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Post-communist Mongolia's struggle

BBC News - January 11, 2007

Daniel Griffiths, Ulan Bator Sixteen years ago, thousands of Mongolians gathered to demand an end to decades of communist rule. They got their wish, but democracy has not brought the better life that many people hoped for.

High on the grasslands of Mongolia it does not seem as though much has changed in hundreds of years. The vast steppe still rolls on forever until blue sky and yellow earth become one.

The nomads, astride their small fast ponies, still herd their animals from summer to winter pastures, following in the footsteps of their ancestors. Once half of Mongolia's 2.8 million population lived this way, but now things are changing rapidly. Tough winters

Sharhuu has spent his entire life on the grasslands. Now in his sixties, his face weathered from years spent on the steppe, he is thinking the unthinkable giving up the old ways forever.

"My family can help me for now," he says, but, "I know that can't live this way for much longer."

And he is not alone. A series of long tough winters have hit the nomads hard, destroying livestock and leaving many here with nothing. There is little good grazing land for the animals that are left.

And since the end of communism in the early 1990s, and Mongolia's move to a market economy, there has not been much help from the government. Like many nomads, Sharhuu has little option but to move to the cities.

Huge change

But central Ulan Bator is a world away from the grasslands. It is a sign of how much things have changed since popular protests in the early 1990s brought nearly seven decades of communist rule to an end.

The communists did not disappear the old revolutionary leader Sukhbataar still presides over the main square and many of them are now in the current government building a new future for the country.

Only now the talk is of money not Marx. Mongolia's economy grew by around 6% last year and some people are doing very well.

At a building site in the centre of town I meet Tsendee. He started his construction company with just 10 employees. Now he has got 400 workers on the payroll.

"Since Mongolia became a democracy and a market economy, many businesses like mine have done very well," he tells me. "For me this has meant a huge change. I can afford to do anything... life is great."

But despite these changes, between one third and one half of the country lives in poverty, according to government statistics. Many of them end up in the vast shanty towns on the outskirts of Ulan Bator, surviving on just a few dollars a day.

One of those is Byambasuren whose husband was an alcoholic who used to beat her. In the end she threw him out and now she is bringing up her three children on her own in a tiny hut with no glass, just plastic sheeting, in the window frames.

"Our life was good during communism but capitalism has left us with nothing," she tells me. "The government has done nothing to help us and nobody cares."

Symbolic figure

The government say it is doing more to help fight poverty. But many claim it is not enough and in Ulan Bator anger is growing about the gap between rich and poor.

Protests in the main square are now a daily occurrence. In a country where the future is far from certain, many are looking for a national hero someone who can give Mongolians a fresh identity.

But the man they are thinking of has been dead for centuries. Genghis Khan or Chinghis Khan as he is known to Mongolians is a reminder of the days when Mongolia ruled from China to the gates of Europe.

Today he is big business. His image used to sell everything from clothes to cars. And he is even doing his bit for the country's nightlife as well. At the Genghis Khan nightclub, the main drink is, of course, Genghis Khan beer, and the man himself has no shortage of admirers.

"During the years of communism we had Lenin and Marx," one man tells me. "Now Genghis Khan has become our hero."

It is no surprise that Genghis Khan is still so popular. He is symbolic of a proud history.

In the past this vast nation has been slow to change. But the last 16 years have been times of massive upheaval. Some have fared well in this brave new world, but many, like the nomads and the poor are struggling to catch up.

Mongolia is still one of the poorest countries in Asia. Turning this ancient country into a modern one is a huge task and, despite nearly two decades of reform, Mongolia still has a long way to go.

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