NEW YORK -- And now, ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, the newest -- and perhaps the most unusual -- economic strategy yet by a former Communist country: Mongolia has run away with the circus.
When the 122nd edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus opens today in Madison Square Garden here, its centerpiece will be a horde of 42 dancers, musicians, animal riders and acrobats from Mongolia.
TC Never an enterprise to underplay its stars, the circus has had advance posters in a dozen cities proclaiming, "The Mongolians Are Coming!"
The performers make up the first major national troupe the Mongolian government has ever permitted to tour America.
A major reason for the change, Mongolian officials say, is that their nation is greatly in need of higher economic and cultural visibility to compete in a world paying increasing attention to breakaway Soviet republics and Eastern European countries.
Mongolia is hoping the troupe will become a marketing vehicle that will attract investment, tourism and trade benefits that will replace the markets lost after the collapse of the Soviet empire.
"We feel that the circus can help serve as an economic and cultural ambassador of our country," said Luvsandorjiin Dawagiv, Mongolia's ambassador to the United States.
Mr. Dawagiv (whose name is pronounced DAH-wah-give) has two family members who have trained as circus performers.
His niece, Indra Tsogtbaatar, is a star contortionist in the Ringling show. And his 19-year-old daughter, Undra, a student in Maryland, practiced contortion in Mongolia, where it is considered to be a high gymnastic art.
Although Ringling is relying on Americans' awe of, and sparse knowledge about, things Mongolian, the performers hope to change that.
"I think some Americans have misconceptions about Mongolia and Genghis Khan," said Indra Tsogtbaatar, who is 19. "He is a hero to our people, since he united Mongolia as a single state and brought together the Mongol people."
Dashpuntsag Amarjargal, a 38-year-old strongman who juggles 60-pound weights, said, "We all see ourselves as cultural ambassadors, and we would like Americans to know that the Soviet influence is no more."
About 12 million Americans will be exposed to Mongolia's soft-sell message as the circus tours 90 cities until November 1993.
"From an advertising standpoint, this is a good marketing decision for the Mongolians," said Cindy Shevrovich, a market research analyst at Joyce Julius & Associates of Ann Arbor, Mich., a firm that estimates the monetary value of image-building.
"Just considering the people who see the show, the Mongolians' association with Ringling" is the equivalent of more than $1 million in national television advertising for Mongolia, she said. "And Ringling's own promotional advertising would be worth millions more to the Mongolians."
While unusual, Mongolia's circus act is a model for the kind of marketing ingenuity needed by former Communist countries vying with one another for favorable publicity and economic development, said Kenneth Feld, president and producer of Ringling.
These are "the kinds of things these countries will be doing," said Mr. Feld, just back from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, where he was scouting circus acts.
Mr. Feld belongs to the U.S.-Mongolian Business Council, a Washington-based nonprofit private trade organization of 50 American business executives and corporations interested in commerce with Mongolia.
Although it was long known as the "unofficial" 16th Soviet republic, Mongolia was never formally part of the Soviet Union.
"Consequently," said Dr. Richard E. Gillespie, executive director of the business council, "it has been one of the fastest of the former Communist countries to begin setting up a market economy and a multiparty democracy."
"As far as American trade, we are starting from zilch," Mr. Gillespie said. He hopes that joint ventures in food processing and manufacturing will be attractive to American businesses.
Mr. Dawagiv said he had seen a sharp increase in interest from Americans looking for opportunities in Mongolia. The first major group of American companies will soon be making a trade mission to Mongolia under the auspices of the U.S.-Mongolian Business Council.
The nation held its first free elections in the summer of 1990, established a multiparty system that has 10 registered political parties, opened its first stock exchange on Feb. 6 and adopted a new democratic Constitution on Feb. 13, the ambassador said.
Mongolia needs help because now that it can no longer depend heavily on oil supplies and manufactured goods from the Soviet Union, its economy "is in disarray," Mr. Dawagiv said.
Traditionally, Mongolian trade has centered on leather goods, hides, cashmere and other exotic products. The country is also a mecca for hunters, with abundant bighorn sheep.