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.

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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.

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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
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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

Roadmap for New Parties

By Julian Dierkes

Let’s imagine scenarios that could lead to real political change, not only a change in leadership and possibly the party landscape, but a re-orientation of Mongolian democracy, a change of political culture, that gives Mongolians more of a chance to have a say about their country’s future.

You can tell by the tone of that opening sentence that I am wandering from risk analysis into visions of a better future here. But let me dream for a moment… I am dreaming of a Mongolian democracy that provides Mongolians more of an opportunity to engage in substantive decisions about their future by changing the political culture toward one where it is substantive differences that win votes, not personality or patronage or populist promises. Here I sketch out how this might happen via newly-formed political movements.

United in Reform Goals, Competing Over Policy

Ideally, a new political movement would commit to shared goals, but also agree to develop policy differences in order to foster a new political culture built around substantive divisions. This would be important to prevent what has happened to the Democratic Party, namely formation around opposition to a system without a dedication to substantive goals. This origin of the DP has been at the centre of the failure of Mongolian democracy to provide voters with substantive choices, so I would hope for any new movement to avoid this trap.

Shared Commitments

A new political movement might thus be committed to:

  • political pluralism and a multi-party democracy
  • the constitution, obviously
  • recognition for the need for a truly independent state apparatus under parliamentary control
  • a disavowal of patronage politics
  • radical opposition to all forms of political corruption, starting with absolute financial transparency of parties, leaders, and office holders
  • a vision of a new political culture focused on substantive/principled/policy differences, combatting conspiracies and political innuendo as the dominant form of political discourse
  • acknowledgment that electoral victory is not the only, certainly not an immediate goal

If such a movement were to emerge, it might also commit to for working groups drafting political and policy goals with the express goal for the movement to split into at least two political directions before contesting any elections.

Diverging Ideology

From my perspective, any renewal of Mongolian democracy is dependent on a massive injection of patterned substantive disagreements into political debates. If political choices do not differ in the policies that they are advocating, they do not really represent a choice from my perspective.

Here, I do not think that a “traditional” left-right spectrum maps well onto the Mongolian landscape. That spectrum ultimately is rooted in a Marxist dialectic and working class struggle for representation. These roots seem to be fraying in many European countries. For North America, the dialectic is one that is centred on state intervention vs a free market. But those do not necessarily seem to be meaningful categories to build Mongolian political movements around.

Yes, there have been some efforts within the DP to build some kind of market-liberal platform just like there have been programmatic initiatives to pursue social democracy within the MPP, but they have not really taken root.

Any new political movements who are aiming to change the political culture and to reinvigorate democracy would thus have to commit to a process by which they might discover salient cleavages for the Mongolian context. Could this be some kind of statism vs economic liberalism? Or, the pursuit of gradual, slower growth, vs rapid economic development? Or, the preservation of nomadism and support for life in the countryside vs an embrace of dominance by Ulaanbaatar? Or, some kind of environmentalism vs economic growth?

All these strike me as possible divisions among Mongolians, but new political movements would have to explore these to build platforms around them to compete against established parties, and against other new movements.

Commitment to Change of Political Culture

Any new political movements would have to accept and embrace the fact that electoral success will be gradual and will require sacrifice and dedication. It would be preposterous to imagine that a new political movement might win the 2020 election or field a viable candidate for the 2021 presidential election.

Instead, these upcoming elections would be occasions for new movements to test their policy-offerings out with voters, but also to educate voters about the benefits of radical transparency and a principled or at least thematic stance on policy questions.

Campaigns should be centred on informing voters about policy choices and making the case for concrete differences between political parties and the reasons for those differences.

In this effort to inform voters, I see great opportunities for a different campaign style, incorporating much more social media interactions, but also in-person interactions, than the typical famous-politician-lectures-attentive-audience style. But such a difference in campaign style is not a necessary component for new political movements.

Campaigning and political communications cannot be focused on a never-ending stream of unsubstantiated allegations against other parties and politicians. If there are cases of corruption or fraud, these need to be brought to light with concrete evidence that can be used for formal prosecutions. Those prosecutions should be watched very carefully and commented on when decisions are unexplained or prosecutions dropped, but respect for the independence of the judiciary requires trust in institutions.

