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Opinion

Mongolia: a democratic breakthrough?

Mongolia was once considered among the least likely of former communist nations to make a successful transition to democracy. But it now holds regular national elections and its economy is poised for growth.

By Dan Southerland / December 31, 2009



Ulan Bator, Mongolia

Mongolia, a formerly communist nation sandwiched between two autocratic and powerful neighbors, once seemed an unlikely candidate for democratic reform.

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But while its mighty neighbors China and Russia are allowing authoritarian tendencies to diminish rule of law, impoverished Mongolia has persisted in building a more accountable government.

In one of the most underreported stories of 2009, Mongolia is forging ahead with reforms aimed at making its society more open and less subject to the endemic corruption that has plagued many former communist states.

Mongolia was once considered among the least likely of former communist nations to make a successful transition to democracy. But it now holds regular national elections under a mixed parliamentary-presidential system.

Peaceful protest

As a Washington Post correspondent based in Beijing in January 1990, I was astonished to find myself reporting on a small pro-democracy movement that had suddenly emerged in Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital.

Nearly 3,000 Mongolians, defying a ban on demonstrations, marched to the capital’s central square. They carried banners calling for glasnost and perestroika, the Russian words for then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of openness and restructuring. The marchers met no resistance from police.

Within a few weeks, Mongolia’s ruling Communist Party relinquished its leading role, and the party’s general secretary and entire Politburo resigned. Apparently with advice and support from Moscow, Mongolia’s communist authorities ruled out a “Chinese solution” to political dissent, a reference to China’s military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in June 1989.

From communism to market economy

Mongolia had been a Soviet vassal state for more than six decades. It was the world’s second communist country after the Soviet Union. An estimated 45,000 to 50,000 Soviet troops remained in the country when those first pro-democracy protests broke out.

Now Mongolia is moving more rapidly in a democratic direction than any of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. And its new leaders vowed early on to quickly privatize state enterprises and create a free-market economy.

But progress has come with some difficulty.