Friendship Medal

By Julian Dierkes

I was awarded a Friendship Medal by Foreign Minister B Battsetseg at a reception commemorating the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Canada and Mongolia, and also the announcement of an upgrade of the bilateral relationship to a “Comprehensive Partnership”.

Photo: Mongolian Min of Foreign Affairs

I was actually quite touched and felt that recognition for “friendship” suits my relationship with Mongolia and Mongolians very well.

The medal actually turns out to be quite handsome, I will definitely look for occasions to wear the full version or the lapel pin although those opportunities might come more often in Mongolian than in Canada.

I was delighted that a number of people who have been involved in Canada-Mongolia relations were at the reception, including former ambassadors Anna Biolik, Greg Goldhawk and Catherine Ivkoff. Greg was awarded an Order of the Polar Start, congratulations!

Also lovely that a number of former students were also there.

This Friendship Medal came almost exactly 10 years after I was awarded a Governor General’s Medallion by the Rt Hon David Johnston during his state visit to Mongolia.

Posted in Canada, Reflection, Research on Mongolia | Leave a comment

The ONE Challenge

By Julian Dierkes

Because few other people focus much of their attention on Mongolia, I often get asked questions that are more fundamental then I might be on other topics. In a conversation recently, sparked by the state visit of German president Steinmeier, I was asked, “What’s the one challenge that Mongolia is facing?”

Obviously, the academic déformation profesionelle is to complexify rather than simplify, and the obvious answer to that question is, “that depends”.

But, taking this challenge seriously, I would have to answer that the primary challenge for Mongolia is the development of a resource economy. While there are other pressing and important issues (democracy, inequality, climate change, herding economy, gender relations etc.), most of these are impacted directly by the shape of the resource economy.

And, the development of a resource economy is both tricky as well as complex.

Challenges to the Development of a Resource Economy

Obviously, Mongolia is not alone in facing this challenge. It is important to note that many other jurisdictions are grappling with this challenge across the Global South, but also in OECD countries, take for example the resource economies of Canadian provinces, but also places like Alaska or Norway. Some of these jurisdictions have not been that successful in terms of populations benefitting from resource developments, others – like Norway – may not be all that relevant for their experience.

Some common challenges in the quest to rely on natural resources to power economic, political and social development:

  • distribution of benefits
  • attracting investors
  • reliance on resources vs diversification
  • environmental impacts
  • fluctuations in world prices
  • corruption

Mongolia has been grappling with these since the prospect of a resource economy arose in the late 1990s.

The path of development has been meandering. The most pointed example of this is the Oyu Tolgoi mine. To many observers, esp. foreign observers, this meandering path has delayed the flow of revenues from that mine to state coffers which is expected to enable most initiatives toward developments that the government might embrace. At the same time, Mongolians (policy-makers and the population) have learned more and more about the resource sector, and policy choice are now much better understood for the delays that the meandering path has caused.

But, many questions remain. Along the lines of the challenges listed above, some of these questions include:

  • state ownership vs taxation, investment of revenues vs distribution to the population, management of debt
  • need for international investors vs desire to maintain as much control over resources as possible
  • benefitting from the bounty of resources vs recognizing that resources will ultimately be exhausted
  • local impacts of resource projects vs national benefits, environmental damage (potential and actual) caused by resource projects
  • stabilizing revenue flows despite dependence on global prices and developments
  • licensing regimes, protection of revenue flows

Impact of the Resource Economy on other Issues

Politics and Democracy

Many of the decisions about a resource economy have to be made with the input of the population, especially in a democracy. Yet, expectations also have to be managed, something that has been a significant challenge to governments of the past decade. While some specific challenges are recognized, political parties have not aligned along the lines of choices about these challenges. There is no party that makes a coherent and consistent case for more state involvement, for example. Yes, the MPP seems to be generally more inclined toward greater state involvement than the DP and KhUN, but this has not been a consistent position that has been carried out by MPP governments and the need for foreign investment often appears to clash with state involvement.

Questions around the distribution of benefits also have to be politically mediated. The recent decision to bundle direct election seats in parliament into regional groupings is just one indication of how the challenge around the distribution of benefits is shaping politics. Here, the expectations for some kind of compensation of local communities impacted by mining clashes with a unitary state that seeks to distribute benefits to all Mongolians. These benefits are also easily politicized as is visible in the recent payment of a Tavan Tolgoi dividend to Mongolians where the timing of this dividend six months before a parliamentary election is no accident.

