I have been following with interest — not to say glee — the spat between the government of Kazakhstan and ‘Borat Sagdiyev’, the latest alter ego of the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Kazakhstan’s autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev has evidently failed to see the funny side of Borat’s characterisation of Kazakh men as brutal racists and Kazakh women as mulish peasants who are treated as chattels by their menfolk. London ambassador Erlan Idrissov and other spokesmen have suggested that Baron Cohen is cowardly and politically motivated as well as plain wrong. What particularly got up Idrissov’s nose was Borat’s claim that a Kazakh wife can be bought from her father for ‘15 gallons of insecticide’.
Happily I can adjudicate in this dispute, having once spent a week in the old Cossack stronghold of Uralsk in north-west Kazakhstan. Indeed, I count as an acquaintance — I hesitate to say friend — one of Nazarbayev’s most trusted henchmen, Krymbek Kusherbayev, who was until recently ambassador to Moscow but at the time of my visit was Akim, or governor, of the oil-rich West Kazakhstan oblast of which Uralsk is the capital. Sunday lunch at the Akim’s dacha in the frozen steppes — preceded by a rifle shooting contest, washed down with fine claret, watched over by a thick-necked secret policeman who hissed ‘the Akim will read what you write in your newspaper’ as I left — was a memorable occasion, though not one for asking awkward questions. This is not a regime which embraces inquisitive journalists, let alone cutting-edge satirists.
But I can report that Borat really has got much of his portrayal wrong. Kazakhstan is a society where men are men, but its women are elegant and self-confident, especially in their fine winter furs. Uralsk, an attractive town astride the Ural river which marks the boundary of Europe and Asia, is a multi-ethnic meeting-point where Orthodox Christianity and Islam seemed to coexist without friction. I was told that when snow made travel difficult it was not unusual for Muslims to pray in Orthodox churches, and Christians in mosques.
Borat is right, however, to imply that Kazakhstan has a darker side. It is certainly not a country where I would rush to do business, despite a rising tide of oil-fuelled wealth. Foreign contract workers whispered lurid tales of corruption and intimidation, and I met one British entrepreneur who on a previous visit had been kidnapped as soon as he arrived at Almaty airport. The kidnapper — apparently tipped off by a passport officer — greeted him warmly by name, chattered about the many folkloric attractions of Kazakhstan, ushered him into a cab and set off at speed into unknown territory. Luckily for the visitor, a powerful connection, a steady nerve and a mobile phone enabled him to escape. The moral of the story is beware of Kazakh drivers who sound like Borat. Unfortunately, they all do.
Steady nerves and powerful connections — preferably with the extended Nazarbayev family — are required for the success of any foreign expedition into this dangerous Central Asian fiefdom. I was particularly impressed in Uralsk by a middle-ranking British Gas executive called John Morrow who had been sent out to run the $4 billion, 18 billion-barrel Karachaganak oil-and-gas project, a Babel-like joint venture with Italian, American and Russian partners under the beady eye of the Akim, who made mirthless jokes about spying on Morrow’s every move. Anyone who thinks being a corporate big-shot is one long round of lunch, golf, back-scratching and counting your stock options should contemplate the challenges of an assignment like that, at the outer limits of engineering, logistics, diplom-acy and personal stamina. Morrow seems to be a glutton for punishment, having moved on from Karachaganak first to tackle a natural gas project in Iran for British Gas and then to drill for oil off Cameroon for a Scottish company, BowLeven. I take my souvenir Kazakh fur hat off to him.
Bang or whimper?
In next week’s issue we will mark the 20th anniversary of Big Bang — the reforms of the London stock market which changed the City forever by allowing banks to buy broking and market-making firms and put them together on vastly expensive new trading floors in imitation of Wall Street. On the day these ‘dual capacity’ trading arrangements began — Monday, 27 October 1986 — I was working for BZW, the doomed investment banking arm of Barclays, in an overcrowded basement in Tokyo, where my task was to supervise the installation of a vastly expensive trading floor in a gleaming tower nearby, to which we were about to move.
As the London market opened at 8.30 a.m. — mid-afternoon for us — the best we could do to make our puzzled Japanese staff think this was an historic moment was to get one of our bosses to shout ‘Bang!’ down a loudspeaker phone from BZW headquarters in London. But he missed his cue, so the event was a damp squib — offering a miniature metaphor for the way the entire global securities trading revolution of the 1980s failed to follow the script written for it by the blue-sky strategists of the time.
Within banks like ours it destroyed shareholder value, job security and collegiate trust and made millionaires of some very undeserving people. On a wider front it encouraged ill-conceived takeover deals and excessive risk-taking in increasingly volatile markets. It encouraged popular cynicism about City greed, and did nothing to protect or boost the savings and pensions of ordinary people.
But a visit to an investment bank in one of the new gleaming towers of Canary Wharf last week made me think that judgment may be too harsh — though I admit that the quality of the wines served at dinner may have been a factor. As I left, I joined an international throng of bankers heading home via Norman Foster’s great Underground hall at the end of what was probably a 14-hour working day. It occurred to me that two decades of what Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’ in the financial world has also produced extraordinary energy and physical renewal. I gather foreign banks have even found ways to make money in Tokyo, though none of it looks anything like what we imagined 20 years ago.