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Mongolia: President Reaches Out To Democracies

Mongolia has not been a major player on the world stage since the fourteenth century. But the sparsely populated country is increasingly trying to make its presence known to the world community. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports that an official visit by the Mongolian president to the Czech Republic is another sign that Mongolia is seeking to strengthen its own democracy by reaching out to other democracies.

Prague, 13 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- For most people the thought of Mongolia brings to mind an image of Chingiz (Genghis) Khan's warriors galloping across the plain, descending upon the peoples of Asia and Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The Mongols of today still revere the warrior prowess of their ancestors. But for today's Mongolia, it is important to be at peace with its neighbors, as the country occupies an unenviable geographic position -- wedged between giants Russia and China.

Mongolian President Natsigiyn Bagabandi is trying to strengthen ties between his country and Western democracies. Bagabandi is a former member of the Communist Party. But perhaps more than any of the leaders further West in formerly Communist Central Asia, the Mongolian president has embraced democracy.

A trip to the Czech Republic last week (Wednesday, Dec. 8) was one of many foreign visits that Mongol officials have made this year. Bagabandi has recently been in China and Japan, and other officials have visited Kazakhstan, Turkey, Russia and Kuwait. Indeed, diplomatic trips by Mongol officials this year have taken them nearly to the corners of their ancient empire.

In many respects, the world map today reflects divisions created by the Mongol hordes several centuries ago. Moscow, for example, was an insignificant village when the Mongols arrived. Having sacked and burned most of the Rurik dynasty's major cities, the Mongols allowed Moscow a chance to grow as a center of commerce. Mongol protection sustained Moscow and the Russian people against more powerful European neighbors of the time, like the Livonians, Lithuanians and Poles. Commerce from Asia and the Persian Gulf often passed into what is today western Russia. Just over 200 years after the Russians finally forced the Mongols out, the Tsarist empire stretched nearly to the Pacific Ocean.

Mongolia today is a poor country. The economy relies on raw metals and animal skins and furs for the bulk of its income. There is very likely oil underneath the plains, but exploration has been limited because of the country's remoteness and lack of sea access.

The fall of the USSR, its major trade partner, hit Mongolia hard. Mongolia was very close to the USSR, sometimes derisively referred to as the 16th Soviet republic. It followed its large neighbor along the path of democracy. But as Russia began to cultivate ties with the West, Mongolia was left with no-one to turn to but China. As the Chinese are the ancient enemies of the Mongols, there was little to be gained from Beijing, especially for a now democratic Mongolia.

In Prague last week, Bagabandi told RFE/RL that the past ten years as a democratic country have been difficult, but that Mongolia has gained strength from the experience. The Mongolian president said the democratization of society is his main priority:

"Mongolia respects the principles of human rights and democratization. The Mongol people during these ten years (after Communism) have experienced economic difficulties associated with a market economy but have quickly re-oriented to this and are moving forward. Although there are still problems. We have not stopped unemployment, and poverty remains. Unemployment is high and we must correct this. We must fulfill our promises to the people and the government is working on this."

The country's record at the election booths back this up. Mongolia has held what the few observers present said were free and fair elections. And the election campaigns have been relatively robust. In the 1996 elections to parliament, the Democratic Union Alliance, which was considered to have little chance of winning, ran a clever television commercial that proved popular. The ad showed a yurt (tent) pitched on the vast steppe, long associated with the Mongol people. The flap popped open, and out sprang Chinghiz (Genghis) Khan, saying: "If I were alive, I would vote for the Democratic Union Alliance."

The ad worked. The old Communist Party was voted out and the new Democratic Union Alliance stepped in. And in Mongolia, the parliament really does hold the power instead of the president -- a rarity in former communist Asia.

On the first leg of this latest trip, Bagabandi stopped in Kyrgyzstan -- the country widely seen as the most democratic state in Central Asia. Posing for photo opportunities alongside Czech President Vaclav Havel, and traveling further west to Poland and Holland, Bagabandi has helped to remind the world there is a new Mongolia.

(Dosan Baimoldo of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)