Until recently, I associated the word "Mongolian" with two things:
1. Hordes. As someone who has voluntarily attended several Dungeons & Dragons conventions, take it from me: The 13th century was a terrific time to be Mongolian. Led by the brilliant Chinggis Khan (the Mongolian way to say "Genghis Khan"), the nomadic Mongols tied up their yaks, mounted their horses, and proceeded to sack, slaughter, terrorize, and generally conquer the known world from Korea to Hungary (the largest contiguous landmass ever ruled by one guy). Fans of the Mongol horde, among whom I count myself, typically imagine it to have been an especially ruthless Borg of Klingons with super Ninja skills.
2. Barbecues. Around the time I hit junior high school in Fargo, N.D., I encountered my first Mongolian barbecue. I was visiting a childhood friend in Minneapolis whose well-to-do parents embodied my understanding of sophistication and taste. When the question of dinner was raised, one of them casually proposed a trip to Khan's Mongolian Barbecue (a restaurant near the University of Minnesota campus), on the theory that it would be "fun for the kids." I was mesmerized by this exotic idea: authentic Mongolian food, barbecued by authentic Mongolians, right there in Minnesota. Somehow, it did not strike me as odd that Mongolians appeared to be no less uniformly blond than the rest of Minnesota's Scandinavian population.
After some low-key queries to several of my local Mongolian contacts today, I can now reveal that I was misinformed on both counts.
First, the Mongol horde wasn't a swarming mass of bloodthirsty warriors; it was a well-organized, highly trained, extremely flexible army of nomad soldiers who specialized in surprising, out-maneuvering, and defeating much larger armies. And Chinggis Khan was much more than a ruthless conquistador: He united the Mongol people, created a written alphabet for their language, fashioned an enduring legal system, and fostered an unequalled flowering of Mongolian arts and crafts.
Second, and more important, I have discovered that there is no such thing as Mongolian barbecue in Mongolia, just as, I suppose, there are no Freedom Fries in Freedonia.
I am spending two weeks here as a volunteer at the invitation of Geekcorps, a nonprofit that sends computer and network techies to developing countries, where they work on projects designed to bolster the ability of local entrepreneurs to serve their markets. My job is to assist the local technology sector and the relevant portions of the Mongolian government (the Ministry of Infrastructure, the telecommunications regulatory board, and some interested members of Mongolia's parliament, the Great Hural) to work through pressing Internet-related policy issues: the regulation of Internet service providers, the allocation of radio spectrum for wireless devices, the taxation of technology goods and services, the establishment of an advocacy association for information technology firms, and the creation of clear, predictable, objective, and independent regulatory procedures. As a practical matter, this means that I will shuttle from meeting to meeting. Later, I will arm myself with a laptop full of presentation slides, charts, graphs, and tables to document what I've learned, what I think Mongolians might learn from the experiences of other countries, and how things might be improved. The trick is to avoid behaving like a foreign know-it-all who is arrogant enough to think he can tell the poor Mongolians how to run their affairs.
Part of the appeal of working in Mongolia is my sense that the country is nearing a pivotal moment in its history. After the collapse of the Soviet-dominated one-party Communist dictatorship in 1990, Mongolia rapidly transitioned to parliamentary democracy and a pseudo-free market. In 1996, a loose coalition of reform-minded Democrats won a stunning electoral victory over the ruling ex-Communists and set out to implement a sweeping modernization of Mongolia's economy and government. In their free-market orientation, the Democrats' economic policies were almost Gingrichian, but so was their proclivity for scheming, conniving, and back-stabbing. The coalition was highly unstable and went through five prime ministers over its four-year term. During this period, the technology sector operated in an almost totally deregulated environment. That, plus the fact that Mongolians are highly educated and geographically remote, produced a remarkably entrepreneurial and innovative cadre of Internet, software, and technology firms. In 2000, however, the former Communists capitalized on the disarray of the Democrats and swept back into power. The new government has, with a potentially catastrophic combination of greed, cluelessness, and resolve, moved aggressively to regulate communications and the Internet. Much of the motivation seems to come from a desire to bolster the shaky valuation of the state-owned monopoly telecom, which it hopes to privatize through foreign investment.
More broadly, Mongolia appears to be retreating from the reforms of the 1990s and sliding toward the more familiar—and more depressing—pattern for developing countries: Small-scale corruption and nepotism are widely thought to be increasing throughout the government. Moreover, Mongolia's democracy is still fragile: The ruling (ex-Communist) party so dominates the parliament (72 out of 76 seats) that there is little incentive for openness and transparency in the dealings of the executive branch. As the rot of corruption seeps deeper into Mongolia's masts and rafters, the question is whether it is too late for the country to chart a new course.