Inequality

No doubt, mining has created wealth in Mongolia. Ignoring distributional inequality for a moment, per capita GDP has grown from $560 in 2002 to $4,400 in 2012 and $5,045 in 2022 (current US$, Worldbank). While this income has benefitted some segments of society disproportionately, some of it at least has benefitted all Mongolians. Note the shift in countryside transportation as an example over this time, from horses to motorcycles to cars. Yet, significant inequality remains. There is an urban poor population, especially but not only in Ulaanbaatar, there are threats to the herding economy, and there is a lack of economic development outside of the capital and mining projects, that remains a challenge in this regard. However, any attempts to combat inequality by a social welfare state or redistribution will rely on revenues from the mining sector.

Climate Catastrophe

Clearly, Mongolia is being impacted by the global climate catastrophe without contributing significantly to it (despite the horrendous air pollution in Ulaanbaatar and other urban centres caused by the continued burning of fossil fuels). Apparent impacts include desertification, deterioration of grasslands (also caused by overgrazing of course), increases in violent weather events, esp. precipitation, melting of permafrost, changes in plant and animal species’ habitat and range, etc.

Since COVID, Mongolia’s economy has come to rely even more on coal exports to China. This is where resources are contributing to the climate catastrophe through the supply of lignite and by thus continuing to enable a fossil fuel-focused Chinese economy. But despite the castigation of Mongolian governments by international organizations on this matter, they face the challenge of entrenched corporate elites that have stakes in the coal industry, and the need to generate revenues to address other pressing challenges.

In terms of likely developments, this is an area where we might think of the development of a resource sector in terms beyond minerals. Mongolian sunshine is likely to turn into such a resource that will resemble the mining industry in the space that industrial-scale solar projects will take up, in the need for huge investments, but also the possibility of significant revenues.

Herding Economy

Herding remains central to Mongolian society at a symbolic level, but also as a livelihood for a significant portion of the population. The herding economy intersects crucially with other challenges that Mongolia is facing, for example the impact of the global climate catastrophe. The herding economy is also changing rapidly. There are no political voices that are advocating for an exclusive focus on development of the herding economy. Initiatives focused on the potential of meat production for export to diversify away from minerals have not been successful. While many other projects (regional development, educational opportunities, infrastructure, etc.) are linked to the herding economy, any investments in the sector are largely dependent on revenue flows from the resource economy and policy decisions at the central government level to prioritize rural development.

International Relations

To the extent that Mongolia remains threatened in its existence by its somewhat overbearing two neighbours, this threat is also increasingly tied in with the development of the resource economy. Russia is not only a threatening presence to the North but it is also a competitor as a source of resources on a global market and Mongolia’s primary source of energy imports. China dominates Mongolia in terms of exports and imports, even the further development of the resource economy will not change that. Yes, foreign policy, particularly the efforts to balance constructive relations with the two neighbours with more global efforts to intensify relations with Third Neighbours, is made somewhat independently of economic developments, but this policy continues to be interwoven tightly with the resource economy.

A different kind of resource economy is also on the horizon, that is rooted in the development of Mongolia’s potential to produce alternative energy, esp. solar. That trajectory will shore up Mongolia’s energy security, but it will also require foreign investment and domestic in ways that will not be dissimilar to the minerals-based resource economy.

Implications for the 2024 Parliamentary Election

If my sense of the development of the resource economy as a primary challenge is correct, one might expect that answers to this challenge might be the most prominent element in the competition of political parties and candidates for votes this June.

Yet, this strikes me as unlikely. As I mentioned above, political parties have not developed a coherent policy program focused on the resource sector and views on its development have not emerged as the primary political cleavage that one might expect given the primacy of this sector.

Instead, the election will largely be fought on the merits of individual politicians and a pragmatic assessment of the record of the MPP government. As is the case for the past 20 years, policy on the resource sector will thus likely continue to be made on the basis of specific challenges as they present themselves, dominated by individuals who occupy particularly powerful positions, yet their power will also continue to be checked by the fragmentation of power.

Posted in Corruption, Countryside, Democracy, Demography, Development, Diversification, Economics, Environment, Foreign Policy, Ikh Khural 2024, JD Mining Governance, Mining, Mining Governance, Policy, Politics, Public Policy, Reflection, Social Issues | Leave a comment

The Ulaanbaatar Dialogue: A Time to Talk About Climate Change

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan 

The Ulaanbaatar Dialogue (UBD) is gradually becoming an inclusive dialogue platform for Northeast Asian diplomats and academics to openly debate challenges and opportunities for the region. As the organizers – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Institute for Strategic Studies of Mongolia – prepare for the upcoming ninth dialogue (June 6-7, 2024), we recommend that the dialogue provide some discussion on climate security issues. We argue this is a timely move for all regional countries to strengthen their cooperation on increasing regional resiliency for dealing with the impacts of climate change.

