18 Stabs at Democracy

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LEAH KOHLENBERG Ulan BatorThis wasn't supposed to happen in Mongolia. The vast country's transition from communism to democracy has been one of the smoothest anywhere. Free elections have attracted a lively voter turnout, with herders sometimes riding for hours on horseback to cast their vote. So it was stunning when, on Oct. 2, two assailants armed with a knife and an axe forced their way into the Ulan Bator apartment of Sanjaasurengiin Zorig, one of new Mongolia's democratic heroes. They tied up his wife, dragged her into the bathroom, and when the bookish, 36-year-old government minister returned from work, they stabbed him 18 times and left him to die. Concludes Enkhbataar Damdinsurengyin, a fellow democracy activist and a parliamentarian: This is a political crime.If it was an assassination, no one has claimed responsibility. And in the suddenly tense political climate of Ulan Bator, the capital, few dare even to speculate openly about who Zorig's killers might have been. As news of the attack trickles out across the steppes, Mongolia's 2.5 million citizens are struggling to come to grips with a baffling whodunnit. According to police reports, Zorig's wife, Bulgan, heard the killers mention Erdenet, a copper mine 400 km northwest of Ulan Bator that is mired in corruption allegations and has been the focus of recent political debates. If I were Agatha Christie, maybe I could point to many different people who might benefit from killing Zorig, says Ganbold Davaaddorjiin, another democrat. We don't know enough now to make any final conclusions.The timing of the assault has raised eyebrows. Just days earlier, the former university professor had been unofficially tapped by his party to run for Prime Minister, a position that has been vacated twice by resignations in the past six months. That would have made Zorig the fifth person put forward by his party for the post since July. Four earlier candidates were rejected by a parliament hobbled by infighting between the weak and disunified Democratic majority and the minority Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) made up primarily of former communists, including President Bagabandi Natsagyin. Although he had been a central figure in the 1990 movement that helped topple communist rule and pave the way for free elections, Zorig, the infrastructure minister, was generally considered a good compromise candidate. He was influential in conducting the democratic revolution in a peaceful way, says Enkhbataar. After Zorig's death, thousands of Mongolians, many clutching lighted candles or sticks of incense, gathered outside the parliament building for several nights of candlelight vigils and to pay last respects to his body. At Zorig's party's headquarters, people packed the halls to post hundreds of farewell messages and to stand before a Buddhist shrine set up in his honor. It's a great loss for the Mongolian people, says Mongoljav Choimchig, a 62-year-old pensioner, shaking his head sadly during a memorial service last week. These are very difficult days.PAGE 1  |  
Mongolia's major political parties all have condemned the murder, with the MPRP declaring it an attack on the democratic Mongolian state. While many may be tempted to allege the involvement of ex-communists in the death of a longtime foe, the Democrats aren't going there. Rather, they have issued a statement insisting that they do not support or endorse such accusations. Despite the political deadlock, most parliamentarians are preaching unity rather than finger-pointing. At this difficult time all the world is watching us, said Nambaryn Enkhbayar, head of the MPRP, in a memorial speech for Zorig last week. Will we separate and fight with each other? No, we will become wiser, more unified and stronger.If politically motivated, Zorig's killing is the first violent act in Mongolia's short democratic history. And while outsiders may judge the nation by its infamous warring ancestor Genghis Khan, modern-day Mongolians take pride in the country's relatively trouble-free transitions, first from Soviet satellite state to democracy in 1990, and later, in 1996, when the Democrats swept the communists from power in national elections. It's been a peaceful and bloodless time, says Sheldon Severinghaus, a former director of the Asia Foundation who lives in Mongolia. But the landscape suddenly has changed, and prominent parliamentarians have for the first time started using bodyguards. Since this killing, I feel as if we've woken up in a different country, says Ganbold, who last week was suggested as the sixth candidate for the Prime Minister's seat. Mongolia is a small place, and we all know each other and work together. We never thought this could happen. But it did, and Mongolians are waiting with trepidation to find out whodunnit.  |  2