit more conscious about the branding game now, and it would be hard not to be. Her Instagram had reached 250,000 followers when Global Voices last wrote about her during peak Sabina-mania — now it has over 400,000 and lists an email sabina.manager@gmail.com, presumably belonging to a person that helps her model Swiss watches and visit adoring fans.

Moreover, while media in the countries where she gained her overnight following, such as Indonesia, are still running stories about her as of this month, she has now gained a considerable profile domestically in the country of 17 million.

Among the more intriguing of Altynbekova's Instagram posts since her viral appearance in Tapei came towards the end of last year, when she appeared to position herself as the anti-Borat:

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Clap for Borat an unsuccessful attempt You talked a lot about our country (not a very good things), even though he had no idea what a beautiful our country Kazakhstan☝️You failed, and you can't never imagine Kazakhstan in a bad light Your time is up. You may only to watch as our country is increasingly growing and becoming more beautiful✌️

The post, written first in Kazakh with [Altynbekova's] Russian and English translations, went down well among Sabina's followers:

Yeah! NOW I CAN ONLY SUPPORT U. BECAUSE, YOU'VE DONE MORE THAN WE. THAN 1000 000 KAZAKHS CAN DO. OTHERS MAYBE LOVE U CAUSE OF UR WONDERFUL FACE AND UR TALANT, BUT I STARTED LOVE U, CAUSE OF UR BIG HEART AND LOVE. I HOPE, W 

Таким гнелым людям как борат вернётся всё плохое. А тебя пусть ждёт тока хорошое красавица!

Let bad things come to all these rotten people like Borat and to you only good things, our beauty!

ему усы надо побрить тупым ножом..

We should shave [Borat's] moustache with a blunt knife

If that last comment and others like it seem extreme, it should be remembered that for the people on the end of Borat, the parody was nothing more than a racist sucker punch in which Kazakhs were depicted as insular, incestuous, anti-semitic sleazes and more besides. Had the film been about people from Nigeria, Jordan, Israel or even Romania (where it was filmed) Baron Cohen would surely have been buried by international outrage. Obscurity makes Central Asia a cost-free target for all-comers, at the same time as sparing its political elites scrutiny over human rights abuses.

But is Altynbekova right about Borat's time being up? Not really. Articles published on Kazakhstan by major media outlets still make mandatory references to the ‘Mockumentary’ and six years after its 2006 release a Kazakh sportswoman who won gold at a tournament in Kuwait was shocked to hear the sound of the Borat version of the national anthem playing instead of the real one. Just a few months ago, a Dutch international footballer claimed that the only thing he knew about the Central Asian country was that “Borat is from Kazakhstan.”

These and thousands of other name checks in popular culture suggest that while Brand Sabina may have beaten back Brand Borat in East Asia, it still has a way to go in other parts of the world.

Our work building bridges across cultures, languages and perspectives is more urgent than ever before.

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