Living under tyranny
is like living in a cage. Freedom means leaving the cage. However,
when the cage no longer keeps you in, it also no longer keeps the wolf out.
This is one of the observations made in an interview with Elbegdorj Tsahkia,
the first democratic Prime Minister of Mongolia. We were privileged
to spend a few hours talking with him about the evolution of democracy and
the problems of transition from a Communist regime to one of freedom.
Now, on the anniversary of our first year in Iraq, we believe these are valuable
lessons we should be reminded of.
We tend to forget that it took 12 years in our own country to get from the
Revolution to the Constitution. Freedom does not come in a package.
By its very definition it must be experienced and we all make mistakes along
the way. We may study our own history or that of Mongolia but, simply
enough, all we have to do is remember our own first tastes of freedom.
Remember when you first left home for college or a job? You probably
wanted the "freedom" of staying out late and making your own decisions, but
you still wanted the "security" that you could tap into the family savings
account if the going got tough, or even go back home, if needed. It
was a sort of half-freedom. What was one of the first freedoms you
wanted to experience? Could it have been parties or a few of the vices
you weren't allowed at home? Whether individuals or nations, it seems
we all go through a transition to freedom; it usually doesn't happen in a
What follows is the first segment of our interview with Elbegdorj Tsahkia
(whose nickname is EB). In this part of the series we get an insight
into the mind of someone growing up within a tyranny and why it is not so
self-evident, at first blush, that anything is wrong. Freedom takes
vision, courage and time. It requires a long view rather than a search
for immediate satisfaction. You'll probably recognize the common problem
facing the "elites" who hold or want to hold power; be it a Communist tyranny
or our own Leftish Democrats. Living in this nation, where over
two-thirds of Americans own their own homes, it is astonishing to contemplate
a culture wherein, until very recently, the very desire to own private property
was considered an act of treason.
Helen: What was it like living under Communism and
what is life like now in Mongolia? It may seem strange, but there are
some people who don't know there is a major difference.
EB: I think we all know that Communism is like a
dictatorship. One party and one man who rules. The rest of the
country works for the Party, for the elite. They confiscate all private
property and close all the entrepreneurial ability of the people. That
ends competition, which results in no growth and no initiative. Everyone
works for the boss, or the elite. The elite makes the decisions for the people.
The main headache of the dictators, the elite, is how to control the people.
Their main fear is that people will not allow themselves to be controlled.
In order to control them they make the people like prisoners in their own
this they must prohibit free expression, and if people exercise their right
to expression; be it ideas, criticism of leadership, or even pursuing happiness
in your own life rather than what the party elite want, or any other way
that the elite does not approve, you are really punished. If you try
to exercise the right of private property, or even your own business, you
also will be punished.
Peter: So it's almost like treason to express yourself, own private property or control your own livelihood?
EB: Yes, treason of the Communist or Socialist ideology.
Peter: How long was Mongolia under rule of the Communist party?
EB: You know many people think that Communists of
the Soviet Union was the longest-ruling party in the world, but they ruled
their country only 74 years from 1917 to 1991. Mongolian Revolutionary
Party, the Mongolian Communist Party ruled our country from 1921 to 1996.
That means the Mongolian Communist party ruled 75 years, one year longer
than the Soviet Communist Party. Yet, in 1996 we actually changed all
Peter: Now until 1991 you had actually been a part of the Soviet Union?
EB: Mongolia was an independent country, not one
of the Soviets. The Soviet Union consisted of 15 Republics, or Soviets,
but Mongolia was not included in that. We did ally ideologically and
were a satellite country.
Helen: 75 years is almost four generations. What was it like when freedom broke out?
EB: Communism, Marxism and Leninism was sort of
a religion. In fact, they prohibited the exercise of any other religious
beliefs. At first, when they came and confiscated property, people
fought against them. But the people lost and were killed or escaped
from their own country. It was very serious during the Lenin
and Stalin times, until maybe 1950, when the Cold War began. But then,
in 1954 when Kruschev came into power, the regime became milder toward us;
they no longer killed hundreds or thousands of people. They did send
them to exile instead or to other countries, to prisons or to mental hospitals.
They also started to make mistakes. For instance if someone from your
family was killed, you would have some type of inner rage inside and would
pass that along to your future generations. Generation talked to generation
and spread the word about how cruel the Communists were. These hurts
didn't, and don't, go away. They remained inside the soul of the people.
1980's, when the Soviet's began Perestroika and Glasnost, there were many
critics of the Stalin and Lenin times. At that time I was a student
in the Soviet Union, in the Ukraine. We read a lot of newspapers and
publications and were surprised that these rulers had been really bad guys.
After that, people also got the notion that not only were one or two people
bad, maybe the whole system was bad. That was the great notion.
It wasn't only one or two people who were wrong, the whole system was wrong.
Helen: Does communism actually proclaim to the people
that it's a system "for your own good?" In other words, how do they
present themselves to the people? And do the people believe them?
