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 and Iraq.
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.
So in 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 shakey 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 think?
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 defeated.
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 task.
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.
But more 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 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.
We actually 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?