Modern Mongolia

From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists
By Morris Rossabi

The University of California Press

Copyright © 2005 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-24419-2

Chapter One


The December 10, 1989, Mongolian celebrations of International Human Rights Day did not proceed as planned. The authoritarian communist government that had ruled Mongolia since 1921 had in the past orchestrated numerous demonstrations, as well as so-called spontaneous mass movements, to commemorate important events or personalities in its history or launch new policies or programs. Military pageants, lengthy speeches by leaders of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), the only legal political party, and snippets of patriotic and communist songs and folk dances, performed by resplendently costumed professionals, characterized these ceremonies, as did the ever-present security guards, who kept close tabs on the crowds. Competitions in the three traditional Mongolian sports of archery, wrestling, and horse-racing highlighted highlighted the Naadam festival. The rulers of the Mongolian People's Republic (MPR), the name of the country since 1924, had had abundant experience in managing such spectacles, but they would be unable to manage the events of December 10, 1989.

Like their counterparts in the USSR and the People's Republic of China, Mongolian government officials and MPRP leaders had access to an ideal public space for some of these celebrations. The Soviet Union had Red Square in Moscow, the PRC had Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and Mongolia had Sükhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar, named for Sükhbaatar, who in July 1921 proclaimed the country's independence from China, confirming the victory of communism in the country. Like the main squares in Moscow and Beijing, Sükhbaatar Square is in the center of the capital. A large statue of Sükhbaatar on his horse is one of the two principal features of the square, which is otherwise mainly vacant. Government House, where the Khural, or parliament, meets and in which government and MPRP leaders have offices, is situated behind the second structure, a mausoleum in which repose the remains of Sükhbaatar and his successor, Choibalsan, often referred to as Mongolia's Stalin. Government House overlooks the square, permitting officials to observe and hear public events. Other buildings around the square include the Palace of Culture, which houses the National Modern Art Gallery, and the State Opera and Ballet Theater.

The scene observers in Government House witnessed on December 10, 1989, both surprised and shocked them. As snow drifted down gently, two hundred people marched around with banners and signs calling for the elimination of "bureaucratic oppression" as well as a promise to implement perestroika (in Mongolian, uurchlun baiguulalt, or "restructuring of the economy") and glasnost (il tod, or "openness and greater freedom of expression"). The demonstrators were mostly young, well-dressed, polite, and in no way obstreperous, but officials in Government House surely heard them articulate their demands, as the rock band Khonkh ("Bell") provided musical accompaniment. Neither the government nor its security guards made any moves to disperse the small crowd, but officials must have been relieved when the demonstrators left the square.

They were concerned about the makeup of the crowd, which included some of their own well-educated and sophisticated adult children. The ensuing conflict could be interpreted as an intergenerational struggle for power. Most of the officials were in their fifties and sixties, and most of the demonstrators were in their twenties or early thirties. Many of these scions of privileged families had received their educations in the USSR or Eastern Europe and had been exposed to the new ideas swirling around in the freer Soviet era of the 1980s. All knew one or another of the Slavic languages, and several were comfortable in English and German, offering them exposure to Western newspapers, radio, and television.

Born in 1962 to an elite family, Sanjaasürengiin Zorig, later known as the "Golden Magpie of Democracy" and commonly accepted as the leader of the democratic movement, was in many ways typical of this group. His father was a Buryat-that is, from a minority Mongolian group-and his mother, a physician, was half-Russian and half-Mongo-lian. His paternal grandfather, a distinguished Russian scientist and explorer, had died in a Siberian prison camp. His maternal grandfather, a Buryat herdsman, had met the same fate as many Buryats in his generation: owing probably to a directive from the USSR, the Mongolian government had executed him. Although Zorig had received his elementary and secondary education in Mongolia, he had attended Moscow State University, graduating in 1985 with degrees in philosophy and the social sciences. Moscow State University introduced him to the excitement of student groups calling for an end to communist repression.

Returning to Mongolia, Zorig found few reverberations of the concept of political diversity, which was gaining ground in the USSR. By 1986, he had become a lecturer in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Mongolian National University and had started to broach the new ideas with students and faculty. Shortly thereafter, he began to meet with like-minded young people, some of whom had also studied in the USSR, to discuss political reforms and the elimination of the oppressive communist bureaucracy. In 1988, he organized a so-called New Generation group that often met in his apartment and also secretly pasted placards in Ulaanbaatar challenging the autocratic government. Recognized as "one of the promising young theoreticians in his field" and "very educated" compared to others in the group, Zorig won the respect of his contemporaries, in part because he espoused nonviolence.