EB: Many of the people genuinely
believed in the Communist ideology. They present themselves very clearly,
in a very good way. They actually hide their shadow and they only show
the good things. The highest peak of Communism was between 1970 and
so surprised how everything was available to the elite, of which I was one
at that time. You could go anywhere, do anything and get anything and
the state paid for it. For example, I was a student and bread
was without charge in restaurants. Then we bought soup and ate
the free bread with it. Plus, the government paid all our tuition,
housing and even gave us some money. The metro was good and ran well.
The shops we shopped in had everything we wanted... but it didn't last long.
However, it did divert people's attention for a while, to think, "maybe Communism
works." Plus, they kept telling us that after 20 or 30 years your life
will be much, much better than now. Everything will be free in Communism.
When you believe in Communism you don't want to ask such questions so, when
they tell us that it's going to happen for the better in 10 or 20 or more
years, we want to believe. They would also point to East Germany and
say they have almost achieved the perfect state. So we kept waiting
for perfection, for the perfect society. Many people truly believed
Helen: What about the people who didn't see the
good part; for instance, those who had someone in their family killed by
EB: In order to kill people, the
Communists organized a sort of fabrication. They would charge 'espionage',
'treason' or 'betrayal' against the person they wanted to kill. For
example, in America, some CIA agent would be charged with working with the
Soviet Union. A very common charge was "betrayal of the communist ideology."
It was very difficult to find out what exactly was betrayed. Or another
charge was that the individual tried to organize an illegal organization.
That would usually mean some sort of non-governmental organization, or a
possible opposition party. It was like that. A whole machine
worked to prove the guilt of the person charged. In the Soviet Union
they had about 7 types of newspapers, for instance Pravda, a children's
newspaper, a youth newspaper and others. Plus, only one channel on TV, and
that channel was owned by the government and said only what the government
wanted people to hear. For instance, programs about how heroically
people build Communist villages and how heroically they fought against the
bourgeoisie, who had land and property before Communism.
Peter: You grew up with this all around you and
you didn't know anything else. So what helped you to begin to see another
EB: It was very difficult to see another way.
When I was young and a child, we were members of the Party beginning in elementary
school. In secondary school we became Pioneers. And then there
was another Committee from 16 years up, if you behaved well and had good
grades. Then, if you are exceptionally good, you are a member of the
Communist Party, the elite. The Communist Party membership opened doors
to a good career. Without membership, it is difficult to live with a good
believe in Communism after graduation of high school. I dreamed
to study at university, but didn't ever dare dream of studying in the Soviet
Union. I dreamed to become a journalist and to study in Mongolia in
our capital city. There were different schools for different professions;
for instance, if you wanted to be a doctor you went to one, a journalist,
another and so on; but there were only so many slots each year. When
I graduated, there weren't any slots open for a journalist. So I decided
to go to work in a State company.
was a big change for me since, for the first 16 years of my life, I lived
in the countryside with my parents, far from a big city. They were
ordinary herdsmen. So, after I graduated, my parents, who had become
old after raising 8 children, myself being the youngest, decided to move
to the city. After one year of working in the city in the State company
I was recruited into the Army. Every man in Mongolia is obligated to
serve in the Army for three years.
my Commander in the Army and was in charge of the Revolutionary Youths.
I was even promoted to Sergeant, with 3 stripes. Also I had a passion
to write poetry and wrote small poems, and I also wanted to be published
in our Army newspaper.
a big surprise when two of my small poems were published in the Army newspaper.
It was also big news for my friends, since it was like being published in
the New York Times or Washington Post. Then the commander
called me to his office. I thought I had done something wrong!
Instead, he told me that the Chief of the Army newspaper wanted to meet me
and I was being given 24 hours off to go meet him. He actually didn't
believe it was my writing. He asked me if this was really my poetry.
I replied, "yes." So he asked me if I could write something while I
was there in his office. He gave me about 30 minutes and I wrote a
small poem. When I showed it to him he said, "hmm, looks good."
Then he asked me if I would like to go study in the Soviet Union for journalism.
Well, that was my dream. I said, "yes" and he told me there were two
slots, but it was not ordinary journalism, but military journalism. There
were also 50 competitors for those two slots.
took the exam which consisted of 3 subjects and I was chosen. I served
in the Mongolian People's Army for only one year and then I was sent to the
is part 2 of an interview series with Elbegdorj Tsahkia, the first democratic
Prime Minister of Mongolia. We feel it is a good time, during the "one
year in Iraq" anniversary, to remind us all about the progress of freedom,
be it in Iraq or in Mongolia. We're fascinated by the story,
but find the real fascination is how freedom develops over time and the varying
stages it seems to take everywhere. People seem to accept a lot of
terrible things in life until that moment when it dawns on them that they
just won't stand for it any longer. Last summer we met a Cuban dissident
who explained you can take things from the people, you can torture them and
even kill some of them, but there comes a time when a change of consciousness
or a realization finally takes hold of them. From then on, the people
will rise up to demand their freedom. Yes, there are backslides and
mistakes to be made and corrected. In our last segment, we said
that freedom doesn't happen in a flash. The realization may, but the
implementation of freedom takes time. We should be patient with Iraq and
Mongolia. We should encourage and support them, but know that freedom
doesn't come in a package. The people have to take up the cause.]
