Book Review S Ruhlmann “Inviting Happiness: Food Sharing in Post-Communist Mongolia”

By Jade Marie Richards

Sandrine Ruhlmann. 2019. Inviting Happiness: Food Sharing in Post-Communist Mongolia. Leiden: Brill, 2019. 288pp. ISBN 978-90-04-41063-3

So much recent work in the anthropology of Mongolia focuses on broad scale politico-economic transformation, urbanisation or the divisive mining industry. It was therefore refreshing to read Sandrine Ruhlmann’s detailed account of contemporary rural life through the intimate interior – material, spiritual and familial – of a ger. Barely leaving the confines of a select few herder encampments in Khentii province, Inviting Happiness takes on the most quotidian aspects of food preparation, etiquette and symbolism, and in doing so brings to light many interesting insights into the metaphysical world of rural Mongolia. Rather than outlining a main argument per se, Ruhlmann relies heavily on the description of food items and ingredient lists interspersed with anecdotes and short vignettes to reveal the many ways in which, as the title suggests, happiness is invited through hospitality. Her approach is methodical, navigating a series of distinctions (ordinary/extraordinary, inside/outside, cooked/raw, alive/dead) that are analogised in food practices as key oppositions through which the boundaries of everyday relations between humans, deities and spirits are set.

The main theme of the book is the important link between hospitality and happiness in the cultivation of relationships and the preservation of social order. Whether establishing first contact with an unknown person, maintaining large networks of kin for Lunar New Year celebrations, or warding off hostility from ‘famished souls’ that wander unseen beyond the encampment, food sharing remains the primary form of mediation. More than this also, Ruhlmann illuminates the many ways in which food is intimately connected to the human soul, with certain rituals and taboos ensuring the correct establishment, departure and rebirth of a soul. A child’s soul is not considered established, for example, until they have eaten meat off the bone. The most interesting chapters explore food practices around a birth or death, when family members must carry out efficacious actions and gestures while circulating ceremonial dishes to avoid misfortune befalling their loved one’s soul. This, in turn, attracts happiness and an auspicious fate for their own soul.

There is an impressive diversity of material throughout. Part one focuses on aspects of everyday life in and around the encampment. Chapters one to five describe at length and in meticulous detail the materiality of food processing, storing and consumption; the different sections and layout of the ger, the stove and kitchen utensils, butchery, culinary techniques, food waste handling and locations, meal patterns, cooking modes and ingredient categorisations (among many others). The author offers the reader a few short respites from description in the form of anecdotes and brief analytical sections. These give special attention to the aspects of food preparation that reveal the gendered or hierarchical structures of relations in the domestic space. For instance, Ruhlmann draws analogies between the Mongolian conception of kinship and the processing of domestic animal bones or blood; men process the ‘paternal’ bones and women the ‘maternal’ blood.

In chapters six and seven, Ruhlmann moves away from material culture to the associations between humans, entities and spirits and their mediation via different food related etiquette. These include offerings of milky tea to the recently deceased or morning libations of sprinkled milk to the nature spirits. By conducting these actions the prosperity of the herd is ensured, bringing happiness and abundance. This is followed by more description of the rules and positions within the ger, the use of cutlery, and the value of scraping bones clean. Here Ruhlmann links the technical action of gently scraping the bones to shamanic beliefs of a beautiful soul. Any scratch on the bone is believed to remain on the soul and be carried to a new body. Therefore, for the soul to be beautiful in rebirth the bone must be free of scratches. It is in examples such as this that Ruhlmann really brings the unique combination of reinterpreted shamanic beliefs and Buddhist elements to the fore. The next section explores alcohol consumption and unwanted visitors (dead or alive) followed by the role of certain dishes to both keep drunkenness and bad intentions at bay. Interestingly here, Ruhlmann’s vignettes demonstrate the ambiguity of etiquette in situations where equal consideration is given to the fear of an unknown visitor as the potential bearer of a bad spirit, and the obligation to provide hospitality.

Having shown what Ruhlmann labels the ‘ordinary’ preparation and consumption of food, part two focuses on the ‘extraordinary’ ritualised use of feasts. Rules and etiquette are still at play in the remaining chapters, but now from the perspective of taboo and specific dietary regimes that protect the soul. Ruhlmann demonstrates the belief that a healthy soul needs feeding regularly. Around the time of a birth or death a soul is also most vulnerable, therefore various taboos are observed to repel or trick bad spirits for protection. During pregnancy and a short while after birth, a mother must exclude herself socially via dietary restrictions and various other symbolic procedures for keeping the soul of the new born baby from leaving. This includes avoiding fatty foods and consuming only lean soup or black tea to purify her body. At the appropriate time the new mother will eat white porridge and dairy to re-establish herself socially. Similarly, at the time of death, a soul splits itself across three locations – the grave, ger threshold and altar photograph – therefore the family must continue to feed the soul in these locations until forty-nine days have passed. The funeral involves a direct inversion of ordinary forms of etiquette; including the use of raw food, circling the grave in the reverse direction to that practised in monasteries, and funerary soup containing little to no meat. This is thought to neutralise pollution and keep away wandering spirits. The final chapter explores the Lunar New Year celebrations as a form of renewal through the accumulation and sharing of meritorious actions that support happiness.

Inviting Happiness contains many other well-documented insights into the ways eating and food sharing are linked to the broader context of social relations, shared meanings and the circulation of happiness. This breadth and density of fine detail is undoubtedly the strongest contribution of this work, creating a useful reference piece for understanding Mongolian sociality. The ethnographic richness of description notwithstanding, it would have been nice to see a wider engagement with contemporary theory. Although Ruhlmann states early on that the book is intended to be “at once descriptive and analytic” the reader is often left to their own speculative devices to fill in the analytic gaps. This may prove problematic for readers unfamiliar with the context or related literature. For example, contextual statements suggesting connections to burgeoning capitalism or socialist secularisation are made in passing with no further explanation. Similarly, and perhaps most crucially, many times throughout the book Ruhlmann remarks that happiness or good fortune has been invited with little theorisation into the efficacy of happiness beyond it having been invited. I would have liked to see this complexity teased out further. This counts too for the use of structuralist oppositions that inform the work. Ruhlmann states that the distinctions are more complex in practice yet fails to complicate them in new or theoretically grounded ways, leaving me uneasy with this choice of framework. Lastly, by illuminating aspects of fortune, accumulation and containment, Ruhlmann alludes to the work of Rebecca Empson, however there is hardly any dialogue between the two ethnographies despite ample opportunity. I would argue that this book is more reminiscent than derivative of Empson’s work, yet without knowing the author’s position it is hard to say for sure.

Nonetheless, this book provides a valuable and unique contribution to both the regional study of Mongolia and the anthropology of food more generally. It will be of interest to anyone seeking to understand how food shapes – and is shaped by – everyday life in a Mongolian ger.

About Jade Richards

Jade Marie Richards is a PhD Candidate of the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent, UK. Her research interests include Lifelong Education, ethical self-cultivation, democratisation and forms of historical consciousness in Mongolia.

Jade is currently in the final year of her thesis project titled ‘Creative Citizenship: Ethics, Expectation and Lifelong Education in Ulaanbaatar’. Based on long term fieldwork at Mongolia’s largest Non-formal and Lifelong Education Centre, her research explores the diverse array of classes designed to equip unemployed adults with the ‘traditional’ knowledge, practical skills and ethical dispositions considered necessary to meet the rapidly changing demands of everyday urban life.

Posted in Anthropology, Change, Countryside, Food, Jade Marie Richards, Publications, Research on Mongolia, Reviews | Leave a comment

CESS Public Outreach Award

The Central Eurasian Studies Society has awarded our blog their 2019 Public Outreach Award.

Here’s the message we sent to the annual conference of the Central Eurasian Studies Society to accept this award:

On behalf of my collaborators in the Mongolia Focus blog, I’m very happy to accept the CESS Public Outreach Award, what a meaningful recognition in our field of study that sometimes faces hurdles in reaching the public in North America! Thank you very much to Amb. Addleton for nominating us and to the CESS for selecting us for the award.
Our blog got started in 2011 when Byambajav Dalaibuyan was visiting me at the Univ of British Columbia as a sociology PhD student. I was able to provide him with some desk space right next to Mendee Jargalsaikhan who was embarking on graduate student in political science at UBC. We found ourselves discussing Mongolian current social and economic developments almost on a daily basis. We were delighted with this opportunity, but soon realized that we ought to include the world in these conversations that did not seem to be available elsewhere, at least not rooted in academic research or in English. And thus, Mongolia Focus was born.
Since then, more authors have joined us in keeping the blog going for over 8 years and with more than 600 posts, including many guest posts from other authors. We think of Mongolia Focus as an outlet for the results of academic research re-formulated for a wider public audience. We are always delighted to reach academic audiences as well as broader public audiences and to perhaps build interest in research on Central Asia broadly and on Mongolia specifically. Fittingly, the top three origins of readers of our blog are Mongolia, the U.S. and Canada.
With the encouragement of this award, we hope to continue providing information, analysis and news on Mongolia to a specialist and public audience. Thank you to our many readers for their attention and again to the CESS for this honour!
Posted in Research on Mongolia | Leave a comment

Mongolian Constitutional Revision Leads to Uncertainty

By  Mendee Jargalsaikhan and Julian Dierkes

In hope of revising the 1992 constitution, G Zandanshatar, the speaker of the Mongolian parliament proudly declared the parliament’s decision to hold a national referendum on proposed changes on September 11 at the closing of the parliamentary special session. But, his party, the governing Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), which controls 64 of 76 seats, failed to override the presidential veto on the referendum. If the referendum is held on October 30-31 as scheduled, it would be only the second referendum since 1945 when Mongolians voted for their independence from the Chiang Kai-shek government following the Yalta Agreement. Even though all key political actors support the constitutional amendments, they disagree on who, when, and how to make these changes since it will restructure the political landscape.

