Reagan inspired Mongolia’s president to seek democracy

Tsakhia Elbegdorj never met Ronald Reagan. Yet the young Mongolian found the American president"s words so inspiring while he was studying in the Soviet Union during the 1980s that they changed his life — and the course of his own country.
After hearing Reagan denounce the Soviet Union as "an evil empire" and then watching Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev institute reforms, Elbegdorj became a leader in the effort to transform his native land from longtime Soviet influence to democracy and free markets.

Now, as Mongolia"s democratically elected president, Elbegdorj has hung a portrait of Reagan and his frequent ally, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, on the wall of his office in Ulaanbaatar, also known as Ulaanbaatar.

Elbegdorj, who was born in 1963, remembers the electrifying impact Reagan had on students behind the Iron Curtain.

"Most of the young people, my generation, actually thought that the Soviet Union was evil ..., but we couldn"t tell that," Elbegdorj said in a telephone interview with USA TODAY from the Mongolian capital. "But President Reagan said that — "evil empire" — and he also related with the Berlin Wall: "Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev."

"Those are not only words, but words with power, words with force, which overran the military might of the Soviet Union," he said. "That was the great connection he made. ... He was making the connection with the minds and hearts of the young or (those) who had some disaffection with their society. He was the person who tells those words we couldn"t tell during that time."

The connection he felt with Reagan defied the distance between their lives.

Elbegdorj was the youngest of eight sons in a family of herders in the land of Genghis Khan, sandwiched between Russia and China. The year Reagan moved into the White House, Elbegdorj graduated from high school and went to work in a copper mine. Drafted into the People"s Army, he became head of the Revolutionary Youth League.

His army service was rewarded with a chance to study Marxism, Leninism and journalism at the Institute of Military and Political Science in Lviv, Ukraine. He was 19 years old, and the location proved to be serendipitous. In western Ukraine along the border with Poland, the political debate over liberalization was percolating.

After graduating in 1988, Elbegdorj moved home and went to work as a reporter for the army newspaper. He became an outspoken advocate for Gorbachev"s concept of glasnost, or openness. At Mongolia"s first pro-democracy rally in December 1989, he announced the creation of the Mongolian Democratic Union.

Three months later, in the face of protests and hunger strikes, the ruling government resigned and elections followed. Mongolia would become the first democratic country in Central Asia.

Since then, Elbegdorj has served four terms in the parliament and two stints as prime minister. He has earned degrees from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Harvard"s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He was elected president of Mongolia in 2009.

The non-partisan Freedom House now rates Mongolia as "free," rating it "2" — 1 represents countries with the most freedom, 7 those with the least — on both civil liberties and political rights.

His nation still has many problems, Elbegdorj acknowledges, and the democratic process can be difficult. "This is often a mess," he says. "But this is a nice mess."


Source:USA Today Newspaper


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