Helen: How long were you in the Soviet Union?
EB: Five years, majoring
in Military Journalism. During that 5 years I tried to publish a student
newspaper, but we only published one issue. At that time it was a big
deal and they called us and asked us why we were doing that. In those
days it was still illegal to publish a newspaper that was not approved of
by the government. We told them that is was sort of a journalistic
academic assignment and we tried to show to our professors how capable we
were since we were not only writing articles, we were publishing them too.
However, they closed us down and told us that if we do it again we will be
jailed or at the very least be expelled from school. All we wanted
to do was show our initiative.
Helen: Was it at this point that you decided you were not happy with Communism?
EB: Not quite yet.
It was a small shadow, a small stage, but not complete disillusionment.
The most important thing during my disappointment was the soft power influence
by America and other western powers. Hard power means military, but
soft power means freedom and intangible powers such as influence. The
greatest of these was the Voice of America, another was Radio Free Europe.
As we listened to these we realized that they were telling more truths than
the news we were given by the media in the Soviet Union.
Peter: As a student in journalism, were you conscious
of the quality of the official media? What was the feeling among the
other students about the quality of the government media, the official media?
EB: We thought the newspapers
were good and the journalists were of the highest professional quality, but
I didn't like the excessive Marxism and Leninist ideology. They taught us
that when we write any article we should get some message from either Marx
or Lenin, even Engels to prove our argument. Do you know that Lenin
actually wrote 110 volumes! Commentaries, letters, everything.
Plus we were assigned to read almost all of them.
Peter: Their writings were revered just as our Bible is revered by us.
EB: Yes, like the Bible.
Peter: So Marxism and Leninism were the religion, and their writings were the holy books.
EB: Yes. Then after
my graduation I went to work with the Army newspaper as a journalist back
in Mongolia. I focused on some critical issues in Army Life.
I wrote some big articles about wrong doings in the Army and their achievements.
Peter: Was that taking a risk?
EB: Not really, because
it was also supported by doctrine. For at that time in Communism they
actually encouraged a kind of self criticism, but there was a limit.
But also we started having talks in our kitchens, which we called "kitchen
talk." This is where we criticized our leadership and we all felt there
was something wrong, but we didn't know exactly what was wrong, nor how to
fix it. One thing that Gorbachev gave to the people is that he tried
to put make-up on the Communist face. He said he was going to improve
Communism and society. Well, he tried for five years, but instead of
improving, Communism decayed. Too many people felt it and from that
they got the notion that it's impossible to improve the system; there
is something wrong with it. Instead of improving it, we needed a complete
change. It was one of the turning points in my life. I continued
to talk to my friends at home, in their homes... but not in public places.
Then, in late November of 1989, there was a call for a big Youth conference
in Mongolia and I was selected to be one of the delegates. Some of
my friends were also chosen as delegates. Before this conference I was also
a member of the organizers of the conference. One night we talked about
what the conference should accomplish. At one gathering of about 100
of us, where we were very critical of the leadership, we decided that we
should ask that they support Perestroika and Glasnost more. I suggested
that we needed to exchange ideas all over the country, like we were in our
small meetings. I even suggested we publish some type of newspaper
for this free exchange of ideas. After a day or so my friends
called and said it's a very interesting idea and they were talking about
it more and more. So the more we talked about it we decided that a
newspaper alone was not enough, but we also had to establish some type of
non-governmental organization. We needed an organized movement
in Mongolia to support Perestroika. We finally decided to use this
conference where more than 1,000 delegates from all around the country would
attend to announce our idea for a newspaper and a movement. If we used
this conference forum we just might succeed. It seemed a one-time chance
to succeed, for if we didn't succeed we might be captured and placed in jail
or maybe even killed. So this was a very serious issue and decision.
At the conference were not only delegates from all over the county and various
youth organizations, but also members of the Politburo. It was a highly
publicized event. My friends decided I should be the one to announce
our plan at the conference since I was a journalist and in the Military.
So on the first day of the conference I asked the moderator for some time
to speak. However, he didn't grant my request and we were running out of
time. We did have a kind of KGB [secret police] system in our country
and it worked very well. I think they knew what we were planning and
tried to block it. So my friends decided they would write my name on
a small piece of paper and give it to the moderator and demand that I get
a chance to speak. I was in the first row and many, many papers arrived
up front with my name. Yet, still he wouldn't let me speak.
So I collected more of the papers and used the excuse of giving the papers
to the moderator to approach and get on the stage. Then I said, "Oh,
while I'm here, I'd like to use my time (which was 5 minutes) to make an
announcement." I publicly asked the moderator to speak.
The crowd was clapping and shouting for me to speak, yet the moderator was
outraged. He told me to sit down and was yelling at me.