Background

In 1990 Mongolia became the first Asian state that revised their state-socialist constitution by re-introducing a bi-cameral legislature, prime-ministerial cabinet, ceremonial president, and multiparty elections. In that summer, the country held its first-ever multiparty election and established an interim legislature to pass the country’s first democratic constitution. After a year of serious debate especially over the choice between a presidential or parliamentary system, the legislature finally approved a hybrid structure: a 76-member unicameral legislature and directly-elected, ceremonial president.

In retrospect, the constitution has served Mongolia well in establishing a democracy where political powers have been transferred repeatedly over nearly 30 years between two major political parties through regular, inclusive, free, and fair parliamentary and presidential elections. But, this hybrid system has also created governance challenges which have become difficult to address.

Governance Challenges

The hybrid constitutional structure has provided more room for parliament to micro-manage the prime minister and president to increase its control over cabinet and judicial institutions. As a result, the prime minister and his cabinet along with the public service are vulnerable to parliament, parties, factions, and even populist members whereas all key judicial appointments are dependent on the president’s decision.

Similar to other parliamentary democracies, the majority party or coalition of parties nominates the prime minister, but, in Mongolia, a presidential endorsement needs to be secured. A few parliament members can initiate the non-confidence voting in prime minister or even individual cabinet members. Only two prime minister has served full terms – in 1992-1996 and 2000-2004 – when the MPP held the majority of seats in parliament. In pursuit of parochial interests, parliament members engage in vote-trading games especially over the financial and budgetary matters – thus causes frequent political instability and policy discontinuity.

The constitution defined the president as the head of the state and “embodiment of the unity of Mongolian people” – in short, the president was intended to be ceremonial and non-partisan. But, presidents have slowly expanded these ceremonial rights as a way to influence, if not control, the judiciary. Thus, three members of the constitutional court, chief justice and members of the Supreme Court, chief prosecutor, and judges at different levels of courts and appeals are replaced after each new president takes the office. This politicization process began with President Enkhbayar, and was institutionalized by President Elbegdorj. Instead of professional meritocracy, President Elbegdorj appointed a party-affiliated politician as a chief prosecutor. Shockingly, on March 27, 2019, parliament quickly approved a law – empowering the National Security Council, including the president, speaker, and prime minister, to recommend the change of chief judges, prosecutors, and director of the anti-corruption agency. President Battulga promptly replaced all leaders of the Supreme Court, Prosecutor’s Office, and Independent Authority against Corruption. It is not difficult to imagine the downward chain effect as well as to question the effectiveness of the rule of law.

Reform Efforts

Since 2014, all major political parties and key actors have been in support of constitutional revision, but none have succeeded. Even though all parties and key actors pledged to fight for an independent judiciary and stable, powerful cabinet, they quickly forget these promises after elections.

With a landslide victory in 2016, the MPP has made constitutional revision one of their major platforms. The party’s 62 MPs initiated the first-round of parliamentary debate in June, 2019.

Despite numerous issues are included, the following major revisions were proposed:

  • To increase the Prime Minister’s power to appoint and dismiss his/her cabinet and to reduce the parliament’s micro-management in the budgetary process while increasing parliamentary auditing and investigative powers.
  • To increase judicial independence by reducing the number of politically-affiliated members of the Judicial General Council to appoint judges and creating a separate, professional – Judiciary Accountability Committee to take disciplinary measures, including dismissal.

Although the majority of the parliament members supported these proposals, some disagreed, instead collaborating with the president to advocate ways to increase the number and term of members of parliament.

By early September, the parliament reached agreement with the president, but failed to get full approval of the right of the prime minister to appoint cabinet members from at the final parliamentary voting.

This led to a September 11 parliamentary vote in favour of a national referendum over the proposed constitutional amendments instead of conducting the third-round of parliamentary debate.

However, the president initially endorsed a referendum only if the referendum also asks whether Mongolians prefer a parliamentary or presidential system. This institutional choice question was rejected by parliament since it requires changing the country’s constitutional setting substantially and may even facilitate the emergence of authoritarian government.

On September 20, the president vetoed the parliamentary resolution on the constitutional referendum on the grounds that it did not conform to procedural laws on constitutional amendments and national referenda.

On October 4, the parliament accepted the presidential veto for two reasons: (1) to avoid political instability – as the president and opposition party protests – considering the constitutional revision became one-sided, closed decision of the ruling party; (2) to prevent from potential failure of the constitutional referendum due to low voter turnout or failure to get the majority vote.

What’s Ahead? 

 This presents three possible options.

First – parliament could hold a third debate on constitutional reform – providing opportunities for compromises would be favorable to incumbent MPs and President – such as increasing the number and term for parliament members and prolonging the implementation to 2021 (which will provide an opportunity for the current president re-run in the 2021 presidential election).

Second – parliament re-votes on the proposed changes and revises its resolution to conduct the constitutional referendum along with the regular parliamentary election, scheduled for next June. However, it would be hard to expect the public to vote in favour of proposed changes – if the parliament fails to secure the public endorsement, the current constitution would likely remain intact for next 8 years.

Third – to keep the status quo in which the president enjoys his increased power over the judiciary as well as law-enforcement agencies and the parliament would keep the prime minister and his cabinet in constant fear of non-confidence voting. Mongolia would increasingly fail into hands of politicking of a few, politically powerful oligarchy.

Posted in Constitution, Democracy, Ikh Khural 2020, Mongolian People's Party, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Doping in Mongolian Wrestling

By Zorigtkhuu B

Last year, I wrote a brief blog post about some of the political issues surrounding Mongolian wrestling. For example, military titles, associational rivalry, and doping, etc. This year’s wrestling tournament has become a hot topic for the public because the new champion (Oyunbold) tested positive for some prohibited substances including stanozolol, meldonium, hydrochlorothiazide and chlorothiazide which are prohibited by Mongolian and international doping regulations (The World Anti-Doping Agency).

Most Mongolians had been very happy until Oyunbold’s test result was revealed by officials as he seemed like a worthy champion. For Oyunbold, he won the Naadam wrestling tournament for the second time. In 2015, he won the Naadam tournament for the first time, and had been given the second-highest title (Арслан) of Mongolian national wrestling. After 4 years, his achievement qualified him for the highest title (Аварга) and he has been named the 24th champion of Mongolian national wrestling since the 1921 people’s revolution. There have been a lot wrestlers who qualified or held the Champion title, of course, as some historical findings and rock paintings show that Mongolian wrestling started at least 7,000 years ago. However, there is not enough of a written record. In addition, Oyunbold was named the second youngest wrestler who reached the highest title “Champion” at the age of 26 years old (as of July 2019). Exactly 30 years ago, in 1989, his teacher, advisor, mentor, former presidential candidate and current MPP member of parliament, B Bat-Erdene was named the youngest wrestler who was awarded the highest title when he was only 25 years old. It is an admirable achievement that both the teacher and student are holding the highest title and named the first and second youngest champions.

Unfortunately, Oyunbold’s “champion” title might be revoked by Pres. Battulga. The president has the right to expropriate state titles as they are awarded by presidential decree. According to the 2003 Law of National Holiday (Үндэсний Их Баяр Наадмын Тухай Хууль), a doping test must be taken from all 16 wrestlers who qualified for the last round of the wrestling tournament (based on their achievement after the 5th round). For this year, the doping test result indicates that two of the 16 wrestlers’ tests are positive and one of these is the new champion.

Mongolian conspiracy at its finest

Oyunbold denies the test result.

He made a video for the public and said that some people were intentionally scheming behind this “doping” incident as he was told before “Naadam” that they were going to get him in trouble for doping. He denies using any product containing forbidden substances thus claiming that his urine sample was switched. The ultimate victim of this conspiracy, according to him, is not only him, but also his teacher, member of parliament, Bat-Erdene. He also says that the associational rivalry led by politicians is getting worse, as a result, he feels like he is falling victim to these rivalries.

In support of these claims,  Oyunbold’s teacher and mentor, Mr. Bat-Erdene repeatedly said that he believes in Oyunbold. He says that he was very surprised and find it absurd that the the test result is positive. In addition, he mentioned that he has  known Oyunbold since he was a little kid and he is now a powerful, talented and very well-trained wrestler, so there is no need for doping.

On the other hand, officials who were in charge of organizing the wrestling tournament and whole Naadam festival say that the result is impossible to be changed. The wrestlers enter the room where the urine sample is collected only in their underwear. The sample is  sealed by wrestlers and then collected by officials under surveillance cameras and this recording is archived. The doping test is delivered and examined in a Korean laboratory (one of the most trusted laboratories). In addition, some dominant wrestlers who have been taken the same test say that they do not believe that Oyunbold’s urine sample had been changed.

So, who actually threatened Oyunbold? Who changed his urine test? Has he been sacrificed because of his politician  teacher? Or, has he used prohibited substances and is pretending to be innocent? According to social media,  some wrestlers, specifically the wrestlers who belong to the western part of Mongolia, Uvs province are suspected/blamed that they might have organized it. Maybe, but, most likely not. Oyunbold also mentioned that it was because of the associational rivalry. Who knows, it might have been, but most likely not too.

Innocent until proven guilty?

In general, there is an increasing trend among Mongolians that if someone is in trouble, he or she tends to call for a press conference and they claim that “I am innocent”, “I am framed for political reasons”. For instance, a gentleman whose company’s operation cut hundreds of bushes alongside of the Tuul river in UB once announced that he is not guilty, people are trying to halt his company’s operation only because of political purposes. In the same spirit, whatever Oyunbold, Bat-Erdene, or the opposite association says, the Mongolian public needs to know the real facts. If Oyunbold’s test is positive for prohibited substances, his title must be revoked. If someone conspired and changed his urine sample, as Oyunbold said, this should be investigated.

The military title is not about the military title

Oyunbold was also given the military rank of lieutenant-colonel by the national police agency this year because he belongs to its sport club. At the same time last year, there was a discussion among the public about Batsuuri (who won last year’s Naadam tournament). He was blamed and criticized due to his military title which was given by the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). Surprisingly, the public was silent this year, not many people criticize either Oyunbold or the authority of the National Police Agency. As I emphasized in last year’s post, it proves that the military title is not about why to give the title,but which aimag’s wrestler gets it.

