'Impressed' Albright Gets a Taste of the New Mongolia
By Barton Gellman
On the arid steppe of Mongolia, where miles divide a nomad's hut from his nearest neighbor, a 26-car motorcade really makes an impression.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright ran out of paved road before she reached her appointed call on a herdsman named Vanchigdorj, and her convoy churned up enough dust to obscure its own flashing lights.
Save for an interlude when Mongolia ruled the world Genghis Khan is recalled rather more warmly here than elsewhere this small nation has grown accustomed to living as a bantam among giants.
Albright's six-hour visit marked the arrival of a giant from afar, more polite if not much less overwhelming. But unlike China and Russia, which have taken turns ruling Mongolia over the years, America seemed to want nothing more today than to cheer on Asia's first successful shift of a Communist regime to democracy and free markets.
"I am very impressed by your [country's] leadership," Albright confided to Vanchigdorj in his ger, the traditional white felt hut that remains the country's most common dwelling.
There have been three peaceful changes of government since the wrenching collapse of 1989, when the demise of the Soviet Union left this former client free to make its own way in the world.
Today, Mongolia has no political prisoners. It has swept away market controls and introduced private investment laws. The traditional religion Lamaist Buddhism is making a comeback after years of repression under the Communist regime.
All that stands in stark counterpoint to the "Asian values" arguments made by Singapore and China, which are modernizing their economies without offering free elections or political reform.
"There is some perception that a simultaneous transition in political and economic fields is not the way for Asian countries," Prime Minister Tsahiagiyn Elbegdorj, 35, said at a news conference with Albright. "We are challenging and breaking this stereotype."
The foreign minister, R. Amarjargal, escorted Albright from Ulan Bator, the capital, to the nearby foothills of the Khan Khentii mountains for a look at the traditional Mongolian nomadic life. The secretary's party came equipped with briefing papers on local customs.
"When Mongolians arrive at a ger, they yell `Catch your dog,' " one handout explained, adding: "When you enter a ger, don't step on the threshold. Usually guests move in a clockwise direction to the west and north. The east side of the ger is the women's side and west side is the man's side."
Albright knew never to whistle inside, since that would invite misfortune, and she knew what to expect when Mongolians cross paths with a cat: "They spit over their left shoulder three times."
Albright's party learned that a guest must accept an offer of the national drink airag, fermented mare's milk when arriving at someone's home. If you don't want to drink it and Albright arrived quite determined in that regard "you should touch it to your lips as if tasting it."
Albright proved an able actress, sampling three dairy delicacies with nary a drop appearing to reach her mouth. "Delicious," she enthused to the herdsman, who keeps five horses, 20 cows and about 140 sheep and goats. "This is the yogurt that makes you live forever."
Lhagvasuren, her host's wife, stirred still more boiling milk atop an iron stove fueled by cow dung. Talk turned to politics and economic reforms.
"Life is becoming easier," Vanchigdorj said. "Previously there was a limit on private livestock, but now there is no more."
"You are glad about the new system?" Albright asked.
"Yes, yes," Vanchigdorj replied.
There is no easy explanation for Mongolia's adoption of Western political and economic models when so many neighbors have turned elsewhere.
One theory bandied about in Albright's traveling party looked for roots in the frontier culture that sprang from self-reliance in a harsh and sparsely populated land about the size of Alaska.
A country mad about horse racing, archery and wrestling turned out to be fertile ground for Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" during the 1996 election here.
The International Republican Institute, an arm of the congressionally financed National Endowment for Democracy, brought the authors to Ulan Bator to help draft a "Contract With the Mongolian People" for the leaders of the Democratic Union, the governing coalition.
The contract called for private property rights, a free press and foreign investment, and its printing of 350,000 copies made it the most widely distributed document in Mongolian history.
The government had a lot of recent history to overcome. Ariunbat, a freelance journalist who like many Mongolians uses only one name, said the America he learned about in the Soviet-inspired schools of his youth was a perilous place full of "homeless street people and rich people who want war."
Most Mongolians still speak Russian and write more naturally in the adopted Cyrillic alphabet than their native Uighur script. A statue of Lenin still stands in downtown Ulan Bator. But "when the system collapsed," Ariunbat said, "we suddenly understood that not all the propaganda was true."
Mongolia courts America eagerly now, for reasons apparent to anyone with a map. "Maybe America can be a third big neighbor," suggested Agvaandorjiin Tsolmon, a Foreign Ministry official.
That, more or less, was the message that Albright brought.
"Mongolia is a far distance from the United States," she told the Great State Hural, Mongolia's elected parliament. "But because of your love for democratic values and your commitment to an open economy, in a sense we are neighbors."
Albright tried to reinforce reforming trends in a round-table discussion with leading women, a trademark of her year in office. She called them an "extraordinary beacon of democracy" and urged them to "do more of what you're doing," according to an aide who attended the closed forum.
In discussions with President Natsagiin Bagabandi, Albright pledged U.S. support for Mongolia's membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional forum. The United States, with strong support from Congress, has given Mongolia $80 million in economic aid in the past five years, mainly for fuel.
It was warm today, and Albright ventured back outdoors to watch a display of rough riding by 10-year-old boys in traditional robes and pointed boots. Stepping gingerly in her dress and pumps, she also toured the livestock pens.
Next time, she said, "I'll wear different clothes. I'll wear my boots."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company