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Modern Mongolia From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists

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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.1 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.2 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.3 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.4

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.5

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. 6

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. 7

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.”8 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.9 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,”10 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.”11 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.”12 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.13 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. 14 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.15

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.16 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.17

Tsedenbal’s own dismissal in August 1984 thus did not generate much protest. While he was on a visit to the USSR for medical treatment, his opponents overthrew him with Moscow’s collusion, announcing that poor health prevented his continuance as general secretary of the MPRP and premier of the MPR, and that Jambyn Batmünkh, a university administrator and stolid apparatchik, would succeed to those positions. Batmünkh and the new leadership appeared ready to introduce some changes in government and the economy, although they differed in their assessment of the pace and comprehensiveness of such restructuring. Most of the old guard grudgingly accepted the need for some transformations, but relatively few were enthusiastic advocates of reform.

Nonetheless, in the years following Batmünkh’s accession, changes seeped into government pronouncements and programs. In 1986, Batmünkh first confronted the country’s economic problems, attributing some of the failures to overly centralized planning. He explained that individual enterprises and localities required greater flexibility and autonomy in order to increase efficiency and production. Batmünkh’s pronouncements echoed Gorbachev’s program of perestroika, set out in the official MPRP daily paper, Unen, which published a full translation of Gorbachev’s speech to the 1986 Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union demanding a liberalization of the economy. 18

In the same year, Batmünkh advocated reforms in the bureaucracy, but he took few steps to replace the old leadership or lesser officials who resisted change. In a speech in July 1987, he noted that it would be difficult to alter the communist influence on popular attitudes and behavior. 19 He proposed that the bureaucracy embrace openness or, to use a word now fashionable, “transparency.” Highlighting the role of the mass media in this, he entrusted journalists with the tasks of fostering greater openness and criticizing bureaucratic highhandedness, ineptness, or inefficiency. Mongolian newspapers were soon permitting publication of letters from readers critical of government officials.

External events, which lay beyond the control of the Mongolian leadership, were fueling changes and placing pressure on the Batmünkh regime. The USSR faced its own difficulties in the mid to late 1980s, owing in part to vast military expenditures to counter the perceived Western threat, to mismanagement and inefficiencies in the economy, and to the rise of wealthy and unscrupulous entrepreneurs. These economic reversals affected Mongolia, which was dependent on Soviet trade and aid. Soviet technical assistance was also invaluable, and many experts from the communist bloc assisted in managing the Mongolian economy. Roughly 100,000 Soviet troops had been stationed in Mongolia in the mid 1960s, after the onset of the Sino-Soviet conflict, and this force was still deployed throughout the country. Naturally, expenditures on these troops imposed additional burdens on the increasingly fragile Soviet economy, which seemed excessive in an era when the USSR was trying to cement better relations with China.

In 1987, the USSR started to shift course, which compelled changes in Mongolia’s foreign and domestic policies. Even earlier, in a speech in Vladivostok in July 1986, Gorbachev asserted that tensions in Northeast Asia had eased considerably. By April 1987, he had withdrawn about a quarter of the total Soviet force stationed in Mongolia. He thus signaled his perception of the reduction of the threat of a Sino-Soviet war and his desire for closer relations with China. Mongolia quickly adopted the same policy, seeking to heal the wounds of more than two decades of hostility. In June 1987, the MPR and China signed agreements concerning the peaceful resolution of border disputes. They also agreed to promote trade, as well as to develop joint technological and scientific cooperation on livestock production and energy. 20 Perhaps as important, with the USSR starting to limit its commitment to Mongolia, Batmünkh and his MPRP associates had no choice but to cultivate relations with previously hostile states. Moreover, Gorbachev’s increasing links with the West, particularly America, paved the way for the other communist states to pursue similar initiatives, and Mongolia established formal relations with the United States in 1987. 21 Representatives of the two countries planned for the exchange of ambassadors and for the development of cultural, educational, and economic links.

By 1988, key government leaders had started to challenge past policies. A Politburo member actually broached the subject of democracy as part of a ringing endorsement of greater openness and of governmental institutions responsive to the people. Several scholars and officials condemned the secrecy of the past, which had prevented an honest assessment of the authoritarianism that had bedeviled communist Mongolia.22 One scholar dared to suggest that the MPRP allow several candidates to stand for each office.23

In the same year as the December 10 demonstrations, the government and the MPRP initiated a number of changes. The purges instigated by Choibalsan in the 1930s and 1940s had been condemned from the mid 1950s on, but in 1989, a commission appointed by the Politburo analyzed this repression and asserted that at least 20,000 Mongolians whom the state had put to death should have their names cleared. At the same time, Batmünkh charged Tsedenbal with creating a cult of personality and incarcerating people unjustly. 24 The report, as well as additional commentaries after its release, provided the first serious critique of the leader who had ruled during the recent so-called thaw in the MPR’s history. The Party rehabilitated Jamyangiin Lkhagvasüren, whom Tsedenbal had dismissed as minister of defense, and proclaimed him a hero for having defeated the Japanese in the battle of Nomonhan, on the Mongolian-Manchurian border, in 1939. His son became the director of the country’s national civilian airline, and his daughter became a prominent radio jour-nalist.25His granddaughter Lkhagvasüren Nomin (about whom more will be said in later chapters), who was studying in the USSR, would become one of the ablest journalists in the country in the 1990s.