Also, Oyunbold was given a lot of expensive gifts and prizes  such as brand-new Nissan Patrol jeep, brand-new Lexus jeep, a 5 bedroom apartment and more by his sponsors and supporters. In the worst-case scenario, if Oyunbold is stripped off his “Champion” title, would the military title also be stripped off? How about those expensive gifts and prizes?

Finally, this quarrel is only the tip of the iceberg. Underneath it could show how deeply the politics have corrupted traditional sports. Our president is the former judo wrestler, current Minister of mining once was the state titled (champion) wrestler, and some more members of the parliament who are from the grand sport of wrestling.  There are many reasons to keep the politics out of sports, but how about sportsmen out of politics? At least until the citizen makes informed decision as to which candidate would contribute more to policy making instead of their favorite wrestler? In addition, there are two associations which are led by politicians in basketball. Because of these two associations’ rivalry, once the team of Mongolia was not able to participate any international basketball tournament organized by International Basketball Federation (FIBA) between 2014 and 2018. Ideally, sports and politics should be separate.

About the author:

Bat-Erdene ZORIGTKHUU currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He graduated from MUST and is aiming to complete a Master’s degree at Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering of the University of British Columbia. Zorigtkhuu’ research will focus on Mining Local Procurement (Local Content) in Mongolia.

Professional background: Zorigtkhuu worked for the biggest coal mining company (Energy-Resources) in Mongolia and an “International Medical Center (Intermed Hospital)” project that was jointly commissioned by MCS group in Mongolia

 

Posted in Naadam, Wrestling, Zorigtkhuu Bat-Erdene | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Don’t Forget the Ground Game

By David Chace

You are in a rush for work, so you need to jog it. However, this means you need to beat the obstacle course outside. You need to weave through parked cars, ruts on the sidewalks and a lot of other people. The sidewalk abruptly ends at a turn in the road, so you need to walk next to oncoming cars. At the busy ‘T’ in the road (with no light or stop sign) drivers jostle for control and overrun the crosswalks. As you squeeze by, a driver carelessly honks in your face, piercing your eardrums. You get to the upturned sidewalk– it’s been this way for almost two months. You think of a public servant who operates with no accountability and doesn’t care enough to inspect the details of a construction plan, walk the beat, and call or fire construction teams when standards aren’t met.

As you enter work, you are miffed about the driver that honked in your ears, the defunct sidewalk project, and the authorities who let everyone down. You are a bit down on yourself because you don’t live and work in a better place. How might this influence your first meeting of the day? How might that first meeting influence your next? Imagine that someone has a carefree bikeride to work. How much better might they perform as the days add up to months? These are serious questions being asked by public policy experts in developed countries; they should be asked in Mongolia as well.

Subtle changes can impact our lives in important ways. In a study of elementary school students in Spain, an increase in the traffic-related pollutant, elemental carbon (EC) by just 0.7 micrograms per cubic meter predicted a 4.1 % lower rate in cognitive development per year (Sunyer, 2015). In other studies, an additional minute of commute time was associated with 1.3 minutes less sleep; and more obstructions during commutes were related to higher blood pressure, negative moods, and illnesses (Voulgaris, 2017; Novaco, 1992). The power of subtlety extends beyond daily commutes. In Mongolia, it is shown that 98.8 % of reproductive-age women are vitamin D deficient largely because Mongolian foods and milk aren’t fortified (Ganmaa, 2014).

Each of these issues have their own contexts and nuances. Potential solutions would involve specific, targeted interventions or tweeks to existing policies based on data-driven insights. For the sake of ease, let’s call these ‘ground game’ innovations. By ‘ground game’, I mean small, mundane things that influence our interactions with environments, technologies or public services. This could involve any public topic such as policing, national parks, or energy.

Ground game innovations can improve our health and economics, and sometimes, they can give us a sense of control over our lives and instil a little more trust in others. The road posts in the caption’s picture may seem simplistic; it might even seem chintzy and underscore the difficulties for road management in Ulaanbaatar. However, while seeing it for the first time I said, “Finally! Someone’s gotten it right”. I felt that my quality of life gained a few points and my community had more status and order.

I appreciate the frugality and functionality of these posts. I wish I knew which public officials or office conceived of the project. If could pull up a smartphone app, point my phone at the new walking path, see the elected officials and departments who deserve credit and ‘like’ the project, I would. If I could vote in Mongolia, I would take note of the public office for the next election.

Pictures of My Walk to Work

Continuing on the topic of experiences of pedestrians, I’ve observed some impressive and not-so-impressive public works on my own daily walk to work. Do any of them look familiar?


Some Other Common Bummers for Pedestrians:

  • Flooding, giant puddles and being splashed
  • Smoke and soot from tire repair shops or small power plants (especially in ger districts)
  • Loading and construction work blocking walkways
  • No give and take among pedestrians on crowded walkways
  • Bikers on sidewalks, walkers on bikelanes
  • Spit on walkways, especially next to places like Tse bar
  • Disgusting fumes on and around buses
  • A lack of maps and route information at bus stops
  • Despite NGO and government campaigns, still poor handicap accessibility.

What the Ground Game Means to Voters

Streetlights, crossing guards at schools, building codes for earthquakes… these are the marks of a functional government. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators conclude that ‘Government Effectiveness’—designed to measure quality of public management and services – is strongly correlated with ‘Control of Corruption’ (World Bank, 2010). Over a variety of studies, measures of corruption have correlated with road conditions, infrastructure, environmental management, vulnerability to disaster and even bad parking behaviors and traffic deaths (Williams, 2018; Ravi, 2009; Groskopf, 2016). If elected officials want to improve governance and perhaps even stamp out certain levels of corruption, the ground game may be the place to start.

I think most people intuitively agree with this. Our interactions with public spaces and public services are resonant. We draw on them when we think about the political system at large. In elections however, the ground game moves to the abstract as part of the ambiance. Candidates rarely talk about ground game solutions in specifics or as a basis of comparison with opponents. Why?

I think two factors are apparent. First, we don’t always know who to give credit to; and second, we don’t know how to assess the overall achievements of elected officials. It’s understandably difficult to trace the lines of accountability through multiple offices and perhaps even successive administrations, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Perhaps politicians are under-promoting their successes as well. For example, I think former mayor of Ulaanbaatar, E Bat-Uul, created some novel and universally respected changes. His administration introduced a number of firsts such as the license plate law, traffic monitoring cameras, bus lanes, bike paths and racks, No Car Day and the UB Marathons. He also introduced new administrative units and procedures for urban mapping, earthquake preparedness and citizen oversight of local budgets. I think his personal emphasis on the ground game helped sprout new norms in civic life. Nonetheless, Bat-Uul lost his first and only election. Yes, it was a landslide that saw his party lose all but 9 seats in parliament, but his campaign slogans, “Let’s develop Ulaanbaatar more” and “5-point plan” didn’t do wonders. I would have appreciated messages like, “I made school yards safer” or “I paved all the upturned lands releasing dust into the air”. Instead, seeing billboards with “5-Point Plan” and no further information annoyed me.

We need to close the feedback loop on ground game policy with facts and dialogue. Ground game issues may never top traditional issues in national elections. However, if voters have intelligible, comparable data, I think they will get a little more attention at the levels they deserve. People would at least be able to point out when an administration’s ground game falls below the standards set by predecessors. Heck, we may even raise our standards to a point where newly elected officials can’t summarily replace experienced city managers, school directors and social workers for the benefit of party-boss patronage.

About David

David Chace served in Peace Corps Mongolia from 2011 to 2013 in Khentii province. He founded a humanitarian project called “Project MASC” which developed air quality health education, trained school teachers and district administrators, and delivered air pollution masks and air purifiers to children. David has lived in Mongolia for 8 years.

Posted in Change, City Planning, David Chace, eDemocracy, Governance, Public Policy, Social Change, Transportation, Ulaanbaatar | Leave a comment

US Offensive toward Mongolia

By Julian Dierkes and Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Suddenly, there has been a flurry of meetings between Mongolian and U.S. officials and, even more surprising, a flurry of official visits to Mongolia that looks likely to lead to a vice-presidential visit. The last time such a flurry of bilateral visits occurred was in 2005 around George W Bush’s brief visit to Mongolia. While concrete results are few, these include the announcement of a “Strategic Partnership” and deliberations about a “Third Neighbor Trade Act” before the U.S. Congress.  The ongoing tension between the US and China added another momentum for Mongolia’s symbolic relations with the US, but it certainly put Mongolia in the complicated situation in regards with China.

Past Relations

In the past, US-Mongolia relations had their high water mark while Mongolia was contributing to the US coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mongolia only shows up on  the US foreign policy radar once in a while, especially, when the United States major dealings with its two powers. In 1944, the US Vice President visited Mongolia just before making a deal with the Soviets at the Yalta Conference and figuring out US policies in regards to Xinjiang. The Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s prompted President Kennedy’s administration’s attention to Mongolia and resulted in support for Mongolia’s membership in the United Nations. The collapse of the communist bloc triggered Secretary of State James Baker’s visits promoting Mongolia as an Asian model for political and economic transition. Later, Mongolia’s steadfast contribution for the US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan facilitated unprecedented high-level exchanges, including the US President’s brief visit to Mongolia.  Despite a brief, failed surge of American interests during the mining boom, Mongolia wasn’t a topic of great interest in Washington, D.C. during the past 10+ years.

In recent years, the US-Mongolia relations seemed to be declining. The first Millennium Challenge Compact concluded in 2013 and only two years ago it looked like USAID was getting ready to shut down operations. Simultaneously, IRI which had been active in Mongolia since the 1990s, seemed to be getting ready to shutter their activities as well. Besides the Peace Corps projects and military exchanges, the US relations with Mongolia has becoming purely ideological (i.e., democratic outpost) and insignificant. Peace Corps engagement in Mongolia seemed unaffected by these developments to date, over 1,100 volunteers lived and worked in Mongolia.