Brief Background on the UBD 

Although the UBD initiative was declared in 2013, the idea was built on the country’s long-standing efforts of multilateral foreign policy and promoting peace and stability in the region. In the 1960s-70s, when the country’s foreign policy had been dictated by the Soviet Union, Mongolia managed to organize events – welcoming newly independent small states in the Asia Pacific Region. Also, in the 1970s, Ulaanbaatar became a center for the Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace. Then, in the 1980s, as the geopolitical tensions among the great powers waned, Mongolia promoted itself as a dialogue venue for peace and cooperation in the Asia Pacific Region. However, due to challenges from the political, economic, and social transition in the 1990s and early 2000s, Mongolia’s foreign policy efforts were directed towards developing equidistant (or balanced) relations with its two neighbors, bilateral ties with so-called ‘third neighbors’ – mostly developed democracies (or Western countries) – and joining multilateral organizations and initiatives beyond its immediate neighbors.

But the idea of becoming a neutral platform for international cooperation did not die. In 2008, the Mongolian Institute for Strategic Studies along with the George Marshall Centre for European Security Studies organized a conference titled, “Ulaanbaatar as New Helsinki?” to promote Mongolia as a neutral venue for the regional security dialogue. After the idea was endorsed by the president, the first UBD was held in June 2014. Henceforth, the UBD has become a flagship event that has inspired other sub-regional, inclusive initiatives ranging from the Northeast Asian Women Parliamentarians Meeting to the Northeast Asian Mayors’ Forum, and even sporting and cultural events.

What Happens at the UBD?

It is a 1.5-day event welcoming policy-practitioners and academics from Northeast Asia. On the first day, the main sessions are usually devoted to providing a neutral platform for representatives from Northeast Asia to identify current security challenges and discuss practical ways to deepen confidence building and collaboration. Prior to the pandemic, the UBD was known as an event where you could witness debates by representatives from “not-so-friendly” countries, namely Japan and the two Koreas. Several times, the host nation facilitated a bilateral talk between Japanese and North Korean officials during the UBD. Since 2022, amidst heightened geopolitical tensions between the United States and China as well as Russia’s war in Ukraine, the UBD has offered a neutral venue for academics from these great powers. In the past, the UBD also provided sessions on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and invited youth representatives to present their views on regional cooperation.

Since the UBD welcomes not only researchers but also diplomats and policymakers from Northeast Asia and those states interested in Northeast Asian affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia hosts a closed door – also known as Track One – session with policymakers. The last two years’ Track One sessions were attended by senior foreign ministry officials from 13-14 countries and the United Nations. In 2023, Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Mr. Seyfullah Hacımüftüoğlu, Secretary-General of the National Security Council of the Republic Türkiye, and Mr. Kim Gunn, Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs of the Republic of Korea, attended the dialogue. It was clear that all these dignitaries made their way to Ulaanbaatar amidst their busy schedules to deliver messages to key regional players.

The event on the second day is co-organized with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP). The UNESCAP session primarily focuses on power grid connectivity for energy transition in Northeast Asia, where global and regional experts exchange their views on the development of the Green Power Corridor Roadmap.

Now the UBD attracts participants from the wider Asia Pacific Region, Europe, and North America as well as delegates from the immediate Central Asian region (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyz Republic). In the past two years, international and regional organizations, such as the United Nations and Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and various non-governmental organizations have attended and observed the dialogue.

Why is Climate Security Important?

This year, the UBD should organize a session to discuss climate change and its related security challenges. As global experts argue, if we do not pay attention and resources to climate change now, the impact will become more devastating in the coming years. Here are three reasons why the UBD is a choice venue. First, all countries in the region are experiencing the impacts of climate change. Some examples are vivid – dust storms, droughts, floods, and extreme weather conditions. Second, the region has more to offer in terms of new technologies – artificial intelligence, cyber, machine learning, and biotechnology – to deal with the challenges of climate change. Third, dealing with climate-change-induced disasters, extreme weather events, or reducing carbon dioxide emissions are not necessarily geopolitical matters but transnational issues. Despite geopolitical tensions, the UBD could bring professionals to find ways to encourage cooperation, or at the least, confidence building. Therefore, the UBD could begin testing the water by inviting climate change experts and regional professionals who are coping with the immediate impacts of climate change to attend the dialogue.

