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National Agenda : A Winter of Discontent May Snarl Reforms in Mongolia : The government wants a market economy, but the people are growing restive and want food. Can the move toward democratic reform survive the frost?

December 17, 1991|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — The labor union activists rallying in a downtown square clearly enjoyed new freedoms, but that did nothing to tone down their angry rhetoric.

A string of speakers denounced Mongolia's reformist government for failing to cope with spiraling prices that threaten a sharp fall in living standards during the long cold months that lie ahead.

"Senior citizens are beginning to starve," declared one protest placard. "The children in the cradles are crying," read another.

Mongolia faces a critical test this winter for its ambitious attempt to dismantle a Communist dictatorship and privatize a planned economy while preserving an atmosphere of social peace and broad national consensus. Much has already been accomplished. But the economic dislocations of this transition threaten individual suffering and potential political upheaval.

At stake may be the future of democracy and free-market economics in this vast but sparsely populated land of 2.2 million people wedged between China and the Soviet Union. Success could make Mongolia a key model for change in China's deep interior or in Soviet Central Asia and Siberia. Failure would be a setback for the ideals of political and economic freedom in this part of the world.

"There is a common pessimistic spirit among the masses," said Deputy Prime Minister D. Dorligjav, 32, who is a leader of the Mongolian Democratic Party, created last year by dissidents and now playing a minority role in government. "People are saying there is no use for so many parties. 'They talk a lot, but everything is getting worse,' they say. We are in a very difficult situation. Every political force can play on the emotions of the people now."

While he sees no immediate threat to Mongolia's fledgling democracy, Dorligjav added that "if such a situation lasts, maybe it will be more dangerous."

While Mongolia faces daunting challenges, it has some grounds for optimism.

Western nations and multilateral organizations, motivated by both strategic and humanitarian concerns, have pledged $243 million in grants and low-interest loans to help Mongolia through the crisis. With a relatively small population and extensive natural resources, this is a place where the per-capita impact of aid can be dramatic and where long-term development prospects are good.

Mongolia also benefits from the unifying force of resurgent nationalism. The country is still dominated by the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP), which until this year called itself Communist. But the MPRP has allowed parties committed to democracy and a market economy to join the government, and the former Communists now say they share these goals. The patriotic feelings that help glue together this unusual political coalition arise in part from a shared determination to end the country's long dependence on the Soviet Union, which in 1921 helped make this the world's second Communist state.

Even many protesters basically support the government.

Damdindorzh, a truck driver at the labor union rally, who like most Mongolians routinely uses just one name, said he is upset about rising prices but respects much of what the government is trying to do.

"We're not against free prices," he said. "We think the government's desire to move to a free-market economy is basically correct. It's right that Mongolia should have a market economy and rise up to the level of the world. But we want wages to be raised too. That is our demand."

Damdindorzh said that along with most other people, he is worried about an especially harsh winter ahead. Even during an ordinary year, nighttime winter temperatures here can drop to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

"This coming year is the year of the monkey (on the traditional East Asian calendar)," he explained. "Monkey years generally have a lot of snow disasters and are very cold. So people think this will be a hard winter."

The inauspicious calendar contributes to a widespread sense of foreboding. But there are many more concrete concerns that stoke fear.

Budragchagyn Dashyondon, 45, chairman of the ruling MPRP, said in an interview that the country's biggest problem is a shortage of energy, especially electric power. "There are many associated problems: coal, gasoline, the normal activities of mining," he said.

Dashyondon noted that Mongolia's economic ties with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, from which it traditionally received almost all of its imports, have been disrupted by political upheaval and economic change. Problems are aggravated, he said, by a lack of hard currency to buy gasoline and spare parts from the Soviet Union, which is trying to shift the basis of its bilateral trade from the barter system. These difficulties have made assistance from the United States and the United Nations very important, the Mongolian party official added.

Ordinary people, at least in Ulan Bator, are deeply worried about wintertime energy shortages.

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