Conclusions

Given rising voter frustration and on-going commitment to democracy, it seems to me that the party landscape is urgently due for a renewal that nudges Mongolian political culture in a direction to enable more substantive debates. I have imagined a political movement that starts with common goals but then splits into two or multiple parties to pursue specific policy goals on the basis of the common commitment to a new political culture and political process.

Posted in Constitution, Democracy, Elections, Governance, Ikh Khural 2020, National Labor Party, Party Politics, Politics, Presidential 2021, Protest, Younger Mongolians | Tagged | Leave a comment

Addressing Meat Prices through Policy not Populism

By Julian Dierkes

A very curious spectacle recently to see meat warehouses raided by the General Intelligence Agency. I have seen little discussion of the legality of such raids which look a bit like the action taken against a mining company by a GIA SWAT team some months ago. Economic interest and populist pandering are not strong justification for action by security forces in countries where the rule of law governs.

But what about the meat market? What about price fluctuations and how can they be addressed?

Analyzing Meat Prices

Fortunately, Robert Ritz has provided a data-driven analysis of meat (beef and mutton) prices. One of the most obvious patterns that is visible across the different graphs he provides is the regularity of price fluctuations year-to-year. Basically, beef and mutton prices rise for the first half of every year to later take a dip again. As Ritz also argues, this is a cycle that most likely has its roots in herders strategies to maximize their herds. He writes

In the Fall before winter sets in herders will slaughter or sell those animals which are likely to die in the coming winter. Then in the Spring during breeding season herders often restrict the amount they sell so as not to limit their potential growth that year. In the Summer the productive animals are known and herders are more willing to sell or slaughter those animals that are not pregnant.

Underlying meat prices thus is a “natural” cycle that unfolds over the year and Ritz shows this quite convincingly in his analysis of past prices.

Ritz also provides indications that it is not exports nor losses due to dzud conditions that seem to be driving prices.

It is speculation about the impact of exports that is fuelling populist demands for price controls and actions like those taken by the GIA, purportedly directed at hoarding which I cannot imagine to be an illegal activity.

Building Infrastructure for a Meat Industry

Instead of simplistic and – given the annual cycle – ineffective populist measures, the government should pursue broader policies around the production of meat. This is an important area of policy-making because it has an outsized impact on countryside livelihoods and thus – directly and indirectly – on migration to Ulaanbaatar.

Meat production is mentioned regularly, of course, in the context of the diversification of the economy. Three aspects about the potential for meat exports stand out:

  • Plenty of potential supply in Mongolia
  • A nearby market in China with growing consumptions of meat
  • Branding opportunities around perception of Mongolia as remote, and thus isolated from pollution, etc.

The main obstacles seem to lie in the infrastructure for an industrialized meat business including distributed slaughter facilities, health inspections, shipping infrastructure.

If these infrastructure needs could be addressed, they might also lead to a flattening of the price cycle by increasing the overall volume of meat that is available for supplying Ulaanbaatar as well as for export.

Currently, it seems that most meat sold in Ulaanbaatar originates in nearby aimags. This has been an important aspect of migration to Ulaanbaatar and to surrounding Töv province in that herders have moved their animals closer to market centres, especially Ulaanbaatar but also aimag centres.

If meat production could thus be industrialized in the Western, Northern, and Eastern aimags, for example, that infrastructure would not only allow for exports to China (primarily), but also for shipment within Mongolia. While this might not address the seasonal calculus that herders make regarding their investment in animals, it might flatten the price fluctuations somewhat simply by making more of a supply available to Ulaanbaatar.

Posted in Agriculture, Countryside, Diversification, Employment, Herding, Public Policy | Tagged | Leave a comment

Dr. Bloggers

Our blog has always been rooted in academic research and in the training that regular bloggers have received.

We are all delighted that two of our regular crew (more or less active, at this point), have recently graduated to become Dr. Miliate and Dr. Mendee. Congratulations!

Our group is thus composed of 5 PhDs (2x Princeton, Hokkaido Univ, Indiana Univ, Univ of British Columbia) and an MASc (UBC). If that isn’t enough reason for you, Bulgan, to press on with your studies!