Conclusion 

The UBD demonstrates a unique feature of Mongolia – a peaceful country in a complicated geopolitical terrain. Because it has avoided any serious issues with all countries in the region, Mongolia serves as a neutral, amicable venue for all to put aside their animosities and historical baggage, and converse in dialogue. Albeit facing heightened geopolitical tensions, regional militaries conduct exercises for the United Nations peacekeeping objectives, and states have sent their delegates to discuss ways to advance gender equality matters in Mongolia. The UBD is gradually making its way to becoming a regional platform to address the trust deficit and to promote dialogue for understanding and cooperation. Building on this progress, the UBD can contribute to initiating regional cooperation on climate change with experts and professionals.

Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank Mr. Hesu Song, a Princeton in Asia fellow in Mongolia, for being a peer reader and the copy-editing.

Posted in Foreign Policy, International Relations, Mendee Jargalsaikhan, Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Party Strategies under a Mixed Electoral System in 2024

By Julian Dierkes

Recent constitutional amendments will have a profound impact on the 2024 parliamentary election especially as they will change candidates’ calculus about their nomination. Individuals seeking office or re-election will have the option of attempting to win one of 78 majoritarian seats or be placed high enough on the party list to win one of the 48 proportional representation seats. While it is a bit early more than half a year ahead of the election to speculate about specific individuals’ choice in this regard, there may well be some broad patterns across the three parties that are likely to context most seats, the MPP, DP, and KhUN. Strategic opportunities may align similarly for potential candidates across DP and KhUN in this case, but given the MPP supermajority based on the majoritarian 2020 election, there may be a different dynamic there. It also remains to be seen what impact party finance will have on all of this, for example restrictions on candidates’ spending of private monies, etc.

Choices in Securing Nomination

If candidates had free reign in selection a majoritarian vs a proportional candidacy it would seem like there might be two different sets of factors that would determine that choice:

  1. likelihood of election
  2. relative power/influence of seats.

MPP

Current incumbents have been elected in a majoritarian election in 2020, so those incumbents that won significant shares of the vote in that election are likely to try to secure nomination in majoritarian races, I imagine. On the other hand, there may be new calculations around the role of the party leadership in this kind of election.

For example, if L Oyun-Erdene will lead the MPP into the coming election, should he secure the first spot on the party list as a his route to a parliamentary seat or should he return to Khentii to run in the majoritarian election there? Both elections would be relatively safe for him, but the decision may have implications for his as well as the party’s campaign strategy. If the party concludes that his leadership will be a net benefit to individuals’ electoral chances, there may a preference to have him in the top spot on the party list to allow him to campaign all over the country without having to spend particular attention to his own constituency.

One of the big questions about the MPP candidates will be where women will fit in. If my guess is right that incumbents will try to cling to their majoritarian districts, then presumably the party list for the 48 proportional seats will be heavily populated by female candidates to reach the overall required quota of female candidates. If this turns out to be true and many of those women will be pushed to the bottom of the party list, we might not see a significant increase in women’s representation in the next Ikh Khural. If, by contrast, a number of female candidates are able to secure nomination in higher ranks of the party list, their election may be quite likely and the number of females MPs might thus increase.

DP

In the past, the DP has always run a full slate of 76 candidates. This has been in line with its self-perception as the second party, but cynics might also observe that the funds that candidates have brought into the party have been necessary to finance party activities. With the new party law, that source of income may have changed, but I imagine that the party will still try to run a full slate in the 78 direct election ridings, as well as the 48 proportional representation ridings. The DP continues to have some kind of party organization all across the country, so that a full slate is at least plausible in terms of the campaign resources that would be required.

Access to the party list may also become a subject of negotiations between some of the spin-off parties as they consider re-merging with the DP. Lu Bold would be a prominent former DP leader who might expect a strong list candidacy as a condition for re-merging. On the other hand, he has prominence and a previous record in Khaan-Uul that might mean that he might demand a direct seat candidacy there.

For some of the DP grandees who lost their seats in the 2020 election, it’s unclear whether they will be more tempted by direct election candidacies. I imagine that it will also be likely that there will be some internal battles over the placement of younger candidates, especially some of the younger, more prominent female candidates. This is one of the areas where the electoral campaign will be interesting to watch. For DP, the nomination of strong women candidates on the party list could send a real signal of renewal to the electorate that might also benefit some of the direct election candidates. On the other hand, the DP has been unable to initiate any kind of generational change over the past five years as it has been under Kh Battulga’s peculiar leadership, so there i no real reason to believe that a renewal is coming.

