[Paleopsych] NYT: The Saturday Profile: A Mongolian and His Nation, Evolving Together
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The Saturday Profile: A Mongolian and His Nation, Evolving Together
NYT December 25, 2004
By JAMES BROOKE
ULAN BATOR, Mongolia
TSAKHIA ELBEGDORJ was running late. After his first 100
days as the prime minister of Central Asia's only
multiparty democracy, he had stopped by a hospital to check
his blood pressure.
The results, as he feared, were not good. The demands of
the job, even in Mongolia, are relentless. "Holding this
coalition together is like holding a raw egg," Mr.
Elbegdorj said later that evening, cupping his hands
together for effect.
It was easier in graduate school at Harvard, he said,
studying problems of government instead of dealing with
them. It was more fun as an opposition journalist taking
potshots at past Mongolian leaders, calling one Mongolia's
Lenin and another Mongolia's Stalin.
Now, he has to receive the grandchildren of the two former
leaders when they troop into his office to ask him not to
remove their relatives' mausoleums from the capital's
central square. The government plans to replace them with
an enormous statue of Genghis Khan, still the proudest
symbol of Mongolia, nearly a thousand years after his death
"Please don't call them Mongolia's Lenin and Stalin," Mr.
Elbegdorj said, trying out his newly acquired diplomatic
skills on a visiting reporter.
Perhaps Asia's most unlikely democratic leader, Mr.
Elbegdorj is a pudgy, bespectacled intellectual whose 41
years track the extraordinary political transformation of
this vast, thinly populated nation sandwiched between
Russia and China. Like most members of his 17-member
cabinet, Mr. Elbegdorj studied in the Soviet Union but now
advocates free market economics.
The son of a herder in Mongolia's far west, the young
Tsakhia proudly wore the red kerchief of a Communist Young
Pioneer in elementary school. Twenty-five years later, he
helped privatize the nation's livestock herds, all 31
In the army, he was so diligent in running a Revolutionary
Youth unit that he won a scholarship to study Marxism,
Leninism and journalism in the Ukrainian city of Lvov. Now,
his Liberty Center foundation, which promotes political and
legal reform, is overseeing translations into Mongolian of
the works of Milton Friedman and Friedrich A. Hayek.
The turning point for Mr. Elbegdorj came in 1989, when the
Soviet grip began to weaken. He quit a comfortable job as a
reporter for a military newspaper to found Mongolia's first
independent newspaper, called Democracy. Soon, he was a
charter member of a group that is now revered as the 13
First Democrats, and took the lead in the protests that
toppled the country's Communist government after a 70-year
"We were tough, we went to jail, we led a hunger strike,"
he recalled over dinner, a five-course affair that moved
from dried beets to sheep's tongue. The setting was the
upstairs state dining room of Guest House No. 30,
originally the residence of Khorloo Choibalsan, the
aforementioned Mongolian Stalin who put many of the Soviet
dictator's policies into effect, including the execution of
an estimated 17,000 Buddhist priests.
THE Communist era already seems like ancient history for
Mongolia's overwhelmingly young population, which has
proved remarkably receptive to democracy and has embraced
free speech and free markets. In two opinion surveys
conducted this year by the Sant Maral Foundation, an
independent polling group, policies for "the transition to
the democratic system" won the support of 90 to 92 percent
of respondents, while those promoting "the transition to a
market economy in 1990" won the support of 86 to 88
"We want to show the world that so-called Western values
not only belong to America, Europe, South Korea and Japan,
but to Mongolia," Mr. Elbegdorj said, proud that Mongolia
survives as a multiparty democracy in an authoritarian sea,
with China to the south, Russia to the north, North Korea
to the east and the autarchies of Central Asia to the west.
Exactly why is a matter of debate. Historically, Mongolians
have been receptive to new ideas and gifted at foreign
languages, a heritage of living for centuries on the Silk
Road from Asia to Europe. After 300 years of domination,
first by China and then by the Soviet Union, moreover, they
have an acute sense of the value of freedom.
Mr. Elbegdorj also points to the role of the United States,
which has contributed money and advice in the quest to
build strong democratic institutions.
This is actually Mr. Elbegdorj's second turn in the top
job. In the late 1990's, his anti-Communist coalition
fumbled its first chance in a chaotic four-year term that
consumed seven finance ministers and five prime ministers.
In 2000, the voters, fed up with the turmoil and
corruption, returned to power the political heirs of the
Communist Party, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary
That led to four years in the opposition for Mr. Elbegdorj,
time he used to earn a master's degree in public
administration at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy
School of Government.
Now a humbler, more wary Mr. Elbegdorj is back in power,
hoping to push Mongolia toward a free market,
high-technology economy. In addition to replacing dead
Communists with Genghis Khan in the nation's mythology, he
wants English to supplant Russian as Mongolia's primary
foreign language, state ministers to hand out their e-mail
addresses and an independent public broadcasting board to
control Mongolia's state-owned radio and television. He has
grand plans to spin a web of fiber-optic high-speed
Internet cables across this land that is twice the size of
Texas, and to place a cellphone in the pocket of every
"If I have e-mail access, and you have e-mail access, that
makes us more equal," said the prime minister, who often
answers questions on his new bilingual Mongolian-English
Web site: www.open-government.mn. Warier of his opponents
this time around, he devotes weekends to politicking and
building support: Saturdays for trips to the interior and
Sundays for socializing with cabinet members, half of whom
are allied with the former Communists.
"In the classroom, everything is plain, you don't feel the
heat," he said. "In real life, every problem is very real."
TO the south, he has a problem in China, an economic
colossus with about 500 times the population of Mongolia's
2.5 million inhabitants. Twenty years ago, 95 percent of
Mongolia's exports went north, to the Soviet Union. In the
first half of this year, 60 percent of Mongolia's exports
went south, to China. Militarily and diplomatically, China
is flexing new muscles as well.
"I hope China will become a responsible superpower," he
said, choosing his words very carefully. "We wish all the
best for China."
Then there is North Korea, a constant destabilizing force
even though it is 500 miles away. The problem is that
defectors make their way through China to the Mongolian
border, where Mongolia is committed to providing them a
haven until transport can be arranged to a country that
will accept them, usually South Korea. Anything that
encourages defections, however, is sure to irritate China.
For protection in the neighborhood, Mongolia is counting
on close ties with the United States. To encourage that, it
has sent 180 soldiers to Iraq, dropped visa requirements
for American tourists and made clear its desire to sign a
free trade pact. It regularly unrolls the red carpet for
visiting American officials, most recently Adm. Thomas B.
Fargo, the commander of United States forces in the
Asked if Mongolia would continue to send soldiers to Iraq,
the prime minister's face clouded.
"If America asks us to send a fourth contingent," he
started. Then, noticing a telepathic elbow in the ribs from
an aide across the dinner table, he brightened and said
with the ambiguity of a seasoned politician, "We would
discuss it in the cabinet."
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