A New Prime Minister: Same Politics or Reform?

By Mendee J

The election of U Khurelsukh as Prime Minister and surrounding politicking raise two interesting questions:

(1) Do they (so-called reformist faction of the MPP) mean business and want to reform the party?   Or, is the ‘second echelon’ of the MPP taking over the executive offices?

(2) If they mean business, will they have the resolve and resilience to overcome the deeply entrenched patronage politics within the party and government institutions?

Khurelsukh’s answers at the parliamentary sessions as well as the speech made some indications that he seems to be serious about the reform.  He pledged to keep his promises of strengthening the bureaucracy, fighting against corruptions, and upholding the rule of law.  Interestingly, at the end of his first speech as Prime Minister, he made the only, specific request (probably aimed at his party inner circle)

“Please don’t ask or pressure me and my cabinet to do anything unlawful. I would obey the law.” (link)

Obviously, time will tell whether Khurelsukh and his colleagues can reform the country’s most-corrupt institutions (i.e., the political party according to pundits, studies, and polls); thus have long-term implications for the party, the government, and the state.

If they can clean or at least marginalize the patronage network within the ruling and largest political party, the MPP would have a good standing in upcoming elections in 2020.  If they can prioritize professionalism, rule of law, and accountability within government institutions (ministries, agencies, and provincial authorities), this would result in effective governance at least in the next two years.  If they can provide ‘true’ autonomy to judiciary and law-enforcement agencies and demand the professionalism from these institutions, the statehood would be enhanced and respected.

Second Noticeable Push for the MPP Reform

This appears to be the second noticeable push within the MPP to rid the party of cronyism and clientelism since 2007.  In December 2007, another charismatic leader, S Bayar, and his faction called for the party reform and introduced the most technocratic cabinet. Despite strong public support for his reformist agenda, his team was overwhelmed by the financial crisis of 2007-08, July 1 rioting over the disputed election, and backlash of the defeated factions within the party.  Frankly, the reform for fixing the oldest, largest political party yielded to patronage politics.

Here we are about to witness another noticeable push for party reform – if Khurelsukh’s team fails, the MPP will simply follow the fate of the DP.  The DP has lost its core values and ideological orientation. Money-driven power politics has overtaken the party’s key institutions.  The party-chairmanship, governing board, and local branches have become the tool (or the leverage) for loosely-connected factions and groups to advance their interests and influence.  At the end, the change of the cabinet for the DP-led government simply indicates the change in the balance of power among factions – as all say in UB, ‘the next echelon’ is taking over state institutions.

If Khurelsukh’s team succeeds, we would expect something positive because the timing seems quite favourable.  First, the next election is a bit far away.  All (current and future want-to-be parliament members and political office holders) would take a little bit break.  And, they all wanted to look good and like rational actors publicly.  Second, the public and party supporters began cautiously applauding the reformist call of Khurelsukh and his colleagues after seeing the indifferent and indecisive politics of M Enkhbold (Speaker and Party Chairman) and J Erdenebat (Prime Minister) than their colleagues of the DP.  Third, economic conditions appear to be improving in spite of public debts. Commodity prices are gradually rising and the macro-economic policy is now tied to larger economic structure (i.e., IMF).  And, importantly, Russia and China are willing for more trade.

Khurelsukh’s Next Battles for Power

It is apparent that Khurelsukh is facing several difficult battles at multiple fronts – these battles would tell us whether he would truly bring positive changes to the party, government, and the country or not.  Like M Enkhsaikhan (DP in 1996) or Bayar (MPP in 2008), he was able to gain support to empower the Prime Ministership – especially choosing his team (cabinet members).  And, we would see if he could set up professionally-dedicated team of ministers in coming days.  For which, he needs to overcome pressures from his own faction, collaborating faction, and also contending faction within the party.

The no-show of 28 MPs to yesterday’s parliamentary session is evidence of the difficult battle ahead. In the end, Khurelsukh was elected by 47 MPs, a clear majority in the 76-member State Ikh Khural, but far short of the MPP’s 65 seats.  It also indicates that he needs to deal with his own party’s strong, loosely connected factions – some disgruntled over his actions of either taking down the Erdenebat’s cabinet or not offering any slots within his cabinet.  This faction would continue to challenge any of his policies or actions at the parliament and very likely at the party’s upcoming Congress (in November) to choose the party new chairman and other leadership. This would, certainly, force Khurelsukh to open up more cabinet seats to MPs in order to (1) build a strong coalition in the parliament and (2) prevent triggering anti-Khurelsukh campaign before and during the party congress.

At the moment, President Battulga and the DP’s parliamentary group have been the most supportive of Khurelsukh’s nomination and his will to establish a professional cabinet, but there are areas which would bring inevitable differences over mostly economic deals (i.e., railroads, mining deals, and banking).  The other evident battle, which will occur in coming days, is the power-arrangement over the security and law-enforcement agencies (esp. , police, intelligence, anti-corruption, marshall, plus procurator’s offices) with President Battulga (of course, with the DP prominent ones).

New Cabinet

Although Khurelsukh was adamantly proposing the professional (in reality – united and controllable) cabinet without davhar deels [i.e., parliament member simultaneously holding the cabinet post] and vice ministers, he began to tone down his priorities.  Having a few MPs with cabinet post would enable the Prime Minister (without the parliament membership and also party chairmanship) to maintain influence within the parliament and bargain with ‘friendly factions’ within the MPP.  Similarly, in spite of being criticized harshly, vice minister’s posts are also useful for his cabinet and party – (1) allocate tasks and responsibilities, especially ministries with large portfolios and (2) bring new party leaders (as on-the-job training) and entice the support of younger generations within the party.  Despite the unpopularity of the “double deel” and vice ministers in the public, MPP’s key political opponents – the President and DP’s parliamentary group – will not pressure Khurelsukh to get rid of them while some of his own party MPs vehemently fighting for the cabinet slots. The most pragmatic solution for Prime Minister Khurelsukh could be more davhar deel postings.

As a result, Khurelsukh’s cabinet will not bring any structural changes, but it will likely be composed of individuals with somewhat professional connection, experience, and most importantly answers to Khurelsukh rather than his/her factions.  However, the over-riding principles for the cabinet selections are to pick people with professional relevance to ministries’ portfolio and senior leader-type of work experience at the respective ministry.

Here are potential (rumoured) candidates for each ministry:

  • Prime Minister – Khurelsukh
  • Deputy Premier – MP (Ulaan or Enkhbayar)
  • Chief of Cabinet Secretariate – MP (Zandanshatar or Sumiybazar)

General Functional Ministries:

  • Environment and Tourism – MP (Sodbaatar or Tsogtbaatar)
  • Foreign Relations – MP (Zandanshatar or Tsogtbaatar)
  • Finance – MP (Khurelbaatar)
  • Justice and Internal Affairs – MP (Byambatsogt – incumbent)
  • Labor and Social Welfare – MP (Chinzorig)

Sectoral (Directional) Ministries:

  • Defence – non-MP (LTG (retired) Togoo) or MP (Bat-Erdene – incumbent)
  • Construction and Urban Development – MP (Baatarzorig)
  • Education, Culture, Science, and Sports – non-MP or MP (if MP, Enkhtuvshin)
  • Road and Transportation – non-MP or MP (if MP, Enkhamgalan)
  • Mining and Heavy Industry – MP (Sodbaatar)
  • Food, Agriculture, and Light Industry – non-MP or MP (if MP, Terbishdagva)
  • Energy – MP (Davaasuren)
  • Health – non-MP



Posted in Mongolian People's Party, Party Politics, Politics | Tagged | 2 Comments

Guest Post: Resource Governance Index Points to SOEs as Key Reform Target  

By N Dorjdari

NRGI’s Resource Governance Index measures good governance in the extractives sectors of 81 countries. This year, Mongolia’s mining sector ranked 15th out of 89 assessed extractive sectors, with an overall score of 64 out of 100 points—a relatively satisfactory result indicating that progress has been made in some areas of resource governance. Good governance of extractives is a critical precondition for sustainable development in resource-rich countries, and Mongolia would do well to use the RGI’s findings as a roadmap in its efforts to plan and implement necessary reforms.

A half-full or half-empty glass?

Global indices like the RGI often provide a single overall country score that is a composite of many component and sub-component scores. While there can be many merits to this approach, a composite score might conceal problem areas if the relative significance of sub-components is not properly captured, or if scores for some well-performing indicators sharply contrast to those for problematic areas. The RGI’s assessment of Mongolia provides a clear example of the latter, and it is worthwhile to explore issues that are obscured by Mongolia’s satisfactory overall score.

Mongolia’s results are mixed: the score indicates that the country has strong governance procedures and practices in some areas, but needs improvements in others.

