It’s been quite a year for Mongolia in that the rest of the world paid some attention to Mongolia, at least in punctuated bursts…
Mongolia in the News
The news item that probably attracted most international attention was the fact that Mongolia’s economy was the fastest-growing economy in 2011. This halo lasted all year in attracting visits by foreign journalists who produced relatively repetitive stories on the extent to which the Mongolian economy centres on Oyu Tolgoi and the controversies that this engenders.
The other story that made it onto the international news radar was the arrest, prosecution and sentencing of N Enkhbayar, former speaker of parliament, prime minister and president. The arrest came under somewhat theatrical circumstances in April and led first to Enkhbayar being barred from running for parliament and then to his initial sentencing in August before his sentence was commuted to 2 1/2 years in December.
Most of the international attention seemed to be rooted in a PR campaign that Enkhbayar and/or his supporters ran in various countries. This led to statements of support for Enkhbayar by US Senator Diane Feinstein, for example, and to a whole series of rather vacuuous blog posts by a political strategist/blogger named Doug Schoen who seemed to have a very rudimentary understanding of Mongolia and reproduced the line that was pushed in PR materials sent out by the Enkhbayar camp. Regardless of the silly notion that Enkhbayar’s trial would be the end of Mongolian democracy, democratic governance seemed to pull through just fine and emerged significantly strengthened from the June parliamentary elections.
DP Political Dominance
This election was also the first step in what may shape up to be a period of dominance over Mongolian politics by the DP. Having won a plurality of seats in parliament in June as well as the mayoral election in Ulaanbaatar, DP candidates did well in the local elections in November as well, winning a number of provincial khural majorities and thus governor positions.
While the presidential election is still more than six months away, Elbegdorj’s chances at re-election currently would look very strong, assuming that the DP holds together with the same unity that characterize the parliamentary campaign in June. If Elbegdorj were to be re-elected this would cement DP dominance further until the next parliamentary election in 2016, again assuming that internal rivalries don’t break out.
Unfortunately, these domestic political dynamics were largely ignored by the international press, perhaps because journalists were so busy focusing on stories about various decommissioned UK ambulances who annually trek to Ulaanbaatar claiming 82% of international news coverage (my unscientific impression of coverage). At least we made it through a year of no stories (at least none that I recall) on kids living in sewers in Ulaanbaatar and Mongolian neo-Nazis. We almost made it through the year of the 850th anniversary of Chinggis Khan’s birth without any attention paid to this, but then Newsweek followed through with a story reporting on the “hunt” for Chinggis Khan’s tomb.
International Relations in 2012
Of greater significance for real rather than legendary international relations were three events this year. In May, the Mongolian parliament passed a Foreign Investment Law that is still causing ripples half a year later. In the Fall, Mongolia’s nuclear weapons-free status was finally formally recognized by the UN Security Council and in November Mongolia joined the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) as the first member from Asia (beyond the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia at least).
Other events that were noticed around the world were the November meeting of Japanese and North Korean negotiators in Ulaanbaatar and the massively oversubscribed sale of Chinggis Bonds (Mongolian sovereign debt).
Intensified Efforts against Corruption and Pollution
The Mongolian government has become more active during this year in two areas that hold importance consequences for the long-term future of the country: corruption and pollution.
The Enkhbayar trial is only the most prominent indicator of a seemingly intensified effort to curb corruption. A series of legislative efforts have clarified matters around an understanding of corruption and conflict of interest so that the prosecution of corrupt practices has become possible and some deterrent is being established. That does not mean by any stretch that corruption has been curbed, nor that the current DP government is free from it, but corrupt practices are being discussed in public more concretely and allegations are moving from the realm of conspiracy theories to criminal investigations.
After years of lamenting the horrific air pollution in Ulaanbaatar in the winter, there also seem to be some concrete steps to address this pollution, at least where it is coupled with traffic congestion. Less effort seems to be devoted to air pollution from coal stoves, though some pilot projects providing cleaner-burning fuels and stoves are in process.
Finally, Mongolia’s success at the London Olympics winning five medals was drowned out somewhat by the absence of a single gold medal despite great efforts by athletes, especially in judo.
Outlook to 2013
The two political events that are most clearly on the horizon for 2013 are the presidential election and Mongolia’s continued presidency of the Community of Democracies.
On the economic front, Mongolia is likely to record strong growth for 2012 again, especially with the slight re-bounding of coal sales in the latter half of the year.
If any decisions related to Tavan Tolgoi are made this year (unlikely before the presidential election, somewhat less unlikely in the Fall) this will certainly garner attention, as would any more concrete attempts to renegotiate the Oyu Tolgoi IA.