Zorig's younger sister Sanjaasürengiin Oyun, who attended many of these meetings, modestly says that she was "in the background ... taking care of all the housework ... in the apartment ... and cooking for Zorig's friends." However, her fluency in English meant that she was invaluable in translating declarations and, later, in interpreting for foreign journalists who wished to interview her brother. She had her first taste of politics in 1989–90, although she maintains that she was "not in the forefront of events." After receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in geochemistry from Karlova University in Prague, she had spent two years as a field geologist in Mongolia. Called to the capital by her family after the December 10 demonstration, she loyally stayed on for almost a year to help her brother. But she was determined to return to her first love, geology, and she would do so.

Zorig was one of the planners of the demonstration on December 10, and his scholarly appearance and gentle demeanor had quieted the crowd, which heard three speakers-the journalists Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj and Sükhbaatariin Amarsanaa and the scientist Erdenii Bat-Uul-announce the formation of a democratic movement.

Hashbat Hulan keenly observed the December demonstrations. A member of a prominent family (of the Khalkha Mongolians, the dominant group in the country, constituting about 85 percent of the population), she was perhaps even more cosmopolitan than Zorig, if only because she was fluent in English. The oldest of three daughters of a career diplomat, she had as a child lived in Yugoslavia, where her father was ambassador, and in the USSR, where he had also been stationed. In 1964, when she was three years old, her father had been selected to study at Leeds University and was thus among the first Mongolian students at a Western academic institution. However, she had studied in the USSR, graduating from the Institute of International Relations in Moscow. During her student days at the institute in the 1980s, she engaged in heated discussions and debates about the possibility of reforming the Communist Party and of progressing toward democracy.

This flurry of intellectual excitement and political involvement was not matched on Hulan's 1986 return to Mongolia, her native land, but a place in which she had scarcely resided. In an interview, she expressed her dismay: "I was amazed at the ignorance and seclusion in my homeland." Ulaanbaatar seemed to her a provincial town, hardly in touch with the intellectual currents sweeping across the Soviet bloc. Frustrated by what she perceived to be the backwardness of Mongolia, she took a job at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, where she translated works from English into Mongolian and vice versa, edited publications, and compiled bibliographies. After two years, she took a job at the Oriental Institute to study and analyze trends toward regional cooperation in East Asia. Simultaneously, she came across proponents of democratic reform, a number of whom had studied in the USSR or Eastern Europe. By September 1989, she had begun to attend clandestine meetings, whose members hoped to initiate the transformation of Mongolia. On December 10, she and her sister Min-jin hurried to Sükhbaatar Square, only minutes away from their offices, where they heard speeches proclaiming the establishment of the Mongolian Democratic Union, "the first popular mass movement organization," with Zorig as its general coordinator. "I did not like the views of some of the reformers," Hulan said later. "They were too supportive of the market economy and not enough concerned about the welfare of the peo-ple." Hulan's observation revealed the differences among the reformers, which remained concealed in their initial struggles against the government but would later lead to serious rifts. Some supported democracy, while others advocated the establishment of a market economy, and still others were eager to maintain the communist-era advances in health, education, and social welfare but eliminate the MPRP's monopoly on power. Still another group was composed of opportunists who simply sought to profit from the turbulence.

In their education and careers, Hulan and Zorig were in some sense typical of the democratic reformers. Most of the original Mongolian reformers had been educated in the USSR. Paradoxically, the authoritarian Soviet system, which had helped to curb democracy and basic human rights in Mongolia, turned out to be the inspiration for openness and reform in Mongolia. Mongolian students learned about perestroika and glasnost in the USSR and brought these ideas back to their native land. In addition, many reformers were not members of Mongolia's major ethnic group, the Khalkha Mongolians. Both Erdenii Bat-Uul, who later became chair of the Mongolian Democratic Party, and Dashiin Byambasüren, who later was the first prime minister in a reform government, were Buryats; and Davaadorjiin Ganbold, an ardent supporter of privatization and an advocate of a market economy, had a Chinese grandfather. In late 1990, Nick Middleton, a British writer with scant knowledge of Mongolia, noted: "Several of the leading members of the Mongolian Democratic Party, the first opposition party to rise from the fledgling democracy movement, were ... half-castes, either half Russian / half Mongolian or half Chinese / half Mongolian." Although the Khalkha Mongolians tolerated the presence of so many "half-castes," or minorities, as leaders in the early reform movement, ethnic tensions mounted throughout the 1990s, weakening the reform movement and parties.