The RGI measures governance across three components. The first is value realization, which covers issues related to licensing, taxation, local impact and state-owned enterprises—factors determining whether a country gets an expected return for the use of its resources. The second component is revenue management, which covers issues related to government budgeting, subnational revenue sharing and management of revenues through different wealth funds. The third component draws on pre-existing measures of governance and assesses a country’s enabling environment—the extent to which the country creates an environment conducive to transparent and effective policies. While Mongolia scored relatively well on the enabling environment component (73 of 100), its scores for revenue management (54) and value realization (63) indicate that there is much room for improvement, especially on the two components that are directly related to the benefits the country derives from its extractive industries.

Digging deeper reveals even more discrepancies among sub-components (see Figure 1). For instance, the lowest sub-component score is for state-owned enterprise governance (40), while the highest score is for open data policies (92). The 52-point gap between the two sub-component scores highlights the need to take a more holistic approach to strengthening extractives governance. The key issues impacting good governance of the sector are highly interrelated. Indeed, even one unaddressed issue may result in the failure of the overall policy.

Figure 1. Mongolia scores for RGI sub-components

Notes: Dots represent global maximum scores for each component. Dark green, light green, yellow and amber indicate good, satisfactory, weak and poor performance, respectively.

The RGI reveals a big “implementation gap” between rules related to extractives governance and the practice of implementing these rules. On average, the score for all legal frameworks assessed by the RGI (54 of 100) exceeds the score for practical implementation (45). This gap is even larger for Mongolia—20 points. Weak implementation of policies and laws has always been a challenge for Mongolia. Sayings like “Mongolian laws last three days” are well known, even by school children. The RGI confirms what many Mongolians already know. The enforcement of laws and regulations related to transparency and accountability is especially weak. The Glass Account Law or Open Government Partnership commitments are just two examples.

Focus on details

Public demand for greater transparency and accountability in the Mongolian mining sector has led to many reforms in the past two decades. Such progress—including the implementation of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative—has positively impacted Mongolia’s overall RGI score and contributed significantly to the volume of extractives-related information people can access.

Despite its strong overall score, the devil is in the details. The government needs to keep working to increase transparency and accountability. One key area of concern revealed by the RGI is the governance of state-owned enterprises, in particular that of Erdenes Mongol, the largest state-owned holding company. This company holds the country’s strategic mining assets; good governance of Erdenes Mongol can have a profound effect on the wider economy. However, at present, the company does not make essential information (such as annual financial reports) publicly available, and it ranks quite low in comparison to similar entities in other countries. Unlike governance challenges that depend on factors beyond a government’s control such as commodity price volatility, reform of state-owned enterprises largely depend on the existence of political will.

Mongolia’s mining revenue management can be improved via prudent budget spending and better sovereign wealth fund management. The government devised the Fiscal Stability Fund and the Future Heritage Fund for this very purpose, but both bodies still exist purely on paper. As indicated by high deficits and the threat of defaults, the government budget remains unstable. Mongolia has not managed to conserve portions of its mining revenues for future generations, which is a result of politically motivated spending and shrinking revenues. Rules governing these funds change much too often, and there is little publicly available information or scrutiny on these funds’ policies.

Extractive company beneficial ownership disclosure and improved transparency around extractive contracts are two other needs. The former is a relatively new challenge that, if addressed effectively, can help end ownership anonymity, build trust with the public, and prevent tax evasion and corruption. The latter is a long-standing challenge in Mongolia. Both these issues are also a part of Mongolia’s commitments under the OGP and EITI. Most importantly, these reforms would both lead to a more level playing field for investors and ensure that the benefits from the sector trickle down to all Mongolians.

About Dorjdari

Dorjdari Namkhaijantsan is the Mongolia manager for the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI).

Posted in Dorjdari Namkhaijantsan, Global Indices, Mining, Mining, Mining Governance | Leave a comment

Prime Minister-in-spe Khurelsukh

By Julian Dierkes

Assuming that U Khurelsukh will be elected prime minister by the Ikh Khural, his term will be primarily inward-looking and focused on domestic politics. He will likely establish a working relationship with Pres. Battulga, but neither of them is likely to make any kind of splash internationally. Instead, within the constraints of the IMF agreement, Khurelsukh will try to dampen perceptions of negative impacts of some of the cutbacks in state benefits, while hoping for a continuation (or resumption, given the past month) of the rise of copper prices to bring revenues to the government that might increase his ability to shape policy more actively.

Khurelsukh, the Biker. From inet.mn news website

But, who is Khurelsukh?

Khurelsukh’s Recent MPP Activities

Given endorsement by the MPP Party Council, U Khurelsukh should be voted in as prime minister shortly, as predicted by Marissa Smith in her recent blog post. His cabinet will be voted in alongside. Given the super-majority held by the MPP in parliament, the party council endorsement should more or less guarantee his election. Khurelsukh has already announced that he will not change the structure of the government, but instead will name new ministers to existing posts.

He will come into the primeministership with the backing of significant parts of the MPP, mostly younger, perhaps reform-minded, but against the opposition of M Enkhbold’s city faction. It was clear to me that he is popular in the party when he spoke at the final campaign event before the first round of the presidential election in June. He was welcomed like a long-lost son by a cross-section of party activists even though that event should have been celebration the leadership and candidacy of M Enkhbold. He cut a much more charismatic figure than any of the other speakers among the MPP leadership.

Khurelsukh’s Government Trajectory

At 49, Khurelsukh is not especially young, but he is generally associated with the MPP youth organization (Монголын Ардчилсан Социалист Залуучуудын Холбоо) for which he served as the president after founding the organization in 1997. In 1990, he was the first officer who resigned from the Mongolian military to continue in a political career. He was elected to parliament in 2000, 2004, and 2012. He served as minister twice in cabinets from 2004 to 2008, and has been deputy prime minister in 2014-15 and again from summer 2016 until now. In between, he was General Secretary of the MPP from 2008 to 2012.

He will be only the fourth (of 30) non-MP PM after M Enkhsaikhan (1996-98), J Narantsatsralt (1998-99) and S Bayar (2007-08), although he has been an MP in the past.

Scrappy Khurelsukh

Khurelsukh’s rise to power is to some extent at least due to the overreach of M Enkbold’s attempts to place associates in positions of power without including other parts of the MPP. Enkhbold’s fall from triumphant parliamentary election winner in June 2016 to his current position of barely hanging on to Ikh Khural speaker’s position after a disastrous presidential bid has been rapid and may not be at its nadir yet.

V Putin, I’m looking at you! From vip76.mn website.

But even prior to his challenge to Enkhbold recently, Khurelsukh has a reputation as someone who embraces elements of accountability to his party and is not afraid to take on entrenched forces within the part.

Two moments in the past stand out in this regard.

During N Enkhbayar’s prime ministership in 2002, he called out the alleged involvement of Enkhbayar’s wife, Tsolmon, in various financial activities. As this came at a time when Enkhbayar seemd to have a relatively firm grip on the party, it was a surprise, and has given him a reputation of being courageous.

Then, he was closely involved as general secretary in the party’s name change from Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party to Mongolian People’s Party in 2010.

When the MPP’s defeat in the 2012 parliamentary election was partly blamed on the name change, he took responsibility for the defeat and resigned from the seat he himself had won in that election.

Parliamentary Battle Photo from news.mn

His reputation for being scrappy was certainly enhanced by a fight in parliament with fellow MP G Bayarsaikhan in Sept 2012. There are also numerous other photos in circulation that seem to show him as decisive, individualistic and having some fight in him.

In contrast to his image of personal accountability, Khurelsukh appears to be somewhat wealthy, considering that he does not seem to have any direct business interests. Recent news reports comparing the three MPP candidates report his wealth as ₮1.7b or approx US$700k.


Posted in Mongolian People's Party, Party Politics, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Norwegian Wealth

By Julian Dierkes

One of my all-time favourite authors is 村上春樹. He rose to fame initially with his book, Norwegian Wood (ノルウェイの森). That was a reference to a Beatles song, of course. And thus the title of this post, combining literature, music, pop culture, and the Beatles memorial in Ulaanbaatar to talk about looking at the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund as an example for Mongolia.

Norway as Best Practice in Turning Resource Wealth into a Sustainable Economy

There is no question that Norway is the, er, gold standard in turning natural resources into wealth that can power a sustainable economy.

And thus, the Norwegian example is often brought up as an example to follow, i.e. “best practice”, for Mongolia to turn natural resources into wealth that can be employed to create a sustainable economy.

Most Mongolian policy-makers and civil society activists will have heard the case for the Norwegian practice at one point or another by now.

In a nutshell, here’s the prescription: deposit revenues from natural resources (oil in the Norwegian case, copper, gold, coal, etc. for Mongolia) in a savings account, set up very strict rules how this savings account is invested and how revenues can be spent, only spend income from wealth, not principal. Versions of this have been enacted around the world, or at least there have been attempts to do this, as most observers agree that the Norwegian case is best practice.

The initial Twitter discussion and subsequently this post was prompted by a World Economic Forum tweet that the Norwegian wealth fund has now reached US$1trillion.