Yet, I stood my ground and spoke. I merely told them that as young
people we wanted to establish a non-governmental organization in order to
support Perestroika and support our party.
Peter: What is Perestroika exactly? Self Improvement?
EB: Yes, sort of self improvement. And Glasnost
was openness. We were actually hiding our true purpose which was to
change the whole system. So I asked anyone who was interested to stay
after the conference and we'll all talk and begin to set it up. After
this conference we got more than 100 out of the 1,000 delegates. We
met in one room and chose 13 members to head the organization. I was
one of them. Now in Mongolia we're called the 13 First Democrats.
We also realized the second stage of our movement must now be announced to
the whole country.
Helen: This is what started you on the road to becoming a politician.
EB: Yes. We also decided
it was time to organize our first demonstration. We called to the countryside
and the cities that we should organize at the same time. We would use
this to tell Mongolia about its first non-governmental organization which
we called the Mongolian Democratic Union.
Helen: How old were the people in this organization?
EB: I was 26 years old.
The age group was 20 to 30 at first. We organized our demonstration
on December 10, 1989. We choose December 10 because it's International
Human Rights Day. It looked like we were linked to them, or used that
day to exercise our Human Rights. We also announced our demands
for the leadership of our country. There were 14 demands. They
were to allow a multi party system, democratic elections, parliamentary type
of government, privatization of socialist property, freedom of press,
freedom of religion; all the usual things. This was very unexpected
by the government. It really came out of the blue to them. We
also demanded that they give us an answer or explanation of how they were
going to implement these things. We wanted communication on a weekly
basis. If they didn't give us the answers in one week we were going
to begin the next stage of our fight.
Helen: What was the next stage?
EB: We announced that we
would organize public meetings every week and announce what answers we got,
or didn't get. In the first meeting we got 1,000 people; in the second
meeting we got 5,000 people; in the third meeting we got 10,000 people and,
in the fourth meeting, we got 100,000 people! In Mongolia, a country
with the population only about 3 million people, that's a lot of people to
show up. Our supporters popped up everywhere, it was like mushrooms
popping up after the rain. And it was all members and ages of society
that popped up. They also organized the MDU of their individual district
or city. It was spreading fast.
My conclusion is that dictators can hold their country for a long time, as
it was 70 years in Mongolia, but if people get the notion or consciousness
of a different, free way of life, people will mobilize in a day, a week or
in just one month, as with us. This also happened within Eastern Europe.
It happens fast, because our first demonstration was December 10, 1989 and
the Politburo resigned on March 9, 1990. That was about 3 months from beginning
to the end of dictatorship.
Helen and Peter: That's truly amazing!
[So far we've
seen an amazing story. The seizing of a momentary opportunity and the
on-going struggle of a people resolved to live in freedom, but unfamiliar
with freedom's exigencies. However, we'd like you to think of when
you resolve to do something; to get a better job, to diet, to pay off bills,
whatever. There is initial excitement, but that begins to wane with
time and especially with the first obstacles encountered on the way.
Now, we don't want to make it too simplistic, but there are some basic problems
inherent in attaining freedom and living responsibly. Certainly they
can be overcome, but it takes vision and planning. It calls for patience,
for courage and for keeping our resolve. We can learn a lot from America's
experiences as far back as the Marshall Plan, and as recently as in Mongolia
We'd also like to point out that the establishment of the new government
in Mongolia included members of the old Communist party. This sure
is a slippery slope. To paraphrase Victor Davis Hanson, from his book,
An Autumn of War,
letting bygones be bygones doesn't work very well. He suggests that
the second World War need not have happened if we had truly defeated Germany
in the first. Many have suggested that a complete victory in the first
Iraq war would have prevented the second, from which we're still cleaning
up. We must defeat the enemy decisively and humiliatingly; be it through
a formal ceremony of surrender, as with Japan after WW2, or simply by showing
pictures of an unshaven Saddam Hussein with lice in his hair. This
is one of the criticisms of the UN "peace-keeping" policy which doesn't allow
a decisive victory for either party. Both sides feel they've won (at
least, not 'really' lost) and want to gain power again. It's just a
way to prolong the struggle.
However, let's consider what to do "after the revolution" when the only people
around who know how to run a country are members of the old ruling party.
Do we trust them? What should we do with all of them? In what
follows, we see what happened in Mongolia. We've seen what happened
in Romania, and now we're dealing with the same problem in Iraq, where there
are still members of the socialist Ba'ath party, wearing a new name and asking
for their fair role in the new government.]
EB: In 3 months we mobilized the whole country!
The members of the Politburo tried to use force and capture us. They
tried to use the same methods they used in Tienanmen Square in China, but
they also saw that their people were no longer going to implement their directives.
Peter: People were starting to look to you and your supporters instead; to the First 13 Democrats.
EB: Yes, 13 people became 30,000, then 100,000 people,
then the whole country. Then we also published our first free newspaper.