Relations with foreign countries also spurred changes in the government. The USSR brought home 8,000 troops from Mongolia and planned to recall most of its military contingent by 1990. Meanwhile, trade with China increased at a rapid clip, and the Mongolian foreign minister and his Chinese counterpart exchanged visits and signed agreements to promote additional trade, facilitate transport and communications, and increase cultural and educational ties.26 Finally, the foreign minister asserted that the MPR should increase its ties with Western countries, which would, of necessity, lead to greater openness and to exposure to new ideas and beliefs.27 Western radio broadcasts and magazines now began to reach Mongolia, and Western television would soon be available too, with a potentially great influence, particularly on young people.

In short, by the time of the December 10 demonstrations, an indeterminate number of leaders in the MPRP and government hierarchy supported reforms designed to promote democracy and accountability in government. Yet MPRP and government support for some changes had not translated into reforms by December 1989. The MPR was the only legal party. The government still violated human rights and still had not loosened its grip on the mass media. The secret police, security guards, and army had remained intact, and repression continued. For example, officials attempted to capture the reformers who, throughout the late 1980s, posted signs and pasted placards all over Ulaanbaatar demanding changes in the one-party system.

The MPRP and the government were divided on reform. Some officials acknowledged the need for democratic changes, while others tried to check any deviations from the status quo. This split resulted in a slow pace of reform, causing “young Mongolians... [to show] signs of impatience at the conservative leadership’s seeming inability to move more quickly and radically.”28 The young people also had an advantage: the divisions within the MPRP and the government promoted indecisiveness, from which the would-be reformers could profit.


Having openly challenged the authorities, the young reformers now had to articulate a program, attract others living outside the capital, and develop coherent strategies and tactics. Before the December 10 demonstration, the meetings of the reformers had been sporadic and somewhat amorphous. As early as the end of 1988, they had founded a “Club of Young Economists,” whose leading lights were Mendsaikhany Enkhsaikhan, a Soviet-trained economist who worked at the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations and Supply, and who would eventually serve as prime minister from July 1996 to April 1998, and Davaadorjiin Ganbold, also a Soviet-trained economist, who had taught at the Mongolian National University. 29 The authorities clearly knew about these meetings and those of other groups, because government agents attended them and reported on the discussions to their supervisors. Yet the growing influence of perestroika and glasnost prevented the authorities from banning the meetings. The club was the venue for discussions but had not taken specific action. In short, the efforts of the reformers now needed to be organized, and their slogans had to be welded into a program. They also had to counter the perception that unity would prove elusive, as it had for Mongolian political movements in the past. To succeed in dealings with an apparently divided government and MPRP, the reformers had to maintain a united front.

Their first undertaking was a statement of the changes they proposed. The placards carried by the demonstrators on December 10 revealed their basic program: “A Multiparty System Is Essential,” “Honor Human Rights Above All,” and “Freedom of the Press.”30 Days after the December 10 demonstrations, the Mongolian Democratic Union began to meet, and by December 17, its leaders had proffered their demands to government authorities. After a rally attended by two thousand people, they delivered a petition that incorporated the reforms they proposed to the MPRP authorities. This submission was in and of itself remarkable, because it was the first such citizens’ manifesto publicly presented to the communist leadership.

The principal goal of the reformers was to convene a multiparty election for the Khural by early 1990, an election in which voters freely chose representatives. The Khural would be accountable to the people, not the communist hierarchy, and a record of its meetings ought to be available to the public. Changes in the organization of the economy were also vital for the new Mongolia that some of the reformers wished to foster. Influenced by the West, part of the reform group proposed that a market economy be installed in place of the centrally planned economy. They also sought official respect for basic human rights. The government had to protect freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of travel, and freedom of religion and to publicize these rights to the people. “Finally, the government had to acknowledge and publicize crimes against citizens and monks during Choibalsan’s terror. And the reformers insisted that all these rights be incorporated into a newly amended constitution.”31

After some discussion and initial hesitation, the Politburo responded positively to the demands of the reformers. At a meeting of the Seventh Plenum of the Nineteenth Congress of the MPRP convened on December 11 and 12, just a day after the reformers’ demonstrations in Sükhbaatar Square, officials supported glasnost and perestroika and, theoretically, demands for change.32 It seemed clear in the first place that the USSR, still Mongolia’s most important patron and protector at that time, would not endorse a harsh repression of the dissidents. Gorbachev had disapproved of the Chinese attack on demonstrators at Tiananmen six months earlier and was not eager for a repetition in the communist world. In addition, the Mongolian government recognized that such a crackdown would constitute evidence of instability, which China might try to exploit. Despite gradually improving relations, Mongolia’s communist leaders feared interference by their neighbor in the event of a domestic crisis, and to prevent this, they therefore sought to compromise with the reformers. Mongolians remembered that China had ruled their country as a colony for more than two centuries and were unwilling to provide a pretext for the Chinese either to send in troops or insinuate themselves into Mongolian domestic politics again.33

Yet the compromise proved disappointing to the reformers. Officials pledged that they would implement reforms but were vague about a timetable. They appeared to support the concepts of a multiparty system, free elections, and civil liberties, but were in no hurry and said that they were willing to introduce these reforms within five years.34 The young reformers whose principal banner when they handed their petition to officials on December 17 had read “Democracy Is Our Goal” did not want to wait. They were gratified that between December 10 and 17, the government had undertaken a reshuffling in which a few opponents of change had been demoted, but they could not accept a delay of five years for the implementation of reforms. Irrespective of this, however, the reformers in the Mongolian Democratic Union had succeeded in drawing up a program to which they all could agree, a major accomplishment.35