Hulan and Zorig knew that a few urban intellectuals could not, by themselves, generate a successful movement toward democracy. They needed to enlist herders and laborers throughout the country. Nonetheless, the reformers' demonstrations in the center of Ulaanbaatar reflected a more widespread dissatisfaction with the regime.

The two Hashbat sisters, Zorig, and the other demonstrators knew that the authorities were watching and listening to them. A few steps away, the officials in Government House were observing the extraordinary spectacle below from their windows. Yet they did not call on troops to disperse the crowd that had mounted this singular challenge to authoritarianism. Did the demonstrators represent themselves alone? Would government repression draw even greater attention to the agitators? Rumors also persisted that Mikhail Gorbachev, first secretary of the Soviet Communist party, had cautioned the Mongolian government to avoid violence.


What forces prompted a previously tyrannical government to waver, thus giving the reformers an opening? It had hardly hesitated in the past. The MPR had had counterparts to Lenin (Damdiny Sükhbaatar, d. 1923) and Stalin (Khorloogiin Choibalsan, d. 1952). From 1924 on, its policies echoed those of its patron and protector, the USSR. New mass movements or programs announced in the USSR would shortly thereafter be introduced in Mongolia, prompting the view that the second communist country in world history was merely a Soviet satellite. Soviet influence was certainly dominant in Mongolia, and the MPRP and the authoritarian Mongolian government often unhesitatingly enforced policies devised in the USSR. In the late 1920s, herders had opposed collectivization of their animals, as had the kulaks under Stalin. Both the Russian and Mongolian governments dealt with these groups severely. Like the Kremlin, the Mongolian communists were quick to purge former Party officials and the army. The wealthy Buddhist monasteries were singled out for harsh treatment. Estimates of lives lost during this repression vary considerably, but the most reliable figure hovers around 25,000. The number of executed Buddhist monks within that figure is also in dispute, but specialists concur that of the 100,000 or so monks in the early twentieth century, fewer than a thousand continued to serve in the monasteries by mid-century. Most were defrocked, but some were killed, and the vast majority of the monasteries were either destroyed or severely damaged.

The death of Choibalsan in 1952 and the rise of his successor Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal modified this authoritarian system. However, the MPRP continued to dominate Mongolia and violate human rights. It continued to purge dissidents, but the offenders were imprisoned or exiled, not executed. In 1962, Tsedenbal turned against one of his closest associates Tömör-öchir (whose grandson Tömör-öchiryn Erdenebileg would marry one of Hulan's sisters), accusing him of antiparty activities. Yet, despite a barrage of denunciations in the media, he simply exiled Tömör-öchir to the industrial city of Darkhan. Similarly, he either jailed or dismissed scholars and artists whom he perceived as dissidents.

However, the early 1980s witnessed changes that would eventually shape the government's response to the December 10 demonstrations and their aftermath. Tsedenbal and his Russian wife, who had considerable influence over her husband, had adhered to policies enunciated in the USSR, but they ignored the changes signified by perestroika and glasnost. They also persisted in denunciations of the PRC, verbal attacks that had started two decades earlier with the onset of the Sino-Soviet conflict, while the USSR now was inching toward reconciliation with the Beijing leadership. Economic problems had also arisen. Introduction of agriculture in so-called virgin lands (this reflected one of Nikita Khrushchev's famous "hare-brained schemes" in the USSR, the "virgin lands" policy), a risky venture in a country with such a short growing season, had not met expectations. Lack of variety in foodstuffs and shortages of consumer goods contributed to dissatisfaction. Tsedenbal's continued use of purges to oust potential rivals for leadership also generated hostility. At least twice in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he had removed or reassigned younger officials who ranked just below him in the MPRP or government hierarchy and who had been viewed as possible successors.


Excerpted from Modern Mongolia by Morris Rossabi Copyright © 2005 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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