Mongolia now the land of the free

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 September, 1999, 12:00am

The freest country in Asia must now be Mongolia. Ten years ago when I first arrived in Ulan Bator nobody could have dreamed it.

Statues of Lenin, Stalin and his Mongolian counterpart, Marshal Choibalsan, stood on the corners of avenues empty of traffic. Popping into a shop by the Palace of Pioneers, I found Mongolians waiting silently in line for their ration of meat. The shelves were bare of anything else and no one dared talk to me. It was a crime to speak to foreigners without permission.

Two men trailed me and my companion as we visited the one surviving monastery, Mongolia's only existing department store, and the monument to the Soviet Red Army.

Everyone seemed morosely drunk.

In 1990, Mongolia had its democratic revolution but everyone feared what would happen if the Soviets and the East Europeans left. The country would collapse and the Chinese would take over.

In the end, the 50,000 Soviet advisers and their families left and the troops pulled out, too. Yet now, of all the former Soviet republics, which is what Mongolia effectively was, it has probably survived the best, certainly a lot better than places like Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan, for all their oil riches.

Its GDP has been growing at two to four per cent a year even through the Russian crash and the Asian financial crisis. If world prices for key commodities like copper or cashmere recover, Mongolia will do even better.

The country's population is growing strongly even though other post-communist countries have seen birth rates fall. Even in the countryside where half the Mongolians live there are signs of prosperity with many owning cars or other vehicles. Numbers of livestock, which for decades never rose much above 25 million, might hit 40 million by year's end.

In Ulan Bator you can now buy goods from all over the world. It is one of the rare examples of a country that cut all import duties overnight. With fresh fruit and vegetables now available, Mongolians' diet is changing dramatically. Restaurants, bars and shops are opening everywhere. Streets are jammed with cars, the phones work and three companies offer mobile phone services.

Most government offices have computers and there are four Internet cafes. Students dress in trendy fashions.

Although a third of the country is still said to be living below the poverty line, what is really remarkable about Mongolia's economic transition is that it has not been an excuse for a new dictatorship.

There is a fully functioning free press with dozens of different papers available, including two in English, which expose political scandals and other forms of corruption.

There are regular parliamentary and presidential elections but no riots, no false counting of votes or states of emergency. The former communists and several democratic opposition parties have taken turns in power.

Corruption exists and seems to be getting worse, but politicians are not immune from prosecution. This year three government-backed MPs were arrested for allegedly accepting bribes.

No one is jailed for political or religious beliefs, diverse faiths flourish and ethnic minorities are safe.

Even more surprising is that there have been no reprisals against former communists, although under Choibalsan, the country's intelligentsia, lamas, officers and top leaders were shot or died in labour camps.

Now there is a museum dedicated to the victims of the great repression of the 1930s but Choibalsan's statue is still there and Lenin still stands outside the Ulan Bator Hotel. But nobody is afraid anymore.