And who wouldn’t want US$1tr or US$185k/person? These per person sums would be even higher in Mongolia, of course, as the population is only 3/5 or so of the Norwegian population.

And, various attempts have been made to create similar funds in Mongolia. For example, the ill-fated windfalls profits tax that was set up in 2006 at a time of very high gold and copper prices, included a provision that a 1/3 of the revenue generated toward a budget surplus would be deposited in a Human Development Fund. While the tax lasted (until the OT Investment Agreement in 2009) this fund received substantial amounts. But then, a large portion of that fund was distributed to citizens as a populist election ploy in 2012. I’m actually not entirely sure whether that Fund still exists/holds any significant amounts in it. Anyone?

Some Doubts

But while the case for Norway as best practice is clear, is the Norwegian experience relevant to Mongolia?

It seems to me that there are a number of preconditions for the  Norwegian model that do not hold for Mongolia.

This led to responses from a number of tweeps.

Mongolian MP A Undraa who had re-tweeted the WEF tweet that got me started.

Others also replied to my tweet.

And, economist and former MP S Demberel:

Here is a quick list of the factors that impede implementation of a Norwegian model in Mongolia. I’ve listed them in order of their importance in my estimation:

  • Absence of a political system and culture that encourages substantive debate about policy alternatives. Ultimately, Norwegian policy makers formed a consensus that some kind of savings fund was the right direction to take. But this consensus emerged after alternatives were considered and debated by parties that looked at alternatives from different ideological points of view. Once a decision was reached, it was implemented and continues to be safe-guarded and adjusted. Political debates in Mongolia have not generally focused on policy alternatives. Neither of the two large parties actually stands for a particular perspective on hugely important questions like the pursuit of revenues based on mineral wealth and the use of these revenues for development. Linked to this lack of an ideological and policy-orientation of political parties is the perception of political office as an earnings opportunity for individuals elected into office.

In my eyes, this is such a fundamental requirement for the kind of long-term policy that aims for collective benefit and demands patience that I would see it as a sine qua non (i.e. a necessary pre-condition) for implementation of a Norwegian model.

  • Corruption. If a substantial portion of revenues does not arrive in state coffers, these funds cannot be saved/invested. This is precisely the step in the resources -> sustainable economy chain that the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is aimed at. Mongolia has long participated and continues to be certified, yet the impact on corruption, at least on perceived corruption has not been significant.
  • Relative human development. When oil was discovered in Norway in the late 1960s, the country and its population was not rich in a European context, but it was clearly better off than Mongolia was in 2000, or even today. Politically, it was thus much easier to preach patience and delayed gratification through savings and future income to Norwegians than to the many young Mongolians that have been fed a steady diet of “wealth is just around the corner now”.
  • Geopolitical location. Norwegian decisions were made in the context of a constitutional monarchy that has had a powerful parliament since the early 19th century. All its neighbours have similar forms of government and while Norway has stayed outside of the European Union, it was a founding member of the UN and of NATO and is closely tied to other European institutions. The political consideration of policy alternatives and the implementation of political decisions is well-institutionalized in and around Norway.
  • Follow-through on policy implementation. In 2015, Mendee devoted a whole series of posts to the failure of policy in Mongolia. In numerous reports on Mongolia, whether these are focused on human rights, corruption, gender equality, or any other prominent subject of policy-making, the observation is repeated that the Mongolian parliament passes a lot of good laws that cover many pressing issues, but that these are often not implemented to full effect. That lack of implementation is linked to the recurring rotation of personnel (partly due to political culture, see above) which weakens the government’s capacity, but it also seems closely linked to the nature of political competition among office holders.
  • Offshore oil discovered by a seafaring nation in close proximity to oil-consuming OECD countries is relatively easy to sell and consumption has held study throughout Norway’s producing era even though the price has fluctuated massively.

A number of the responses to my tweet emphasized the rule of law as a necessary condition. I was a little surprised by that. If “rule of law” is a euphemism for anti-corruption, then yes, obviously, this is a very important factor and I have included it above.

If the “rule of law” in this case means that the judiciary is independent from political interference and that individuals have reasonable confidence in the predictability (on the basis of law) of judicial and bureaucratic decisions, then this strikes me as a minor factor in considering the applicability of the Norwegian experience to Mongolia.

Development Policy Conclusions

Yes, Mongolians should aspire to a non-mining economy that is environmentally and socially sustainable. Norway provides an admirable inspiration for the aspiration.

Yes, the Norwegian experience should be discussed and understood, though I think that many Mongolians involved in development projects and policy have done so at this point.

No, I don’t think that the Norwegian experience provides concrete guidance to steps that the Mongolian government should take right now.

When foreigners like myself get ourselves involved in Mongolian development, I am careful to aim to join Mongolians in identifying appropriate and relevant practice as a guide to possible Mongolian policies. I don’t think that the “best practice” mantra is always helpful in the pursuit of development. Note that is it this conclusion that is also at the basis for my appreciation of and interest in the International Cooperation Fund, Mongolia’s development program, though the current budget situation leaves that program moribund, I suspect.

I do believe strongly that Mongolians would be better served by political parties and a political culture that is organized around fundamental and somewhat ideological disagreements about the policy challenges and alternatives that present themselves. That seems to me to be a precondition for other projects like anti-corruption, economic policies, etc.

Currently, some of the reformist forces in the MPP seem to offer some hope that there are debates about political substance rather than electoral strategy underway and that this is in part a reaction to the uninspired leadership of M Enkhbold and his associates who never seemed to have developed an interest in actual policy.

For the DP, there is a significant question regarding the opportunity that any reformist forces might have. Since the party was founded around democracy and because that goal has been achieved, there does not seem to be any political core to the party anymore. So far at least, Pres. Battulga has also not spoken about a political agenda that he is pursuing.

Finally, some attempts to create political and electoral alternatives give some hope whether that was the “XUN” party (before it descended into infighting and power games) or this year’s “blank ballot” movement. Even attempts at the creation of alternatives would be a contribution to a more substantive political culture.

Embarrassed Admission

As a social scientist, some of these musings should be much more informed by the vast research literature on the pre-conditions for Norwegian wealth, but also on the resource curse. However, in line with the spontaneous conversation that erupted on Twitter around this topic, and in the middle of a busy teaching term, I restrict myself to observations (hopefully not a “hot take”, but a “lukewarm take”) here.

Posted in Corruption, Democracy, Development, EITI, Governance, Mining, Mining Governance, Policy, Politics, Public Policy, Public Service, Sovereign Wealth Fund | 1 Comment

New PM and Cabinet, New Start with the IMF?

By Marissa J. Smith

On September 6, Parliament opened its new session. On September 7, Prime Minister J. Erdenebat and Cabinet were voted out by Parliament after the motion was announced on August 23rd by thirty members of Erdenbat’s party, the MPP. (A list of who voted for the motion is available here.)

For now, the MPP is holding its cards close to its chest; at press conferences held during the latest meetings of the party’s Udirdakh Zuvlul (executive council), little has been said beyond that the next meeting of the Baga Khural of the party would be held on the 25th.

The move has seemingly not been met with much surprise, and commentators seem relatively confident that the new PM will be U. Khurelsukh, the “deputy prime minister” (Шадар Сайд) who submitted his resignation and was then announced to be under investigation by the Anti-Corruption Office. At the same time, there is an atmosphere of watching and waiting — the IMF has also postponed a review of the bailout package until the new government is chosen.

Is the investigation of Khurelsukh a “show” to try and distance him from corruption allegations before his becoming prime minister? Perhaps, but looking at the deployment of distinct corruption allegations let us see Mongolian politics as a more complicated field.

Political discussions on social media since the presidential elections has remained occupied by corruption discourses that dominated the election campaign season. Attention on the “60 Terbum” scandal, “offshoring” associated with the Panama Papers scandal, and the provision of contracts by Ulaanbaatar city official Ts. Sandui maintained momentum over the summer.

But Mongolian politicians have been active participants in these discourses and positioning them at the center of politics. President Battulga has called for offshore accounts to be closed. The “60 Terbum” and possible removal of Ts. Sandui were the focus of press conferences given by the MPP after meetings of the Udirdakh Zuvlul in August. Meanwhile, DP member Ts. Oyungerel, who very publicly sheltered the 60 Terbum leaker Dorjzodov at her home in between campaigning for Battulga in the countryside, has continued to tweet about the 60 Terbum and “corruption” in general.

Again, one might view these as shows or deflections. It seems significant, however, that the motion to remove Erdenebat and his cabinet focused on the granting of 328 million dollars in contracts to the connections of ministers and a Cabinet secretary to build roads and power infrastructure.

An important question for those interested in Mongolian politics is now (and has long been), how such “megaprojects” can be financed and built without the relations involved in their financing and construction being viewed as corrupt.

Another indication that we should look in this direction is the renewal of interest in Ts. Nyamdorj. Though he has been named as a contender for the position of prime minister, he is seen and seems to position himself more as a kingmaker.