The reformers needed to incorporate a broader cross-section of the population into their political endeavors. Naturally, they continued to stage meetings in Sükhbaatar Square on weekends, generating public interest and publicity. After repeated calls at these meetings for access to the mass media, they finally received permission to present their views on a state radio program on December 28. 36 Meanwhile, they tried to reach like-minded individuals outside Ulaanbaatar, and eventually some workers and engineers at the copper mine in Erdenet became their staunch allies. Founded in the mid 1970s as a joint venture of the USSR and Mongolia, the copper mine recruited a large number of Russian engineers and workers. Mongolian employees at the mines were infuriated that the Russians received higher salaries and better benefits for the same work. As one Mongolian engineer said, “We Mongolians noticed daily that we played second fiddle, that we were the underdogs. This deeply wounded our pride and national feelings.”37 The reformers attempted to find common cause with these workers. They tried to focus the workers’ hostility toward Russia on dissatisfaction with the MPRP and the Mongolian government, which still perceived the USSR as patron and protector. Having common foes, the two groups were able to forge a mutually beneficial alliance. Erdenet employees had convened a protest meeting early in December, during which one speaker vowed: “We want no longer to be led by the hand of the USSR. We want the same wages for the same work. We’ve had enough of the Russians’ being paid twice as much as we Mongolians are for the same work.”38

Learning of the meeting in Erdenet from one of the participants, the Mongolian Democratic Union decided to make contact with the dissident employees. On December 22, it sent the scientist Bat-Uul, a fine orator despite his image as a ruffian (rumors about his rudeness and obstreperousness were quite common), to Erdenet to negotiate with representatives of the mine workers and engineers. He met with them in a small room in the House of Culture and described the objectives of the Mongolian Democratic Union, emphasizing that the workers’ concerns could be allayed and their economic goals met only by a movement that encouraged changes in the MPRP and the government. The movement organized in the capital city by the Mongolian Democratic Union could succeed, he noted, only if it aroused similar protests elsewhere. The assembled participants assured Bat-Uul of their support.39 He returned to Ulaanbaatar with such solid evidence of an agreement that the Mongolian Democratic Union dispatched representatives to different parts of the country to explain its program and objectives and elicit support.

By the end of 1989, the reformers had achieved two of their goals and started on their third. They had a clear, well-devised program of reforms, and they had cultivated allies outside of Ulaanbaatar who represented workers, technicians, and herdsmen. However, they now required a clear plan, as well as carefully defined tactics, rather than demonstrations and reactions to events; they had to shape events to their own schedule and to their own advantage. Effective control and planning of strategy and tactics required organization and leadership, and the Mongolian Democratic Union was too large an umbrella group to decide upon policy and activities. By the end of December, therefore, it selected a coordinating committee, with Elbegdorj as head, to deal with day-to-day activities.40 Elbegdorj, a military man who had been trained as a journalist in the USSR and worked for a military newspaper, was an outspoken critic of the government and an advocate of confrontation with the regime. Although lacking the education and polish of many of the other reformers, he nonetheless proved to be charismatic and an excellent speaker, with an ability to relate to ordinary people. Despite his occasional awkwardness in relations with fellow reformers from elite families, he appealed to a wider cross-section of the population than most reformers could.

With the onset of the New Year, the coordinating committee began to define and tailor its activities for maximum results, organizing meetings of the Mongolian Democratic Union that allowed for full discussion and debate. On January 14, approximately 1,000 people convened in the Lenin Museum, a short distance from Sükhbaatar Square. Although most were intellectuals, representatives of workers and technicians also participated in the discussions, which were designed to build up the movement and to explain its objectives to newcomers. The symbolism of an alternative to the Khural, in which discussion and dissent were permitted and indeed welcomed, offered a sharp contrast to the official parliament, which most often simply rubber-stamped decisions made by its leaders. Such meetings of the Mongolian Democratic Union were significant because they entailed an implicit challenge to the official Khural. The authorities did not ban these meetings, and the union continued to meet sporadically over the next two months, constituting a thorn in the gov-ernment’s side. The coordinating committee then helped to organize a meeting of the Mongolian Journalists’ Union on January 19. 41 With guidance from the committee, the assembled reporters renamed their organization the “Mongolian Democratic Journalists’ Union.” This one act did not, of course, translate immediately into a free press or a more aggressive brand of investigative journalism. Yet the use of the word “democratic” marked an important step, indicating that some journalists had begun to acknowledge the need for reforms and for alignment with the Mongolian Democratic Union.

The most remarkable event the coordinating committee planned was a demonstration on January 21 to hasten the implementation of reform. The contrasts between the demonstrations on December 10 and January 21, just a little over a month apart, reveal the progress the reformers had made. December 10 attracted a crowd of about two hundred people and was relatively spontaneous, and the demonstrators were uncertain about the reactions of the government and its security forces.42 In spite of the frigid weather (–30°C), the January 21 demonstrations were well organized and drew thousands of participants. The crowd was no longer limited to intellectuals from Ulaanbaatar. Judging from the size and composition, the reformers had succeeded in broadening their base. Representatives of a variety of social groups from the smaller towns and the countryside participated. Unlike the December 10 demonstrators, the coordinating committee could be fairly confident that the government would not disperse or attack the marchers. In addition, its demands for change were more sharply defined than those of the December 10 demonstrations. It identified specific institutional and constitutional reforms that it advocated, rather than general condemnations of the existing system.