The initial indication that this trajectory of a withdrawal of aid initiatives and an increasing passivity in relations was shifting was the announcement of a Millennium Challenge Mongolia Water Compact in 2018. From there, aid activities have revved up again, with both USAID and IRI becoming more active once again.

Mongolia’s Long-Term Desire to Cement Strategic Partnership

From the reformulation of Mongolian foreign policy in the 1990s onward, the building of a closer relationship with the US was a central goal and a target that the succession of Mongolian presidents devoted themselves to. It is ironic that these desires come to a fruition under the two presidents that are perhaps the least internationally-minded among any of their predecessors in the two respective countries.

Recent Initiatives and Visits

Third Neighbour Trade Act – or free trade agreement was a long desire of the Mongolian governments – to get some type of access into the US market.  However, earlier discussions in 2000s were simply dismissed by the US and lacked lobbying supporters in Washington, DC.  Rather, the US focused on the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement and later  both sides agreed on non-binding Roadmap for Expanded Economic Partnership (2018). In April 2019, Representative Ted Yoho (R – Florida) and Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) began the legislative process for the Third Neighbour Trade Act.  If the act would passed by Congress, it would provide a bit comparative advantage for the Mongolian cashmere producers to penetrate into the US market.

A month later, Mongolian Foreign Minister Tsogtbaatar met with newly-appointed National Security Adviser John Bolton.

It is not known why Bolton left his Commander-in-Chief on the Korean peninsula – maybe because of the Mongolian Foreign Minister’s sweet talk, pursuing his hardcore realist intuition, or wanting to follow James Baker’s path.  He did surprise all – by spending a busy day in Mongolia.

As John Bolton was ridiculed for being sidelined from the US-North Korea Summit, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin explained the importance of having the National Security Adviser meeting Mongolian dignitaries.

Then, Mongolian President Battulga met with President Trump as the latter was trying to pull all types of cards to make deal for his trade war with China. Although the visit seems to primarily have been an attempt by Pres. Trump to signal China, it was a success for Mongolia in advancing its relations with the most-important third neighbour. The US administration declared Mongolia a strategic partner – which had been sought by Mongolia for many years as it began to deploy its military to Iraq and Afghanistan.  However, the declaration of the strategic partnership is more symbolic than any other binding strategic partnership. Probably, it would rank similar to the US partnerships with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or, recently, Vietnam.  In contrast to US partnerships with other countries, US-Mongolia partnership has two key features: one is a democracy – as coined the shared values on human rights and the other is Mongolia’s unique geopolitical location, which has been highly regarded by few US strategists.

A few days later, US Secretary Defence Esper included Mongolia in his first international tour.

Logically, the visit was quickly linked to Presidential meetings as well as the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which clearly targets Mongolia’s two neighbours – Russia and China. The visit could be intentionally arranged to signal Beijing and Moscow as one his predecessors, Chuck Hagel, stopped in Ulaanbaatar amidst of turmoil in Western capitals to respond to Russia’s take-over of Crimea. Or, as Josh Ragin argues, that the Pentagon chief simply wanted to thank Mongolia for the steadfast troop contribution to Afghanistan and exemplary collaboration for hosting the only regional multilateral peacekeeping exercise – Khan Quest. Interestingly, Khan Quest is only exercise where PLA military exercise with the US and its allies (e.g., Japan, South Korea, and Germany) for UN peacekeeping objectives.

All Symbolic

Like many other small states, Mongolian leaders have sought all possible opportunities to develop closer ties with the US – to softly balance the power of its immediate neighbours and to increase its international profile. This was the case for Mongolian leaders who were fighting for independence from the newly-established Chinese government in 1911, as well as leaders who were struggling to reduce the Kremlin’s influence during the communist period. But, for the US, Mongolia has little value – geographically isolated, economically less valuable, and culturally distant. For any US administration, Mongolia is little known; therefore, any expectations of the strong US support is hard to expect and gain.

However, Mongolia’s sustained commitment succeeded to make a step-by-step advance in gaining US attention. Its irreversible commitment to democracy, especially promoting human rights, have been regarded highly by liberals in Washington, D.C., – when Mongolia has become the only Asian former state socialist state where civic rights are practiced without any systemic state control. Mongolia’s continued support for US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan deepened its connections with the US security community and resulted gaining the US support for increasing its UN peacekeeping deployments and hosting multilateral exercises. At the same time, Mongolia’s interesting geopolitical location has been recognized by many hardline realists in Washington, D.C.  For many it could be regarded the least expensive, but effective signalling posts.

Obviously, Mongolian leaders do not want to be as signalling post – especially, when the US messages would irritate its neighbours, thus causing more challenges for Mongolian diplomats to assuage these powerful neighbours. However, Mongolian diplomats and US (in-country) diplomats desire to use all possible opportunities to increase high-level exchanges during a few months of summer and to advance many bilateral issues – which often sit on the US government’s back burner. If one thinks about gift-horse diplomacy, Mongolian herders would compete to herd the gradually-increasing fleet of horses, given to US dignitaries. For practical reasons, it would be extremely difficult for them to transport horses overseas and passing through the US immigration; therefore, the US government officials need to visit Mongolia to get or to ride their gift horses. This is certainly a newly-emerging shared value – which would contribute to the tourism sector and news attention.

Likely Consequences

Even if the US brief attention to Mongolia is unlikely to result in long-term, strategic binding commitments, it will trigger concerns of policy-makers and security officials in Beijing and Moscow. For them, it has a key geostrategic importance.  Therefore, it will have some consequences for Mongolia’s relations with its neighbours.

It will raise concern for China – especially, President Trump’s administration’s attempts to include Mongolia as a series of cards to gain advantage in the trade war. These include the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act, support for Chinese religious groups, and identifying Mongolia in a potential alliance list against China. This puts Mongolia, which is lopsidedly dependent on Chinese market, infrastructure, and funding, in a difficult situation. The worst case scenario for Mongolia would be to take sides in a US-China conflict. To balance Chinese concerns stemming from the flurry of interactions with the US, Mongolia might thus – once again – consider full membership in SCO, a move that Pres. Battulga seems to have advocated for in the past.

Russia would be less concerned with US interests in Mongolia than the growing Chinese influence. Given the peaceful moment of Sino-Russian relations and Russia’s inability to re-assert its interests in Mongolia, Moscow has few worries. Certainly, in coming days, the Russian President will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Khalkhin Gol battle (Nomonhan River) and upgrade the strategic partnership to a comprehensive partnership.  In comparison to all other strategic partnerships of Mongolia, the Russian partnership would have more security features than others (US-Mongolia – more ideological, China-Mongolia – more economic).

Changes in the strategic triangle (of Sino-American-Russian) will create opportunities and challenges for Mongolian foreign policy; thus makes the Mongolia’s key foreign policy objectives – equidistance relations with China and Russia and closer ties with third neighbours – complicated and challenging.

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US Interactions Not a Win for Mongolia

By Julian Dierkes

Together with Mendee, I’ve tried to describe the recent flurry of US-Mongolia interactions. In brief, interactions are motivated by a US desire to counter China in its own backyard. For Mongolia, a strategic partnership with the US has long been a strategic foreign policy goal.

Below, I want to offer my opinion on whether this has been a wise direction for the US or, especially, for Mongolia.

Symbolic Gains

Very few on the US side, even if the recent flurry culminates in a US Vice-Presidential visit, this is pure symbolic politics.

The Third Neighbor Trade Act will not rescue/revive/boost Mongolian cashmere industry. That industry has had great promise for many years now, but that promise remains unfulfilled, not because of tariffs that finished products are facing, but – as far as I can tell – challenges in building reliable supply chains. Lower tariffs to the US will not hurt, but I really doubt that they will jumpstart the industry in a serious way.

Other commercial relations between the US and Mongolia are not on the horizon on any noticeable scale, though the commitment of the Import-Export Bank of the United States (which has been under attack from the current administration) to the financing of underground development at Oyu Tolgoi is significant.

Deepened military relations between the US and Mongolia seem quite unlikely. Mongolia already is a NATO partner. Any kind of base or more serious US presence would be quite a hostile move toward China and Russia. Perhaps military equipment is an area for more collaboration, I don’t know. Mongolia’s focus on peacekeeping is not an area where deepened collaboration with the US is likely either.

Foreign Policy? Yes, the US could support Mongolia’s candidacy for the UN Security Council, if that is even still on. Otherwise, nothing concrete that comes to mind in terms of Mongolian foreign policy goals. APEC?

US Foreign Policy? Not an area of my expertise, but it seems unlikely that any kind of deepening of relations with Mongolia will occur independently of signalling/posturing vis-a-vis China.

One important caveat that predates the current flurry of exchanges: the Mongolia Water Compact. This is obviously a sizable investment in an area where such investment is eminently sensible and constructive.

So, as far as I can tell, recent interactions are all about symbols.

Likely Consequences

The symbolic win will not be lost on Beijing or Moscow. Presumably their foreign policy establishment will not be pleased.

Beijing has been pressuring Mongolia for some time to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a full member. To balance any perceived/symbolic closeness with the US, I can well imagine the Chinese government demanding even more forcefully that SCO membership happens.

For Moscow, I am much less sure of the nature/extent of relations. The pressure for Mongolia to join the Eurasian Economic Union appears not as strong as SCO pressure. The EEU is also not an organization that has a lot of security implications.

Evaluating Symbolic Gains vs Likely Consequences

Let’s assume for the moment that Mongolia is pressured into full SCO membership.

Mendee and I have previously pointed out some of the reasons Mongolia might not want to join SCO. These are still valid, I would claim.

I would personally emphasize the “authoritarian club” aspect. As we’ve seen in reactions to current protests in Hong Kong, Beijing is very quick in attaching the label “terrorist” to any form of dissent. That label triggers SCO attention or relevance as so much of the organization’s focus is on anti-terror activities. I would suggest that given Mongolians’ commitment to freedom and democracy, that is an aspect of SCO that is anathema to common attitudes.

