MONGOLIA, for years as gray and nondescript a Stalinist state as could be found, has emerged from the shadows. Its communist leadership resigned last week in favor of a new set of leaders pledged to hold free, multiparty elections. This wasn't the work of a few months, though news of change in Ulan Bator started trickling out only last December. Mongolia has been struggling to shape a home-grown version of glasnost and perestroika for nearly two years.
In late 1988 the country's press published its first criticism of the Soviet Union. Around the same time a Mongolian party plenum considered substantial political and economic reforms. The country started to pursue a foreign policy based on national interest instead of subservience to Moscow.
As in Mongolia's huge northern neighbor, no one then dared talk about multiparty democracy. But the winds of pluralism swept even to the distant plains of Asia. Three opposition parties now compete with the communist People's Revolutionary Party.
As elsewhere, the fast-forward pace of change in Mongolia has been largely driven by revived nationalism. Since its absorption into the communist sphere in the early 1920s, Mongolia's rich cultural and religious life has been stifled. Buddhist monasteries were closed and allowed to fall into ruin; traditional celebrations, such as the lunar new year, were banned; even the traditional Mongolian script was dropped in favor of Russian-style lettering. All these facets of Mongolian culture are now reappearing.
Economic reform has tended to follow some of China's pre-Tiananmen Square measures, such as allowing exporters to retain a share of their profits. The country's commercial ties have been solely with the Soviets, but Mongolia is developing new markets, such as Japan, for its copper and other minerals. It also hopes to exploit possible oil deposits.
The current political evolution in Ulan Bator, of course, is not to Beijing's liking. China has some 3 million citizens of Mongolian extraction. Mongolia's liberalization is yet another whiff of democracy that China would like to keep from crossing its border.