Nyamdorj was a major actor involved in Parliament’s ruling the sale of the Erdenet 49 percent illegal. His committee’s reports arguing for this move emphasized flows of money to finance the sale as illegitimate, including the involvement of the Mongolbank and use of the Development Bank (Chinggis Bond financing),  which are also key targets of reform named by the IMF.

Is this where the MPP and the IMF find common ground and a restart? If so, will the other flows of money, and the results of these flows, be seen as legitimate enough by what groups to stem the seemingly relentless flow of corruption discourse and loss of trust in Mongolian government and business?


Posted in Corruption, Mongolian People's Party, Party Politics, Politics | Tagged | 1 Comment

How We Covered the Presidential Election

By Julian Dierkes

It’s been an exhausting but exhilarating summer, Mongolia’s election season.

I tried – together with a number of students – to provide observations, interpretations and analyses of the campaigns and both rounds of voting.

I reported on serving as an international election observer for the fifth time, in the sixth election in a row that I witnessed (last year, I had to leave before election day, so I didn’t formally monitor the election).

As always, I struggled with trying to address a vaguely-Mongolia-interested audience in the same way as other Mongolia-focused people who might read the blog. That remains a difficult task and in the end, I tend to err on the side of the specialist.

In the end, some thought I wrote a bit too much which I very much enjoyed as a comment.

Blog Posts and Twitter Audiences

From the first outlooks on the election in Fall 2016 through the election and its aftermath (July 31), we wrote 45  posts tagged “presidential 2017

As of mid-September, these posts had been read over 7,500 times.

From June 1 to July 31 my tweets (focused almost entirely on the election during this period) reached 640,000 impressions.

I (sometimes together with co-authors) also wrote a number of pieces for other media, particularly The Diplomat and The Conversation.


I received a lot of requests for interviews during this period.

In the end, I spoke to 18 different journalists (print and broadcast). Most were writing short articles or airing brief reports. I am aware of 15 articles that quoted me directly and think that I appeared in 7 TV or radio reports.


So, why so much writing and giving so many interviews?

The biggest goal in speaking to foreign journalists about the election is to try to offer them my interpretation of Mongolian developments, often to counter the conventional wisdom that may circulate among journalists. A great example of that is the interpretation that an Enkhbold victory would have brought “stability” to which I replied, “but what would remain stable?”. When the MPP claims to be investor-friendly, what is behind that label? Is that stability that has a chance to be long-lasting? That is not to say that I tried to argue against anyone voting for Enkhbold, but rather than an interpretation of the implications of his (hypothetical) election as bringing stability is too simplistic. Another example is all the silly articles that have come out of China or from a Chinese perspective that seem to be concerned about Pres. Battulga unleashing some kind of anti-Chinese … well, what? I’m not sure.

Because the world public gets very little information, I think it is important that those of us who focus much of our research attention on Mongolia and especially on current developments try to pass some of the results of our research on to the public. International journalist continue to be an effective conduit for passing on interpretations even though I may wish that the world would just come directly to the source, i.e. read the blog.

I hope that I have not reached the point of some colleagues that I speak to issues regarding Mongolia that others are really much more competent on.

Posted in Presidential 2017 | Tagged | 2 Comments

Mongolian Presence in Germany

By Julian Dierkes

I spent the past year on a research leave from the University of British Columbia in Berlin, Germany, at the Free University’s Graduate School of East Asian Studies.

I found Mongolia to be much more visible in Berlin than in Vancouver.

Scale and History

Obviously, some of that is simply a matter of scale. 3.5 vs. 2mio inhabitants and a Mongolian community of over 1,000 in Berlin vs. perhaps 400 in Vancouver tell some of that difference. Partly, this is a question of history as well. Modern Mongolia has had significant links with Germany since the 1920s when the new state-socialist government connected with the union movement in Germany. Relations were quite close during the state-socialist era, of course, also involving significant flows of people between Mongolia and the German Democratic Republic. I would not be surprised that if we tallied all the visits by the President and members of the Mongolian cabinet to Germany in the past 5-10 years, this number would rival the number of visits to China, for example, and may even rival visits to Russia. [If you’re interested in/willing to construct such a tally, please get in touch, that would be an interesting metric on foreign relations/interactions.]

Canada-Mongolia relations are generally much more recent. These relations are developing perhaps most rapidly around two “hubs” that are apprpriate to Canadian interests and expertise, namely military cooperation around peacekeeping, and, clearly most significantly, Mongolia’s status as an emerging mining economy. As examples of these “hubs” note the recent signing of a Canada-Mongolia Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA, Sept 8), or

My Bias, Obviously

Of course, whether I am in Berlin or Vancouver, I am more likely and more eager to notice anything Mongolian in daily life or in walking through the city. But presumably, that bias is equally strong in both locations, so would not explain my sense that there is more of a Mongolian presence in Berlin

Mongolia can even serve as a set-up for a nice political joke.

Headline on Berlin subway TV: “Michael Müller [Berlin’s Lord Mayor] flies to Mongolia” – whispers from different directions: “Who is Michael Müller?”.

We’re used to jokes about the remoteness and exoticness of Mongolia, but here the set-up is very different.

Mongolians in Berlin

On the street in Berlin and on trains, I regularly heard Mongolian spoken. Obviously, someone who wouldn’t recognize Mongolian wouldn’t notice this, but I did.

There are a number of institutions aimed at Mongolians as well.

For example, Mongolians studying in Berlin have formed an association – MAS Berlin. They have one of the coolest logos for any kind of club I’ve seen, combining the Brandenburger Tor with a Soyombo.

In the academic world, Mongolia is represented at the Central Asian Studies Seminar at Humboldt-University. The focus here is on Mongolian language as well as comparative regional research in a Central Asian context.

While we have a very active Mongolian community in Vancouver as well and a strong presence of Mongolian students at UBC, I will miss the greater visibility of Mongolia in Berlin.

Posted in Canada, Cinema, Curios, Diaspora, Germany, Mongolian Diaspora, Pop Culture | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Beyond the Ballot – Mongolia’s General Election Commission

By Jessica Keegan

Mongolia’s General Election Commission (GEC) has been in existence since 1992 and is responsible for administering free, fair and credible elections. As with any young democracy, the institution has at times struggled to keep up with Mongolia’s shifting electoral landscape. Although job approval ratings for Mongolia’s General Election Commission (GEC) have been paltry at best, the institution has done a decent job over the past several election cycles to administer credible elections.

Since 2016, opinion research conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) has tracked public perceptions of Mongolia’s electoral environment on indicators including trust, job performance and fairness of elections. The research indicates a growing confidence in the elections processes over the last two years and offers a positive snapshot as to the health of Mongolia’s young parliamentary democracy. Consider the following points:

1. Trust in the Biometric Voting System

In the lead up to last year’s parliamentary elections, increased public skepticism driven by political parties surrounding the adoption of the biometric voting system or “black boxes” only temporarily affected public confidence in the system. According to survey results from an August 2016 poll following the June parliamentary elections, trust in the electronic voting system increased   significantly after the elections. By international standards, the June parliamentary elections were well-administered with very few cases of real voter fraud which perhaps influenced public confidence in the electronic voting system. For instance, in March 2016, less than half of Mongolian citizens (38 percent) said they trusted the electronic voting system; just five months later, 70 percent of citizens reported that they trusted the system. Similarly, in March of 2016, when asked whether they believed that their vote would be confidential, 52 percent of Mongolian citizens agreed; that number increased by 15 points by in August 2016.

2. Fairness & Job Performance

Interestingly, between February and May of 2017, citizens’ perceptions of the fairness of the presidential elections fluctuated significantly and in a positive direction. When asked, “do you believe the presidential elections will be free and fair?” between February and May of 2017 there was a dramatic 18 percent decrease in the number of Mongolian citizens who  believed that the presidential elections would not be free and fair.  At the same time, we observed an incremental 10 percent increase in the number of citizens who held the belief that the presidential elections would be free and fair. What accounts for the shift in perception? In May 2017, there was a clear shift in the number of Mongolian citizens who believed that presidential elections would not be free and fair (18%) to those that said that they were not sure, did not know or refused to answer (9%). The 18 percent decrease in the number of Mongolian citizens who believed that the presidential elections would not be free and fair is nearly exactly proportional to the increase in those believed that the presidential elections would be fair (10%) or were not sure (9%). Meaning, we are observing better movement from holding the belief that elections are not free and fair to a new uncertainty about the fairness of elections—which is an improvement that’s been tracked over the past year.