KhUN

For KhUN it might be overly ambitious to nominate a full slate. There just does not seem to be the party organization all across the country to sustain a full campaign, so that nominations in ridings or at list spots that are somewhat hopeless, even with an eye toward establishing the party as more of a force for the 2027 presidential or 2028 parliamentary election, might just require too many resources to be a strategic decision.

There is a set of about a dozen individuals who have gained some prominence as KhUN leaders. I imagine that most of them will seek nomination via the party list and that that’s where their best chances lie. This includes a number of prominent women, of course, so that it would not be entirely surprising of the proportion of female candidates might be highest for KhUN among the three main parties.

If much of the KhUN leadership or its most visible representatives opts to be candidates on the party list not in direct ridings, that could change the nature of the campaign significantly and tilt their campaign toward a stronger party platform as a basis to approach voters. When you are trying to persuade a proportion of voters to vote for your party, you might emphasize the strong candidates that you have nominated in the first, say 15, spots, but it would seem more efficient to emphasize a substantive political agenda along with the collective personal qualification. The arrival of more substantive campaign platforms is something that I have been eagerly awaiting in all the elections since 2008 that I have observed in-country (with the exception of the 2020 and 2021 COVID elections, of course).

Posted in Democratic Party, Ikh Khural 2024, JD Democratization, Mongolian People's Party, National Labor Party, Party Politics, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Change in the Countryside August 2023

By Julian Dierkes

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

I’ve kept a similar list for countryside changes, somewhat less regular as extended visits to the countryside don’t come nearly often enough for me. Earlier notes appeared in July 2023 | June 2019 | October 2017June 2017 | October 2015. Additions/edits to that list are marked in italics below, candidates for omissions in strikethrough.

Note that my last list appeared in July 2023, so this is an incremental update to that list.

Visible Manifestations of Social Change in the Countryside

What has Arrived?

  • Guardrails in some curves on major cross-country roads
  • While street signs (speed limits, warnings of curves, etc.) used to be a curious rarity (“when there hasn’t been a sign for 100km, why this one?”) they now seem to appear in clusters.
  • The state is reasserting its authority in some places. Roadside safety inspections of vehicles have returned. On a drive between Baruun-Urt and Chinggis (<3 hrs) we were stopped by police three times: marmot inspection (we weren’t carrying), tire disinfection, seatbelt check. The latter was really a bit of a local police extortion attempt.
  • Fences around large parcels of lands. As far as I can tell these are hayed for winter fodder as nothing seems to be planted there. Fences keep out animals in this case to let grass grow.
  • Pretty significant agricultural activity, esp. around Darkhan and Erdenet, but also towards Kharkhorin. Many locations and huge fields that I don’t remember seeing on first visit to the area in 2008. Entire valleys dedicated to wheat and rapeseed in particular in 2023.
  • I’ve long heard discussion that many of the projects carried out with the Local Development Fund were public toilets. I have now seen some of these!
  • Not all fences around xashaa (property lots) are wood anymore. There are some prefab concrete slabs, corrugated metals, etc. Some residents are also integrating shipping containers into their fence.
  • Ger district conversions in towns. We saw this in Baruun-Urt for example.
  • Virtually all aimag districts now seem to have at least one tall building (8+ stories).
  • New, modern houses are appearing in soum centres. Only buildings in towns that don’t have a big wooden fence around them.
  • “No littering” signs.
  • Motorcycle helmets. Perhaps a greater attention to personal safety more generally as some of the boats we rode offered life vests. Riding helmets for tourist horse/camel rides as well.
  • Even soum centres have significant tree planting programs going on. Freshly-planted trees in so many public and private spaces.
  • Bike infrastructure in towns and many kids riding around on bikes.
  • Very communicative drivers. For example, signal right means, “it’s clear, you can pass” and signal left “no, don’t pass”. Sometimes you get flashing hazards as a thank you, but they can also mean “animals in the road”. It was less clear to me what the flashing headlights mean. Sometimes they seemed to be the oddly-universal, “speed trap” ahead, but sometimes there wasn’t a speed trap after that. While you’re passing, flashing headlights mean, “cutting it a bit close there, buddy”.
  • Thule-style roof boxes in cars travelling between cities and towns. Roof-mounted canopies to roll out for camping have also appeared.
  • Real coffee has appeared at ger camps.
  • Some ger camps have also embraced green houses.
  • There are Khushuur (Хушуур) stands everywhere along the big roads.
  • We actually witnessed sun screen being applied to a Mongolian child!
  • I had heard mention of herders using their Prius to move a herd, but actually saw that. Highlight was when the door of the Prius opened to bark at a recalcitrant sheep.
  • Herders listening to podcasts. Well, at least I saw some herders with earplugs.
  • Ger-customized wall carpets.

