Mongolia: Moving Mountains

By Elbegdorj Tsakhia
Monday, November 21, 2005

ULAN BATOR -- Mr. President, welcome to Mongolia. Welcome to freedom.

Those are the words with which I will greet President Bush when he arrives in Mongolia today. They represent an extraordinary odyssey for my country, one that has taken us from totalitarianism to free-market democracy in just 15 years.

When Mongolia shed the yoke of communist rule, thousands of us took to the streets and rallied outside our government building demanding democracy. Never again did the Mongolian people want to suffer under a system of government that oppressed the people and denied the fundamental rights provided to each of us at birth: the right to life, individual liberties and freedom of expression.

We enshrined these principles in Article 2 of our constitution: "The fundamental purpose of state activity is the ensurance of democracy, justice, freedom, equality, and national unity and respect of law." Many of us had tears in our eyes when we voted to adopt our constitution in 1992. Without a bullet being fired, without tanks in the streets, we laid the groundwork for building a new society based on democracy, the rule of law and free-market economic reforms. It has served us well, as Mongolian voters have used the ballot box to transfer political power in several parliamentary elections. Our people are working hard to consolidate our freedom. They have made Mongolia an open, free and vibrant society.

Since our transition, Mongolia has faced many difficult hardships. Thanks to support from the United States, as well as from other countries and international financial institutions, we were able to make the transition to a free-market economy. More than 80 percent of our gross domestic product is derived from the private sector. This is critical.

The national security of our landlocked country has less to do with military power than with economic growth. Last year, through unleashing the potential of foreign investors and our business community, Mongolia experienced a growth rate of more than 10 percent. We need this to continue. I want to move forward and expand our relationship with the United States by implementing a free trade agreement between our two countries.

This is a good start, but much more remains to be done. Without question among the greatest challenges facing our democratic institutions are poverty and corruption. Parliamentarians in both parties of our ruling Grand Coalition are working to provide the legal framework and resources to ensure that civil servants remain exactly that -- servants of the people.

With a population of just 2.5 million, many of whom are nomads, our strategy to fight poverty is through education. My government is seeking to use wireless communications -- the Internet, cell phones and data transmission -- to build an information bridge to the outside world. It is now not uncommon to see a satellite dish outside a herdsman's ger -- our traditional dwelling. Exploring educational opportunities through U.S.-Mongolian educational exchanges and student scholarships will be an investment in our greatest resource, our youth. To give our students an advantage in international business we have made English our official second language.

Further strengthening our development efforts is the inclusion of Mongolia in the Millennium Challenge program. When we sign our compact to begin project implementation, it will add a new level of transparency, "sunlight" and public participation to this critical poverty alleviation program by supporting economic growth. The mechanics of putting together our Millennium program have involved public input and solicitation of proposals from the people. This is grass-roots governance at its best.

Mongolia's experiment with democracy is far from finished, but perhaps there are already lessons for others in what we have accomplished. There is no reason or excuse why economic and political reforms cannot go hand in hand. The concept that democracy is a Western value is a fallacy. It is a universal value inherited by each and every person in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America.

How we share those values abroad is as important as institutionalizing them here at home.

Mongolians are standing shoulder to shoulder with their U.S. and coalition colleagues to create free societies and fight terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. The recent bombings in Jordan and attacks in Iraq are a warning that defeating terrorism will take international cooperation and dedication.

Mongolians are justifiably proud of the country we are building. Many within Asia can find examples in our economic and political successes as well as learning from our failures.

President Bush's historic visit to Mongolia will give us much-needed encouragement. It will also help us recall our past while rededicating our efforts to build peace, freedom and prosperity in the volatile regions of Northeast Asia.

The writer is prime minister of Mongolia.

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