AS Kazakhstan began gearing up for its first post-Soviet parliamentary elections due to be held on Monday, tens of thousands of almost identical campaign posters began appearing throughout cities from Alma Ata in the south to Akmola in the north.
All the posters were white and the same size. All listed the candidate's brief autobiography in Russian and Kazakh in either blue or black ink. And all featured a tiny black-and-white photograph, showing each candidate staring grim-faced at the camera dressed in a Western suit or Kazakh national costume.
``If the posters were different, they'd simply confuse the people more,'' says Asylbek Abeldinov, a Central Election Commission spokesman headquartered in the capital of Alma Ata, who formerly worked in the Kazakh Communist Party's propaganda section. ``This guarantees everyone an equal chance. Equal conditions for all candidates.''
But critics of President Nursultan Nazarbayev say this vast nation's first-ever parliamentary election campaign has been anything but equal. They accuse Mr. Nazarbayev, the former Communist Party boss who won Kazakhstan's first presidential elections in 1991 by a landslide, of tacitly sanctioning everything from election fraud and falsifications to personal and ethnic favoritism.
``Nazarbayev could win fairly, but instead he's winning by cheating,'' says a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. ``In 1991, he won with 95 percent of the vote. Even without an iron hand, he'd still win with about 75 percent.''
The second-largest former Soviet republic and the fourth most populous with 17 million inhabitants, Kazakhstan stretches from the Caspian Sea to China. With its abundant oil, coal, and other resources, the vast region has the potential to become one of the richest countries in the ex-Soviet Union.
That wealth, combined with the republic's relative political stability and tradition of ethnic tolerance, has attracted scores of Western businesses to Alma Ata, from Chevron to Citicorp to Mercedes-Benz. More than 60 US firms have set up shop in Alma Ata alone.
A savvy Western-style politician, Nazarbayev has impressed the West with his commitment to market reforms and pledges to continue dismantling the nuclear weapons left on Kazakh territory. He returned from a visit to Washington last month with a promised $311 million aid package for 1995, triple the $91 million appropriated last year.
But at home, Nazarbayev, whose first name means ``lucky Sultan'' in Kazakh, is known as a popular but authoritarian leader who is dragging his republic kicking and screaming into the 20th century by putting economic modernization before political reform.
Just keeping the economy from collapse has been a feat. Gas, heat, and hot water are turned off in winter for weeks at a time. The average wage is much lower than in Russia, and inflation is rampant. To top it off, rising ethnic tensions between Russians and Kazakhs could ruin the prospects of this newly independent nation.
Opposition leaders say Kazakhstan is stable because Nazarbayev controls the press and routinely cracks down on the opposition and dissent. They are skeptical the new parliament will be long-lived and predict it will resemble the old communist-dominated one, which dissolved itself last December. The country has been under direct presidential rule since then.
More than 750 candidates are competing for 177 seats in parliament, 42 of which will come from a ``state list'' chosen by Nazarbayev himself. The candidates come primarily from three main political parties, although several grass-roots groups and a handful of independent candidates are also on the ballots.
The large Socialist Party, formed on the basis of the Communist Party, was Nazarbayev's party until he formed the Kazakhstan Union for Popular Unity. Socialists complain that Nazarbayev forced the old parliament to dissolve because it was blocking his reforms.
``A person can't go to bed with one ideology and wake up with another,'' says Socialist spokesman Anatoly Antonov. ``You need to change people's psychology, and that takes time. It can't be done in a month.''
Mr. Antonov says several Socialist Party candidates were unfairly barred from registering, although they had garnered more than the 3,000 signatures required to run.
``You can't fight against a powerful structure like the presidential executive power and his apparatus,'' Antonov says. ``Nazarbayev has all the power concentrated in his hands.''
Vice President Erik Asanbayev disagrees. ``The opposition is screaming because they say they were disqualified simply because they are the opposition,'' he told the Monitor. ``People from other parties have also been disqualified for the same reasons. And they're not screaming.''
Mr. Asanbayev has high hopes for the new parliament. He says Nazarbayev's ``state list'' will help more professionals as well as representatives of small nationalities gain parliamentary seats.
Descendants of Muslim Turkic tribes who ruled the steppes more than 1,000 years ago, Kazakhs were nomads who were forceably absorbed into the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century. Millions perished when the Soviets forceably collectivized them.
Although the country is 40 percent Kazakh and 39 percent Russian, with the rest a mixture of other nationalities, most residents speak only Russian. But in a bid to spark ethnic rebirth, the country's new constitution lists Kazakh the national language and Russian the language of ``inter-ethnic communication.''
And residents must decide this month whether they want Kazakh citizenship. Ethnic discrimination in favor of Kazakhs is becoming widespread, critics say, a practice reflected in the ethnic breakdown of the parliamentary candidates. While 566 are Kazakh, only 128 are Russian.
``These statistics are frightening given the ethnic composition of the place. Already we've seen a very disconcerting policy of Russian and other nationalities being displaced by Kazakhs,'' says Eric Rudenshiold of the International Republican Institute, based in Alma Ata. ``The Russians had more than their share of everything to begin with, but now they've lost proportionately more.''