What has Disappeared, or at least, Nearly Disappeared?

  • The clever move to simply drive cross-country around toll booths on major roads.
  • Satellite phones. Still necessary for country-side connectivity around 2010, now I haven’t seen one in some time.
  • 500ml water bottles. There has been a real push toward refilling from larger bottles to reduce waste. Still waiting for personal bowls to make a bigger comeback.

What will Appear in the Future?

  • Much more directional street markers.
  • Cross-country biking, hiking, and riding routes away from major roads. Drives designated as scenic routes.
  • Some kind of ultra- or other sonic device that will scare herds away from roads.

What will Disappear in the Future?

  • Roughly in the 2000s, I would guess, more cars were beginning to show up in the countryside, but road-construction was not revving up yet. That meant that on big cross-country routes, entire valleys were scarred by multiple parallel tracks. Along the paved sections of major roads, these scars are slowly disappearing in the landscape. That is a very slow process, however, so even in spots where new roads now provide a good way of driving through valleys/over passes, the scars remain.
  • At construction sites, the paved roads are often simply blocked with large dirt heaps across the lanes. Effective, but scary at night.
  • Greeting of official visitors at city gates.
  • Fancy streetlight design must be a state socialist heritage somehow along with other forms of public art. There are vaguely futuristic designs throughout Mongolia, but they are even more surprising in provincial towns than in Ulaanbaatar. Somehow, I don’t think that they will continue to be built.
  • Lumber bridges on major roads. As roads are being built across the country, these – somewhat scary – bridges appear to be disappearing, though they are sometimes visible just up or downriver from newly constructed bridges.

What won’t Disappear in the Medium Term?

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

Mongolian Studies vs Research on Mongolia: XII Congress of Mongolists

By Julian Dierkes

The International Association of Mongol Studies meets every five years. Actually pretty cool that the association based in Mongolia exists and has a regular, if rare meeting. I previously wrote about the 2011 Xth Congress, some indication of how long this blog has been going.

This summer, the Congress met August 9-14.

Mongolian Studies vs Research on Mongolia

I have to admit to a somewhat fraught relationship with Mongolian Studies. And, this is a relationship that I am entirely familiar with from my other “regional home”, research on Japan.

Some of the roots of differences lie in a generally philological tradition in Europe (also in Russia, to some extent, East Asian) that is focused on language and culture. Compare that to a more N American, postwar origin in “area studies” that were much more social scientific in orientation. For the former, language is often one of the objects of study, for the latter it is a tool. For research on Japan, I can run with both camps. On Mongolia, I belong much more clearly in the “area studies” camp, i.e. with research on Mongolia, not least because my Mongolian language skills remain limited.

Not unlike Japan, Mongolia, as the centre of attention for Mongolian studies, leans toward the philological approach that very much privileges language, culture and history. I have had several conversations with Mongolian officials and scholars that say that they are intent on supporting research on Mongolia, but turn out to mean Chinggisology (and other forms of historiography) or language.

Note that I fully believe that literature, history, culture are very interesting and important research fields and I am delighted to be able to consume the fruits of some of that research when it is focused on Mongolia. However, I’m also convinced that there is important research to be done on contemporary Mongolia, important in an academic sense, i.e. as a source of knowledge and understanding, but also important in the sense as potentially informing Mongolian policy and thus Mongolia’s development.

Now, back to the Congress. This was clearly a Congress of Mongolists not a Congress for Research on Mongolia. Take a look at the program and some of the huge gaps in topics that are of great significance to (an understanding of) contemporary Mongolia. Almost no sociology, political science, human geography. The only topic that is also actively embraced by social scientists working on Mongolia is probably herding. And, not just broad disciplines that are not really represented, but very specific topics as well. No mining, no urbanism, no youth, no education. Note that this is also true of the section of the conference that was specifically dedicated to young Mongolists. Topics here mirrored the wider topics addressed at the Congress.