When examining indicators of job performance, perhaps unsurprisingly, over half of the Mongolian population disapproves of the job performance of the GEC—and that has remained the same for the past two election cycles. Why do citizens rate their performance so poorly? It may stem from a number of factors—from an appointment process at the lower-level Precinct Election Commissions (PEC) that has proven susceptible to partisan influence, to the GEC rejecting the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) presidential candidate, to the lack of a proactive communications strategy.  In addition, negative public perceptions of the GEC over the issue of “grasshoppering”— the deliberate act of influencing elections by encouraging citizens to change their voting district—likely undermined approval ratings in the past. However, there are signs that negative perceptions of the GEC may have slightly subsided in the court of public opinion. Between March 2016 and April 2017, the GEC’s approval ratings increased by 10 percent up from just 26 percent in March to 38 percent in April. This could be due to the fact that election monitoring groups such as MIDAS (Mongolian Information Development Association) have recently issued positive reports that the GEC has been serious about incorporating past recommendations. Notably, the institution has also maintained continuity in staffing its public servants despite changes in government, which is a good sign for GEC’s institutional capacity in the long run.

3. Improved Voter Education Efforts

Prior to the presidential elections, the GEC trained elections officials throughout all 21 provinces and in all nine districts of Ulaanbaatar, while also working with a number of civil society organizations to mobilize potential trainers. The GEC fully supported outreach to the deaf community— working with groups such as the Deaf Children’s Parents Association (DCPA) to disseminate voter education videos with sign language insets and developing a special curriculum to train the trainers, released in advance of the presidential elections. While there are still numerous accessibility issues that the GEC and PECs need to address, GEC acknowledged the right of persons with disabilities to participate in the political process and are taking small steps to protect their right to universal franchise.

Despite these achievements, the GEC is still struggling with a few key deficiencies. For example, the precise number of disabled voters participating in Mongolia’s presidential elections are unknown and while the GEC may work hard to ensure procedurally sound elections, capacity and transparency gaps remain.

Particularly in the areas of data transparency and access to information, the GEC falls short of expectations. For example, voter data disaggregated by aimag (province) and soum (municipality)—which would be extremely beneficial for citizens and development experts to access—is not yet public. Aimag-level data—such as the number of female voters and age distribution—remains opaque and unavailable. This dearth in detailed data impedes targeting efforts by GEC, parties and citizens groups, and the GEC should strive to collaborate more with the state administrative authority in charge of state registration to improve citizen access to precinct-level information. Such transparent behaviour would augment confidence in the institution, and mitigate public concerns over perceived partisanship.

About Jessica Keegan

Jessica Keegan is the Mongolia-based Program Director for the International Republican Institute (IRI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, working to advance freedom and democracy worldwide. Ms. Keegan has overseen development programs in Cambodia and Egypt and has participated in several international election observation missions. Ms. Keegan holds a Master of Advanced Study (MAS) in International Affairs from the University of California, San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy.

Posted in Elections, Jessica Keegan, Presidential 2017, Public Opinion, Public Service | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Missing at the Kazakh Expo Party

By Dénes Jäger

The Vatican, Yemen, Antigua and Barbuda are only three of over 100 states participating in this year‘s Expo in Astana Kazakhstan. Even though the concept of an international exposition seems to be a little outdated in a globalized world, the Expo can be understood as a canvas of the host country‘s international relations. This is especially true when it takes place in Astana, where president Nursultan Nazarbayev uses every opportunity to draw attention to the “new Kazakhstan“ on a global stage. While reporting from the Expo-Plaza for several days, I noticed that pavilions of Russia, China and Azerbaijan were among the most frequently-visited. Of the neighboring Central Asian countries Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan contribute with their own costly pavilion, while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have at least stands in the “Silkway Plaza“ (oddly, they share the space with Bangladesh, Armenia and Ukraine).

SCO Pavillon at Expo 2017

Yet the only visible Mongolian flag at the exhibition area is inside the equally bizarre pavilion sponsored by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, where it hangs next to the banner of Iran and Turkey (see image). So why did Mongolia not join this gathering of friends?

Flip-flop Expo-Pavilion

In December 2015 the Kazakh daily “Astana Times“ reported that the Mongolian Minister of Energy D Zorig signed a formal agreement to take part in the Expo during a meeting with the Kazakh ambassador – by that time only 20 other countries had officially confirmed their participation. It was highlighted by the Kazakh side that this could encourage talks about further cooperation in energy and infrastructure development as the official theme of the exhibition is “Future Energy“. But by the beginning of this year the narrative had changed: In an article, the Speaker of the Parliament M Enkhbold is quoted, saying that with support of the Mongolian National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mongolia might participate in the Expo. Six months later the name Mongolia vanished from the official homepage of the Expo. In an organizational environment like Kazakhstan it is not unusual to change plans at short notice, yet Mongolia’s absence does seem a bit peculiar. Enough so to have a quick review of the current state of Kazakh-Mongolian relations.

No Landing in Ulaanbaatar

The latest controversy between the two states was related to the planned construction of the new Kazakh embassy in Ulaanbaatar. So far, no agreement about a location could be obtained. Another strife dates back to spring 2016, when the Kazakh State Airline Air Astana canceled the only connecting flight between the two capitals after the authorities in Mongolia withdrew the permission to land without any given grounds. Then again, several bilateral talks between high officials were held in the last years aiming at deeper cooperation in the political and economic sphere. In February, the head of Kazakhstan’s national atomic company Kazatom visited Mongolia to talk about possible joint projects in the nuclear sector, as Kazakhstan is currently planning to diversify its nuclear business and both countries are dealing, or rather not dealing with a similar dependence on their fossil fuels. Astana’s approach to “future energy“ is closely connected to Russia’s declaration of nuclear energy as a “green“ energy, which also became manifested in Russia’s contribution to the Expo – sponsored by Rosatom, the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation.

Friends without Benefits

Resources are only one of many similar challenges the two countries are facing. Brandon Miliate elaborated on the general nature of the relations between the two countries three years ago on this blog: https://blogs.ubc.ca/mongolia/2014/why-its-not-about-stans/. He identifies a key issue in the balancing act of being a neighbour to both Russia and China at the same time. Naturally the two superpowers have little interest in a coalition of neighbours and thus try to encourage a certain level of competition. A recent example for this is China’s Belt and Road initiative where Mongolia has to deliberate on whether it wants to keep up its Third Neighbour policy and leave the field to Kazakh entanglement or try to become a logistical hub for China’s ambitions. In conclusion Mongolia’s absence at the Expo in Astana does seem to be just one of many incidents over the last years that indicate the two countries’ relationship-status as: it’s complicated.

About the Author

Dénes Jäger (denes.jaeger@hotmail.com) is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at the Central Asia Seminar at Humboldt University in Berlin. Having studied and worked in Turkey and Kyrgyzstan he focuses on Turkish-Central Asian relations in his research and journalistic work.

Posted in Dénes Jäger, Foreign Policy, Kazakhstan | Leave a comment

Beyond “Populism without Party Platforms”: Mongolians’ Politics Beyond Ulaanbaatar

By Marissa Smith

The campaign and election of the rough-voiced businessman-judoka Kh. Battulga to the presidency of Mongolia has elicited comparisons to Donald Trump and gestures to a global wave of “populism” from analysts and commentators, journalistic as well as academic, international as well as Mongolian.

There are some specifics that make this election resonate well with this framing. Appearing in a simultaneously understated and eye-catching Mongolian deel, the judoka and businessman (but not head of one of the large conglomerates) Battulga’s campaign cultivated his image as that of a Mongolian everyman-businessman-strongman.  Unlike Trump and LePen’s, however, Battulga’s popularity was largely limited to the capital Ulaanbaatar and areas of the countryside integrated with its markets rather than outlying areas or the somewhat rusty industrial cities. Not unlike in the United States and France, the election was also a three-way race, and then one with a fourth-way (the “white ballot”). Not unlike Bernie Sanders and Jean-Luc Melenchon, S. Ganbaatar strongly positioned himself against current establishment politics and welded popular protest with gestures to establishment politics of the past; his party’s leader former president N. Enkhbayar also took up popular narratives of critique and addressed in street protests on the “offshore” issue in March.

Beyond Belittling Binary Oppositions

Little in English has been written about Ganbaatar and the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party or Enkhbold and the Mongolian People’s Party, but bringing their role and the roles of their voting supporters in the elections further into focus illuminates some important and under-discussed Mongolian demographic dynamics and related politics. In the most prevalent narratives about “a global populist wave,” peripherality (rural as well as urban) is associated with “populism,” while its usually unnamed other (which I am referring to as technocracy) is associated with cosmopolitan urban cores. Of the four election choices noted above, two generated the most conversation in English language coverage (points of view mostly from the self-consciously technocratic, globally-connected, “core,” and the Mongolian demographics that are a part of this are conversing in this vein in Mongolian): Battulga most fit the role of “populist” (попчин) and the “none of the above” white ballot fit the technocratic slot.

