MONGOLIA, the first Asian Communist country to hold multiparty democratic elections, has a tremendous thirst for knowledge and understanding of the West, according to United States Ambassador Joseph Lake. The biggest challenge in slaking this thirst, the ambassador notes in a recent Monitor interview, arises from the fact that hitherto Mongolia's view of the West, its institutions, and its way of life came entirely from Moscow. Mongolia's democracy movement began with students who returned to Ulan Bator from universities in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
The challenge, said Mr. Lake, is to transform what is at present a largely theoretical sense of words such as ``democracy'' or a ``free-market economy'' into practices and institutions that correspond to the Western sense of the term.
Mongolia, a land twice the size of Texas, has 2 million people and 24 million head of livestock. Sandwiched between the Soviet Union and China, it is a land of inhospitable deserts, rolling grasslands stretching to the horizon, and magnificent mountain ranges.
It is just beginning to emerge from 70 years of almost colonial subservience to Moscow.
Enthusiasm for the Western model is great, particularly among the young. Mr. Lake notes that one-half the population is 18 years or under. But the mental conditioning proceeding from years of Soviet indoctrination is not so easily overcome, Lake believes.
``The Mongolians understand the West as Moscow understands the West,'' he says.
``They know the words: `a market economy.' But they don't understand what the words really mean in a Western sense, because their modern education is founded on the Soviet Marxist-Leninist educational system.''
Several Eastern European countries, Lake said, had a democratic heritage and a free economic system predating their absorption into the Soviet empire.
But ``Mongolia was a nomadic society which became a communist state.'' It is the second-oldest communist country in the world after the Soviet Union.
The ambassador says the US has a role to play, both in ``supporting the idea of democracy and the development of a free market economy'' and in ``offering them our experience in evolving a democratic process.''
The US has a ``rare opportunity'' to encourage democracy and to help Mongolians change their economic system, he says.
The US has just signed an agreement with Mongolia to bring a dozen Peace Corps volunteers.
A career diplomat, Lake arrived in Ulan Bator in June as the first resident US ambassador. His predecessor was accredited to Mongolia but lived in Washington. A permanent US Embassy in Mongolia's capital is yet to be built.
From his cramped office, Lake masterminded the awesome logistics required to facilitate US Secretary of State James Baker III's recent visit to Mongolia, a visit truncated by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Lake says Mr. Baker was heartened by Mongolia's forthright backing for the US condemnation of Iraq. Foreign Minister Gombosuren told a press conference that Washington and Ulan Bator held ``identical views.''
Lake says he finds Mongolian feelings toward the US ``very warm and very open.''
As for the recent elections, which were closely monitored by international observers, Lake says that ``they were not perfect, but they were a significant step forward on the road to democracy.''
Several results were challenged and will require new elections.
But there was no evidence of Communist Party efforts to stuff ballot boxes or intimidate voters, the ambassador said. Delegations from other observer countries said much the same thing.
The communists, known in Mongolia as the People's Revolutionary Party, won a comfortable majority. But the three major opposition parties made a credible showing, the ambassador says, and the most likely scenario was for some kind of coalition government.
After 70 years as almost a colony of the Soviet Union, Mongolia today is experiencing a resurgence of national pride, the ambassador says.
Among the evidences are a glorification of Genghis Khan as the nation's founder, a shift from Cyrillic to the graceful, vertical Mongolian script, and a revival of Buddhism as the national religion.
Two-and-a-half million Mongolians live under Chinese rule, and half a million under Soviet jurisdiction.
Representatives from Mongolian communities in both countries are in Ulan Bator now to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the Mongolian classic, ``A Secret History of the Mongols.''
But the ambassador sees ``no indications of a desire to create a pan-Mongol state.'' He says there is ``a streak of realism here.''