President Nursultan Nazarbayev's face seems to leap out from every direction. It radiates from TV screens. It stares from walls, construction hoardings, buses, and restaurant windows. You might never guess there is more than one candidate in Kazakhstan's presidential elections, slated for this Sunday.
Actually, there are five, including at least one political heavyweight: former parliamentary speaker Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, who is backed by a four-party coalition. Wherever Mr. Tuyakbai has been allowed to hold rallies, they have been attended by hundreds of supporters sporting yellow scarves and banners, a touch inspired by Ukraine's successful "orange revolution."
But the relative invisibility of the opposition candidates points to the challenge facing those who wish to imitate the democratic movements seen in other former Soviet republics. And neither Russia nor the West, say analysts, would be likely to welcome unrest in Kazakhstan, an ally in the war on terror and home to two-thirds of the Caspian basin's oil and gas resources.
"This election has been mostly unfair," says former finance minister Oraz Zhandosov, deputy head of Tuyakbai's campaign. "Television and print media are controlled by the president's family and friends.... Printing houses all over the country have refused to produce our material and the postal service has declined to deliver it."
Critics are also demanding answers in the mysterious shooting death three weeks ago of Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a former Nazarbayev ally who had become chief adviser to Tuyakbai's "For a Just Kazakhstan" movement. Mr. Nurkadilov recently claimed he had documents proving "massive corruption" within Nazarbayev's inner circle.
Some opposition activists say they are prepared to take to the streets to protest any vote rigging, as their counterparts in Georgia, Ukraine, and neighboring Kyrgyzstan have done in the last two years. "If it is a fraudulent election ... we have some ideas," says Mr. Zhandosov. "If we do anything, we guarantee it will be peaceful."
The government has banned street demonstrations until the vote-counting is officially complete, which could take weeks. In what critics say is an effort to block the spread of revolutionary ideas from Kyrgyzstan, security forces this week deported over 200 Kyrgyz citizens and sealed the border between the two nations.
Much is at stake for Mr. Nazarbayev, the former Communist Party chief who has ruled this sprawling, oil-rich nation of 15-million since 1989. He recently pledged to do everything "in order to conduct honest and just elections." Any appearance of fraud could imperil Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009, and its hopes of joining the World Trade Organization next year.
An opinion poll conducted by the Russian VTsIOM agency among 1,500 Kazakhs in November found that 82 percent support Nazarbayev.
"I don't know much about other candidates, but I know my family and I will vote for Nazarbayev," says Natasha Kolinivskaya, offering an opinion shared by several passersby on an Astana street. "Sure there's corruption, but a new president would probably be worse than the one we have."
Presidential polls in 1999 and parliamentary elections last year were judged to be deeply flawed by international monitors. An interim report issued by the OSCE's observer mission in Kazakhstan in November cited 17,000 complaints against the authorities in the present election, among them detention and beatings of opposition supporters, barred access to media, seizure of campaign material, and harassment of journalists.
"Don't expect any surprises," says Konstantin Zatullin, a member of the Russian parliament's committee on post-Soviet nations. "Nazarbayev insured his victory before the campaign began. If he hadn't, these elections wouldn't be taking place."
Kazakhstan, which has the region's largest economy, growing at nearly 10 percent annually, has been courted by both Russia and the US.
Russia's state-controlled Gazprom recently won rights to transport Central Asian natural gas through Kazakhstan via its own pipeline system. American oil interests, which include ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil, are relying on the soon-to-be opened Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline to move much of Kazakhstan's 1.8-million barrels per day crude production to Western markets.
Washington spent $7.4-million on democracy-building programs in Kazakhstan this year, according to the State Department. In an October visit to Astana, Condoleezza Rice said the US would watch the country's electoral process. "While we do have interests in natural resources and in terms of the struggle against terrorism, we have in no way allowed those interests to get in the way of our open and clear defense of freedom," she said.
Moscow, which has been rattled by social unrest and pro-democracy revolts in several post-Soviet countries, accuses the West of meddling. "There have been attempts to intervene in the political life of newly independent states under the guise of advancing democratic values and freedoms," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov alleged this week. "[These pressures] that NATO and US political and military structures are exerting on Central Asia are heightening tensions."