07/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mongolia: A Young and Hopeful Democracy

"The main question is, how do you maintain tradition and heritage in the face of a changing economic and political landscape?" asked U.S. ambassador Mark Minton at an informal barbeque at his residence in Ulaanbaatar last Sunday. Also in attendance were Layton Croft, in charge of social responsibility at Ivanhoe mines; Pete Morrow, CEO of Khan Bank; Simon Wickham-Smith, essentially the only prominent literary translator of Mongolian texts in the world and whose efforts won him a Government Culture Award last summer; and Tsaivankhuu Altangerel, Department head at Mongolia's Ministry of Justice who handles Mongolia's biggest international cases (such as the one that recently made headlines, which involved a Russian company with 50% of the gold-mining rights in Mongolia).

Though almost universally applicable to nations throughout the world and throughout recent history, Ambassador Minton's question had a special resonance that night as some of the most powerful people in Mongolia expressed their optimism about the future of the most sparsely-populated and untapped resource-rich country in the world -- a country that had just elected a Democratic President (Elbegdorj) over the Mongolian People's Party incumbent (Enkhbayar) and was about to witness the changing of the guard: today's inauguration ceremony.

There were several ways to know today was an inauguration day in Mongolia and not anywhere else. One was that a stranger picked up my camera as I stopped in the store before journeying to Sukhbaatar Square, the site of the Inauguration ceremonies and soldiers' parade, to inspect my foto apparat. Another was the man who lay his head on my shoulder, his breath reeking of vodka, looking into my camera screen as I checked my latest shot, and the guard who wouldn't do anything to deter him but who did agree once the man finally left that he'd had a bit to drink. Yet another was the girl who toddled out from the forest of adult legs and shot through the human border enforced by the navy-and-white suited guards. Mongolian children do a fair share of precocious wandering, as the little girl playing among the sprinklers on Ambassador Minton's lawn last Sunday illustrated.

As Enkhbayar took the presidential oath at 12:06 pm on a day the Lunar calendar deems a "blue horse day," the Central Asian sky threatened some June rain over the vast, smooth plane of tile on Sukhbaatar Square. In winter the Square becomes a -40 Neptune iceworld, with couples ice-skating on the rink set up on the south end. Today 75-degree winds blew, and against the low-hanging clouds the only bright colors were the red of the Mongolian flags decorating the Parliament building on the north side of the Square, where a very large Ghenghis Khan presided over the affairs from his statue-perch in back of and above Elbegdorj. The proceedings were flanked by clean rows of soldiers dozens deep, some in dark green army gear and some in special Mongolian traditional uniforms, red with tall dark boots and shining pointed helmets.

As on Election Day, Mongolia's elderly and some of its middle-aged sported their best deels, which featured the Communist-era achievement pins that denote special-day regalia. Older, wizened faces on stooped figures that didn't top four feet, likely in from the countryside where they'd spent decade upon decade nomadically herding livestock -- which is still how half the population of Mongolia still makes its living -- were shuffled to the front of the crowd, watched over by those who stood near them. A comely woman with pearl-drop earrings stood in the crowd on the northeast side of the Square. Her one-year-old son, in a Spiderman T-shirt, gripped a bottle of Mongolian apple juice. Guards stood in a tight human wall to make way for the soldiers' parade down the west side of the Square, and against them swelled the same jostling and pushing one experiences in almost any Mongolian bank, where people don't so much wait for tellers as fight for them.

Mr. Morrow, who runs one of those banks, said last Sunday how exciting he finds the Mongolian political process. "I've been here nine years, and I'm not tired of it," he said. "The people may reach stalemates sometimes due to bickering and corruption, but they're also the ones who take action if they decide to change direction and adopt a new policy -- off they go!"

Ambassador Minton echoed the sentiment. "We've got to remember what a young democracy Mongolia is. It's a 20-year-old!" he said. "America's had 200 years to figure it out, and when it was young one senator almost killed another by beating him with a cane on the senate floor for disagreeing with him. Korea's had 40 years, and a lot of people thought hope was lost there in the '80s -- look at Seoul now! The seeds were there."

"What watered them?" asked Mr. Wickam-Smith, ever the poet.

"Economic development," Ambassador Minton promptly responded. "In fact, the most impressive thing I think Enkhbayar had to say when he met with then-President Bush was when Mr. Bush asked him what the biggest challenges were for Mongolia. Enkhbayar said it was the delivery on the promises made; Mongolia's political reform, which happened relatively seamlessly, came before its economic reform, which still has a ways to go. Political reform includes promises to the people, but economic reform is what enables delivery on those promises."

There was a consensus in the room of people stuffed with good barbeque that Mongolia would do well to evolve away from dependence on foreign aid and toward policies that capitalize on the great wealth to be found in Mongolia's mineral resources, a trajectory that would strengthen its own economic infrastructure. The stalemate currently revolves around how to best achieve that evolution -- how to mine the right way, essentially -- and the conversation that evening was peppered with mentions of Oyu Tolgoi, the large mine in the Gobi desert that promises to be quite a boost for the Mongolian economy if this particular squabble is resolved.

Today, in offices across town, colleagues spent their lunch hour crowded round the office TV set, where all the major Mongolian networks were broadcasting live the clean, synchronized kick-steps of the soldiers as they set off on the parade to whoops and cheers. Mongolian folk dancers had already shown their stuff, leaping like antelope, and the national anthem had sounded repeatedly; of course, no Mongolian ceremony would be complete without singing, which every Mongolian seems born loving to do.

It snowed three times in May here in Ulaanbaatar. This afternoon, as the parade began, drops of rain begin to fall. The crowds were still accumulating, Mongolians young and old walking in family groups from places urban and rural. In back of the Parliament building, the park where young couples usually canoodle under tufts of drifting pollen was eerily quiet. In the park sits a big statue of a bear under the Mongolian crest. That the crest bears a yin-and-yang symbol as well as those of the sun and moon says something about this place; Mongolia may be a post-communist country landlocked between Russia and China, but it is also a country of Buddhists who, because of their dependence on both adaptability to the harsh weather and a strength of character required to survive adverse conditions in small groups, have a unique attitude (often affectionately described as "headstrong") that lends itself to the Democratic philosophy -- and does so in ways that leave those who are watching Mongolia at this point in its history enthusiastic, impressed, and hopeful.