Dr. Mendee

Dr. Mendee

Mendee was there for the invention of this blog (with Byambajav and Julian) and has stayed with it all along.

Now, he has completed his PhD in Political Science focusing on democratization in Mongolia and the Kyrgyz Republic, examining the interplay of geopolitical interests around “small” countries of Asia and continuity in political parties.

As of September 2019, Dr. Mendee will take up an appointment as Post-graduate Research Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. With Julian and Byambajav, he continues to serve as a director of the Mongolian Institute for Innovative Policies.

Dr. Miliate

Brandon was quite focused on Mongolia for some of his undergraduate work as well as his Master of Arts Asia Pacific Policy Studies at the Univ of British Columbia. Since then, he has shifted his focus Southeast-ward and completed his dissertation in Political Science at Indiana Univ. The write-up of his defense provides a nice summary of the highlights of his dissertation.

Later this year, Brandon will take up his post as South and Southeast Asian Studies Librarian at Yale University.

Posted in Democracy, Mongolia and ..., Reflection, Research on Mongolia | Leave a comment

Mine Aesthetics and OT as National Symbol

By Julian Dierkes

{This post continues a series of posts based on a visit to Oyu Tolgoi at the invitation of the company.}

I think it’s fair to say that Mongolians have had an ambivalent relationship with Oyu Tolgoi ever since Robert Friedland’s infamous 2005 “t-shirt” speech that suggested to North American investors that Mongolians would be happy with a tiny share of profits generated by the mine. Whether or not suspicions about a fair share would have arisen without those comments, these suspicions are deep-seated. Repeated announcements by MPs that the 2009 Investment Agreement or its 2015 Dubai amendment needs to be re-negotiated are partly rooted in the ambivalence many Mongolians have felt toward the project. Rio Tinto’s standoffish attitude and long-time refusal to seriously engage Mongolia as a context for its operations has heightened this ambivalence.

Yet, there would be many things about the project that some Mongolians at least would embrace. Mongolia’s economic growth in the 2010s has been fuelled by OT construction. Employment targets are consistently surpassed and Mongolians are beginning to rise within the OT managerial ranks. Omno Gobi is being transformed into a noticeably better-off region…

Taking Pride in Oyu Tolgoi

Recently, Oyu Tolgoi does seem to be making efforts to address the Mongolian public more extensively and more directly.

They have launched an #OTProud campaign that frequently showcases Mongolian OT employees and they pride they take in their jobs and in the project. It remains to be seen whether this catches with the Mongolian public.

A recent tweet by Armando Torres, Oyu Tolgoi’s current CEO, suggests a similar theme.

On site, however, signs of the important of the OT project for the Mongolian nation abound. I was delighted to see the artistic and craft care that is taken with some of the signage during a recent underground visit. Frequently, as in the examples shown here, this artistry takes symbols of the nation as a motif, the soyombo as it also appears in Mongolia’s flag shows up with particularly regularity.

 

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Beautiful metal craft work at 1,400m below the Gobi.

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It would be very interesting to learn how employees perceive the project and the extent to which they perceive it as something to pride in and to discuss with others who are not involved in the project. I would not be surprised, however, if the pride, camaraderie and esprit de corps carried over from the site to employees’ lives.

 

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More artwork underground at OT, here with distinct national pride.

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Posted in Nationalism, Oyu Tolgoi, Society and Culture | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Smart Air

By Nathan Hsieh

The Problem

The air quality of Ulaanbaatar has been a highly politicized topic that millions of aid dollars and institutions have deliberated on. Yet, if one were to approach any random Ulaanbaatarite and state that the air would be clean in five years, the response would likely be of shock. Simply put, there does not exist a quick, economic solution that can equitably provide clean air for all. Pollution will abate as Ger-district growth is curtailed, and consumers begin to earn wages that allow migration to apartments, where energy production for heating and cooking can be centralized and removed from the city.

For Mongolians, that roadmap unfortunately lays out a great sacrifice (and a terrible social bargain) for the short-term: a continual decline in life expectancy and an increased risk of respiratory and heart disease, to name a few. And so, upon careful consideration of this intractable problem, many are left with the question – is there anything that can be done in the short-term? containment? mitigation? The answer: yes.