I finally realized my dream from long ago. Then in June, 1990, only
six months after the first demonstration, we got our first democratic election.
Helen: So now the people have freedom. How
did they like it, how did it evolve? What's the transition period like?
It must be difficult.
EB: Yes it's very difficult. To be free means
to be brave, also to take responsibility. While you develop those traits
you also have the practical considerations of feeding your family and feeding
yourself. Before, the state fed us. We were sort of like rabbits
in a zoo. We liked being free from the cage, but, when it came feeding
time, we wanted to go back to the cage to be fed. Freedom is like life
in the wild and we had to fend for ourselves.
Peter: Without the cage, it no longer keeps you in, but it also no longer keeps the wolf out.
EB: So we were in the wilderness where we had to
feed ourselves, shelter ourselves and find jobs. So what happens now?
Everyone who was active in our movement was fired from their jobs.
No work... that's a big sacrifice. We were attacked as criminals.
Plus, even though the Politburo resigned they didn't go to their graves.
They were living people. There were over 170,000 of them.
the transition, because people didn't know how to fend for themselves, the
shops were empty. People couldn't even buy food for themselves and
the first thing they did was blame the 13 Democrats for taking away their
leadership who had provided them with food.
Helen: They didn't know that, when you destroy one
system, it takes time to create a new one. So, one disadvantage of
it happening so fast was that there was no time for a real transition.
EB: So, the first year of our transition was very,
very difficult. One thing that helped was that Mongolia became an open
country before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed
in 1991. But in Mongolia we already had our first democratic election.
We were 14 months ahead of the Soviet collapse and that saved our country.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, everything stopped, and we had been subsidized
about 90% by them. Electricity, oil, everything was coming from the
Soviet Union. All that would have stopped in 1991, but since we had
our elections beforehand we became members of the Asian Development Bank,
World Bank and IMF. So the collapse didn't hurt us as much.
After the democratic elections, we got many brothers, many friends from around
the world helping us. Plus many western countries came to help us.
In the winter of 1990, we had our first donor meeting and 14 western countries
showed up, including America, Japan, South Korea and Germany. They
gave us about 300 million dollars. With this 300 million we paid for
the electricity, gasoline and some essential goods we were still buying from
the Soviet Union, but in dollars, rather than rubles. If we were a
Communist country in 1991 I don't think Mongolia would have survived.
We needed the western assistance, both in loans and actual assistance.
That came because we had become free.
Peter: Because it would have been pulled down by the Soviet Union?
EB: They could no longer give us their products,
and they were charging in dollars now. Also, their own economy collapsed.
Helen: It seemed very shaky for those 6 -12 months, but very necessary.
EB: It was necessary.
Peter: Is there much foreign investment in Mongolia?
EB: It's growing.
In 1990 only 3% of the economy was generated by private companies, now it's
70% of our economy. In 1990 we had 300% inflation, now it's one digit.
Helen: So the risk, the courage pays off?
Helen: Yet, the old members of the Communist party assumed power again. Why?
EB: First of all, we made this
transition to a democratic country without a single drop of blood shed.
No violence against the existing regime. We didn't do what happened
in Romania. We told our supporters that if we use stones or bottles
against our government then the police will have a reason to use force against
us. If we shoot at them, they will have a reason to shoot at us.
The only thing we had in our bare hands were microphones and paper.
All we asked was that they sit down to talk and negotiate.
Secondly, we gave a chance to the Communists. We didn't say that, "we
are going to persecute you." We weren't going to kill them when we
took power. We even asked them for help in the next election.
We knew they were the most talented and powerful people in the country and
we were going to allow them to use their talents. So within our promise of
a multi-party system we allowed them to have their party too.
We decided to have fair competition. You'll have your program, we'll
have our program and we'll give it to the people to choose who will rule
our country. If the people choose you, we'll follow you; if they choose
us, you should accept the implementation of our programs. These things
made sense. They saw some type of chance rather than destruction.
This is how we differed from other Communist countries that found freedom.
The old rulers didn't see any threat from us. They didn't even change
their name, they are still the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP).
It's still their Communist name; however, they did change their program in
some ways. They are now back in power.
Helen: They are back in power again. Let's
see if you agree with a theory of ours. When people are first free
they see all the advantages, then they realize all the responsibilities that
come with that freedom and they get scared and want to go back into that
cage for a while. We liken it to kids who go away from home for the
first time. At first, freedom is great, the parties and staying out
late are great, but they want to know that they can go home if things get
rough. Then as maturity settles in, they don't need that parental security
as much and, later, not at all; but only after a few years of transition.
So, people want to go back to the cage, but the door must be left open so
they can move back and forth between freedom and responsibility on one hand
and, on the other hand, security and being taken care of. What do you
EB: That's described very well.
We remained in opposition for 6 years. We worked very hard for the
people. In 1990 we had our first election, and I was also elected to
the Parliament. I was one of the youngest members of Parliament.