But many people did vote for Ganbaatar and for Enkhbold. These votes have been attributed to being protest votes, “regional allegiances” (i.e. Battulga’s origins in Bayankhongor discussed on this blog and interlocutors on social media telling me of Ganbaatar’s ties to Darkhan resulting in support there), and/or the results of bribes, i.e. not reflective of alternate consensuses on policy, or political-economic direction at least. I observed this accusation leveled on twitter particularly against Kazakhs in Bayan-Ulgii during the first round as results from the decisive western aimags were awaited. The accusations against Kazakhs in particular fixated on not just on their ethnic and religious differences from other Mongolians but their peripherality in general (being in als khiazgar soums). Ethnographic details presented by Liz Fox related to payments made to voters in a Ulaanbaatar ger district, which show voters suggesting they were “out hustling the hustlers” (luivarchid) by taking money from one party while voting for another also complicate narratives about vote-buying. (Luivar is the corruption-related term I have observed to appear most frequently during this election cycle, and it emphasizes intentional deceit and fraud, and in this case, political agency of voters as well as politicians.)

The pattern of votes suggests the form of these alternate “technocratic” forms connecting particular parties and candidates with particular demographics which cannot be easily categorized in terms of core/periphery, urban/rural, cosmopolitan/(insert pejorative…) .

Battulga was most popular in the diaspora, in Ulaanbaatar (including the central districts), and in its connected rural areas of Khentii and Bayankhongor; Enkhbold (who positioned himself in solidarity with his Mongolian People’s Party who swept parliamentary elections last summer) was most popular in the western aimags (much less connected with the markets of Ulaanbaatar); and Ganbaatar was most popular in the industrial cities of Erdenet and Darkhan (which have experienced some “Rust-Belt” or monogorod kinds of decline, but this has been tempered by the continued operations of their socialist-era industrial enterprises and their importance as diversifying regional centers of trade, transport, and to some degree manufacturing and industry), and also made a good showing in the Gobi provinces home to the newer mega-mining projects Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi. (First round data available here).

Connecting With and Criticizing the Likes of Battulga

While it has been embraced by many based in Ulaanbaatar, the diaspora, and the countryside integrated with its markets (from whence Battulga drew the most support), the image of “small businessman” or “yeoman farmer” has limited resonance in much of the Mongolian countryside where it cannot be so successfully enacted as an identity. While social scientists and journalists have richly documented the early and continued excitement of Mongolians to strike out on their own with decollectivized property, for many socialism proved almost immediately to be a hard act to follow.

In Khentii, Dornod, Bayankhongor, and Ovorkhangai, areas connected with the Ulaanbaatar markets some have succeeded in crafting a new kind of “moral exemplar” (see Manduhai Buyandelger, Andrei Marin, Daniel Murphy, and Morten Pedersen’s work). Daniel Murphy’s work in southern Khentii near the aimag center and Ulaanbaatar concerns the rise of very wealthy herders (myangat malchid) whose herds are maintained by poorer clients. He also provides statistics that suggest how many of those voting in rural districts linked to Ulaanbaatar may actually live in Ulaanbaatar much of the time; he notes that in 2008 16 percent of households registered in Uguumur did not not live in the district. One wonders how much of the rural vote represents that of those who reside primarily in Ulaanbaatar, but in any case these statistics suggest the degree of integration between this part of the countryside and the capital.

Elsewhere, however, the rise of a few “myangat malchid” and “businesspeople” is not inspirational but taken rather a symptom of postsocialist decline.

In the far western aimags this is more irrelevant as with such distance from urban markets such differentiation of wealth and power has largely not found the conditions in which to develop (though in the course of my fieldwork I have observed and documented linkage of this kind between Erdenet and Zavkhan/Uvs — and Battulga did find many voters in Zavkhan — see also Bernard Charlier’s recent ethnography based in Uvs. Battulga did also find many voters in Bayan-Ulgii, and Mongolian Kazakhs do have an international reputation as cross-border traders). During the campaign, Enkhbold’s twitter account tweeted an image of him on stage with a portrait of late socialist leader Tsedenbal.

Tsedenbal is indeed associated with the region and the Durvud ethnicity based there, but as the text of the tweet indicated, technocratic  orientations were also being highlighted (as opposed to the MPRP’s and Ganbaatar’s adoption of “grass roots” and colloquial language, the MPP’s language is rather elevated and technical, and not poetic oratory as Enkhbayar has often used). In Arkhangai, in the summer of 2012 I observed a localized continuation of socialist-era organization of production (herding households were producing prodigious quantities of dairy products along the roadside, and were able to count on it being picked up regularly on specified days of the week) between the former showcase negdel of Ikh Tamir (see Daniel Rosenberg’s ethnographic work conducted during the late socialist period) and the aimag capital Tsetserleg, and here the Mongolian People’s Party and Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Parties, with their “platform” of continuity with the Twentieth Century’s socialism, find much support.

In much of Erdenet (and I suspect to some degree also in Darkhan) it would be highly insulting to call someone an “ataman,” a term sometimes used for the entrepreneurs who trace their lineage back to subversive late socialist and immediate postsocialist border-crossing trade, as here the term is associated with the violent chaos of the 1910s rather than entrepreneurial subversion of stifling bureaucracies. In these regions, which did have more votes for Ganbaatar/MPRP and Enkhbold/MPP, people do experience positive continuities with socialism, and negative aspects of postsocialism can be played off between MPP and MPRP, as seems to have happened in Erdenet relating to dissatisfaction with the MPP’s handling of the ongoing 49%/100% privatization scandal.

Divergent Paths in International Relations

The Democratic Party’s choice of Battulga as candidate, and votes for against him and the party, may also be seen in a context of questions about Mongolia’s path in an international context after socialism. Since the beginning of the so-called postsocialist period the popularity of the Mongolian People’s Party has rested with its association with its Twentieth Century image as modernist achiever (it battled with its breakaway party, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, Ganbaatar’s party, for this mantle in 2011 and 2012). The Democratic Party (and fellow travelers, breakaways, and coalition partners) have relied heavily on their affiliation with not just the ideals of capitalist democracy, but its superpower embodiments: the Anglophone countries, Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea. This association has proved to be more visible, immediate, and tangible in Ulaanbaatar. Though Mongolia’s western and western-oriented Asian allies have undertaken large-scale projects in the countryside, these have been of the type of Peace Corps and KOICA, which take the form of shoring up crumbling socialist infrastructure rather than replacing it. The course of the “60 Terbum” anti-corruption discourses and movement and the involvement of Ts. Oyungerel however demonstrate a doubling-down by the Democratic Party on its associations with the United States.

But the Democratic Party has not lost ground only in the countryside and those who feel themselves far away from the “third neighbors.” Meanwhile, the “white ballot” movement involves those Mongolians who have faith that Mongolia can develop with and along the lines of Western capitalist democratic principles, which many of them have studied and whose institutions they have been directly involved in, but do not have faith in the Democratic Party.

Thank you to Alexey Mikhalev for a conversation about “ataman” and my realization that specifics around usage of the term in Erdenet and elsewhere in north-central Mongolia merit discussion.

Posted in Countryside, Democratic Party, Demography, Elections, Erdenet, Kazakhs, Marissa Smith, Mongolian Diaspora, Mongolian People's Party, Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, Populism, Presidential 2017 | Tagged | Leave a comment

6-Year Anniversary and Welcome Marissa Smith

By Julian Dierkes

Unbelievable! We’ve been blogging here for six years now!

That means that almost 100,000 users (93,500) have looked at over of a quarter of a million of posts (277,000). They’ve selected among over 480 posts.

The most read individual posts (excluding various pages and categories) have been:

  1. Corruption in Mongolia according to Transparency International
  2. Planning for 2016 УИХ Election
  3. Major Revision of Mongolian Mining Regulations Is Underway

Just over 23% of users are based in Mongolia, 20% in the U.S., 13% in Canada, then UK, Australia, Germany, Japan, China, Hong Kong and South Korea as the top 10 origins.

We’re delighted to continue to offer our best effort at analyzing contemporary Mongolian politics and social development. While we occasionally dream of somehow monetizing these efforts, we remain unsupported by any private or government funding, beyond the infrastructure and research mandate that our universities offer.

New Addition: Marissa Smith

As we celebrate past achievements and this anniversary, what a great time to add an additional writer to our group, Marissa Smith.

Marissa has written for the blog before, in fact her posts earlier this year on the sale of Erdenet Mine were particularly popular.

Marissa is an anthropologist which is a welcome addition to our disciplinary array of sociologists, political scientists and mining engineers. Read more about Marissa’s background on her About page.

We all look forward to Marissa’s perspective and posts and how you will follow her as closely as we all will be doing.

Posted in Research on Mongolia, Social Media | 2 Comments

Battulga, What Kind of President?

By Julian Dierkes

Kh Battulga has been elected president. That means the dominance of the president’s office by the DP will continue another four years past Ts Elbegdorj’s two terms. But what kind of president will Battulga be?

While the presidency holds few actual executive or legislative powers, it is an important symbolic role that can set the tone for Mongolian politics. This is especially true when the president has to find some way to work with a government from the opposite party, as will be the case for Battulga for at least three years of his presidency.

This symbolic power means that the presidency does play a potentially central role in brining about change in two areas: corruption and political culture.