The January 21 demonstration, however, resembled the earlier one in two respects. It was held in Sükhbaatar Square, and January 21 was the date of Lenin’s death in 1924, an anniversary that had been marked throughout the communist period.43 The coordinating committee thus capitalized on an already existing event to organize its own protest. It also attracted more celebrities, including Dogmidyn Sosorbaram, an actor-singer who would eventually be awarded the title of Meritorious Artist of Mongolia. Sosorbaram and others gathered around the statue of Sükhbaatar and led the assembled crowd in singing traditional folk melodies lauding Chinggis Khan.44 Such acclaim for Chinggis Khan could be seen as a challenge to the MPRP and the USSR, which had denigrated the Mongolian hero, portraying him as a barbarian pillager. 45

The young reformers continued their campaign against the government by convening weekend demonstrations in January and February. The self-interest of the reformers did not necessarily shape their activism. Nearly all were employed and had good opportunities for additional training and education.46 Neither deprivation nor poor career prospects dictated their protests. The democrats among them objected to insufficient guarantees of free expression, to human rights abuses, and to the influence wielded by the USSR in Mongolia.

The government itself had not been inactive. Members of the Khural continued to meet, despite their concerns about the disruptions precipitated by the activities of the young reformers, allied with workers, professionals, and other segments of the population. The Khural and the MPRP could not agree on a policy for dealing with the reformers. Neither the traditionalists who wished to crush the reformers nor the more conciliatory members of the MPRP and government elites who sought compromise emerged victorious. The MPRP and the Khural thus deadlocked and claimed that they would support moderate reforms. Their less savory and ultimately ineffective response was to cast aspersions on the reformers, who were described as alcoholics, corrupt, or self-serving. Such gossip did nothing to tarnish the images of the principal figures in the reform movement, although a few of these accusations did turn out to be accurate.47

Diverse reform groups took advantage of the inaction of the MPRP and the government to organize into opposition forces. On February 16, under the direction of Davaadorjiin Ganbold, one faction founded the National Progressive Party, which backed democratic government and privatization of state assets, including industries and banks, as means of fostering the introduction of a market economy. 48 Many reformers regarded Ganbold as an extraordinarily brilliant economist and indeed a brilliant man in general, but were concerned about his coldness and rigidity. He focused on the market economy and insisted that the main task of government was to generate a favorable environment for business. He also discounted government health, education, and social welfare programs. On February 18, Bat-Uul founded the Mongolian Democratic Party, inviting 200 observers as well as journalists to his party’s convention. However, the government did not provide the requisite permission for foreigners, particularly journalists, to accept Bat-Uul’s invitation to attend.49 Two political parties had now materialized to challenge Article 82 of the Constitution, which had required one-party rule. Both demanded legalization of a multiparty system and an end to the MPRP monopoly. The issuance of Shin Tol (“New Mirror”), the first journal since 1921 that did not have government approval, also disturbed the government. As the reformers developed ever more sophisticated tactics, they defied ever more fundamental linchpins of the authoritarian system in Mongolia. The pace of change quickened.

The reformers were now ready for an assault on actual artifacts of the communist era. Ulaanbaatar and the smaller cities and towns were awash with representations of socialist and communist so-called heroes. A statue of Sükhbaatar dominated the central square in Ulaanbaatar. A sizable likeness of Choibalsan could be seen at the entrance of the Mongolian National University. One of the principal streets in the capital was named after Sükhbaatar, as was one of the country’s aimags, or provinces. Choibalsan in the aimag of Dornod was the fourth largest city in Mon-golia.50 However, the reformers did not initially focus on depictions of Mongolian communists. Instead, they sought to galvanize Mongolian resentment at the virtual deification of Russian communists. An enormous placard with Lenin’s image greeted the visitor on the road from the airport to the city of Ulaanbaatar proper. The same visitor who stayed at the Ulaanbaatar Hotel, which along with the Bayangol Hotel provided the principal lodging facilities for foreigners in Ulaanbaatar, would discover a colossal statue of Lenin as he or she walked to the small garden in front of the hotel. However, the Mongolian reformers found the imposing statue of Joseph Stalin in front of the Mongolian State Library particularly offensive. They were horrified at the placement of an image of the dreaded Soviet dictator in front of one of the main treasuries of Mongolian culture. In their criticisms of the placement of the statue, reformers could harp on patriotism and anti-Russian sentiments. Having secured popular approval, they went to the State Library on the night of February 22 and dismantled Stalin’s statue.51

A meeting organized two days later, on February 24, bolstered the position of the reformers. Representatives of the Mongolian Youth Union gathered together at the Mongolian National University. Although the young people knew that agents of the Ministry of Public Security were spying on them, they nonetheless passionately supported the program of the Mongolian Democratic Union: a multiparty political system, an affirmation of basic human rights, and elimination of restraints on private businesses. The reformers thus appeared to be gaining support from diverse segments of the population.


Yet the reformers, as represented in the Mongolian Democratic Union, had not made substantive gains. They had not elicited concessions from the MPRP and the government concerning their program. Although individual reformers had founded political parties, the government had not altered the Constitution to legalize parties other than the MPRP. The government had not guaranteed freedom of speech, press, or religion. The Politburo meeting to be convened on March 4 thus offered scant hope to the reformers. Submission of petitions, demonstrations in Sükhbaatar Square, and public and private meetings with members of the Khural had not been sufficient. The reformers needed new tactics and ideas to achieve their objectives.