We also drafted our first new democratic constitution. However, it
was a tough road, for there were only 10% Democrats in the Assembly and 90%
were Communists. One thing in our favor was that the Communists sort
of lost their orientation. They were actually in a panic and they began
to listen to us because of the attention we were getting.
Helen: So, they were changing too.
EB: Yes, they were changing too,
and in late 1991 we got our new constitution. We also called our second
election in 1992. We were defeated again, but in 1996 we had
another election and we finally defeated Communism... after 6 years.
That ended the 75 year reign of Communism. But then in 2000, we were
Helen: What were the main reasons for your defeat in 2000?
EB: I think the main reason was that people's expectations were very high.
Helen: That "government should do it for me?"
EB: No, no, no. Their expectations
were that if the Democrats take power we will live in a very good society.
We will have a very good life, a life like in a western country. their
expectations were very high and we could not make it all happen in one year.
It was impossible. They expected much of us and we were new and inexperienced.
For instance, before us, Communism had fixed prices, but we let the market
take over. For example, before you can have a free economy you have
to have a level-ization price control. If something cost 50 cents
before, it was now costing $3.00. Or one day you might pay $1.80 and
then in two days the same item is $5.00 or $6.00! You would become
very angry and it was very hard for the people.
We tried to tell them that, for example, maybe this product costs 50 cents,
but maybe the true price of it is 40 cents, but during the transition you
might have to pay $6.00. However, after maybe 6 months the true price
will come back and you might pay 40 cents. Many people understood this,
but many didn't. We couldn't predict how long it would take for the
free market system to stabilize itself.
So, while this was going on, we were up against the Communists, the masters
of spreading ideology. They are very good at that. They began
telling people that "those Democrats are destroying our country." They'd
ask if the people's lives are better now with the Democrats than with them,
all sorts of things that were short term. So most of the people began
to say their lives were worse.
Helen: Over here we say "freedom is not free."
EB: That's right, but it's new
for us. Also, we privatized the socialist shops, cafes, hotels, apartments,
cattle, everything... big changes happened overnight. It was a huge
Peter: Since 2000, when you lost the election, was the privatization reversed?
EB: No. I think in any former
communist country there is not enough force to reverse those things.
Once people have their own property and if I came and told them I would confiscate
it they would yell, "No, no way!" I would guarantee that they
couldn't ever reverse this notion of private property. The current
party can slow things down, but they cannot reverse it. In Mongolia
we have a saying, "bad things should happen very quickly." We are seeing
corruption rising, but that's the cost of freedom. And you know that
Communism is like socialism; big government and bureaucrats should decide
everything for the people.
Helen: There will always be segments of a society,
Mongolia or America or anywhere, where some people do want someone else to
take care of them, want someone to make the decisions for them.
EB: Yes, and now I will give you
a more precise answer to your question. Before, I was telling you how
it came about. I was giving you the big picture.
Helen: Knowing what you know now, what would you
have changed during those 4 years you were leading Mongolia? How would
you have made it easier for the people, easier for democracy?
EB: We were very inexperienced.
Most people in government in power are 50 or 60 years old, I was only 35
as Prime Minister. We made many mistakes. Also, after 1996 a
lot of the people from the rural areas came into power positions and, when
they tasted power, they found it tasted good. Sometimes people want
to use that power to make their own life good first; they demand it.
Other people come second. It's hard to remember their ideals when their
own needs are not yet met. It's hard to remember the principles of
a democratic society.
Peter: You say that the democracy is parliamentary,
not congressional like America's. In the parliamentary democracy
there is not such a strict separation of powers. Mongolia is more like
the British system. So you were the leader of the party, also the Prime
Minister and also your cabinet was included in your party?
EB: Yes, and the majority of the cabinet were members of our Party.
Peter: Has the constitution been modified significantly since it was first adopted in 1991?
EB: It was modified 7 years later, in 1999.
Let me go back to when we first came into power. In the Parliament
there are 76 seats. Our Party got 35 seats and the other coalition
of our party got 15 seats; or 50 out of 76. We had a majority, but
according to our Constitution, in order to make Parliamentary decisions we
need 2/3 of the members. 2/3 of 76 is 51, but we had only 50.
During the first day of our Parliament the Communists quit the session.
We were in shock. It literally stopped Parliament's work.
Helen: When you said, "let's be fair about this," they used that same fairness against you.
EB: Yes, that's it. After
75 years in power, eating and drinking the good life, the election was like
losing their life. They were really angry and opposed us at every turn.
Helen: Just because you played fair, you thought
they would play fair also. Seems it didn't work that way. Tyrannies
don't play fair.
EB: That was the biggest problem of being new at governing.
Helen: Enemies don't play fair.
EB: Yes, exactly. But we kept influencing them.
Peter: So the change in the constitution was what?
EB: They now only need a simple
majority to pass legislation. Plus now every vote should be open.
Helen: As we watch democracies pop up around the
world, including Iraq, we hear critics saying, "it's not working."
When in fact, it's working perfectly, because human nature takes time to
adjust to freedom. Democracy doesn't come in a package.