For corruption, the president can set the tone of a government that is serious about fighting corruption, but he can also be an example of “the fish rots from the head”, i.e. a corrupt president or even a president that is perceived to be corrupt, can compromise many other anti-corruption efforts.

But in combatting corruption, the president actually does wield some real power, for now. This largely comes through his role as head of the National Security Council, but also through control of the judiciary. That role we be crucial in coming months.

The other area where the symbolism of the actions and words of a head of state carry weight is in political culture. One of the greatest challenges to Mongolian democracy remains the fact that political parties are not defined by any kind of ideology or consistent stance on political questions. When Mongolians vote they are actually only choosing the people who will govern, but not the decisions that these people will make, at least not beyond those that are hinted at on an ad hoc basis in election platforms.

A president who engages on the substance of political challenges, rather than treating politics as a venue for battling personalities, could change the tone of debate.

In both of these areas, Battulga seems an unlikely champion of reform, but who knows?

Battulga in the Past

Battulga’s political past gives little hope for optimism in terms of corruption and more substantive political culture.

Battulga was a member of parliament from 2004 until 2016. During that time, he served as a minister twice, first from 2008-12 as Minister of Roads and Construction, then 2012-14 as Minister of Industry and Agriculture. It is this second mandate that has left some Mongolians with a bad taste in their mouth. At the time, Battulga was involved in the plans to expand railroad construction across Mongolia. Mongolian media continue to allege that US$280m of the construction funds allocated from proceeds of the Chinggis Bond “disappeared” in this context. Battulga has never responded in a substantive way to these allegations and the arrest of some of his associates on corruption charges are linked to these claims.

While Battulga has been prone to make pronouncements about various policy issues in the past, these have typically not been linked to a careful analysis of options and likely consequences, at least not an analysis that he has shared with the public.

Famously, former President Elbegdorj chided Battulga during his tenure as a minister for blatantly sinophobic statements, a moment that continues to haunt Battulga in the form of deep-seated Chinese insecurity vis-a-vis Battulga’s alleged dislike of Chinese economic investments.

In 2016, Battulga lost his parliamentary seat in very surprising fashion and it doesn’t seem a stretch to speculate that this electoral loss has coloured his outlook on politics. In the previous three parliaments, Battulga had seemed to “own” the province of Bayankhongor and treated it as a quasi-fiefdom. Not only did he attempt to bring projects and funding to Bayankhongor, but his influence also extended to aimag politics. One might describe Bayankhongor politics as a mess.

To me, it was unthinkable that Battulga would loose an election in Bayankhongor, especially with an electoral system in 2016 that was biased toward incumbents. Yet, he did. And by all accounts (though these are rumours and unproven allegations, as all discussions of electoral fraud and vote buying) it was MCS cash and a lot of ferrying of “grass-hoppers” that led to Battulga’s loss in the election. Not the lesson you would have wanted a president to have learned in the past if you have hopes that he might lead a fight against corruption and for more political debate. Sure enough, whether through tricks or otherwise, Bayankhongor returned among the strongest results for Battulga in the election where he otherwise swept Ulaanbaatar but collected fewer votes in the countryside.

Really, there are many elements in Battulga’s past political career that worry me that he harbours ambitions to play a “strong man” role in politics. Nothing in his career so far would suggest that he would turn into a genuine anti-corruption champion, or that he would embrace evidence-based policy-making or even debate about policy.

Battulga in the Campaign

Yet, in the election campaign, Battulga seemed to show a different side of his political persona.

Battulga’s role in the presidential campaign offers some hints at his capacity for political discipline.

I was taken by surprise entirely when the DP nominated Battulga. In part this was based on his past behaviour, but in part also on the electoral defeat in 2016. When I asked others why he and not R Amarjargal – who seemed to be the front runner – was nominated, the general response was that DP members expected Battulga to contribute his personal funds to campaign funding, something that Amarjargal would not be able to do.

But unlike the behaviour of a candidate who “bought” his nomination, Battulga managed to build a real campaign. He travelled throughout the country, formulated a presidential message of traditional patriotism, and either winged the TV debate very successfully, or had prepared extremely diligently.

More surprisingly yet, Battulga managed to unite the DP behind himself. Some very prominent politicians who have previously managed to stay out of the corruption rumour mill and have promoted substantive policy, most notably Ts Oyungerel perhaps, supported Battulga very publicly. At least up until 3 weeks after the election, she has not been “rewarded” with some kind of post in Battulga’s presidential office, as might have been expected if this was an entirely strategic decision by her. Clearly, she and other DP leaders must seen something in Battulga beyond actualized success in a campaign.

Battulga also mostly stayed “on message” during the campaign and the debate. There were reports early on in the campaign of some derogatory remarks towards China and foreign investors, but this was not a topic he pushed further or an element of the campaign that seemed to hold much sway.

Judging Battulga only on the basis of the presidential campaign gives some hope that there is a serious politician in that shell of artistry (I do love that silver-dotted black deel) and sambo thuggishness.

Battling Battulga

The coming months are likely to bring an ongoing battle between Battulga and the MPP government. That battle may vary somewhat, depending on leadership changes in the MPP that seem very likely. I suspect that the MPP will mobilize constitutional reform efforts to curtail presidential powers and that Battulga will fight back against those.

That fight and efforts to come to terms with cohabitation between the MPP government and the DP president will probably consume Mongolian politics through the Fall’s parliamentary session at least. Most likely, it will be an element in all political decisions and debates for the coming three years. Beyond some initial clarification of powers, this struggle will also most certainly be a distraction, as it has very little to do – at least directly – with the important decisions that Mongolians expect politicians to be making on crucial issues the country is facing. If leading politicians will be consumed with jurisdictional battles, who will address corruption, air pollution, ongoing questions around regulation of mining projects, inequality…?

One of my big concerns about this struggle is to what extent both sides are going to carry this struggle out in public through political debates that voters will be able to follow and judge by themselves. Or, will either or both sides choose to play dirty and use various judicial maneuvers that will reinforce the sense of a highly corrupt state, in a battle over political power for power’s sake or worse, for the sake of personal enrichment.

Two Scenarios

Most likely, Battulga’s presidency will bring mixed blessings. Outside of this grey area lie two possible extreme scenarios, with the pessimistic scenario, unfortunately, still seeming more likely at this point.

Battulga, the Godfather

This is the scary scenario in which Battulga takes too much inspiration from Mafia-like practices beyond his nickname, Genco.

In this scenario, Battulga

  • might instrumentalize the judiciary for personal and partisan aims
  • might torpedo the economic recovery by ill-thought-out statements about mining, mining policy and foreign investors
  • might jeopardize Mongolia’s fiscal situation by antagonizing the Chinese government
  • might grow frustrated with third neighbour governments’ suspicion or lack of response to him and turn toward authoritarian “partners” instead
  • might give up on DP’s long-standing emphasis on democratization

As a consequence,

  • the cancerous presence of corruption on Mongolia will continue or even grow
  • Mongolians’ trust in democracy as a form of governance that gives them a voice in political decisions will decline
  • politics will deteriorate further into partisan bickering
  • Mongolia’s fiscal situation will grow even more perilous pushing revenue streams from Oyu Tolgoi and other projects even further into the future and thus jeopardizing Mongolians’ ultimate benefit from their resource wealth

This is an ugly scenario, but elements of such a scenario are not entirely unlikely at this point.

Battulga, the Good Father

This is the optimistic scenario in which Battulga grows into the office of a president who genuinely has the well-being and development of the nation and fellow Mongolians at heart and acts on this conviction.

In this scenario, Battulga

  • might recognize the need for genuine anti-corruption efforts to start at the top
  • might use the authority of the presidential office to not only ask questions about the political challenges that Mongolia is facing, but contribute to the building of capacity in the DP, in the government, in the media, in civil society to find answers to those questions
  • might embrace Mongolia’s past foreign policy in all its elements
  • might recognize that the only effective antidote to dirty and sneaky politics has to be an expansion of democracy

As a consequence,

  • transparency provisions for officials and in official dealings will be strengthened and genuinely enforced
  • Mongolia’s political culture is re-oriented toward substantive and analytical debate
  • political parties will transform, new parties will arise

I imagine that you can hear the angels singing in the background or see the eternal blue sky smiling upon Mongolia, just as I can.

This scenario does not seem likely, even in elements, but Battulga’s independence from DP party politics suggests that the potential for a personal transformation at least exists. His July 24 call for repatriation of offshore funds suggests that there is a potential for leadership in this area.

A more detailed investigation of the so-called ₮60bil case has also been initiated via the Anti-Corruption agency.

I hope Pres. Battulga realizes some of this potential and wish him and Mongolia all the best!

Posted in Constitution, Corruption, Democracy, Governance, Party Politics, Politics, Presidential 2017 | Tagged | 1 Comment

Guest Post: Not Hans and George but Battulga?