Indoor air pollution represents the most significant share of exposure to harmful particulate matter, and air purifiers filter out that particulate matter – but the cost per unit ranges from US$5001500, with recurring annual costs anywhere from US$80250. For a country where the GDP per capita is roughly US$3,700, and the average income has hovered around US$200 per month since 2000 – the price of clean air is simply not feasible.

The Solution

Thankfully, there are those that believe it is possible to leverage their resources to create clean air pathways for the less fortunate. Back in 2013, Thomas Talhelm (at the time a Fulbright scholar) was living in Beijing. The air pollution was making him sick, and he wanted to know if he could protect himself. He soon found that air purifiers were exorbitantly priced, so he started researching how they work.

Tom found that purifier technology was shockingly simple. Air purifiers capture particulate pollution using cheap, unpatented technology – the HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance) filter. The primary function of every air purifier was simple: a fan pushes air through a HEPA filter, where particulate matter (PM) would stick to the fibers.

After buying a laser particle counter to test for microscopic particles in the air, Tom found that the ability of air purifiers to reduce PM could be mimicked by strapping a HEPA filter to the front of a fan (~US$30). He wanted to share this discovery as widely as possible, and the sincerity and resourcefulness of his solution inevitably snow-balled into what is now Smart Air.

I heard about Smart Air at a workshop in Ulaanbaatar and immediately understood the value it could provide to public health. Following a conversation with the leadership team, Tom agreed to provide a loan to begin operations in Mongolia. The first year was undoubtedly clunky and dependent entirely on the fire of a few people, but the ultimate question was how to ensure the initiative would continue after my time in Mongolia ran its course. It was decided that the best way to accomplish this indefinite end was incorporation as a Limited Liability Company.

The Roadblocks

Thus, began my forays into the legalese of corporate governance. I quickly found that the Mongolian government was highly protective of business opportunities. First of all, foreign nationals cannot own a for-profit enterprise in Mongolia unless they provide an up-front US$100,000 contribution towards share capital. The only way to waive this requirement is to fork over at least 75.6% of the business to one, or more, Mongolian nationals.

I understand the legitimacy of protecting key industries and their revenue streams. This makes particular sense in strategic industries, and it is a practice that has been enacted around the world for millennia: from the Chinese silk trade to American telecoms. But the prohibition of foreign ownership can stymie valuable intellectual capital, ideas that could be a boon for society.

As industry has developed across the US and Europe, more nuanced corporate structures have entered the fore to engender a more diverse array of business opportunities – different tax structures can, and should, be applied to different missions. Take, for example, the L3C (low-profit limited liability company) structure in the US, which was developed to facilitate investments in ventures that aim to be profitable but also socially beneficial. This relies on a consensus that profits and social good are not diametrically opposed – and I believe that is true: profits unite workforces regardless of their language or creed. But profits can also be limited by well-intended leaders. Smart Air’s stated objective is to minimize returns in order to maximize the availability of clean air. I would argue that, as a result, it should not be classified and taxed in the same way as a company that sells white t-shirts as surgical equipment.

Perhaps, nuanced systems of governance are a privilege. I don’t expect the Mongolian government to mimic the L3C as it stands; there are dangers of changing a system without knowing how entrepreneurs will navigate new loopholes. But the simple fact is that it significantly hindered Smart Air’s ability to operate and expand its reach, which directly translated to fewer clean breathes. Ultimately, the answer to how these issues can be resolved is for the shareholders – not those with fiduciary responsibilities, but the ones that breathe some of the worst air in the world and have the right, and chance, to be civically engaged.

About Me

Nathan Thomas Hsieh graduated from Duke University (’14) with a degree in Mathematics. He was a Princeton in Asia Fellow (’15-’17) and was placed in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, with the financial services firm, IARUDI. During his free time in Mongolia, he started a social enterprise called Smart Air Mongolia that has continued its operations to-date. Since departing Mongolia last September, he now works for The Mobility House as a Product Rollout Analyst, studying how to integrate the transportation and power sectors through the electric vehicle supply chain.