The most potent tactic they came up with was the hunger strike, a tactic unfamiliar to most Mongolians. From what source did the inspiration for such a remarkable demonstration come? One author attributes it to the reformers’ knowledge of a hunger strike conducted in front of the White House by an American scientist who had opposed the Vietnam War. 52 But many of the reformers were aware of hunger strikes by Gandhi in India, by Irish Republican Army prisoners in Ireland, and, closer to home, by Chinese students in Tiananmen less than a year earlier. A number of the reformers were well informed about the Tiananmen events. Erdenebileg, Hulan’s brother-in-law, who later became a member of the Khural, could read and speak Chinese and knew about the Chinese demonstrations in Tiananmen.53 A few also knew that hunger strikes did not always produce the desired results.

At 2 p.m. on Wednesday, March 7, the temperature in Sükhbaatar Square stood at –15°C when ten men defied the government’s disapproval of traditional dress by wearing their dels, or traditional robes, and initiating a hunger strike. Bat-Uul was the most familiar of the ten, but others, including Gongorjavyn Boshigt (later the head of a political movement), Dambyn Dorligjav (who eventually became minister of defense), and Damdinsürengiin Enkhbaatar (later chair of the Khural’s Subcommittee on National Security), would shortly thereafter achieve renown.54

The hunger strikers, with backing from the Mongolian Democratic Union, expanded the scope of their demands, challenging the legality of MPRP and government institutions. They not only advocated their traditional goals of democratic reforms, greater openness to foreigners and foreign trade, and a respect for Mongolian history and heritage but also added a direct attack on the authorities. Arguing that the Politburo was an appointed and not an elected body, they challenged its legitimacy. Similarly, they challenged the legality of the Khural, because its members faced no opposition in elections.55 They submitted a manifesto in which they elaborated their views to the concurrent meeting of the Politburo. The Politburo responded that the Constitution granted full sovereignty to the Khural, which was indeed an elected body. This intractable response prompted the hunger strikers to be ever more resolute in continuing their fast until the collapse of the government.56 The Mongolian Democratic Union now insisted on the abolition of the Politburo and the election of a multiparty Khural.

The hunger strikers at first drew a puzzled crowd, but within hours a large number of people had reached the square either to support or to debate the strikers or the leaders of the Mongolian Democratic Union, who stood nearby. Some passersby could not understand the reasons for the fast. Why refrain from food in a time when it was plentiful?57 Most of the onlookers, however, quickly grasped the significance of the hunger strike. Some walked around the square to show sympathy for the strikers; others stopped to discuss the issues with representatives of the Mongolian Democratic Union; and, by nightfall, still others, a small but significant group, had joined the hunger strikers. The crowd grew throughout the afternoon and reached well into the thousands by early evening. As darkness covered the city, the strikers allowed themselves to drink a mixture of water and glucose. Perhaps they took comfort in the sight of a Mongolian Red Cross ambulance parked not far from where they sat by Sükhbaatar’s statue.

On March 7, Sükhbaatar Square was the principal, though not the exclusive, venue for expressions of dissatisfaction with the regime. The coordinating committee of the Mongolian Democratic Union had devoted considerable time and effort over the past month to informing the Mongolian population of the significance of the hunger strike and soliciting nationwide demonstrations. The workers at Erdenet with whom the MDU had cooperated in the past participated in a sympathy strike. On the afternoon of March 7, several hundred workers stopped work for an hour to express solidarity with the strikers in Sükhbaatar Square. Their leader gleefully reported: “We crippled the mine totally for one hour. That was an unreal feeling.”58 Simultaneously, workers in Darkhan, Mörön, and other towns followed the lead of the Erdenet miners and organized strikes. Back in the capital city, the Union of Mongolian Students called upon its members temporarily to ignore their schoolwork and to form committees to support the hunger strikers in any way possi-ble.59 The Gandan Monastery, the only operating monastery in Mongolia, sent monks to the square as a gesture of support, despite the reservations of the head of the monastery. 60

Meanwhile the Politburo met throughout the day of March 7. Its agents spying on the hunger strikers and the growing number of sympathizers in Sükhbaatar Square relayed information about events, and MPRP loyalists and government officials provided reports about conditions in the country. From their meeting place in Government House, Politburo members could see and hear the ruckus in the square. They knew that this hunger strike and the attendant demonstrations were a grave threat to their authority. Members were divided about their response to the rapidly developing and seemingly uncontrollable events that jeopardized their positions. Hard-liners were eager to call upon the police and the military to disband the demonstrators, while others, wary of engulfing the country in chaos, sought a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Who the advocates were for each of the two points of view is not known, but surely many of those who had served in both the Choibalsan and Tsedenbal regimes sought to revert to the repressive policies of those times. A strong leader such as Demchigiin Molomjamts, who had started to climb the bureaucratic ladder during the Choibalsan period and had filled a variety of positions including those of minister of finance, chair of the State Planning Committee, and secretary of the Politburo, would not have hesitated to use force.61 A sufficient number of such surviving hardliners still served in the Politburo or the Khural, preventing immediate concessions to the reformers.