So, from my perspectives, the possibility of full membership is a significantly negative possibility for Mongolian foreign policy.

Is some symbolic upgrade of relations with the US worth this price? Not as far as I can tell.

In addition to SCO membership, symbolically deepened relations with the US also carry the risk of embroiling Mongolia in US dealings with China. This is a particularly significant risk under Pres. Trump whose foreign policy has been erratic and unpredictable. Given Mongolia’s position right on the Chinese border and its complete economic dependence on China, the very real possibility of becoming entangled with Trumpian foreign “policy” is a significant risk that I identified as long ago as early 2017.

By the same token, an increased level of activity between the US and Mongolia also represents a risk to the US if it does lead to SCO membership, for example. Full membership would pull Mongolia away from Third Neighbours, the UN, and NATO partnership and would mean fewer future possibilities for coordination and collaboration when it might really count.

What about North Korea?

One of the most interesting aspects of Mongolian foreign policy is its connection with the DPRK. Repeated offers from the Mongolian government to act as somewhat of a go-between for North Korea’s interactions with the US, Japan or other countries, have largely gone unanswered, including the offer to host a Kim-Trump Steppe Summit.

Given the prominence of military and national security officials in the recent flurry of contacts, it does not seem preposterous to think that the DPRK has come up as a topic of discussion. So, one concrete outcome of the recent contacts could be that the US foreign policy establishment consider Mongolia’s links to the DPRK more seriously.

That could lead to more serious consideration of Ulaanbaatar as a location for future meetings, but it might also change the US view on the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, one of Mongolia’s most concrete attempts to insert itself into Northeast Asian security discussions that are of vital importance to itself. The UB Dialogue has been opposed or ignored by the US and has been limited in its impact because of that. Perhaps that might change…

Some Thoughts on Future Developments

Is there some way for Mongolia to avoid negative fall-out from the intensification of US-Mongolia contacts?

  1. Continue to resist SCO membership.
  2. Tread very carefully during upcoming Putin visit for Khalhyn Gol anniversary. Balance symbols with symbols, not commitments.
  3. Embrace other Third Neighbours than the US more actively. While contacts have been lively from the Foreign Ministry, the president has not been involved. Now would be the time to step up those contacts. The UN general assembly would be a good moment for that, especially as the president has not participated in the past.
  4. Elevate DPRK efforts by drawing US into the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, as one of many players. Little is known about discussions with China regarding the DPRK. If the topic does come up, continue to offer Mongolia as a neutral go-between.
Posted in Cashmere, China, Foreign Policy, International Relations, Mongolia and ..., Russia, SCO, United States | Leave a comment

More Constitutional Amendment Proposals

By Bulgan Batdorj

We want to briefly update our audience on the constitutional amendment in Mongolia since our last article Constitutional Amendments.

There are two draft proposals, one submitted by the 62 members of parliament on June 6, 2019, and a second draft proposal submitted by President Kh. Battulga on July 16, 2019. The Parliament of Mongolia has issued decree 72 which establishes a committee to synchronize these two drafts. There has been a large number of consultation sessions organized with various stakeholders, including political parties, civil society organizations, researchers, economists, and government organizations. This week the irregular session of the parliament has had the second reading of the draft proposal submitted by the 62 members of the parliament.

Pres Battulga’s Proposals

The President’s draft proposes to increase the number of Parliament members from 76 to 108. The draft did not have rationale as to why it proposes to increase it to specifically 108 but it says that the current number is significantly low especially given the geographic location, natural resources, and population growth. His draft also proposes to increase the number of years from 4 to 5,  a mixed electoral system, a prohibition of MPs with cabinet duties, except the Prime Minister. The President also proposed to have at minimum threshold of more than 50.001 people to create a political party in addition to other regulations on the political party.

The draft amendments are touching upon a few issues that have been challenging the political and economic stability in the last two decades. Those are: lack of clarity of the division of power and accountability of the parliament, cabinet, and presidency. Secondly, the uncertainty of independence and the accountability of the judiciary. Thirdly, more attempts to refine regulations around local settlements. The natural resources or mining developments is the pushing factor for many of these changes and challenges.

Public Reaction

This amendment certainly differs from the previous two amendments as those amendments did not include any form of consultation at all. The active participation of civil society organizations, researchers, various political party representatives, and public figures are a sign of maturing democracy. The debates and discussions, however, seem not to have moved much beyond a “person-centered” perspective to a “content” focus.

This is the first big public consultation in the last 25 years. This consultation has exposed a lack of knowledge about the constitution in the general public.

Information availability

There has been an extensive list of information available on websites and social media, both formal and informal.

Social media are reporting rich information through infographics, videos, expert debates, and discussion on the amendments.

Posted by Бодлогод залуусын хяналт ТББ on Thursday, August 8, 2019

 

The parliament’s website also archived and shared the videos of all discussions and their briefs in addition to the draft laws.

 

Timeline

January 12, 1992 – Mongolian Democratic Constitution was adopted with six chapters and 70 articles. Chapters address the Sovereignty of Mongolia, Human Rights and Freedoms, State Structure, Local Governance, Constitutional Review, and Constitutional Amendments.

December 23, 1999 – Amendment to the Constitution was adopted by 68/76 MPs votes that MPs could serve in the cabinet. The amendment was vetoed by President N. Bagabandi and considered unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court.  This issue of “davhar deel” (double deel) has been a hot topic since 1996 Constitutional Court Case of D. Lamjav, who filed a case that MPs having a double duty to serve as a cabinet member was unconstitutional. The Constitutional Court have ruled that MPs could not join the cabinet without resigning their seats. There are articles on our blog that covers  the issue of “double deel” in our articles PS: Constitutional Reform  and Khurelsukh Cabinet.

January, 2001 – Amendment to the Constitution, the same amendment that enables the MPs to serve in cabinet was passed here again by the Parliament among six other amendments. The previous amendment was vetoed and considered unconstitutional by the Constitution Court, thus the Mongolian People’s Republic Party (elected 72/76) submitted adopted the amendment later approved by the President.  These  7 amendments are called “degrading 7 amendments” and often debated that three of the seven was very essential changes and the other three were damaging and one was neutral.

2010 – Law on the Constitutional Amendment Procedure as adopted by the parliament providing detail on the amendment of the constitution. This law also prevents many of the articles to be amended (Constitutional Articles 1; 2; 3; 4;, 5.1-5.4; 6.1; 8.1; 9.2; 10.1-10.2; 12.1; 14; 15; 19; 20; 22.1; 30.1; 38.1; 41; 47; 49.1-49.2; 68; 69).

There have been many other attempts for amendments that we also addressed on our previous articles, Likelihood of Constitutional Reform, PS: Constitutional Reform and Double Deel, Thoughts on Constitutional Reform, Constitutional Revision, and A Little Correction to Mr. Enkhsaikhan’s Push for Constitutional Reform. They go until 2014.

Webs

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Special License Plates

By Julian Dierkes

Okay, I confess, I’m a bit of a license plate geek, but only a little bit.

Maybe this is one of those things that growing up in (West) Berlin did to me. While the West German cousins had lots of different kinds of license plates all around, for the most part we only ever saw “B-” and that made us, well me at least, curious about the other strange license plates on visiting cars. Go ahead, google something like license plates, and you will find a whole community of enthusiasts!

Fast forward to regular visits to Ulaanbaatar and I can’t help but look at license plates and figure them out. Mongolian plates are relatively straightforward in that they have a two-letter abbreviation for the aimag where the car is registered. For Ulaanbaatar, that is УБ or УН. The third letter seems to be randomly assigned followed by a four-digit number. Of course, that number matters in the capital as it determines days on which the car cannot be driven around (1, 6 = Monday 2, 7 = Tuesday, etc.).

Official Cars

In January 2018, there was a bit of a Twitter uproar over Justice Minister Ts Nyamdorj’ new car.

Note the license plate, 0101 УБҮ. But while at one time “official” cars were recognizable by their license plates, this seems to have led to so much abuse that these official plates have been abandoned. Military (ЦАБ) and border patrol (ХЦА) are still recognizable by their numbers.

Diplomatic Plates

Then there are the red, diplomatic license plates. They start with the letters ДK to signal corps diplomatique. Embassies receive license plates that follow the ДK with a two-digit number that signals the embassy this car belongs to. The numbers are assigned in the order that embassies were set up in Ulaanbaatar, I think:

01 = Russia | 02 = China | 03 = North Korea | 04 = Czech Republic | 05 = Hungary | 06 = Germany | 07 = Vietnam | 09 = Bulgaria | 10 = Cuba | 12 = Kazakhstan | 13 = UK | 14 = Turkey | 15 = India | 16 = Japan | 18 = Laos |  19 = USA | 20 = South Korea | 22 = France | 24 = Kuwait | 25 = Slovakia | 26 = Canada | 30 = Australia | 32 = EU.

I’m still trying to find out why some numbers are missing (08, 11, 17, 21, 23). Perhaps they were assigned to embassies that have closed down in the meantime? Yugoslavia seems to have been 11. Presumably, there were two different numbers for Germany (East and West) at some point, so perhaps that is one of the missing numbers?

There are additional red license plates that are used for international organizations, etc. ДK 9900 are generally cars registered to the UN and its organizations. Some of the (honorary) consulates also get diplomatic plates.

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National Pride Without Museums

By Julian Dierkes

It’s tourist season in Mongolia again. Tourism has been discussed as a possible route to economic diversification, but also faces a number of challenges, for example short seasons and the lack of touring infrastructure.

But during a recent Ulaanbaatar stay, Marc Tassé and I came to talk about museums in Ulaanbaatar and the curious facts that despite the great pride that Mongolians take in their nation and its history, the museums are really somewhat lacking as an element in attracting tourists.

