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Mongolian Democracy: From Post-Soviet Success To Post-Transition Struggle

Pro-democracy leader Sanjaasuren Zorig (center, with glasses) and Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, the current president of Mongolia, standing on Ulan Bator's central Sukhbaatar Square during the 1990 demonstrations.
Pro-democracy leader Sanjaasuren Zorig (center, with glasses) and Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, the current president of Mongolia, standing on Ulan Bator's central Sukhbaatar Square during the 1990 demonstrations.
ULAN BATOR -- In 1981, 17-year-old Sanjaasuren Oyun left her native Mongolia to study geology at Prague's Charles University.

She was among hundreds of young people from privileged Mongolian families invited to study at the universities of the USSR and Eastern Europe in the 1980s, a time when the first ripples of democratic change were forming across the region.

The students came in search of a top-rank, Soviet-sponsored education. But Oyun, who went on to serve as Mongolia's foreign minister and is now a parliamentary lawmaker, says they often walked away with a little bit more.

Sanjaasuren Oyun calls her brother's slaying a "black spot" on Mongolian democracy.
"My brother graduated from Moscow State University, and his subject, funnily enough, was 'nauchny kommunism,' or scientific communism," says Oyun, sipping coffee in a plush hotel bar in the capital center. "So he was brainwashed with all these communist ideas, and he was supposed to be coming back home to teach communism. And yet he actually came back with the idea that it was time to transform society."

Peaceful Change

That same idea had already gained ground across Eastern Europe, where popular demonstrations would lead to the collapse of communist regimes in much of the region in 1989.

Mongolia, which in 1921 had followed the Soviet Union to become only the second communist country in the world, soon staged a democratic revolution of its own -- with Oyun's brother, the Moscow-educated Sanjaasuren Zorig, among those leading the charge.

The transition began on December 10, 1989 -- international Human Rights Day -- when Zorig and other activists rallied a small crowd of 200 people for a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration on Ulan Bator's Sukhbaatar Square.

Mongolia's communist leadership watched with alarm from the square's monolithic Government House as the protests quickly swelled to tens of thousands of people, with students, academics, miners, and nomadic herdsmen all taking part in the demonstrations.

On March 9, 1990, the government quietly stepped down. Zorig, who came to be known as the "golden magpie of democracy," announced victory to the joyous crowds outside.

Cutting The Cord

The outside world marveled at the bloodless transition. Zorig and other pro-democracy leaders had urged protesters to remain peaceful through the three months of demonstrations. The communists -- under pressure from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to avoid conflict, and wary of repeating the Tiananmen Square bloodshed that rocked China the previous year -- voluntarily ended 70 years of single-party rule without a single shot fired by security forces.

Free elections later that year brought democrats into Mongolia's parliament for the first time. By 1996, the Democratic Party had gained a majority over the communist holdovers, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) and an era of sweeping constitutional and market reforms was well under way.

The period marked a renaissance of Mongolian national awareness, long suppressed during the communist period. Mongolian replaced Russian as the language of instruction in schools, Buddhist monasteries were rebuilt, and historians raced to restore the tarnished legacy of the country's most revered figure, the 13th-century ruler Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan International Airport in Ulan Bator
Mongolia's democratic evolution was celebrated as a regional success story and a model for change in the autocracies in Central Asia.

But Morris Rossabi, who teaches Mongolian history at New York's Columbia University, says the exuberance of breaking free from years of Soviet domination also came with a price. Long dependent on subsidies from Moscow, Mongolia suddenly found itself without a patron after the collapse of the USSR.

"Mongolia had 90 percent of its trade and investment coming from the Soviet bloc. So when all that happened, they scouted around and moved toward the international financial agencies," says Rossabi. "They went in immediately, with immediate privatization, no matter the consequences. And the result was tremendous unemployment, inflation, tremendous poverty."

Too Hard, Too Fast

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), Asian Development Bank, and World Bank all flooded into Mongolia, and as early as 1990 were pushing the same aggressive economic reforms prescribed across the former Soviet space. But rapid privatization and free-market reforms were a poor fit for the Mongolian culture, with its emphasis on communal use of resources.

Mongolians, by nature, are not an acquisitive nation -- a legacy, perhaps, of their nomadic heritage, wherein you own only what you can carry. But even by the population's hardscrabble standards, the post-socialist years were devastating.

Tens of thousands of Mongolians were left jobless after a massive privatization drive left former state-run industries in shambles. The local currency, the tugrik, experienced massive devaluation, shrinking from 10 to the dollar to 800. Education and health care, readily available during socialism, became erratic.

Mongolia became the fifth-highest recipient of international aid per capita. But the government, which had been urged by the IMF and others to allow economic reforms to play out with only minimal state interference, was unable to capitalize on the country's substantial mineral wealth, which was rapidly being extracted by foreign mining firms.

The economic meltdown, coinciding with a series of devastating winters, began to force a seismic cultural shift, as herders abandoned their traditional nomadic existence, migrating en masse to Ulan Bator and other large cities in search of a new way of life.

