Mongolia's Communist Party Chief Heads Down Power-Sharing Road
ULAN BATOR, MONGOLIA
THE winds of freedom and democracy that have swept across Mongolia this year are irreversible, the country's Communist Party chief promises. ``Deep and fundamental democratization of our society is the guarantee against a revival of Stalinism in our country,'' says Gombojavyn Ochirbat. Mr. Ochirbat is chairman of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), as the communists call themselves here.Skip to next paragraph
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Mongolia, Moscow's oldest and most loyal satellite, has become the first Asian communist country to espouse democracy and multiparty elections. The Communist Party chief had his own baptism of fire in the colorful campaign prior to last month's election.
Ochirbat ran for election in an Ulan Bator suburb filled with squatters living in ger - Mongolian felt tents. His opponent, Ganbold, a young Justice Ministry official, promised voters better housing and accused Communists of ``crimes against the people.''
A short, stocky man, usually quiet and reserved, Ochirbat waded into crowds at outdoor rallies with a determined smile on his face, as if he were performing a necessary, but distasteful task.
Sometimes competing with jazz bands to catch people's ears, he also faced hostile questions from opposition supporters. Better at indoor debates with his youthful opponent, Ochirbat insisted Communists had changed, telling voters he himself was a victim of one-party dictatorship: Four of his brothers were killed during the rule of party chief Tsedenbal in the 1960s and 70s.
Despite his political prominence, Ochirbat's victory was narrow - 51 percent. As a whole, the Communists did well, winning 343 of 430 parliamentary seats and 60 percent of the preference votes in a separate ballot for parties. Western observers here say the task today is to form a viable coalition to give substance to Ochirbat's public statement that ``the MPRP is an equal partner'' with other parties born this year, and that it considers the parties to be ``part of the structure of democracy in our country.''
One of the underlying themes of the campaign was an assertion of Mongolia's national identity after nearly 70 years of Soviet tutelage. Mongolian newspapers today write openly of territory surrendered to the Soviet Union during those years, and of economic exploitation by Moscow.
In his interview, Ochirbat spoke only in general terms, saying there had been ``shortcomings'' as well as achievements in the relationship with Moscow and that there remain ``quite a number of issues which are awaiting their solution.'' He stressed the importance of good relations with the Soviet Union as well as with China. It would be ``against our national interest,'' he said, to give these two powerful neighbors ``any excuse for confrontation.'' Nationalist revival
That said, Mongolian Communists must take account of an upwelling of national pride - the revival of the traditional script; increased use of Mongolian dress, even in cities; the reopening of Buddhist monasteries; and the rehabilitation of Genghis Khan after years of deferring to the Russian view that the national hero was a barbarian conqueror.
``Until recently, we neglected our national traditions and national culture,'' Ochirbat says. But today ``even children of 7 and 8 are talking about the revival of our national traditions.'' As for Genghis Khan, the conquest of other countries showed a ``negative side of his history.'' But his achievement of national unity makes him ``the pride of the Mongol people.'' Mistakes vs. crimes
Ochirbat's own place in Mongol history, observers here suggest, will depend on how he steers the Communist Party through a transition from monopolizing power to sharing it. He was chosen chairman of the party at its April Congress as an apparatchik who had once run afoul of autocratic deposed leader Tsedenbal. He was acceptable both to liberals and to conservatives within the party. Some indication of the problems he faces is given by an account of a meeting he had with Mongolian students during a visit to Moscow last spring, as recalled by a student participant.
Ochirbat gave a speech to the students, the gist of which was that the Communists made mistakes, but were now correcting them. Student leaders rejoined that among ordinary people, if you take another's money, that's stealing - it's a crime. If you kill someone, that's murder. The students said: You admit the Communists misappropriated funds, and you admit that they killed large numbers of people. Were these actions mistakes, or were they crimes? ``Ochirbat couldn't answer,'' the participant said.