National Pride

As will become clear in any conversation with Mongolians, pride in the nation and its history is strong. There is the ever-present Chinggis Khaan, of course. The hype has died down since the 850th anniversary of his birth when Chinggis Khaan was ubiquitous and anything seemed to be named after him. The extent to which reference is made to a figure that is somewhat reviled and feared in the rest of the world and hit his zenith more than 800 years ago can sometimes be almost comical. It is also a massive distraction to many activities. The recent decision to close the government fund to support Mongolian studies (which in itself seemed to have a strong preference for historical and cultural studies projects; yes, you can sense some bitterness in this social scientist focused on contemporary Mongolia), and then open an Institute for Chinggis Khaan Studies (instead) is just one indicator of this focus on somewhat long-ago history. Yet, this focus comes with pride.

Generally, this pride carries both positive achievements, as well as a negative othering vis-a-vis neighbours, especially China.

Given this pride, one might expect a celebration of Mongolian history and Mongolian-ness in Ulaanbaatar. Surely, the state socialist period brought with it its fair share of hero worship (certainly not Chinggis Khaan, but the Sukhbaatar tomb on Sukhbaatar Sq for example) and didactic approaches to history, but where is the grand museum of Mongolian history, or the museum of the modern revolutions (1911, 1921, 1990)?

Existing Museums

There are museums in Ulaanbaatar, of course. First and foremost perhaps the National Museum as it appears in the above tweet. But the fact that I have visited it only twice in nearly 15 years of regular trips to Mongolia probably suggests the shortcomings of that museum. For the purposes of the questions I’m addressing here, suffice it to say that the National Museum is not a great draw.

 

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I hadn’t visited the National Museum in many years, nice opportunity to refresh/correct my historical knowledge. #Mongolia

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There is the Museum of Natural History, focused on archaeology. Again, not a great draw, although apparently at least the dinosaur exhibit is being resurrected in the former Lenin Museum.

In terms of national history, the Winter Palace is perhaps the most attractive with its collection of artefacts from the past 100+ years of history in an historical building that is increasingly disappearing in its surroundings as is the case for all historical buildings. It is also a bit of removed from the centre of town where most well-to-do foreign tourists might end up staying.

Anyone who comes to visit Ulaanbaatar with kids will not want to miss the Puzzle Museum. There is a lot of pride in Mongolia in display there, but the museum is hardly a national showcase, in part because it is also somewhat removed from the city centre.

It was only this summer that I’ve been introduced to the Ulaanbaatar City Museum by Pawel. The museum is small, but has two wonderful maps, an artistic rendition of historical Khuree, and a development plan from late in the state socialist period. This museum and its collection has some potential to be the corner stone of tourist activities in Ulaanbaatar, but is still far from realizing that potential for the causal visitor.

Then there are the National Art Gallery and the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts, but those are in a slightly different category given their focus on art.

The most ambitious aspirant to a central tourist site is probably the Chinggis Khaan equestrian status that is about 50km outside of town in surrounding Tov Aimag. It is certainly an expressive of pride, though limited entirely to Chinggis Khaan. Impressive it is, shiny in a pastoral Mongolian landscape, huge. It is a project promoted by Press Battulga, of course, but the larger historical theme park around it is still in progress. The small museum in the base of the statue is also somewhat limited.

Aimag Museums

The museums in provincial capitals come closer to the aspirations of a museum as an expression of regional and national pride. Inevitably stuffed to the gills with local artefacts, these museums tend to focus on cultural artefacts and prominent local individuals, historical or more contemporary, and taxidermy. They are pedagogically old-fashioned with many rooms of glass display cases that are explained or even marked eclectically. These museums are often staffed by knowledgable locals who do not shy away from offering lengthy tours and discourses on exhibits. Yet, a national draw for tourism they are not.

Karakorum

The exception to that general pattern would be the Kharkhorin Museum. It is perhaps the most modern of Mongolia’s museums. Yet, it suffers from the same pedagogical shortcomings that most Ulaanbaatar and aimag museums suffer from, namely that exhibits are focused on documentation and display, but not on drawing visitors in or explaining connections between different phenomena.

 

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Some of the main buildings at #Mongolia-s oldest monastery, #ErdeneZuu.

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For the Kharkhorin Museum it is almost painful that many of the questions that might come to mind quickly when visiting the site are not answered. Where exactly were the different sites in the Orkhon valley? How does the site of Erdene Zuu relate to that of the Chinggisid capital? Why did some buildings at Erdene Zuu seem to survive the destruction of religious institutions in the 1930s? For all the focus on Chinggis, this museum is surprisingly tight-lipped. In many ways, many museums in Mongolia follow a model that I recall from my childhood in Germany. It is assumed that a visitor is interested in the subject matter of displays, these displays are a visual and topical encyclopedia of sorts.

What’s Missing?

There is plenty of history to discuss, there are plenty of landmarks, and there is lots of pride in Mongolia’s past. What is generally missing is presentations that engage visitors beyond the mere display of artefacts.

Oh, and a mining museum in Nalaikh, of course, and the museum to document the abuses perpetrated by state socialism.

Posted in History, Museums, Nationalism, Society and Culture, Tourism, Ulaanbaatar | Tagged | Leave a comment

Change in the Countryside June 2019

By Julian Dierkes

For some years, I have now taken notes about visible changes in Ulaanbaatar on my periodic visits.

I’ve kept a similar list for countryside changes, somewhat more regular as extended visits to the countryside don’t come nearly often enough for me. Earlier notes appeared in October 2017June 2017. Additions/edits to that list are marked in italics below, candidates for omissions in strikethrough.

Visible Manifestations of Social Change in the Countryside

What has Arrived?

  • Guardrails in some curves on major cross-country roads
  • While street signs (speed limits, warnings of curves, etc.) used to be a curious rarity (“when there hasn’t been a sign for 100km, why this one?”) they now seem to appear in clusters.
  • The state is reasserting its authority in some places. Roadside safety inspections of vehicles have returned. On a drive between Baruun-Urt and Chinggis (<3 hrs) we were stopped by police three times: marmot inspection (we weren’t carrying), tire disinfection, seatbelt check. The latter was really a bit of a local police extortion attempt.
  • Fences around large parcels of lands. As far as I can tell these are hayed for winter fodder as nothing seems to be planted there. Fences keep out animals in this case to let grass grow.
  • Pretty significant agricultural activity, esp. around Darkhan and Erdenet. Many locations and huge fields that I don’t remember seeing on first visit to the area in 2008.
  • I’ve long heard discussion that many of the projects carried out with the Local Development Fund were public toilets. I have now seen some of these!
  • Not all fences around xashaa (property lots) are wood anymore. There are some prefab concrete slabs, corrugated metals, etc. Some residents are also integrating shipping containers into their fence.
  • Ger district conversions in towns. We saw this in Baruun-Urt for example.
  • Virtually all aimag districts now seem to have at least one tall building (8+ stories).
  • New, modern houses are appearing in soum centres. Only buildings in towns that don’t have a big wooden fence around them.
  • “No littering” signs.
  • Motorcycle helmets.
  • Even soum centres have significant tree planting programs going on. Freshly-planted trees in so many public and private spaces.

  • Bike infrastructure in towns and many kids riding around on bikes. [Add South Gobi kids on bikes photo tweet/instapost]

What has Disappeared, or at least, Nearly Disappeared?

  • The clever move to simply drive cross-country around toll booths on major roads.
  • Satellite phones. Still necessary for country-side connectivity around 2010, now I haven’t seen one in some time.

What will Appear in the Future?

  • Much more directional street markers.
  • Cross-country biking, hiking, and riding routes away from major roads.

What will Disappear in the Future?

  • Roughly in the 2000s, I would guess, more cars were beginning to show up in the countryside, but road-construction was not revving up yet. That meant that on big cross-country routes, entire valleys were scarred by multiple parallel tracks. Along the paved sections of major roads, these scars are slowly disappearing in the landscape.
  • At construction sites, the paved roads are often simply blocked with large dirt heaps across the lanes. Effective, but scary at night.
  • Greeting of official visitors at city gates.
  • Fancy streetlight design must be a state socialist heritage somehow along with other forms of public art. There are vaguely futuristic designs throughout Mongolia, but they are even more surprising in provincial towns than in Ulaanbaatar. Somehow, I don’t think that they will continue to be built.

What won’t Disappear in the Medium Term?

  • Composite electricity poles. In the countryside these consist of a concrete base to which a wooden pole is tied with wire/brackets which ends in a triangle that has space for three attached cables. Metal poles have appeared, but I know similar composite poles from the Yukon and Alaska, so they  must be well-adapted to extreme temperatures and will thus last.
  • Litter. Growth in domestic tourism will make the countryside more littered, but awareness of littering will ultimately build. Such a blight on Mongolia!
  • Buried tires to mark property lines. It seems that there are so many practical reasons (cheap, indestructible, visible to off-roading drivers) that this practice will continue.
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Tourism: Standardization in Diversification

By Julian Dierkes

In June, I visited Mongolia as a tourist for the first time. Well, sort of. On my 26th visit to Mongolia, I accompanied a tour to provide some insights into contemporary Mongolia to complement a Mongolian tour guide (who fortunately was very knowledgeable on wildlife in particular).

This clearly was only a snippet of the tourism business, but I came away with some observations.

Obviously, visit Mongolia!

The Tourism Business

When the challenges that arise in a resource-rich economy are discussed, economic diversification is almost always mentioned as an urgent goal for Mongolia. Tourism is one of the industries that most analysts point to in order to capitalize on the incredible wealth that Mongolia has in its nature, but also to build on an international “brand” of being perceived as very remote, somewhat exotic.

Very often, these discussions eschew mass tourism as a target, but rather more high-end niche tourism, some kind of “eco-tourism” (whatever that may be).

Hurdles to the development of the industry are generally seen in infrastructure (flight connections and roads, but also accommodations, restaurants, etc.) and in the short duration of the tourist season (roughly June-August) that presents a challenge for human resources and infrastructure.

Previously, I had written about the possibility of tourism clusters, but also the rise of domestic tourism.