EB: I say to my people that democracy
is like life. In life you have good people and bad people, you have
the light side and the dark side. You have everything. Freedom
doesn't hide its shadow. With freedom you have alcoholics, bad people
in the streets, but also good, creative people, good morale also. It's
all there. You have to deal with every kind of person in every
segment of society.
than that, when Communism decays, the transition is very difficult for the
people. You have to have some salary to survive. You have to
find bread. It's very tough and I also say to my countrymen that there
is no country in human history that made this big a transition so fast, and
we have to learn by doing, learn by sacrifice, but we are learning.
Most of all, we are succeeding.
It's a long view, because maybe the next generation will have less to learn.
Helen: Many people forget that it took 12 years
in America from the time of the Revolution to the first Constitution.
Freedom takes time. Only the people can do it, for that's the definition
of freedom, people assuming responsibility for it, not government giving
it to them.
EB: Literally, it's like going
through Hell first. Our geography is not helping either. If we
were closer to western powers instead of being between Russia and China,
things would be different.
Peter: How do you evaluate your chances in 2004?
EB: Even though we had 4 difficult
years in power, we learned from our mistakes and experiences and we also
learned more when we lost power, because we also lost our jobs. During
the time out of office we had more time to think about what went wrong.
I think there is a good chance for the Party in 2004. But remember
that 72 seats out of 76 are controlled by the former Communist party.
They pledge things such as free higher education or free medical assistance,
but they don't have the money to provide it. They will over-promise
and won't be able to deliver.
now have two parties in the country. We need to stop fighting
between the parties and pay more attention to the people. For instance,
the gap between rich and poor is widening.
Peter: That can happen for many reasons, but the
two main reasons are that the rich are getting richer or, the poor are getting
poorer. What is happening in Mongolia?
[Here in America,
we often mouth the phrases that "freedom is not free" or "the price of freedom
is eternal vigilance," yet most of those we talk to don't really believe
that freedom can die, or is even at risk. We here in America, have
been blessed with it for hundreds of years. We hope this interview
will help readers to realize that freedom is an on-going, risky experiment
and it takes time to master.
We're still working on ours. It took 100 years to free the slaves and
we're constantly being asked to submit to UN regulations or leftist demands
that would curtail our sovereignty. It's a never ending struggle, and
it gets harder when even one generation doesn't hold the fort. Abraham
Lincoln called it "the silent artillery of time." He knew that the
wounded from the Civil War would remind the population what they were fighting
for, but knew when the wounded grew old and died the new generation would
tend to forget.
We've seen seeds of liberty and democracy planted in Mongolia and while the
old Communists now hold the majority in the Parliament, they have had to
change dramatically to adapt to the new, non-Soviet reality and to regain
power. They are forcing themselves, however reluctantly, to continue
the initial reforms, while still retaining the privileges of power. There
is still a chance in this great world of ours that those seeds of liberty
and democracy will grow. With a courageous man like Elbegdorj Tsahkia
taking up the cause again, armed with greater maturity, his advanced education
during his recent years in the United States, and his understanding that
ideas are more powerful than bribes or handouts, we'd say that you'll see
a different Mongolia in the coming years.
You can see for yourself where we are in our own experiment and we hope this
first hand glimpse into the formation of a democracy in Mongolia will inspire
you to cherish our great heritage of freedom and to honor those who risk
everything to bring that freedom to others in the world. President
Bush said it best... "Freedom is not America's gift to the world, but rather,
God's gift to mankind."]
EB: The middle class is disappearing. I define
the middle class as those who can sustain themselves without outside assistance,
small businessmen, etc. Because of high taxes and corruption, these
people are joining to the poor of society. It seems only those who
have connections are succeeding. The poor are paying for the small
percentage of those who are getting rich.
Peter: Does everyone vote?
EB: Just about everyone votes. But a new thing
is happening where the young people are not voting. These young people
are supporters of a free society, but they didn't come into the election.
The old Communists in our county are surviving because of the over-50 crowd.
Helen: It seems to me, within the 20-30 year old
age group is a somewhat natural urge to "make the world better," to bring
about change. It seems to happen in every country. It also
seems, as long as there is a platform, they will join it, if they can feel
belonging. What can you do for the young people in Mongolia?
EB: We need to do something. We're missing that group in the process toward democracy.
Peter: What portion of the population is urban?
EB: About 50%. We still have a nomadic or rural population.
Peter: And what is the median age of the population?
EB: It's younger.
Peter: Is it that they want so much freedom that
they don't realize that a responsibility that comes with freedom is showing
up and making an X on a ballot to vote?
EB: I think so. You see many of them have
a very good life. Their parents work to support them while they study and,
of course, go to clubs and dance.
Peter: That sounds like middle class to me.
EB: Our middle class is shrinking. We need to expand it.
Peter: It seems the middle class is the flywheel which gives the economy the momentum to thrive.
