ULAN BATOR, Mongolia | Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj was a Soviet Red Army draftee studying in Ukraine in the early 1980s when he first heard reports that America’s president, Ronald Reagan, had given a speech calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”
Mr. Elbegdorj was among the millions living under totalitarian rule who were inspired by Mr. Reagan’s anti-communist and pro-democracy views, whose outspoken criticism of Soviet communism — compared with that of his liberal predecessor, Jimmy Carter — was credited with ultimately bringing down the Soviet Union: first with the breaking down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and finally the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Today, Mongolia’s president said he remains a staunch Reaganite when it comes to promoting democracy and free markets in this land of 2.7 million people sandwiched between undemocratic giants Russia and China.
Elected president in 2009 in what has become Central Asia’s most open democratic state, Mr. Elbegdorj said he once had a photo of Mr. Reagan and another Cold War freedom hero, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, hanging in his government office to remind him of Mr. Reagan’s influence.
A military reporter under the Soviets, Mr. Elbegdorj was influenced by Mr. Reagan’s summitry with the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, especially the Berlin speech in which he called for the wall to be torn down. When Mr. Elbegdorj returned to Mongolia in 1988, he became a key organizer for the first non-communist democratic movement in what was still part of the Soviet Union: the Mongolian Democratic Union.
“I was the first to take the microphone in the first demonstration to say that we were silent for a long time, and now as young people we had to act,” Mr. Elbegdorj, 47, told The Washington Times in an interview at his presidential offices.
“I got those kind of big ideas from President Reagan. He actually impacted millions of people who lived behind the Iron Curtain.”
It wasn’t just Mr. Reagan’s hard-line rhetoric. Mr. Elbegdorj said the president’s leadership in enabling the collapse of the Soviet Union without creating a nuclear war or other catastrophe was nothing less than brilliant.
“He actually brought down the Soviet system” peacefully, Mr. Elbegdorj said.
Mr. Elbegdorj said the loosening of media controls by the Kremlin under Mr. Gorbachev’s “glasnost” and “perestroika” policies helped spread the word that the United States was pushing for democratic reform through numerous dissident and semiofficial journals at the time.
Momentum for that movement received a major boost on June 12, 1987, when Mr. Reagan gave a speech against the backdrop of divided Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and announced, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
The Mongolian leader recalled in the interview how tight Soviet media controls blocked people from fully understanding what was wrong with the socialist system. But the “evil empire” remark, in particular, led many people in the Soviet bloc to finally understand the socialist system was wrong.
Mr. Reagan’s use of the term “evil empire” was dismissed by many political liberals in the West at the time as dangerous and irresponsible conservative rhetoric.