As evidenced by their actions that evening, the authorities were indecisive on the first day of the hunger strike. They sent two representatives to persuade the strikers to abandon their fast, feigning concern for their health. The reformers rejected any such capitulation. All the hunger strikers were adamant in their desire to compel the government to resign. They politely refused the request of the two Politburo members, and the large, increasingly unruly crowd of sympathizers appeared to intimidate the two men.62

The stalemate persisted until the following day, when Dashiin Byambasüren, a moderate who was first deputy chair of the Council of Ministers, came out of Government House around 4 p.m. to meet with the reform leaders in the square. Byambasüren was an excellent choice as a negotiator, partly because, according to well-informed sources, he was related to Bat-Uul, a hunger striker and one of the two or three most important leaders of the reformers.63 Byambasüren arranged a meeting with the reformers, which was aired live on radio and television. Byam-basüren’s dialogue with the reformers failed to reach a compromise, and the hunger strike continued. The reformers responded to the meeting with Byambasüren with a petition to the Politburo, explaining the need for dramatic changes. They pointed out that whereas the vast majority of the population was less than thirty years of age, about 50 percent of the Politburo qualified for pensions. In addition, thirty-one members of the Khural had served at least five terms. The Politburo and the Khural, from their standpoint, were thus unrepresentative of the general population.64

Meanwhile, the crowds at Sükhbaatar Square increased dramatically. March 8 was International Women’s Day, an important holiday in communist Mongolia, which enabled more people to reach the square. Some rowdy individuals, who were not as committed to nonviolence as the Mongolian Democratic Union leaders, were now mixed in with the demonstrators. They laid claim to a slew of taxis and city buses and went to the Soviet Embassy and then to the official residence of Batmünkh, the head of the government. They drove around the two buildings and shouted anti-Soviet and anti-MPRP epithets.65 The authorities and their Soviet patrons certainly realized that the demonstrators were unrelenting. But these obstreperous individuals, who may not have been as dedicated to reform as the original founders of the Mongolian Democratic Union, seemed to be co-opting the course of the reform movement. During those chaotic days, approximately seventy people incurred injuries, and one was killed. The MDU, which had advocated a policy of nonviolence, was losing its grip on the demonstrators. Mistakenly, the reformers had scarcely planned or prepared for crowd control. They had hoped to galvanize thousands of people and perhaps generate unrest, but not chaos. The hunger strike would surely attract some unstable individuals or a few reckless or alcoholic Mongolians, who could contribute to great disorder. The creation of an effective security force might have prevented any potential violence.

The resulting turbulence may, in fact, have prodded the Politburo to acquiesce. Aware of the growing unrest, Politburo members recognized the need for decisive action. Estimates of the number of demonstrators are notoriously difficult to verify, and in this case they vary from the vague “tens of thousands” to the perhaps too definitive “ninety thousand.” No matter the tally, the authorities were concerned about the growth in the numbers. Yet it appears that the Minister of Public Security did not call upon the army to pacify the demonstrators because he feared that soldiers would not heed the commands to shoot at or even disperse the crowds, and that specific divisions might align themselves with the demonstra-tors.66 The USSR urged Mongolian leaders to compromise and to avoid any further difficulties. The hard-liners knew they were on the defensive in light of the fall in 1989 of the former Soviet bloc regimes in Eastern Europe. In addition, they started to acknowledge that a belligerent Tiananmen-like policy would be too costly and that they could lose in such a violent confrontation. Lacking support from the USSR, moderate officials, and striking workers, the hard-liners finally backed down on March 9. Some Politburo and MPRP members viewed their concession as temporary. They believed that they would still have strong advantages even in a free election. They had support throughout the countryside, and the reformers did not have the advantage of that kind of political network.67 Having considered this political situation, Batmünkh announced that he, along with the entire Politburo, would step down. The announcement was broadcast on radio and television, and shortly thereafter, the hunger strikers abandoned their fast, and the MDU leaders urged the demonstrators to leave the square. Security guards and the police moved into the square and other central locations in the capital to disperse or arrest unruly members of the crowd.68

After a relatively quiet weekend, the Khural convened on Monday, March 12. Three hundred and seventy delegates from all over the country streamed into Sükhbaatar Square to see, for themselves, the place where the hunger strikers had initiated the process of civil disobedience that had culminated in the resignation of the Politburo. These delegates, who represented the most diverse social groups, from trade unions to cooperatives to teachers’ organizations, first focused on Article 82 of the Constitution, which had mandated a one-party system. The Khural rescinded Article 82, paving the way for a multiparty system.69 Shortly thereafter, a Mongolian Green Party, a Union of Mongolian Believers, and a Mongolian Free Labor Committee, organizations that would have been unimaginable during the communist era, sent messages with an assortment of suggestions to promote democracy. 70 While the Khural considered these proposals, the leading reformers met with MPRP eminences in the protocol room of Government House to discuss the details of potential reforms. The Khural recessed on March 14, but negotiators from the MPRP and the MDU continued the dialogue. Amid these discussions, the MPRP began to reinvent itself, selecting a new leadership with greater representation of those advocating change. On March 15, it chose a new and younger Politburo to guide it in the new multiparty system.71

On March 21, the Khural reconvened. First, it accepted the resignation of Batmünkh as chair of the Khural and elected Punsalmaagiin Ochirbat, an engineer who had served as minister of foreign economic relations, as its new chair. 72 Within a few days, the Khural allowed political parties other than the MPRP to register their own slate of candidates. The assembled delegates decided to reconvene on May 10 to ratify and supplement these regulations. On that day, they gathered together and decreed that a free election for a totally representative Khural would be held in July. 73 They assured all other parties that the MPRP would not receive any special advantages.