Posted in Air Pollution, Nathaniel Hsieh, Ulaanbaatar | Leave a comment

Biased How?

By Julian Dierkes

In 2016 I came back from a trip to Mongolia slightly puzzled and concerned. It seemed to me during meetings on that trip that there was a real concern with some interlocutors that I was some kind of spy. My interest in Mongolia as well as the independence of my analysis were questioned and it seemed like it was insinuated that I was somehow interested on behalf of someone else, most likely a government (agency). That’s what prompted me to draft a page explaining my curiosity about Mongolia as well as another making the case for why readers might be interested in my (and fellow bloggers’) analyses. Both of these pages are available in Mongolian (Яагаад |хараат бус байдал) as well as readers might ask very legitimate questions about these topics.

One aspect I found puzzling in 2016 was that similar questions were being raised by several different people from different angles.

The same thing has happened again.

Bias in 2019

Unlike in 2016 when the suspicion seemed to be that I was spying, now there seems to be a sense that I am somewhat “biased”. I wish I had been as smart as several people I discussed this with upon my return and had asked those accusing me of bias what exactly that bias was. I did not, unfortunately. This leaves me trying to understand this question and to provide a response in the abstract.

The accusations of bias all seemed to come from a blog post I wrote with Boldsaikhan Sambuu discussing the late-March legislation to give power to dismiss judges to the National Security Council. In a follow-up post, I included some more narratives of why this legislation was not a threat to democracy.

I have been surprised that no readers have ever engaged me on the transparency page in the past as I had intended this to be a starting point for discussions about my/our position not a definitive/final statement. If you have questions about my independence, read that page, and let me know which parts you do not understand, believe, or accept. But instead of making the positive case for my independence, let me here consider some possible sources of bias.

There’s Always Bias

Well, obviously! I am limited in the information I can gather, in my ability to process that information, and social and political analysis is not the kind of activity that produces a definite “yes” or “no” answer in the end. So yes, duh, I am biased. But there are different sources of bias and these have a differential impact on analyses.

“Someone” Is Directing Me

There seems to have been some sense that I wrote the March 27 post on behalf of “someone” else. My co-author, Bold, has also been subject to this suspicion. The “someone” in question seems to be former president, Ts Elbegdorj. The legislative changes introduced in late March were directed (or so the claim went) at un-doing some of the harm to the rule of law done by the former president. In a subsequent post, I have noted that this is a rationale that has been presented for the legislation.

But me? Writing on behalf of Elbegdorj? Unlike many other Mongolian politicians, I have never met Elbegdorj, nor have I had any direct interactions with him. I am curious as to how he is approaching his current quasi-retirement from politics and would be delighted to have a chance to discuss that with him, but that chance has not presented itself to me.

Why would I let a politician direct me to do anything? What could I gain by following that direction?

The one time I felt like I was being asked to speak on a politician’s behalf was when former president N Enkhbayar was arrested in 2012 and a PR firm subsequently sent out a package of “information” detailing his abuse. Needless to say, I did not write about that information. I actually contacted a number of newspapers that did write about Enkhbayar’s arrest in similar terms to caution them that information came from a particular angle. In fact, if anyone asked me to write on their behalf, I would be more likely than not to write the exact opposite, simply to demonstrate my independence. That would also hold for any other current or former president, prime minister or other politician.

As a researcher, I am always concerned about access to decision-makers. My days during visits to Ulaanbaatar are filled with meetings to give me a chance to get a more in-depth view of the current political mood than I can from Vancouver. To arrange these meetings, I have to rely on contacts and their willingness to speak with me. So yes, access is of some concern. Obviously there are politicians and other voices who have refused to meet with me in the past when I have requested meetings and that is totally fine. It is typically me asking for a meeting with the intention of asking questions to which I do not have answers, so I am dependent on the goodwill of contacts to give me some of their time to speak to me. In busy schedules, that time might not exist.

So yes, access is a currency that I understand and appreciate. But in my many years of visits to Mongolia, my access has never been curtailed in a way that suggested that a contact saw me as biased and therefore did not want to speak to me. In fact, if you thought I got an aspect of current developments wrong and you care about that, I hope you would want to specifically meet with me to explain to me what I have got wrong, as several contacts did during my recent and previous trips.