Chinese Participants

I was aware ahead of time that this would be a congress dominated by language and historical research. I appreciate all the hard work that is invested into these research areas even they do not match my own interests. And, I’m often very interested in learning from colleagues who are active in these areas. I also attended the conference because I had been interested in the 2011 congress to learn about research on Mongolia in Russia and China, areas of academic activities that I very rarely interact with.

Sure enough, there were numerous Chinese attendees at the Congress, those who seemed to be (by their name) ethnic Mongols as well as Han Chinese. Their research largely fell within the categories that the Congress broadly catered to. What was most shocking to me, however, was that every presentation by a Chinese scholar I heard included a reference to Xi Jinping. Clearly, the increasingly fascist turn of the Chinese regime under Xi had been apparent to me, but the extent to which scholars from China apparently feel obliged to weave in a quote by the dictator even when its relevance to the subject matter at hand seemed at best remote, was surprising to me. Obviously, there was no public mention of the dire situation that ethnic Mongols find themselves in within China, esp. in the Inner Mongolian “Autonomous” Region where the last several years have clearly seen an attack on cultural autonomy.

Organization

One of the somewhat odd aspects of the Congress was its organization. For an academic event, it was oddly secretive. The initial invite came by email and suggested an by-invitation-only format. As participants, we later learned that the government had apparently funded the congress to the tune of ₮1b, so perhaps the “exclusivity” was rooted in fears of a ballooning attendance, but as academics, I think almost all of us would prefer a conference that was as open as possible. Communication with the secretariat was also somewhat odd with a quick request to pay five years of dues, but a very slow response to a request for a receipt for that payment. Closer to the date of the congress it was very difficult to find/obtain a program. And since I was a day late arriving, I never got a badge to show that I was legitimately attending.

Then there were the more explosive, wider issues around the organization itself which prompted the dean of North American Mongolists, Chris Atwood, to post an open letter expressing his concerns.

Partly in response to the letter which seems to have circulated widely among members, S Chuluun did not stand for re-election as general secretary and D Zayabaatar was elected in his stead. The election itself was slightly comical in that a slate of over a dozen officers was presented for election and the election was by show of hands at the banquet. This slate was elected with a majority that would have made MPRP politicians of old proud.

Posted in Conferences, Congress of Mongolists, Research on Mongolia | Tagged | Leave a comment

New to Ulaanbaatar August 2023

By Julian Dierkes

I’ve been keeping lists of things that are arriving to/disappearing from central Ulaanbaatar: May 2023 | November 2022 | August 2022 | December 2019 | June 2019 | April 2019 | December 2018 | August 2018 | October 2017 | June 2017 | May 2016 | December 2015 | May 2015 | November 2014 | May 2014 | October 2013 | June 2013 | October 2011 | August 2011. More informal versions of these observations also appear in the /ulaanbaatar/change/ category.

Bulgan added her observations in Spring 2022.

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

This list was cruelly interrupted by something that was new to the world in 2020, a global pandemic and thus restrictions on travel. After not being able to visit for 32 months, I finally made it back in August 2022.

What has arrived?

  • 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!
  • fixies
  • airport road is getting ever fancier, now there’s a giant overpass just before crossing the Tuul on the way into town. Lots of fancy on/off-ramps popping up everywhere on roads.
  • fully electric cars, charging stations, green license plates for electric cars, Tesla
  • street art (several years now, but I hadn’t noted this before) and newly commissioned public art
  • Prius-based delivery services around downtown for online orders, food, etc. Just like informal taxis, lots of Priuses (?) roaming central Ulaanbaatar to pick up/deliver orders, fleet of Prius clustered around restaurants in the evening to take diners (and drinkers?) home
  • skateboarders and electric scooters
  • several new parks: North of Winter Palace, Southeast corner of Sukhbaatar Sq, also astroturf on Sukhbaatar Square (summer 2022) seemingly quite popular as picnic spot, park in Yarmag.

