Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev is vacationing in Kyrgyzstan, where he met this week with President Askar Akaev. The two Central Asian leaders are more than regional neighbors. They are also in-laws and presidents who have led their countries down strikingly similar paths. But despite their similar styles of rule, Nazarbaev and Akaev could soon to see their paths diverge as the two countries choose radically different futures. In this first part of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at the common ties that have kept the two countries close.
Prague, 27 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's daughter Aliya married Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev's son Aydar three years ago, it was viewed as just another example of the strong traditional ties between the two Central Asian leaders and their countries.
In the past decade of post-Soviet independence, Nazarbaev and Akaev have followed similar paths in ruling their nations, which share a historical kinship. Unlike the other CIS Central Asian states -- Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- native Kazakhs and Kyrgyz make up only a slight majority of their countries' populations. It was that heterogeneous quality, Western observers say, that originally made them the most promising starting points for democracy in Central Asia.
Cassandra Cavanaugh, who until last week worked for New York-based Human Rights Watch, explains why the two countries had such a reputation:
"In the first year of independence, up until the middle of the 1990s, both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan had, at least for the region, relatively free press conditions. Both of them had a relatively active opposition, political parties that were represented in parliament. And people were able to organize groups and civil society to press their own issues and try to advocate further expansion of all manner of rights."
Things began to change in the mid-1990s. In 1994 Akaev dissolved the Kyrgyz parliament, which had initiated an investigation into governmental corruption and was planning to pass legislation limiting presidential powers. Nazarbaev did the same thing the following year, and then used the absence of a parliament to call for a national referendum to extend his term in office until 2000, bypassing elections scheduled for 1996. He subsequently held another referendum on altering the Kazakh Constitution to further increase the powers of the executive branch.
Cavanaugh says Kazakhstan's political diversity was an immediate casualty of the amendments:
"The biggest turning point was the dissolution of the parliament in Kazakhstan and the changes that were implemented to electoral laws to obviously restrict opposition participation in government."
At the same time, a newly elected Kyrgyz parliament, under pressure from Akaev, called for early presidential elections. Two months later, the Kyrgyz Constitution was likewise amended to extend the powers of the executive branch. The international community expressed disapproval of the changes, but did little to intervene.
Free-speech rights in the two countries soon began to suffer, with independent media coming under increasing scrutiny. Emma Gray of the Committee to Protect Journalists explains the effect the press crackdown had on Kazakhstan:
"The most striking feature of media in Kazakhstan is the way in which Nazarbaev and his family and business associates have taken control of all of the most influential organs of the media in the republic. Television, newspapers, radio -- [Nazarbaev] controls pretty much all of the most important, the most powerful and influential media in his country."
Nazarbaev's daughter Dariga heads the state-owned Khabar news agency, as well as several newspapers and television and radio stations. Popular independent newspapers, such as "21st Century," "Dat," and "Soldat," have either been put out of business or have had their owners appear in court to face libel charges.
A similar process is underway in Kyrgyzstan. Slander and libel cases against the independent "Res Publica" newspaper were opened in 1995. Other publications have since come under fire. The "Asaba" independent newspaper went out of business earlier this year when its owner was ordered to pay crippling court-imposed fines for slander and failure to pay back a loan.
Gray of the Committee to Protect Journalists said the press crackdown was becoming common practice in Kyrgyzstan:
"We saw in the mid-1990s that the situation was deteriorating. I think we saw clearly last year in the run-up to the presidential elections that more pressure was being exerted on independent media. I think that Akaev is adopting some of the bad habits of his more oppressive [Central Asian] neighbors in the sense that the courts are being used to bankrupt these papers. That is a tool which is used regularly to try to oppress journalists and newspaper owners."
With media freedom facing growing problems in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the voice of formal opposition has been reduced to a whisper. In both countries, political opposition has been silenced by court cases and hostile media campaigns.
In Kazakhstan's last presidential elections -- originally due in 2000, but moved forward by parliament to January 1999, much as the Kyrgyz parliament rescheduled elections there four years earlier -- former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin was the favorite to oppose Nazarbaev, but was barred from running by a court decision.
Just days after announcing his intention to run, Kazhegeldin was charged with attending an unlawful assembly and a judge barred his election run. The state media then began publishing reports that he had abused his premiership by embezzling millions of dollars.
Kazhegeldin formed a new opposition political party (the People's Republican Party) in the spring of 2000 and declared himself a candidate in parliamentary elections scheduled later that year. But when the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office pushed ahead with an investigation into the embezzlement charges, the former prime minister left the country and has yet to return.
Last week, Kazhegeldin was served a court summons by Kazakh Embassy officials while attending a U.S. congressional hearing on human and media rights in Kazakhstan.
In Kyrgyzstan, Feliks Kulov -- who had previously served as vice president, a regional governor, and the nation's security minister -- resigned as mayor of the capital Bishkek in 1999 and formed his own opposition political party (Ar-Namys) with the aim of winning a parliamentary seat in elections the following year.
But like Kazhegeldin, Kulov soon found himself the target of high-level investigations that eventually forced the collapse of his political ambitions. He was defeated in a race labeled by international monitors as "suspicious" and was jailed less than two weeks later.
He was briefly vindicated five months later, when a military court ordered his release in time to announce his candidacy in Kyrgyzstan's presidential elections. But less than a month after his release, a military review board overruled Kulov's acquittal. In January this year, he was found guilty of abuse of power committed during his term as security minister and sentenced to a seven-year jail term.
Last week he lost an appeal.
(The Kazakh and Kyrgyz services contributed to this report.)