Mongolian president uses Reagan playbook
Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj was a Soviet Red Army draftee studying in Ukraine in the early 1980s when he first heard reports that America’s president, Ronald Reagan, had given a speech calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”
Mr. Elbegdorj was among the millions living under totalitarian rule who were inspired by Mr. Reagan‘s anti-communist and pro-democracy views, whose outspoken criticism of Soviet communism — compared with that of his liberal predecessor, Jimmy Carter — was credited with ultimately bringing down the Soviet Union: first with the breaking down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and finally the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Today, Mongolia‘s president said he remains a staunch Reaganite when it comes to promoting democracy and free markets in this land of 2.7 million people sandwiched between undemocratic giants Russia and China.
Elected president in 2009 in what has become Central Asia’s most open democratic state, Mr. Elbegdorj said he once had a photo of Mr. Reagan and another Cold War freedom hero, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, hanging in his government office to remind him of Mr. Reagan‘s influence.
A military reporter under the Soviets, Mr. Elbegdorj was influenced by Mr. Reagan‘s summitry with the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, especially the Berlin speech in which he called for the wall to be torn down. When Mr. Elbegdorj returned to Mongolia in 1988, he became a key organizer for the first non-communist democratic movement in what was still part of the Soviet Union: the Mongolian Democratic Union.
“I was the first to take the microphone in the first demonstration to say that we were silent for a long time, and now as young people we had to act,” Mr. Elbegdorj, 47, told The Washington Times in an interview at his presidential offices.
“I got those kind of big ideas from President Reagan. He actually impacted millions of people who lived behind the Iron Curtain.”
It wasn’t just Mr. Reagan‘s hard-line rhetoric. Mr. Elbegdorj said the president’s leadership in enabling the collapse of the Soviet Union without creating a nuclear war or other catastrophe was nothing less than brilliant.
“He actually brought down the Soviet system” peacefully, Mr. Elbegdorj said.
Mr. Elbegdorj said the loosening of media controls by the Kremlin under Mr. Gorbachev‘s “glasnost” and “perestroika” policies helped spread the word that the United States was pushing for democratic reform through numerous dissident and semiofficial journals at the time.
Momentum for that movement received a major boost on June 12, 1987, when Mr. Reagan gave a speech against the backdrop of divided Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and announced, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
The speech fueled more pro-democracy sentiment within the Soviet bloc and was a “second big boost” in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mr. Elbegdorj said.
“And, of course, Gorbachev wanted to modernize the system and brought glasnost and perestroika,” Mr. Elbegdorj said. “But many people thought that was not enough. We have to change.”
The Mongolian leader recalled in the interview how tight Soviet media controls blocked people from fully understanding what was wrong with the socialist system. But the “evil empire” remark, in particular, led many people in the Soviet bloc to finally understand the socialist system was wrong.
Mr. Reagan‘s use of the term “evil empire” was dismissed by many political liberals in the West at the time as dangerous and irresponsible conservative rhetoric.
The comment was first made on March 8, 1983, when Mr. Reagan warned evangelical Christians not to be influenced by liberal anti-nuclear activists and to stand up against “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”
Mr. Elbegdorj said Mr. Reagan‘s speeches on Soviet communism were more powerful and had more impact on the socialist system than “hard force or armed force.”
The events of the late 1980s and early 1990s were dramatic and ended 70 years of communist rule under the Kremlin, he said.
Communist China also was caught up in the democracy fever of the time, but its movement was cut short by the 1989 military crackdown in Tiananmen Square, where Chinese troops and tanks fired on unarmed Chinese demonstrators for democracy camped in Beijing’s main square.
Mongolia is just north of central China and is separated from Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia. It has an estimated 7 million people who China fears will be influenced to rejoin Mongolia, a land of mountains and plains where nomads rode horses for hundreds of years dating to the 1200s when Genghis Khan ruled.
Soviet communist rule came to the country in 1928, when Moscow set up the puppet Mongolian People’s Republic. Mongolia‘s relations with the United States began after the country’s peaceful democratic revolution ended Kremlin rule in 1990.
While still underdeveloped, Mongolia today has emerged as a model of democracy for the “stans” countries of Central Europe and hopefully for North Korea as well, Mr. Elbegdorj said. Relations with Washington began when President George H.W. Bush sent Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Mongolia‘s capital to announce U.S. support for the transition to democracy.
“Now I think many people know that Mongolia is the most free-market economy and most liberal political system in the region,” Mr. Elbegdorj said. “Also, it actually showed the world [that] evolutionary things or big transitions can happen in Asian countries.”
Mongolia‘s path to democracy also dispelled the misperception that political and economic reform cannot happen simultaneously, he said.
“Some say it is not the Asian way. Actually, the Mongolians broke down that old stereotype,” Mr. Elbegdorj said, expressing pride that the transition to democracy took place without a single shot fired.
A relatively poor country, Mongolia also showed that underdeveloped states can respect human rights, justice and the rule of law, he said.
Before the 1990s, Mongolia‘s main political decisions were “made in the Kremlin,” Mr. Elbegdorj said. “Now it’s shifted to this building, Government House” — as the presidential office complex is called.
However, the Mongolian leader is not satisfied. “I’ve criticized that by saying those rights are stuck in this building, now our goal is to bring them to the people,” he said.
Mr. Elbegdorj praised staunch American support for Mongolia‘s democratic reforms.
“Some countries offer good wine and good cars to the world,” he said. “But America offers freedom — that is the most important thing Americans have.” Free nations produce good ideas and “the government’s role is to make those good ideas into action. This is my road,” Mr. Elbegdorj said.
Mongolia‘s natural resources are now the focus of competition between Russia and China, which are vying for access to several huge coal fields worth an estimated $8 billion to the Ulan Bator government. Mr. Elbegdorj said international interest in coal and other mines, including copper, is growing.
He noted that 10 years ago, when Mongolian officials visited the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, few foreign officials were interested in talking to the delegation. At this year’s meeting, “we could hardly manage our schedule,” he said.
“That was an interesting thing to see. I think this is the blessing of freedom, the lesson of the free choice of the Mongolians,” Mr. Elbegdorj said.
To lessen pressure from its two powerful neighbors, the government is seeking other investors that it hopes will balance the competition, Mr. Elbegdorj said.