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The insider's guide to Kazakhstan

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(CNN) -- With Borat fever sweeping cinemas everywhere, here is all you need to know about Kazakhstan, homeland of the world's most inept and offensive journalist.

Inept? Offensive? Are these typical personality traits in Kazakhstan?

No, no, no! Let's get something crystal clear from the outset -- Borat Sagdiyev is a fictional character, created by English comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen, the man who brought us the equally inept and offensive Ali G. While cinema audiences have been guffawing at the movie "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," Kazakh official have been considerably less amused by Cohen's portrayal of their country as a hotbed of racist, anti-Semitic mysogynism. This is a sensible article about a sensible country, and henceforth nothing more will be said about Borat, his father Boltok the Rapist, his pet pig Igor or his sister Natalya, Kazakhstan's fourth most popular prostitute.

OK, so let's be serious. What can you tell me about Borat's homeland?

Kazakhstan -- WHICH HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH THE FICTIONAL CHARACTER BORAT SAGDIYEV -- is a republic in Central Asia, stretching from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east, and bordered to the north by Russia and to the south by the other "Stans" -- Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is a vast country -- the largest of the former Soviet republics -- covering three time zones and an area of 2.7 million square kilometers, roughly the size of Western Europe (it is the 9th largest country in the world by area).

Apparently its government falls slightly short of full open democracy.

To put it politely. Although President Nursultan Abish-uly Nazarbayev -- who has ruled the country since 1990 -- has declared that he supports democracy in principle, he has warned that implementing it too swiftly could result in dangerous instability. What that means in practice is that power is concentrated almost exclusively in the hands of Nazarbayev and his ruling Otan party, with opposition parties suffering from suppression and intimidation (independent observers found serious flaws in the presidential elections of December 2005, which returned Nazarbayev for another seven year term with 90 percent of the vote). Nazarbayev's daughter, Dariga, is head of the official state news agency, and is widely expected to replace her father when he eventually hands over the reins of power.

I hear it's got a lot of mineral resources.

It certainly has. Copper, zinc, gold, uranium, cobalt, lead and iron ore are all in abundant supply. Most important of all Kazakhstan possesses vast fossil fuel reserves, centered on the Caspian Sea in the west. Oil and gas exports form the backbone of the country's economy, and have generated rapid and dramatic economic growth (for the last six years average GDP has remained above 9 percent per annum).

And what are the people like?

Although it has its underlying ethnic tensions, as do all countries in the region, Kazakhs are certainly not universally racist or anti-Semitic (freedom of religion is a constitutional right in Kazakhstan and is widely respected). Although native Kazakhs make up 53.4 percent of the population there are also significant numbers of Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Germans, Chechens, Koreans and Kurds. These groups generally live in harmony, although all citizens are expected to pass a Kazakh language test if they wish to work for government or state bodies. In terms of religion the country is divided almost equally between Moslems and Christians.

Some history, please (although not too much).

The area that roughly corresponds to modern Kazakhstan has been ruled over the millenia by numerous tribes and empires some for longer than others, some with more success. Persians, Huns, Turks, Arabs, Chinese and Mongols have all influenced the region. It was only in the 14th Century AD, however -- during the reign of the Mongol emperor Tamurlane -- that the Kazakhs emerged as a distinct people in their own right. During the 19th Century they fell under the control of the Russian Empire, and, following the Russian Revolution, were absorbed into the Soviet Union (Kazakhstan became a full Soviet republic in 1936). Following the collapse of the Soviet Union it became an independent republic (on December 16, 1991).

What is there to do there?

Although its cities aren't especially inspiring -- the capital is at Astana, on the Ishim river in the north -- and much of the rest of the country is covered by endless miles of semi-arid steppe, Kazakhstan still possesses many sites of both outstanding natural beauty and great historical interest. The Kozha Akhmed Yasaui Mausoleum, burial place of a revered Twelfth Century Sufi mystic and poet, is a spectacular building (it boasts the largest dome in central Asia), while there are numerous national parks, including the 4000-metre Zailiysky Alatau mountains in the east, where if you are lucky you might spot an elusive snow leopard.

And where does Borat himself live?

For the last time, Borat Sagdiyev is not a real......oh, I give up!

A Khazakh herdsman watches his cows from horseback.

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