Despite the government’s concessions, the reformers remained suspicious. They were particularly concerned that the MPRP would still be favored in an election because of its greater monetary resources and the gov-ernment’s control of the mass media. Lacking the same access to the media and to funds and believing such disparities to be unfair, the reformers resorted to demonstrations to protest the MPRP’s control over these assets. By late April 1990, these demonstrations were drawing tens of thousands of people both in Sükhbaatar Square and in other locations. Violence erupted on occasion, even though demonstrators had been warned to stay peaceful. At one point, Zorig was hoisted aloft and urged an angry crowd to avoid violence. His fellow reformer Bat-Uul was amazed that “Zorig succeeded in calming the violent crowd and [in] settl[ing] the situation in a peaceful way.”74 Zorig’s quick-wittedness and fearlessness prevented injuries and possibly even more serious consequences, but he could not be everywhere. The reformers’ abilities to control crowds and to impress upon them the value of nonviolence were tested and occasionally found wanting. As a result, the government was impelled to call upon the military to quell disturbances. The reformers responded with civil disobedience. In Khövsgöl aimag, they convened a meeting in early April without a permit from the government. The authorities immediately arrested four people who attended the meeting and abused them during their incarceration. On April 7, thirteen men and women initiated a hunger strike to protest what they perceived to be the illegal detention of their fellow reformers. Finally, on April 30, the two sides, both of whom had vested interests in averting violence, met to negotiate issues of freedom of assembly and electoral reform. On May 7, they concluded that official approval was unnecessary for legal assembly, and the hunger strike was terminated. Once the May 10 Khural promised a reputedly free and fair election in July, the demonstrations ended throughout the country, and both sides focused on the forthcoming elections.75


Although the reformers had access to some funds, the MPRP, which had control over the levers of power, had distinct advantages. It could shape policy over the next two months in order to ingratiate itself with specific constituencies. For example, it mandated lower rates to be paid for heating in state-owned residences. Then it increased the wages for some relatively poorly paid workers, enhanced student benefits, and offered economic relief to agricultural cooperatives. The only consolation for the reformers was the MPRP’s pledge not to electioneer among the military and the police.76

However, the reformers inflicted the greatest damage on themselves, and their actions over the next two months validated the views of government officials who as early as December 10 had questioned their ability to remain united. Having elicited the concessions of free elections for the government and of protection of basic human rights, the reform movement began to fragment. Until early May, the reformers had focused on institutions, policies, and individuals they opposed. They knew what they were against, but they had not defined their own positive political visions. Their initial goal had been to eliminate the old regime, and they were probably caught off guard by the relative ease with which they had succeeded. Surprised at the rapidity of their “victory,” they scarcely had time to articulate a new program. Having celebrated their success, they faced the daunting tasks of defining their objectives, of changing from a movement into a political party, and of preparing for elections to be held in ten weeks. The leading reformers, who had cooperated during the protests against the MPRP and the government, now became adversaries. Each had his own views as to what would be best for the country. After almost seventy years of one-party rule, many reformers wanted to affirm and to implement their own visions. Unity, which had in part guided them to “victory,” would now prove to be elusive, and disunity would damage their hopes of defeating the MPRP. The reformers, in any case, represented a broad spectrum of views, ranging from democratic socialists to pure market economy fundamentalists.

The champions of the market economy and the democratic reformers emerged as the principal groups in the postcommunist era. Except for Ganbold, the leading market fundamentalists, including Enkhsaikhan and Elbegdorj, to be joined later by the economist Rinchinnyamyn Amarjargal, were not descended from the old elites and were relative newcomers to Ulaanbaatar. Their principal objectives were to promote a market economy, to eliminate vestiges of a planned economy, and to limit government involvement in and regulation of the economy. They saw social policy, in particular, health, education, and a social safety net, as secondary to the creation of a market economy and the promotion of economic growth. They appeared less concerned about the distribution of income. On the other hand, the leading democratic reformers were often the children of the old elites and were generally well educated and cosmopolitan. The parents and close relatives of Zorig, Oyun, Hulan, and Erdenebileg had been influential figures in politics, diplomacy, and the academy in the communist period. The principal objectives of these sons and daughters of the old elites were to foster democracy and combat authoritarianism and one-party rule (and eventually corruption) and yet retain the best features of the communist system. Hulan and Oyun feared that if the market economists gained power, they would slight social welfare, with attendant declines in health and education and increases in unemployment, poverty, domestic abuse, and crime. They were also concerned about the potential for increasing inequality in income with a barely regulated market economy.

From as early as February, both reform groups had started to found political parties, but these did not initially subvert the unity of the principal leaders. Bat-Uul had founded the Mongolian Democratic Party, and Ganbold had established the National Progressive Party. It is difficult to discern the differences between the two parties except that the National Progressive Party tended to be a stauncher advocate of the market economy. The Mongolian Social Democratic Party, which was also established at the time, offered an alternative. Its founder Bat-Erdeniin Batbayar (popularly known as “Baabar”), a scientist who had spent almost a year conducting research in the United Kingdom, supported the democratic reformers and did not wish to dispense with the social welfare provisions of the communist era.77 Seeking to dissociate his brand of social democracy from the authoritarian forms of the MPRP and the USSR, this rather garrulous figure, who was also a poet and an amateur historian and apparently loved the spotlight, sought legitimacy through an appeal to Mongolian patriotism by placing a smiling portrait of Chinggis Khan on his election posters.78

Aside from the cracks in the previously united reform movement, the reformers also confronted difficulties in attracting support in the countryside. Most of the reformers had urban roots. Their strength lay in Ulaanbaatar, the industrial cities of Darkhan and Erdenet, and the capitals of the aimags. They had not energetically sought members among the 35 to 40 percent of the population who earned their livelihoods as herders. For example, at the first Congress of the Mongolian Democratic Party, 53 percent were intellectuals, 40 percent were workers, and only 7 percent were herders; about 45 percent were university educated.79 In part, their failure was due to the limited time they had had to organize in opposition to the MPRP and the government; a focus on the cities and towns was more effective and efficient than to spread out over the vast territory of Mongolia to reach the herders. Yet another reason for their failure was their social distance from the herders. Here the MPRP had significant advantages, with almost seventy years of experience in dealing with herders and the rural areas. Moreover, every aimag governor endorsed the MPRP, which influenced the herders to follow suit.80

