MINER Yakov Lakman, an ethnic German married to a Belarussian, spent the last four decades digging coal in this mining town in northern Kazakhstan, working grueling hours under dangerous conditions for pitiably low wages.
Next month, Mr. Lakman plans to emigrate to his ancestral home, although he's never been to Germany and his wife doesn't speak the language. Inflation has eroded the couple's savings. But the Lakmans are not leaving for economic reasons. They are fleeing out of fear of discrimination by ethnic Kazakhs in newly independent Kazakhstan.
``My children have higher education, but I know they'll never be able to gain leadership positions here. If a position was open for a mechanic and no Kazakh wanted it, then maybe they'd get it,'' Lakman says. ``We have no faith in the future. Kazakhs are the bosses now.'' As residents of this vast nation of 17 million go to the polls today to vote in Kazakhstan's first contested parliamentary elections, ethnic tensions are threatening to pull apart what may become the wealthiest former Soviet republic.
200 years of Russian rule
With its strong tradition of ethnic tolerance, Kazakhstan has not suffered the civil strife troubling many former Soviet republics. But as the resource-rich country emerges from 200 years of Russian domination, many ethnic Kazakhs, who believed they were treated as second-class citizens under Imperial Russian and then Soviet rule, are actively seeking action to rectify their status.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former Communist Party boss who has emerged as a savvy Western-style leader, has sought to cast himself as a mediating presence amid Kazakh and Russian nationalism. But critics say he backs government policies that favor ethnic Kazakhs.
Discrimination in favor of ethnic Kazakhs is prevalent in government, state-run businesses, housing, and education, says a United States State Department report released last month. ``Although some officials are Slavs, ethnic Kazakhs increasingly predominate in government and in high positions in state enterprises,'' the report says.
In an effort to pacify both Kazakhs and non-Kazakhs, Mr. Nazarbayev made Kazakh the official state language and Russian the language of ``interethnic communcation.'' And he extended a deadline to March 1995 to let residents decide if they want Kazakhstan citizenship.
But the ethnic question has already started to sour Kazakhstan's relations with its neighbors. Tensions between Kazakhstan and Russia were exacerbated when Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a Kazakhstan native, spoke out vociferously against its ethnic policies.
They further worsened when, several months ago, Russian President Boris Yeltsin vowed to protect the estimated 25 million Russian speakers left outside Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed.
``Russia is provoking the question by playing on people's emotions,'' says Vice President Erik Asanbayev. ``Russia announced it wants to defend Russian speakers in the `near abroad' as if they were being attacked. In Kazakhstan, that's not true. We have never announced that we want to defend Kazakhs living in Russia.''
Mr. Asanbayev says his government is trying to accommodate ethnic Kazakhs and Russian-speakers. ``If we had two official languages, the entire burden would lie on Russian speakers,'' he says. ``All Kazakhs speak two languages. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Russians who speak Kazakh.''
Only half speak language
The second largest former Soviet republic and the fourth most populous, Kazakhstan is roughly 40 percent Kazakh and 39 percent Russian, the rest being a mixture of other nationalities. But as all minority culture was repressed under Communist rule, only half the Kazakh population speaks Kazakh, according to State Department figures.
The Muslim Turkic Kazakhs were ruled by Imperial Russia from the early 19th century. When the Bolsheviks came to power, Josef Stalin tried to forceably collectivize the Kazakhs. Millions perished, and the country became an ethnic dumping ground for deported nationalities.
Following Stalin's death in 1953, Nikita Krushchev tried reforming Kazakhstan by introducing his disastrous Virgin Lands policy, which involved cultivating idle lands by introducing new state farms and animal-husbandry practices. That ended with Khrushchev's ouster in 1964.
Like many industrial towns in Kazakhstan's north, Karaganda is largely non-Kazakh. Russians are leaving in droves, and about half of the 140,000 ethnic Germans who originally resided in the city of 650,000, have emigrated to Germany, city officials say.
``People are not very certain about what the economic future of Kazakhstan will be. They think Russia has good prospects for the future,'' says Tatyana Simonov, a Russian who has not yet decided whether to accept Kazakh citizenship. ``And some people are concerned about the national policies. They expect serious national discrimination in the future.''
But for others, home is home. Russian Nikolai Kudryashev moved to Karaganda after World War II. A retired driver, his pension is barely enough to feed himself and his wife. But with four children and 10 grandchildren in Kazakhstan, he is loathe to leave. ``I've been here since 1947. I have my own house, my own car, my own chickens. What should I do, throw it all away? ''