- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2003

STANFORD, Calif. — If there is any hope democracy can take root in Iraq, it may be found in the experience of distant Mongolia.

Former Mongolian Prime Minister Elbegdorj Tsakhia last week outlined for fellows at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution the history of the Mongolian democracy movement of the early 1990s. He also regaled his audience with tales of the Mongol Empire, once the largest in the world, spread by conquest seven and eight centuries ago through the horse-borne warriors of Genghis Khan and his heirs.

Mr. Tsakhia, a signer of the constitution of Mongolia, guaranteeing human rights, democracy and a free-market economy, has been described as the “Lech Walesa of Mongolia” and is considered a future possible president of the landlocked nation of mountains and desert plains, formerly part of the Soviet empire. Mongolia in 1920 had become the second nation to go communist, after Russia itself.

Mr. Tsakhia said the 1990 transition to democracy “involved no bloodshed,” but noted that “we couldn’t build Rome in one year.” He said, “We liberalized prices and this hit people [as the system moved] from a fixed-price system.”

Why did Mongolia opt for democracy and how did democratic ideas penetrate such a distant land, enfolded on one side by Russian Siberia and on the other by China, having 2,000-mile-long common borders with each?

“We realized that the communists had made mistakes — the killings and suffering imposed by the system.” Mr. Tsakhia said democratic ideas were partly conveyed to young Mongolians through Western “soft power,” the “cultural products” of the West “which showed the possibility of a better life.”

He also was influenced by the ferment of intellectual change brewing in the western Soviet Union, when he left the Mongolian army to study journalism in Ukraine in the middle and late 1980s. The political climate of the time included “perestroika” and “glasnost” and the public examination of communist excesses. “Mikhail Gorbachev tried to improve the system, but what was needed was [fundamental] change,” he said.

When he returned to Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital, Mr. Tsakhia was a delegate at a young people’s conference held to consider the prospects for change. The conferees, stirred by young Mongolians who had studied in Eastern Europe, realized they would “succeed or face risk.”

He spoke as a moderator for a nongovernmental youth organization in Mongolia; but the organization’s real purpose was concealed. He said about 1,000 people attended the meeting and he joked that perhaps a third of them were members of the KGB.

The organization began attracting increasingly larger crowds and demanded a multiparty system, freedom of speech, democracy and the right to private property. The Mongolian Politburo promptly organized a propaganda campaign against the nascent movement.

“However, people were seeing the possibility of a better way of life. It was too late for the government for the use of force.” Soviet troops had been withdrawn from Mongolia in 1989, and the nation was able to join international organizations on its own by 1990. A year later, the Soviet Union collapsed, with the separation of many of its former constituent republics.

Now Mongolia has two major political parties, the Social Democrats or former Communist Party, and the Democratic Party. The country is governed by a parliamentary system; its next election will be held in 2004.

Mr. Tsakhia noted China’s growing military might. “The only hope is that it will be a responsible power” and help restrain forces tending toward disruption on the Korean Peninsula. Still to be assessed, he said, is the possibility of Chinese/Japanese competition in East Asia.

If there is a lesson in all this, it is that even the remotest parts of the world are not utterly isolated from the flow of intellectual ideas and the worldwide drive to improve living conditions. The rise of global communications has only intensified with the Internet and the increased ability of people to travel abroad.

Repressive Islamic regimes and extremist organizations may represent a special case, because of the underpinning or fanatical misuse of religion and nationalism. But Iraq, Iran, Syria and myriad other places all more intensely involved in world trade and interactions than Mongolia cannot forever remain immune to the promise of a less conflicted and more positive future.

Benjamin P. Tyree is deputy editor of the Commentary pages of The Washington Times. He was recently at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution as a media fellow.

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