Dark rumours follow hero Zorig's death

On a recent Friday evening, Mongolia's leading democrat, Mr San jaa suregiin Zorig, telephoned Bulgan, his wife of three years…

On a recent Friday evening, Mongolia's leading democrat, Mr San jaa suregiin Zorig, telephoned Bulgan, his wife of three years, to say he would be home in 10 minutes. It was exactly 10.13 p.m.

Mr Zorig, who was also president of the Mongolian Chess Association, had stayed behind in his office in Ulan Bator's Sovietstyle parliament building to play chess with a friend.

What happened next was detailed by a Zorig family friend over beer in a nightclub in the Mongolian capital last week. As the 36-year-old politician was being driven home his wife heard a ring and opened the door. A man and a woman wearing masks and armed with a knife and an axe knocked her down, and shouted: "Where's the money?"

They took $300, two rings and, unaccountably, some soy sauce, bound and gagged her with adhesive tape and waited for Mr Zorig to arrive. When he unlocked the door the intruders stabbed him 18 times, thrice through the heart.


Before fleeing from the fourth-floor apartment, one shouted that Mr Zorig was "only the first we've done with, and there will be others."

The bloody murder was discovered 20 minutes later by a neighbour. Next day, October 3rd, the television played solemn music and a shocked population of 2.4 million was told that their national icon was dead. The nation was traumatised by the first political homicide in Mongolia since the shooting dead, 34 years ago to the day, of a Communist Party dissident, allegedly by secret police.

The news was as shocking to Mongolians as that of president Kennedy's assassination was to Americans. Mr Zorig was known as the "Golden Magpie" of democracy, after the first magpie that heralds spring. In 1990 he led huge pro-democracy rallies which ended 70 years of communist rule in the landlocked country of steppes, taiga and desert between China and Russia. Once he defused a potential Tiananmen Square-type bloodbath by persuading 10,000 pro-democracy protesters to sit down rather than confront armed soldiers.

Ordinary Mongolians loved and respected him. The British ambassador, Mr John Durham, told me: "Everyone I have spoken to thought of Zorig as Mr Nice Guy, Mr Clean." The family friend remarked that "Zorig was not a very good orator but he gave well-thought-out speeches and if there was a deadlock he would resolve it."

Despite the robbery of valuables, almost everyone in Ulan Bator is convinced it was a political assassination. "This killing is a very big, serious political crime, directed against the democratic process going on in Mongolia," said Mr Davaadorjiin Ganbold, a member of parliament who is now under police protection.

The US ambassador, Mr Alphonse La Porta, said in his office that people were "shocked, traumatised and perplexed" and that he believed the killer was "someone who didn't want him to become prime minister". That fatal Friday, Mr Zorig's nomination as prime minister had been accepted by President Natsaigyin Bagabandi to end a lengthy political stalemate. Mongolian politics had been paralysed in a standoff between the ruling Democratic Coalition and the communist Mongolian People's Revolutionary party (MPRP), to which the President belongs and which has been regaining popularity due to the high social cost of reforms.

The government had resigned on July 24th after an eight-week boycott of parliament by the MPRP, which had accused it of merging a bankrupt state bank with a privately run bank to hide bad loans to leading democrats. Four candidates for prime minister had been rejected since then, and Mr Zorig had emerged as an acceptable compromise.

The question "Who killed Zorig?" is now a national obsession. The suspects include bloodyminded communists, corrupt democrats, the Russian mafia, Macau gambling interests and fascist extremists. Many point the finger at the Russian mafia, which has connections to the debt-ridden state copper mine, Erdenet, a joint venture with Russia, which democrats want to privatise.

As Minister for Infrastructure, Mr Zorig was involved in the sacking of the head of Erdenet, a former communist, and his replace

ment by a manager loyal to the Democratic Coalition. The Mongolian President had intervened to reverse the decision.

The head of Mongol radio and television, Mr B. Bilegt, publicly blamed the self-styled fascist head of an ultra-nationalist party, Mr Ochirbatyn Dashbalbar, for provoking Mr Zorig's murder through xenophobic rhetoric against demo cratic reformers (Mr Dashbalbar is now suing Mr Bilegt for slander). Then, to add to the mystery, there was a telephone call to Mr Zorig's mother on the day of the murder.

"Somebody called me and said `Russians and Buryats must get out of the country', " she disclosed. Mr Zorig had Russian ancestry.

A Mongolian journalist then told me of rumours that Mr Zorig had scooped the pool at the country's sole casino in the Genghis Khan Hotel, which the intruders might have been after, but an official in the small German-owned casino subsequently told me Mr Zorig "was not a serious gambler" - and provided new ingredients for the thickening stew of intrigue.

The 24-hour casino was shut down in August by the parliament-controlled Casino Council, which gave exclusive gambling rights instead to a Chinese company from Macau in southern China, notorious for its triad gangs, which improbably promised to turn the remote Mongolian capital, where winter temperatures plunge to 30 below, into an Asian version of Las Vegas.

Friends of the disillusioned German owners, who are appealing on the grounds of legal irregularities, muttered darkly about Ulan Bator being set up for triad money-laundering and claimed that Mr Zorig refused a $50,000 bribe to back the Chinese group.

Whoever was responsible, the killing of Mr Zorig united Mongolia's politicians briefly in grief, but the political stalemate continues. On Thursday, the Democrats proposed Mr Gambold as prime minister but he was rejected by the President. The situation "is causing very serious concern to friends of Mongolia all around", said Mr La Porta.

Privatisation of big state companies has stalled. Revenues from exports of gold, copper and cashmere have fallen. According to a USAID report, Mongolia could become a middle income nation within a generation if it follows rapid reforms, but will remain a poor nation if it doesn't.

Many Mongolians are in despair. Only on one thing is everyone absolutely agreed, without the slightest evidence whatsoever. That is that the two murderers themselves are now dead, disposed of by the evil mastermind of one of Asia's worst-ever political crimes, so that they will remain silent forever.