By Dénes Jäger

In Turkish media the result of the Mongolian presidential elections didn’t really attract much attention. Most outlets only published a footnote, while some, interestingly, depicted Battulga as being a candidate close to Vladimir Putin. Naturally, Turkey currently has other problems in front of its doorstep than reviewing its foreign relations with Mongolia. However, with a President and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs alienating their Western allies with thriving conspiracy theories and open hostility, the importance of peripheral friends might increase. Just a week ago President Erdoğan targeted Germany and the US at a rally commemorating last year’s attempted coup, underlining that he couldn’t care less what “Hans and George” want, but would listen to what Mehmet, Hasan and Ayşe had to say. Yet again the name Battulga was missing on this list – enough reason to review Turkey’s relations with Mongolia.

Soft-Power in Turkey’s foreign policy

The 2004 establishment of an office of Turkey’s Cooperation and Coordination Agency – TIKA in Ulaanbaatar was a milestone of the Turkish-Mongolian relations. Since then, projects in the fields of education, health, culture and technology with total volume of more than $20mio have been promoted. In 2015 about 1000 Mongolian students received scholarships for studying in Turkey. Likewise, TIKA encouraged the introduction of Turkish language courses to Mongolian universities. With the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) coming into power in 2002, development aid has been a substantial part of Turkey’s foreign policy. Now Turkey is counted as one of the main donor-countries worldwide, underlining its new-found confidence to be a leading actor on the global stage. This soft-power approach is most visible in states of the MENA-countries and Sub-Saharan Africa, where Turkey aims to establish an embassy in every capital.

From Neo-Ottomanism to Pan-Turkism

Turkey’s ambitions are reflected in the rhetoric toward its foreign partners. Especially in the last years, Neo-Ottoman motives have come up in speeches, as the muslim-majority countries in the former Ottoman-Empire are Turkey’s main target group. To please the ultra-nationalist electorate in Turkey, which the President needed to adopt the new constitution, elements of Pan-Turkism are also being hinted at when dealing with Caucasian and Central-Asian countries. (A quite vivid example was a ceremony held in 2015, were Erdoğan welcomed his guest with guards dressed in armors of the 16 Turkic states). Recent examples are the Turkmens in its neighboring countries or the Uyghurs in China, where the government is depicting itself as protecting power for all Turkic people. Somehow in this diffuse Turanist or Pan-Turkic ideology Mongols are often counted in that enumeration. Despite being neither a country with a Muslim majority, nor with a Turkic language, Mongolia’s steppe is considered to be the mythic homeland of all Turkic tribes. In a publication about TIKA’s work in Mongolia its director Dr. Serdar Çam refers to the Old-Turkic Orkhon inscriptions found in Mongolia and calls the relationship between the two countries almost brotherly.

Mongolia as new market

From an economic point of view Turkey is looking east, too. Especially since the economic boom following the financial crisis of 2008, Turkish companies want to expand to new emerging markets. In 2015 the trade volume between the two countries surpassed the $40mio threshold and Turkish officials have repeatedly underlined their ambitions to boost this number through an advanced partnership in the next years. In particular, Turkey’s expanding construction and energy firms seek new opportunities for investment in the area. Comparing the trade volume to Turkey’s total exports, however, economic relations are not a main factor in the two countries’ ties.

Not a model neighbor

Let’s come back to the opportunity of having a fresh start with newly elected president Battulga.

Right now the idea of Turkey becoming a desired Third Neighbour seems a bit far-stretched. Even though the two countries maintain good relations, Turkey’s lost too much credit in the international community in the last years. Ever since the attempted coup last year it is more and more difficult to distinguish Turkey from autocracies in the region. In its foreign policy Ankara even surpassed some contenders with erratic decision-making and the alienation of many former friends. Being already geographically stuck between Russia and China, Mongolia has nothing to gain from a Turkey leering at Moscow and Beijing. For Turkey, however, keeping up the prevailing level of relations might be desirable. Firstly, Mongolia fits the propaganda of the ruling party AKP and secondly, right now Turkey might be happy with any ally it has not alienated yet.

About the Author

Dénes Jäger (denes.jaeger@hotmail.com) is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at the Central Asia Seminar at Humboldt University in Berlin. Having studied and worked in Turkey and Kyrgyzstan, he focuses on Turkish-Central Asian relations in his research and journalistic work.

Posted in Bilateral Aid, Dénes Jäger, Foreign Policy, Turkey | 1 Comment

New to Ulaanbaatar June 2017

By Julian Dierkes

I’ve been keeping a list of things that are arriving to/disappearing from central Ulaanbaatar: May 2016 | December 2015 | May 2015 | May 2014 | October 2013. More informal versions of these observations also appear in the /ulaanbaatar/change/ category.

I’ve copied the 2014-16 lists here and am adding to it. New items since previous posts appear in italics.

What has arrived?

  • sadly: Louis Vuitton, KFC, Burberry Kids, Ugg and a Porsche dealership (under construction)
  • Mini, Bentley
  • child seats
  • sidewalks
  • parks
  • farmers’ markets
  • yoga
  • dogs on leashes
  • Sunday morning joggers and bikers
  • burgeoning coffee culture
  • river walkway along the Dund River (under construction in May 2015 but looking very promising)
  • city park along the Tuul
  • sports cars
  • organic shopping
  • gated communities (virtually all the new developments towards and in Zaisan)
  • 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
  • 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

  •  street names and signs in the city

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. In summer 2017 there were very few of them again.)
  • packs of dogs
  • smoking
  • the sixth-floor souvenir shop at the State Department Store (though perhaps seasonal)
    oversized sunglasses for women that were so popular across Asia (?) some years ago
  • Nescafé (see above on coffee culture)
  • surprise at seeing bicycles
  • hillside Chinggis visible from the city centre

What will appear in the future

  • navigation systems
  • mental maps shifting to street names/addresses instead of landmarks
  • bike lanes
  • new airport, apparently opening in 2018. I drove by there recently. Oh my, it far from the city!
  • subway (really, I wish they had selected light rail instead)
  • 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 trails (though not in central Ulaanbaatar)
  • parking (meters)
  • Combined Heat and Power Plant #5 (yeah, right!)
  • hipsters discovering УАЗ (minivan and jeep)
  • Canada Goose, Arc’teryx.

What will disappear in the near future

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

  • stray dogs (very few in the city centre in this election year)
  • 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 medium-term future

I mean around 7 years or so.

  • 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
  • some of the downtown university campuses
  • buildings of 4 floors or less in the urban core
  • Russian minivans (УАЗ452) but see above.
Posted in Change, Curios, Social Change, Ulaanbaatar | Tagged | Leave a comment

Populism and the Judiciary

By Julian Dierkes

Populists around the world seem to be targeting the judiciary as some kind of obstacle to implementing the “people’s will”.

Most recently, this is happening in Poland, where the governing party PiS is trying to usurp rights of appointment and dismissal over judges. It also happened last year in Turkey where the increasingly autocratic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been arresting judges and lawyers along with tens of thousands of others since the attempted coup d’état last year. And, perhaps most surprising of all, that grandmaster of populism, Donald Trump, dared to attack one of the most treasures elements in the U.S. balance of powers, “so-called judges”.

Why is this relevant to Mongolia?

The President and the Judiciary

Appointments of judges, but also of heads of various law enforcement agencies are one of the prerogatives of the Mongolian president afforded him by the constitution.

Just recently, I have argued that Mongolians have elected a populist in Pres. Battulga, not despite his populism, not because of it.

Pres. Battulga’s actions in appointments to the justice and security apparatus will thus be especially important to watch. So far at least, there have not been arguments in Mongolia that judicial decisions somehow stand in the way of the popular will. But, if Pres. Battulga finds himself accused of or attacked on corruption, he might lash out against those attacks by a) questioning the legitimacy of any court decisions, and b) using his control over parts of the judiciary to discredit or worse opponents. That would be a terrible direction to take, as the examples of the U.S., Turkey and also Poland show.

The independence of the Mongolian judiciary has been under some suspicion in any case. Many thought that Pres. Elbegdorj tended to employ parts of the security apparatus, including – ever-ironically – the Anti-Corruption Agency, for his political aims.

This has led to the resignation of judges in the past, but it also has led to the instrumentalization of the courts for political purposes. One example of that with direct relevance to democracy was the High Court decision against proportional representation in April 2016, just weeks ahead of the parliamentary election.

As many discussions of any judicial systems have emphasized, a judicial system is only as good as its independence, from politicians, from businesses, from all kinds of interests. In a country like Mongolia that continues to be plagued by corruption, this is especially important to uphold.

The coming months are also likely to see some conflict between Pres. Battulga and the Ikh Khural. Some of the opening shots have already been fired in regards to the recall of Ambassadors Bayar and Enkhsaikhan. In this conflict, the judiciary is likely to play some role, again because it is the area where the presidency has the most authority.

I can only hope that Pres. Battulga does not take actions in countries like Poland as a blueprint or example for his own relationship with the judiciary.


Posted in Corruption, Judiciary, Presidential 2017 | 2 Comments