The Standard Tour

My sense of what the standard tour is, is the following: 9-12 days including visits to Kharkhorin and Gobi destinations. Transport either by minivans or Land Cruisers. Overnight at ger camps.

Ger Camps

The ger camps are situated close to major tourist destinations (Kharkhorin with Erdene Zuu; the Flaming Cliffs or Khongor Dunes in the Gobi, etc.). There are very few activities around the ger camps other than the main site.

Ger camps used to be an accumulations of yurts with a main building/large yurt to serve meals in and side buildings for washrooms (sometimes including showers).

Now, many ger camps offer so-called “attached facilities”, i.e. a ger with an attached washroom, typically another, smaller ger, or other building placed between two gers and then divided in half to offer two washrooms. There is a central facility (typically a permanent structure, sometimes in the form of a large ger) that is used to serve meals. Meals are generally inoffensive, i.e. some salads, rice, meat.

The camps are typically summer-only, though there are a few that are trying to establish themselves as year-round destinations.

Over the last several years, camps have clearly attempted to raise standards, often hand-in-hand with raising prices.

Yet, in construction (especially the washrooms) and also staffing (typically by university students for the summer) these camps don’t quite meet expectations of a 3-star hotel, esp. by North Americans. Most Americans seem to expect a shower attached to their bedroom and that expectation is being met by many camps, but the bathrooms are often somewhat rickety. Electricity is typically availably but perhaps only through a single outlet.

 

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Prettiest ger (yurt) interior I stayed in on this trip.

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By contrast, these camps have lost much Mongolian flavour. The food is generally not Mongolian, even some of the elements of Mongolian summer meals that are more popular with many travellers (fresh milk/yoghurt, orum, etc.) are rare.

Though there are exceptions, camps appear to be bunched in certain location. The pattern that seems to be holding here as it does with other Mongolian businesses: if someone meets with success in a business others try to copy that success rather than understanding what might have made for this success and then seeking innovations for a similar success. That implies a great standardization of tours.

We first stopped in Amarbayasgalant which is not only a gorgeous valley, but also one of the more significant monasteries in Mongolia. It is generally not on the standard circuit because it is too far from other destinations and tour operators don’t respond to that distance by building a camp halfway between Amarbayasgalant and Kharkhorin, for example, but by ignoring it as a destination.

The camps are clustered around a few “attractions” that tend to be monasteries or unusual natural sights, but rarely focus on wonderful Mongolian natural settings.

Travelling

Standard tours generally include long days of driving which leave travellers tired enough to need a rest upon arrival at a camp. As I mentioned, camps offer no experiences beyond the attraction that they are focused on. No maps for hikes, for example, or opportunities to milk cows/horses, ride horses, engage in archery, or hike.

Tours rarely stay for two nights in a single camp leading to an on-going feeling of a rush from one camp to the next. While the journey is often the destination in Mongolia and rides across the landscape can be surprisingly variable, the camps add very little to the experience.

Bumping along off-road can be quite exhausting leaving little energy to explore much else.

Sights

As I discussed above, destinations are somewhat standardized. It’s actually amazing to see the number of monasteries that have become destinations despite the nearly-complete destruction of religious institutions in the 1930s. But documentation of history is relatively sparse (I’m working on another post on Ulaanbaatar museums that touches on this), and without a guide, explanations do not really exist.

Nature is stunning almost everywhere and sights are often fascinating to see, but they can feel somewhat incidental to the tour.

Animals in the landscape are still a huge draw. Even when they are domesticated, herds of animals seemingly roaming by themselves (they are not, of course) through a fence-less landscape are a sight that I certainly do not tire off. There are a variety of birds and other animals to be seen, I got lucky on these two trips to have seen black-tailed gazelles and wild ass, though that is not guaranteed, of course.

Concluding Observations

I saw relatively little in the tour business that would allow this to be scaled up to become a more significant sector of the economy. To reach the goal of 1mio tourists, it is not only new flight connections into Ulaanbaatar that will be necessary, but the tourism business itself might have to become more attuned to market segmentation and more aware of the attraction that Mongolia undoubtedly presented.

Posted in Business, Diversification, Tourism | Tagged | Leave a comment

New to Ulaanbaatar June 2019

By Julian Dierkes

I’ve been keeping lists of things that are arriving to/disappearing from central Ulaanbaatar: April 2019 | December 2018 | August 2018October 2017June 2017 | May 2016 | December 2015 | May 2015 | May 2014 | October 2013 | October 2011. More informal versions of these observations also appear in the /ulaanbaatar/change/ category.

I’ve copied the 2014-19 lists here and am adding to it. New items since previous posts appear in italics. Since this list has been growing, I’m also beginning to delete some items that I’ve had on the list for some time. Strikethrough means that these items will be off the next list.

What has arrived?

  • yoga
  • pet dogs on and off leashes
  • Sunday morning joggers and bikers
  • wheelchair accessibility (moved from “What Will Appear” category as ministries are now (meant to be) wheelchair-accessible)
  • the “#замчөлөөл” hastag, a city campaign to shame property owners about their infringement of public space. Seems – quietly – very successful when you look at many photos posted.
  • large-scale BBQ extravaganza on the banks of the Tuul river, particularly near the ASEM Road. On summer weekends, so many cars parked right on the riverside, BBQs planted right next to them, families camping out, some literally
  • Harley-Davidson (now seemingly endorsed by new PM U Khurelsukh)
  • drive-home service for drivers who have been drinking. You call the service, they drop off a driver who drives you home in your car and is then picked up again. Given – fortunately – much stricter enforcement of drunk driving laws, a great service!
  • bike lanes and bike parking, being shooed off bike lanes by riders (though not in December!)
  • street names and signs in the city
  • fat tire bikes
  • home air filtration systems that everyone is talking about
  • airport road is getting ever fancier, now there’s a giant overpass under construction just before crossing the Tuul on the way into town. Lots of fancy on/off-ramps popping up everywhere on roads. While I dread the opening of the new airport, construction of the (real) highway out there is under way

  • Canadian cold weather brands, Canada Goose and Arc’teryx are everywhere, fake or not
  • fully electric cars, charging stations
  • electronic payment systems. There is the transit card and a number of apps issued by Mongolian banks. There are some QR-code based payment systems. Often credit card payment is approved via a fingerprint reader.
  • coffee roasting. Not only is instant coffee being beaten back (it obviously still reigns in the country-side), but beyond mass market chains, small roasters are now appearing in the market. Some Mongolians are speaking of a new coffee addiction.
  • surveillance cameras. I recall seeing these first at large intersections, presumably to monitor traffic. Now, every other buildings seems to have haphazardly attached a CCTV camera to its facade. I do wonder how many of these are operational and where the feeds lead and if any of them are monitored.

  • street art (several years now, but I hadn’t noted this before) and newly commissioned public art

  • many more food and agricultural products from Mongolian sources available now

  • in April there had been a lot of concern about the lack of snow in the winter and the likelihood of drought. June brought some heavy rains and Ulaanbaatar turned quite green, almost lush.

  • convertibles

  • streetlights in the ger/khashaa districts

What has disappeared, or at least nearly?

  • stationary 80s-office-phone-looking old-granny cell phone booth
  • for-pay scales (actually, they seem to be hanging on)
  • free WiFi on Sukhbaatar, er Chinggis Khaan, er, Sukhbaatar Square, er, Chinggis Khaan Square
  • open gullys/missing manholes
  • street kids (they seem to come and go)
  • packs of dogs
  • smoking
  • hillside Chinggis visible from the city centre as more tall buildings are constructed
  • [reader suggestion from Dan M] stiletto heels
  • outdoor billiards tables. I should have noted this much earlier as I think they disappeared some years ago, but it occurred to me on this visit. Remember, for example, the tables that were on the south side of Peace Avenue just before the bridge over the Selbe River? Sadly, I don’t have a photo of outdoor billiards either, even though I recall being really impressed by it on one of first visits, i.e. mid-2000s

What will appear in the future

  • navigation systems
  • mental maps shifting to street names/addresses instead of landmarks
  • new airport, apparently opening in 2019. I drove by there in summer 2017. Oh my, it is far from the city!
  • subway (really, I wish they had selected light rail instead, but who knows whether either will come)
  • urban renewal and historical restorations embracing district north of government house (National University of Mongolia, German embassy, etc.)
  • road signs in the countryside (and not just the very random, very occasional ones that can be found now)
  • network of cross-country riding (bike and horse) trails (though not in central Ulaanbaatar)
  • parking (meters), electric charging in parking spots/lots
  • Combined Heat and Power Plant #5 (yeah, right!)
  • hipsters discovering УАЗ (minivan and jeep)
  • giant hole blown into Bogd Khaan mountain to “drain” polluted air out of the valley (that actually is a proposal, but it will not appear! There also seems to be a proposal to blast away mountains on either end of the valley to let bad air escape!)
  • some kind of traffic routing system with overhead displays
  • Mongolia-themed coffee travel mugs

What will disappear in the medium-term future

I’m going out on a predictive limb here… 2-3 years is what I mean by “near future”.

Actually, since I have been predicting this as “near future” change for some years now, I guess I was wrong with all these predictions, and have changed the listing to medium-term future.

  • stretched-out hand to signal for a car ride
  • that awkward extra half-step on most stairs
  • whitening make-up.

What will disappear in the long-term future

I mean around 7 years or so. None of these seems to be coming true quite yet, so I’ve changed the name of this category from medium-term to long-term.

  • new (to Mongolia) cars that are right-hand drive
  • the neo-classical Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, with its Stalinist (if that’s an architectural style) spire [Tough call to make as the MFA building is now dwarfed by its own annex]
  • deels in the city [actually, they seem to be making a bit of a fashion comeback among young people]
  • some of the downtown university campuses
  • buildings of 4 floors or less in the urban core
  • Russian minivans (УАЗ452)
  • the Winter Palace. It won’t disappear entirely, but it is more-and-more surrounded by a very urban and very tall landscape making it look somewhat forlorn, a fate it shares with many other buildings
Posted in Change, Curios, Ulaanbaatar | Tagged | Leave a comment

Constitutional Amendments

By Julian Dierkes and Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Constitutional change has been discussed in Mongolia for some time. Despite the super-majority that the MPP holds in parliament at the moment, we were not expecting amendments to actually be proposed, but now they have been introduced into parliament.