EB: When I go back, I will begin to talk to the
middle class and ask them to become involved, if only in dialogues, to tell
us what they feel about their lives now. In the past many people were
very frustrated with us and didn't want to get involved in politics.
It seems, if you are in power, you will be hated by the majority of the people.
We speak of individual responsibility and that is necessary, but first I
think the government should be responsible to the people. That's the
first and major item any nation needs for the population to thrive.
When governments forget their responsibility to the people, to the constitution;
then people tend to forget their own responsibility also. I cannot
blame the ordinary people when the government doesn't show leadership.
You know politics is different than business. If you invest as a businessman
in your firm you have to take responsibility, otherwise you lose your investment.
With politics, however, losing the people's investment doesn't mean you've
lost your job. I believe government has to be responsible to the people
for their investment.
You say Mongolia is inspiring, to watch its growth of freedom and democracy.
I believe that, and I say to my countrymen that we must pay attention to
the health of our freedom and our democracy. Otherwise we won't be
inspiring. For now we are eating the meal provided by the first
Democratic Union, but that is finished, and we have to sustain ourselves
and sustain our economy. You cannot ask everyday for more loans and
commitments from other countries. Now is the time to pay attention
to our own internal issues and our own growth.
Peter: To whom will you say that? To the Communists who are in power?
EB: It's a kind of general message to everyone.
Peter: That may play well in America, but what will
they think of it in Mongolia? That's hard to say to people who will elect
you. In other words, you're saying, "vote for me and you're going to
have to work harder, pay attention, make sacrifices." The other guy
is saying, "vote for me and I'll give you a school and a hospital, bread
and so forth."
[note to readers; you should have heard EB laughing at this point!!]
EB: Many will not like my message
in Mongolia. Well, in 2004 we will have the Parliamentary elections
and, in 2005, we will have the Presidential election. However, even
though the President is elected by the people, he's more a symbol.
The Prime Minister is the real power and Chief Executive.
Peter: Is it similar to France?
EB: Yes. We had nationwide elections 7 or
8 times. Some people voted 4 or 5 times for those who promised them
the world; even free bus passes. They even distributed goods in some
districts before the elections; sometimes only flour, or maybe even a car
if someone asked for it. So they got those votes. But finally
they're beginning to realize that they can eat that flour for only one month,
eat that bread for only one day. Then they'll have to wait till the
next election for the next hand-out. So I will ask them
to be pragmatic and realistic.
Helen: Do you think more investment, which will show people succeeding, will inspire others to try to succeed also?
Helen: I remember when you spoke at the Heritage
Foundation about "planting seeds." You said, sometimes it doesn't grow
as fast as you'd like. That made me think of King Arthur. Before
his major battle he told a young page to go forth and spread the word of
the round table. Even if he didn't personally succeed, the idea was
important enough to carry on. Not in his lifetime, but it was an idea
strong enough to grow eventually and the young page was the messenger; the
seed bearer. We certainly hope you'll be nurturing that seed you planted
as a courageous youth only 10 years ago.
EB: I don't know about that. You see the transition
brought lots of suffering for my people. I and my friends feel very
responsible for that. I think that's the difference between the Democrats
and the Communists in Mongolia. The Communists don't have the responsibility
for democracy. They blamed the suffering on us, not on the growth of
democracy. For instance, we allowed free newspapers for the first time
in 75 years. Now those same newspapers are writing articles against
us; but we gave them the freedom to do so. So we brought the freedom
and also accepted the responsibility for the transition, but the Communists
are reaping the benefits of our change.
Also, we privatized many companies. But we, who fought in the streets,
didn't have the money to buy into the new, private companies. Only
the Communists, who had run them before, had such capital and they are now
again in charge of the company, yet it is a privately-owned company.
They bought almost everything. They knew that in a few weeks the company
would be privatized and they talked to their other friends who had been in
power and were able to buy and now own what they had been general manager
of before. The Communists are now the biggest capitalists in Mongolia!
Peter: Did they really change their minds?
For instance, you grew up as a Communist, but changed your mind. But
that change came from within, not from changing situations without. So it
seems the people who were in power before are still in power because they
shifted with the changes. For example, as you said, someone may say
this is a state company today and I'm running it, but it's going to be private
tomorrow and I'll own it. So do we just have to wait for those people
to die? It doesn't seem they will suddenly become Democrats, they've
only changed the method of how they do business. As you said, during
that convention it seemed you had to make your move for dramatic change and
nothing will be the same. The country changed around them but it seems
strange that they would have changed so fast.
EB: Communists reach people by their things, their money,
their companies, their jobs. I reach people with ideas. I think
people will listen to me. During my time in the United States I studied
at Harvard, I made some good connections and I recharged my batteries.
I will go back and establish some type of think tank and hope people will
invest in my ideas. I will be transparent and responsible and set a
Peter: Thank you for your time and our best wishes go with you.
& Helen Evans, international teachers and authors, write articles and
teach a philosophical approach to conservatism. Their website is http://peterandhelenevans.com.
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