BOOK REVIEW / Mongolians in search of lost and sacred cows: 'The Lost Country' - Jasper Becker: Hodder & Stoughton, 16.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
SEVEN centuries ago much of the world was ruled from Karakorum, capital of a Mongol empire stretching from Europe to the China coast. The city has long since vanished, and with it the exuberant confidence that made Mongolia the centre of the world. In this fascinating book the British journalist Jasper Becker describes a recent visit. Karakorum is a drab, desolate spot; and in place of the Great Khan, he finds a cattle farmer looking for a missing cow.

When the Franciscan monk William Rubruk visited Karakorum in 1254 at the behest of France's Louis IX, he was received with courtesy and invited to argue Christianity's case. The Great Khan listened, but declared himself unimpressed: 'God has given you the scriptures and yet you do not observe them. To us he has given soothsayers and we do as they tell us and live in peace.'

Today, Mongolia is far less secure in its convictions. After seven decades of slavish loyalty to Moscow, enforced by leaders handpicked by the Kremlin and the presence of thousands of Soviet troops, this nation - four times the size of France but inhabited by just two million people - is only now beginning to rediscover itself. Since 1921, when it became the world's second socialist state, Mongolia has followed Moscow's lead in every sphere, even agreeing to scrap its own script in favour of Russia's cyrillic alphabet.

Unlike a handful of previous works on Mongolia, based largely on translations from the official press and carefully chaperoned visits, The Lost Country explores Mongolia with spontaneity and imagination. Mr Becker is not a professional Mongolia-watcher, but he has a fresh eye that makes his mix of history and reportage both entertaining and authoritative.

Much of the book deals with the legacy of Soviet domination and first-hand accounts of the terrible suffering this brought. Mongolia had its own Stalin, a mass-murderer called Choibalsan; and its own Brezhnev, a grey, bumbling apparatchik called Tsedenbal, who married a Russian peasant woman and spent much of his time holidaying on the Black Sea. When the Soviet Union collectivised, so did Mongolia; when Moscow purged, so did Ulan Bator; when Brezhnev gave himself medals, so did Tsedenbal.

And, finally, when the Soviet Communist Party tried to change, so did the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party. In 1990 it agreed to abandon its monopoly of power, offering multi-party elections and free-market reform. But freedom, unlike previous policies from Moscow, proved harder to copy. There was no blueprint.

The Soviet military bases that once formed the front line of the feud between Moscow and Peking have now closed, along with most of the statues that once dotted Ulan Bator. Western and Japanese businessmen crowd the hotels previously reserved for secret policemen and party functionaries. Rather than prosperity, however, the pace and manner of Soviet withdrawal recalls the darker episodes of European decolonisation, such as Portugal's grab-all-you-can retreat from Angola and Mozambique.

Unfortunately, Mr Becker completed his book before one of the strangest and most worrying events in the history of life after Communism. This was Mongolia's nation-wide parliamentary election held in June. In a result that stunned the victors as much as the losers, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party won a landslide victory, reclaiming the power it had given up only two years before. The opposition cried foul, complaining, with good reason, that only the Communists had the resources needed to fight an election in such a vast country. But this imbalance, though it may have magnified the Communist victory, does not explain it.

For the first time, a Communist Party had staged a comeback, not with tanks, like the Mongolian party's counterpart across the border in China, but through the ballot box. So what happened? Is Mongolia perhaps in danger of again becoming 'the lost country' of Mr Becker's title? Or is it merely leading the way down an obscurantist path that may soon be taken by other former socialist states if democracy is allowed to become just a byword for economic misery?