Note that we are not constitutional experts nor are we aiming at providing an exact translation, but we did want to provide a quick overview over the changes under consideration and very brief initial comments.

The draft amendments were introduced on June 6 in a bill supported by 62 MPs.

We have grouped the proposals that seem most significant to us under three themes: judiciary, parliamentary power, and local governance.

Judiciary

Note that these amendments are a follow-up of some sorts to the changes to the judicial system this March that provoked a lot of concerns, especially in the international community.

In the bill these changes are presented as section “Three: Strengthening the Judiciary”.

  1. The Judicial General Council [Шүүхийн ерөнхий зөвлөл, see https://eng.judcouncil.mn/)], which consists of ten members, will play a key role in nominating and changing judges at all levels.  The Ten members would serve for a single, four-year term. Five of ten members (with ten years minimum of professional experience) would be appointed by the parliament. The other five would be elected from different judiciary organizations: one from the judges at the control level, one from judges at the appeal courts, three from lower level courts.

  2. A separate Judiciary Accountability Committee [Шүүгчийн хариуцлагын зөвлөл] will decide whether to relieve, abstain, and penalize judges.  The committee would consist of nine members: three experienced prosecutors, three legal scholars, and three citizens representatives. They will be elected for a single, six-year term.

  3. The constitutional court members will be appointed for a single, nine-year term.  The candidate should be professional lawyers with a minimum of 15 years of professional experience, and over 40 years old.

Our notes: A new committee (Judiciary Accountability Committee) was established to hold judges responsible. The General Judiciary Committee nominates and appoints whereas the Judiciary Accountability Committee removes and changes.  The President has no role in appointments to these committees. Only parliament has a partial role in the Judicial General Council. It appears that appointments from judges would still be made by the president but only upon nomination by the General Judicial Council. It is a bit unclear what would happen if a president refuses to appoint someone nominated by the Council.

Parliament and the Prime Minister

The hybrid nature of Mongolia’s constitution has long been considered to be an obstacle to smooth operation of government as the president seems to have some executive powers (judiciary and foreign affairs) and some ability to block initiatives by the prime minister (for example, the appointment of cabinet members). The proposed amendments are seeking to clarify this relationship.

  1. To limit the number of MPs serving as cabinet members. Only up to five cabinet posts, including the Prime Minister, can be filled by MPs. The Prime Minister has the right to change cabinet members, but s/he will introduce his/her decision to parliament and the president.

  2. To reduce parliamentary rights on state budgets and to streamline the independent auditing of the budgeting and implementation process.
  3. To increase the parliament’s investigative authority. A temporary (investigative) committee can be set up if ¼ of MPs voted in favour of investigation.

  4. To prohibit the parliament changing the election law a year prior to the election.

  5. The nominee for president should be over 55 years old.  The president will be elected for a six-year single term.

Our notes: The first change is addressing the so-called double deel “problem”, namely the fact that many members of cabinet are also MPs and that parliament thus cannot effectively control cabinet. Of course, many other countries also draw upon MPs as members of cabinet, but – so the argument – goes, the small size of the Mongolian parliament makes this problematic.

The second change is intended to prevent MPs from earmarking funds in the budget for their own riding or their own projects.

Special investigative committees have been called for in the past, and this change makes those possible.

The election law is currently set as of six months before an election, this extends that period to one year, presumably to prevent manipulation of the law as the election looms more closely

A concern that arises from proposals is the possibility of a vote-of-no-confidence  challenging the Prime Minister with only 19 members being able to demand such a vote.

The proposal to raise the minimum age to stand as a candidate for president to 55 is odd in a country that is demographically very young and the life expectancy for males is around 65 (at birth). This seems to be aimed at limiting the opportunity of former presidents to continue a political career (as N Enkhbayar and – potentially – Ts Elbegdorj are). The single six-year term will have presidents focusing on their tasks rather than re-election, presumably. It is unclear whether Pres. Battulga would be allowed to stand as a candidate in a 2025 election, arguing that this would be the first under the new constitutional structure and thus not a re-election.

Local Governance

  1. Change of the city status – this would provide opportunities for Erdenet, Darkhan, and Choir (Gobi Sumber) to regain status as cities.

  2. To authorize citizens’ representatives khural to impose local taxes within legal limits.

  3. Election of soum governors by soum assemblies.

Our notes: Giving Erdenet and Darkhan (possibly others later on) city status is primarily an administrative change that is meant to improve governability.

The raising of local taxes is an interesting matter. It is somewhat contrary to the unitary nature of the Mongolian state, but this would extend a trend where differentials in industrial, especially mining, activity have been reflected in budget allocations. Presumably, this could be a tool (in addition to Local Level Agreements) for localities to negotiate agreements with large or even smaller mining projects. That would likely be interpreted as significantly raising uncertainty around investments for domestic and international investors. It’s also not clear whether this is meant to inspire some kind of competition and experimentation among soums. Ultimately, this proposal may be aimed at a larger and more ambitious re-organization of soums, reducing their total number in the name of administrative efficiency, but this tax proposal may well produce a LOT of unintended consequences while not necessarily leading to a discussion of regional organization.

The proposal for elected rather than appointed soum governors may be aimed at reducing the impact of partisanship on local politics by making soum governors more accountable.

Posted in Constitution, Governance, Judiciary, Law, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Security Cameras Everywhere

By Julian Dierkes

Maybe this will turn out to be a longterm series of posts on “contemporary Mongolia dissertations I wish someone was working on”. On visits to Mongolia, I see the streets and hills paved with dissertation topics, so maybe I’ll remember to share some of these on occasion.

Noticing Security Cameras

The first time I was struck by arguments for surveillance as an apparent cure-all against all kinds of undesirable behaviour was on a policy-making workshop with members of the MPP youth organization in a Western aimag. We ended the first day of the workshop by challenging small groups among the 30 or so participants to walk around the aimag centre and to take photographs of “policy problems” they observed. They brought these photos back to the discussion on the following morning. In this and other similar workshop there were pretty consistent patterns as to the problems participants identified: garbage, but also traffic. When it came to the discussion of a particular curve where cars were speeding right in front of a school, one “solution” that was proposed was: surveillance cameras. I was floored. How would a surveillance camera fix speeding? By issuing tickets on the basis of camera footage, by visibly threatening repercussions to speeding? And, is that the most obvious solution to a traffic issue in a provincial capital? It did seem obvious to the person who proposed this.

Fast forward 2019 this year when I happened to look out of the window of a second-floor restaurant in Ulaanbaatar and noticed that I was looking at three security cameras that had been attached to the building across the street (a ministry) in a pretty rickety fashion. I was beginning to wonder what was behind this appearance of CCTV, who is installing cameras, who monitors the feed, and were there more cameras elsewhere. Well, there are, lots of them. So, I added the appearance of security cameras to my evolving list of things new to Ulaanbaatar. When I returned to Ulaanbaatar some weeks later I kept looking.

Then I kept looking and found lots of cameras in Erdenet.

And…

Yes, really! Within less than a kilometer I found 23 security cameras filming the sidewalk and public spaces in the (otherwise) very pleasant Erdenet.

As that particular trip continued, I was shocked to find the security cameras equally omni-present in countryside settlements.

What is going on here?

Some quick observations…

About these Cameras

One might distinguish between those that are official in some way and others that have been installed privately.

In my first conscious encounter with cameras in Ulaanbaatar as well as in the three examples from Erdenet, these seem to be “official”, government or police-run.

The other 20 cameras I counted on my brief stroll through central Erdenet were almost certainly private, that is installed by a business and (presumably) monitored by that business. They appeared over the front doors or on facades of banks, loan sharks, convenience stores, but also of the city library.

Of course, I didn’t somehow pull on the cables that were attached to these cameras to find out where they lead, but it’s probably safe to assume that the cameras on government buildings are either monitored by building security (if it exists) or the police, while the cameras on shopfronts etc. likely feed to monitors/recorders in the store or business where they have been hung. They could also be operated by building owners, I imagine.

There does not seem to be any particular compunction about hanging cameras where they cover a large area of public space.

Some Specific Questions

  • How long have cameras like this been prevalent?
  • Do they monitor or do they also record?
  • Is anyone actually monitoring them?
  • Are any Mongolians concerned with this kind of monitoring/surveillance?
  • Are there any restrictions on filming public spaces?

Some Other Thoughts

The bigger question in my mind is: what is prompting Mongolians to think of surveillance as a solution to problems?

The heavily institutionalized response to policy challenges seems to be the threat of punishment. But is this a response to actual crime or misbehaviour? Are there any indications that the number of security cameras in Mongolia is reducing delinquency?

Could it be that increasing visits and other exposure to China – obviously a repressively surveilled society – is presenting surveillance as a viable policy tool to Mongolians?

What does the reaching for surveillance tell us about Mongolians’ perceptions of each others’ moral fibre? Should we interpret these cameras as rising social mistrust/declining trust?

An Anecdotal Aside

On a recent tour, we arrived in a ger camp near an aimag centre. It had been a hot day and we were looking forward to a cold beer, so since we had to get gas for our vehicle anyway, we thought we might pick up some beers in town. When we walked into a supermarket, we saw the large banner reproducing the law that this town was dry for one day a week and our mouths felt very dry suddenly. The first hope was that we might sweet talk the clerk somehow. Then we glanced around and found ourselves within range of 5, yes five!, security cameras and decided that all attempts to play a dumb, but thirsty out-of-towner would be futile. I guess cameras work!?

Posted in Crime, Dissertation Ideas, Morals, Research on Mongolia, Social Change, Social Issues | Tagged | Leave a comment