Superior governance, combined with the potential of the country's natural resource base in an era of booming commodity prices, lured foreign investors by the planeload. While it took eight years to recover from the 22 percent decline in GDP in the aftermath of Soviet withdrawal, the eight years from 2002 to 2010, by contrast, saw cumulative growth of 73 percent.
The gains were felt broadly. Infant mortality fell by a remarkable 70 percent between 1990 and 2010. And decent schooling was quickly re-established: Secondary education is now universal and female literacy is at 98 percent.
But all this begs a key question: What made Mongolia different from a slew of post-colonial and post-communist economies that made much less progress toward free-market democracy in their early years of transition?
A number of advantages followed from what was absent in the Mongolian experience. In the departure from communism, there was no strong leader -- no Nursultan Nazarbayev, for example -- who could dominate the political scene. The army and security services were weak and had no political designs. Ethnic homogeneity eliminated the chance for the type of internecine conflict so common in other former Soviet-dominated states.
The list goes on. Although more Mongolians live outside the country than inside, there were no prominent irredentists. No foreign country had designs on its territory. No religious group distracted attention from earthly pursuits.
But there was also plenty to build on. Mongolians have a strong sense of national identity, particularly when emphasizing their differences from their two powerful neighbors. They thus viewed the early transition as a period in which their society was under threat. There was widespread support for the transition and an understanding that times of privation were to be endured. Where transition policies did increase inequality, a respect for customary property rights along with the maintenance of decent social safety net, muted objections.