WATCH: Mongolia is home to one of the world's few remaining nomadic cultures, with some 40 percent of the population raising animals on the steppes. But economic and social changes are forcing many Mongolians to leave their traditional ways behind:

Mongolia's economic reforms, says Rossabi, have ultimately proven a failure.

"Despite all sorts of so-called programs that the international financial agencies have developed, the 36 percent of people who were living below the poverty line in 1994 hasn't changed -- in fact it's gone up," he says. "So all of this so-called economic growth and trickle-down, pure market economy has been proven to be in error."

End Of An Era

Even worse, the legacy of Mongolia's peaceful transition was soon marred by corruption and violence. In October 1998, pro-democracy leader Zorig was brutally stabbed to death in his apartment by masked assailants. The killing took place the same day he had been nominated as the country's next prime minister.

His wife, who had been bound and gagged during the attack, later suggested her husband had been killed because he had refused to accept bribes while serving as the country's infrastructure minister.

His sister Oyun says the murder, which remains unsolved, is a "black spot" on Mongolian democracy, particularly after her brother's efforts to keep the peace in 1990. "It's very, very unfortunate that the person who was calling for all these nonviolent means had to suffer so much, and be killed in such a violent way," she says.

An English lesson in progress at School No. 23 in Ulan Bator in the 1960s
Many of Zorig's allies have since gone on to be powerful players in the Mongolian political scene, including the current Democratic president, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, a fellow 1990 demonstrator. But the vitality that marked the early days of Mongolia's postcommunist politics has since given way to stalemate and infighting.

If Mongolia was formerly a one-party state, it has become just as rigidly a two-party one, with the Democrats and the still-powerful MPRP holding all but three of the Grand Khural's 76 seats.

(Oyun, who founded her own party, Civil Will, is among the exceptions. She is also one of only three female lawmakers, down from 10 a decade ago. "I like to say that most of the work in Mongolia is done by women, and most of the decisions are made by men," she says wryly.)

The two parties formally comprise a grand coalition, and even their headquarters are nestled within whispering distance of each other along Sukhbaatar Square. Some critics say the relationship has become too cozy; others that the two sides prefer squabbling to lawmaking.

After Openness, Fear

Frustration with the situation has simmered for years; in July 2008, it boiled over, when fraud allegations in the country's parliamentary vote prompted violent riots outside the headquarters of the MPRP, which was claiming a two-to-one victory.

Five people were killed in clashes between protesters and police; state television broadcast footage of bloodstained stairs inside the MPRP headquarters; the building was eventually set ablaze. Nearly 800 protesters, mainly young men, were arrested; many later claimed to have been brutally beaten by police. (International monitors ultimately pronounced the poll free and fair.)

Tumursukh Undarya, a political scientist and NGO activist, says the incident ultimately had the effect of dampening many Mongolians' enthusiasm for democracy and civil rights.

"Many parents are still held by fears that were cultivated during the socialist period, that you would get in trouble if you were outspoken," she says. "They tell their children to stay away from anything to do with human rights and democracy. So last year, when many young people were arrested, beaten up by police, and then very severely sentenced by the courts, that fear was deepened."

Democratic Party protesters outside the offices of the former communist Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party in Ulan Bator in July 2008
Such developments have undoubtedly tarnished Mongolia's reputation as post-Soviet Asia's democratic success story. To build Mongolia up as a standard for political transition in Central Asia or elsewhere is "fallacious," says Rossabi, who has chronicled the country's evolution in "Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists."

Democracy, he says, "hasn't really set in."

In this, Mongolia may be suffering from an aggravated case of the same post-transition doldrums that have afflicted many post-Soviet countries farther west. Considering the country's wild 20th-century ride from Soviet satellite to democracy poster child -- not to mention its far longer legacy of khans and communal nomadic culture -- one could argue it could hardly be otherwise.

Still, Mongolia doesn't appear to be looking back. Nearly 20 years later, polls indicate that 80 percent of the population says the transition was the right thing to do.

Slow But Steady

Oyun, for one, remains optimistic even as she acknowledges the challenges -- including the glacial half-decade it took the government to conclude a critical $4 billion mining deal that was finally sealed in October.

Mongolia, she says, has made important political strides since her brother first stepped onto Sukhbaatar Square with a plan to change Mongolia -- and still remains a positive example for other countries in the region.

"We look at Kazakhstan, where their GDP per capita is several times higher than ours. We know that Kazakhstan is not a vibrant, multiparty parliamentary democracy. And yet we've had to debate for the last five years just to get a single, huge mining agreement to be approved," she says. "And then somebody says, 'Well, look at Kazakhstan. [President Nursultan] Nazarbaev makes his decision one day and the project starts the next day. And we're spending five years debating.'"

Oyun pauses, then notes that Mongolia's mining deal, though long in coming, had the support of the majority of the public and civil society.

"We still hope and believe that, in the long run, the way we do things is good for Mongolia."

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