I have a Party/Person-Preference

I do not know how to put this any other way than simply, no!

As a researcher, I believe that evidence-informed policy-making is better than decisions that are not informed by available information.

Just as I prefer policies that are presented with reference to data, so I would prefer politicians who champion policies that are backed by analysis.

I also have some broader personal commitments/values that do lead me to prefer policies that produce outcomes that are more just and minimize the burden we place on the planet and its ecosystems. And I am certain that democracy is the most likely route to such outcomes. I also strongly believe that Mongolians have fought for and deserve opportunities to make genuine choices about the future trajectory of their country.

Do any of these commitments lead me to prefer one party over another or one politician over another in Mongolia? No, sadly. That is the case because policy-making (for a variety of reasons) is generally not evidence-informed and political parties have not articulated any themes that would lead me to understand that one party is more committed to values like (social) justice and sustainability than another. So, as a researcher, with a focus on substance, I do not see any basis to prefer one political actor over another.

I was trained as a sociologist and that does make me prone to certain methods, questions, and answers. But that would not point me toward any particular political actors, I think.

Someone Is Paying Me

Well, this is a funny thing, but no one has ever attempted to bribe me or pay me for adding any particular political slant to our blog posts. Most likely this is in recognition of our limited impact, but it might also be because anyone contemplating such a payment has probably had the impression of me and my fellow bloggers that such offers would not be welcome. Yes, of course, we are sometimes compensated for work that is based on our research as it also appears on the blog (through political risk or development consulting, for example), but that is not payment for a specific blog post or a specific direction to give to a post. Even the posts based on my recent visit  to Oyu  Tolgoi (which I have been marking with a disclosure that I visited at the invitation of the company) focus on topics that I have been interested in and are based on my observations.

If not financial renumeration, is there some other payment that is forthcoming? Not that I am aware. I have applied for research funding from the Mongolian government, but have never been successful with my applications. With the demise of the fund to support Mongolian Studies earlier this year, and its presumed resurrection as the Institute for Chinggis Khaan Studies (really?), I am fairly unlikely to be awarded any research funding in the near future.

I have long waged a tongue-in-cheek campaign to be appointed as Foreign Minister under the name of Dumbledorj or as (Foreign) Minister of Education as Dambadorj, but unfortunately, no one seems to be interested in my offer in this regard.

Do Get in Touch

So, if you do think I am biased in any way that I have not acknowledged here, please do let me know what source of bias I have not discussed here or which part of my discussion you do not find credible!

Posted in Politics, Research on Mongolia | Tagged | Leave a comment

A Very Premature Outlook on the 2020 Parliamentary Election

By Julian Dierkes

Yes, the 2020 election is more than a year away, and, yes, many observers lament the fact that politics seems beholden to electoral cycles. But, discussions in Mongolia have started to revolve around the 2020 election, and I have already been asked to provide an outlook, so I want to provide some thematic notes that are obviously highly speculative in nature.

Here are some of the questions that I think will loom large in the election.

A (Re)Commitment to Democracy

Elections are fundamentally democratic structures, events, and activities. Given fears about a backsliding from democracy in Spring 2019, many electoral activities will be closely watched as to the integrity of various processes. For this, decisions about the electoral system itself will be crucial. By law, the electoral system has to be set in place six months before the election. In past practice, this has meant last minute passage of an election law at the end of December, an unfortunate habit that would be good to combat, but realistically I am not expecting anything different from this upcoming cycle.

Will it be a purely majoritarian election system again? Will the MPP put in place restrictions on new/small parties or on independents? Obviously, that will have a significant impact on the election results in terms of the performance of smaller parties and independents.

MPP

While a split seemed to be looming this past winter over the battle between the “City” faction of M Enkhbold and U Khurelsukh and others, this seems to have been avoided through an assertion of control by PM Khurelsukh and his allies. Any talk of a re-merger with the MPRP for the MPP or splinters thereof also seem to have been dropped from the agenda. It looks like a relatively calm election campaign coming up for the MPP.