The reformers’ political naiveté contributed to their difficulties. Less than a dozen were experienced politicians. Moreover, the reformers did not have the organization to mount a winning campaign against the MPRP. Even more humiliating, they found themselves unable to proffer a complete field of candidates for the Khural elections to be held in July. The MPRP ran 430 candidates for the 430 seats in the Khural. The three reform parties together could offer only 346 candidates, so 84 MPRP members would be unopposed.81 Despite their obvious weaknesses, the three major opposition parties did not cooperate or share expenses during the campaigns. Their efforts lacked spirit; the parties believed that most Mongolians were hostile to the MPRP and that this would translate into victory for their candidates. However, the reform candidates were not well known, and they had scant resources for posters, advertisements, and the other accouterments of a successful campaign.

The July elections proved to be disappointing for the reformers. With all their disadvantages and self-inflicted harm, they must have known that they could not count on overwhelming victories. Yet their showing was worse than expected. The ensuing results were predictable: the MPRP had 357 seats, the Mongolian Democratic Party 16 seats, the National Progressive Party 6, and the Mongolian Social Democratic Party 4. About 8 percent of the seats were temporarily vacant because of errors or uncertainties about specific ballots. The popular vote was actually less unbalanced. The MPRP received only 60 percent of the vote, while the reform parties got about 30 percent. Despite protests by the reformers, votes were weighted in favor of the countryside, where the MPRP had its strongest support. The countryside received one representative for every 2,500 people, while the urban areas required 10,000 people for each representative.

In the first free election in modern Mongolian history, the MPRP had emerged victorious. The new Khural convened in September 1990, with the MPRP in charge. Yet the reformers had made great strides. MPRP advocates of change had replaced many of the older leaders. The moderate Punsalmagiin Ochirbat became president, and Dashiin Byambasüren, who had helped to end the hunger strike in Sükhbaatar Square, was elected prime minister. Shortly thereafter, Byambasüren had attempted to appease the reformers by offering Ganbold, a leader of the reform movement, the position of first deputy premier, a vital role in the new cabinet.


Within the year, a few changes were discernible. Nick Middleton, who visited Mongolia in 1990, wrote: “The simple fact that it was apparently possible for me to visit any part of the country was a transformation from my first trip when travel outside the capital had been well-nigh impossible.”82 Tim Severin, a renowned foreign travel writer, observed: “I suspect that I was at a crucial moment in modern Mongol history.... [T]he Mongols themselves were being given unparalleled freedom . . . and ordinary Mongols were responding by trying to find their true national identity.”83 Yet the transition to a new system has proved to be fraught with difficulties.

The sons and daughters of the privileged Mongolian elite initiated the nonviolent movement that led to the breakdown of an authoritarian system. The reformers, who derived mostly from the intellectual and professional classes, had no military forces at their command and resisted the use of violence. The movement for change thus originated at the top of the social hierarchy and then gradually evolved into a mass organization to appeal to and attract those at the bottom of the social pyramid. The authorities did not take repressive measures partly because the protesters belonged to the elite. Partly, too, the USSR, the principal patron and protector of communist Mongolia for almost seven decades, did not sanction violence. Throughout the 1980s, moderates had slowly filled positions in the Mongolian government, and they argued against the violent tactics proposed by hard-liners. The result was a deadlock. Fearful of Chinese involvement if violence erupted between government forces and the protesters, the authorities also permitted the reformers great leeway.

The reformers took advantage of the government’s indecisiveness to make effective use of nonviolence. They first developed a clearer system of organization—from a disparate group of intellectuals, they evolved into a mass movement; they created a more coherent strategy and sought to contact and appeal to workers, youth, religious leaders, and others beyond the intellectual and professional classes; and they used nonviolent tactics such as demonstrations, hunger strikes, and work stoppages to prod the authorities into negotiations. In addition, they developed a clear and accessible program that could be readily expressed in a few slogans. As they began to extract concessions from the government, they also emphasized ethnic traditions (Buddhism, Chinggis Khan, customary dress, etc.) that had been portrayed negatively in the communist era, and patriotism, which often verged on anti-Russian attitudes.

The so-called reformers erred in two ways. One was that they did not develop a proper system of crowd control in the demonstrations and strikes they organized. Had the minor outbreaks among the crowds erupted into confrontations with the police or security guards, the reformers would have been vulnerable to the charge of having provoked violence. Their second weakness was their inability to maintain unity even before they had extracted the most important concessions from the government. They founded a large number of political parties, which ultimately led to their defeat in the first free elections in Mongolian history.

The MPRP old guard was still powerful but now faced the first challenges to its dominance in about seventy years. Many in the old communist hierarchy, as well as their younger supporters, acknowledged that they needed to compromise with both the democratic reformers and the advocates of the pure market economy. They also recognized that their power was gradually eroding. Nonetheless, they sought to retain their political authority and to preserve the cooperatives, the state enterprises, and the social welfare policies of the communist era. Throughout the 1990s, they would be fighting a losing battle: they could not stave off privatization and retrenchment of the state’s commitment to education, health, and social programs. However, as of 2004, they remained a significant minority, which was ready to take advantage if the democratic reformers or the supporters of a pure market policy faltered.84