DP

The DP seems in fratricidal decline, particularly with the rift that has emerged in parliament over Lu Bold and his allies’ departure from the party caucus and vows to contest the election as a separate party. It seems unclear what this spin-off is aiming at in political terms (beyond getting elected, perhaps), and so unclear what this might mean for coalitions that could emerge from various results.

Will the election bring a return of former president Ts Elbegdorj to active politics? Presumably, his chances in any kind of direct election would be good, but he might also increase divisions within the party further.

Small/New Parties/Independents

If small and new parties and independents will be allowed to compete fairly freely, what impact will they have?

MPRP

It seems likely that former president N Enkhbayar will, once again, assert himself and perhaps he will ultimately be allowed to stand as a candidate. If he is, than he seems likely to win a seat in most electoral system configurations. It’s unclear to me what this will mean for other MPRP candidates in the party.

New Parties

At the height of the SME Fund scandal, it seemed like the National Labour Party was gaining a lot of attention, but half a year later this doesn’t seem to have translated into any big political momentum. It seems like ХҮН will be hampered by any restrictions the MPP and the General Election Commission dominated by the MPP might devise, but it will also be unlikely to meet with any significant success if its ambition is restricted to election into a few, most likely very few seats, depending on star candidates that might be victorious in a majoritarian riding.

Who will Nominate Pres Battulga?

Pres Battulga will surely want to run for president again in 2021. To do so, he will have to be nominated by a party represented in parliament. His relations with the DP leadership do not seem very close and will be further strained if former president Elbegdorj decides to return to active politics. The MPP is also unlikely to nominate him for re-election, so he will be looking for a vehicle for his nomination and will likely throw his support behind that vehicle.

Any Chance at Substantive Debates?

Notice that I’ve already raised a number of questions, but have said nothing about policy or campaign platforms. This remains the big empty hole at the centre of Mongolian democracy. It would be quite surprising to see any real and principled debate appear in the election.

There may be some specific issues that will be raised, especially in a fashion to pander to popular opinions, but these will not aggregate to any kind of principled debates. Some issues that seem likely to come up:

  • Tavan Tolgoi, though it strikes me as very unlikely that the IPO will actually proceed before the election.
  • Corruption, but most likely as the time-proven mutual accusation and finger-pointing game.
  • State funds, other than the SME Fund, perhaps.
  • Air pollution, though interest will wane again in late Spring.
  • I don’t see that any deeper debates about employment generation will emerge, beyond the usual claims that all candidates will generate jobs.

Incumbency?

In the past, voters have tended to swing away from the party that  had dominated previous elections. This is part of the reasons for Pres. Battulga’s 2017 victory over M Enkhbold, but a similar pattern prevailed in earlier elections as well. For 2020 it is not clear yet that the DP will present a viable alternative. Not only did its previous government throw they country into a bit of a fiscal mess, but it might just continue its slow-motion implosion and simply not appear as a credible alternative.

The sense of the DP as not presenting a viable alternative might be heightened by the MPP’s legitimate claim at reasonably competent management of political issues over the past four years. Not that any of the real challenges (corruption, air pollution, country-side development strategies, etc.) have been addressed, but management of government has been somewhat successful. There are even some ministers that have lent an air of competency to the government. This is true for Finance Minister Ch Khurelbaatar who has brought some fiscal discipline to the government. More surprisingly, it’s also true for Minister of Mining D Sumiyabazar. While his appointment led to some doubts (“a former wrestler for the very important mining portfolio?”) and even mockery, he seems to have genuinely thrown himself into embracing his role as a minister, has been focused in his public appearances and has been dedicated in his service.

Policy Continuity

Given the lack of substantive competition between the main parties, the election result currently would look to be relatively irrelevant in understanding how policy-making might develop. There are no specific expectations that a DP-dominated government – should that turn out to be possible – would change direction on specific topics. Yes, personnel will be rotated and institutional knowledge will – once again – be lost, but no radical reorientation would be expected as it also has not occurred in previous changes of government.

Other Issues

More issues will surely arise, possibly in the context of the Khentii by-election. We will certainly try to keep up-to-date on these developments.

Posted in Democratic Party, Ikh Khural 2020, Mongolian People's Party, Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, National Labor Party, Party Politics, Politics, Populism, Public Opinion | Tagged | Leave a comment