  • As a specific park: the redesign of the Children’s Park seems to represent commitment to preservation of that open space and greater incorporation into urban centre.
  • When I first started visiting Ulaanbaatar in mid-2000s, streets were tree/shrub-lined. Trees disappeared, perhaps for lack of watering, but are definitely back now in the urban centre
  • Oat milk and lactose-free milk. Of course, good health reasons for both, but still a little odd in the land of meat and dairy.
  • Eye makeup with small glittering tears in the corner of an eye. Note that I am not much of a fashion correspondent, but I remember seeing this first in Japan in the early 1990s when it was called ピカピカ, I think. Cat eyes have also arrived.
  • Coffee choices. Not just Korean chains, but more local choices appearing.
  • Taste for spicy foods. Surely this has arrived via Korean food, but quite the contrast to years ago when spices seemed entirely absent.
  • Movember
  • Solar panels on commercial buildings, also on balconies, in downtown core
  • The development of Mongolian brand consumer products, especially food products has been happening for years and I can’t pinpoint the moment they started appearing on grocery shelves in big numbers. While I still find New Zealand butter in Mongolia strange, most of the dairy shelf is now made in Mongolia, for example.
  • So many renovated sidewalks with paving stones, benches, and planters.
  • Yoshinoya – 吉野家. How obvious are beef bowls for the Mongolian market, but their appearance is sudden to me.
  • Shisha bars. I had seen these before, but neglected to note that down.
  • How have I not noted convenience stores here before? They have become a very common sight in downtown Ulaanbaatar but also beyond. Currently, this is a duopoly of CU and GS25. Note that small grocery stores have disappeared from town with the rise of these convenience stores.
  • байхгүй (“we don’t have that”) has become a frequent response of waiters in restaurants referring to items listed on the menu, but not actually offered.
  • Some new buildings appear to be considering the public space that they’re providing, for example through setbacks from the street and parks in those setbacks. One example would be large office building/mall on the way into town from Zaisan on the right before Peace Bridge with its broad sidewalk, plantings.
  • In addition to the Northwest of town and the area around the power plants which have been somewhat industrial, Yarmag seems to be turning into an industrial zone in parts as well, with the surroundings of the old airport seeing some warehouse developments.
  • In terms of city planning, many of the very large developments in Yarkmag and elsewhere seem to be stand-along neighbourhoods, rather than forming a part of a larger district. Note that they all seem to have a large supermarket as an anchor.

  • Visible Korean influences continuing to grow.

 

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  • Imagery of Mongolian People’s Republic appearing as pop cultural reference point. Not sure whether that signals nostalgia for state-socialist days (Ostalgie).

 

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What has disappeared, or at least nearly?

  • for-pay scales (actually, they seem to be hanging on)

 

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  • supposedly haunted house South of Choijin Lama Temple

 

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  • Victims of Political Persecution Memorial Museum
  • private fences encroaching on public land/sidewalks
  • It seems like (Korean) convenience store chains are replacing the small grocery stores that were ubiquitous in the downtown core. Not gone yet, but waning.

What will appear in the future

  • navigation systems
  • mental maps shifting to street names/addresses instead of landmarks
  • subway (really, I wish they had selected light rail instead, but who knows whether either will come)
  • urban renewal and historical restorations embracing district north of government house (National University of Mongolia, German embassy, etc.), but perhaps it will be too late for that
  • parking (meters), electric charging in parking spots/lots
  • Combined Heat and Power Plant #5 (yeah, right!)
  • hipsters discovering УАЗ (minivan and jeep), but also Porters, perhaps as platform for mobile raves?
  • giant hole blown into Bogd Khaan mountain to “drain” polluted air out of the valley (that actually is a proposal, but it will not appear! There also seems to be a proposal to blast away mountains on either end of the valley to let bad air escape!)
  • some kind of traffic routing system with overhead displays
  • Mongolia-themed coffee travel mugs
  • Mongolia-themed bicycle stands, for example roof structure of a ger as a steel structure
  • vending machines
  • Chinese cars
  • Misters at outdoor restaurants. Very attractive feature in cities like Almaty and Bishkek when it gets hot.
  • In the very long term, current young people (starting from 2000s birth cohorts) will think of themselves as the Prius generation, analogous to German Generation Golf.

What will disappear in the medium-term future

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

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

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

What will disappear in the long-term future

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

  • new (to Mongolia) cars that are right-hand drive
  • the neo-classical Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, with its Stalinist (if that’s an architectural style) spire [Tough call to make as the MFA building is now dwarfed by its own annex]
  • deels in the city [actually, they seem to be making a bit of a fashion comeback among young people]
  • some of the downtown university campuses
  • buildings of 4 floors or less in the urban core
  • Russian minivans (УАЗ452)
  • the Winter Palace. It won’t disappear entirely, but it is more-and-more surrounded by a very urban and very tall landscape making it look somewhat forlorn, a fate it shares with many other buildings
  • heritage buildings
  • street vendors with their little cardboard boxes of tissues, lighters, soda, perhaps rounded out by pine nuts or other offerings
  • that colour in staircases and hallways of apartment and public buildings.
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Guest Post: The Future of Livestock Herding in Mongolia

By Daniel Miller

Will nomadism become extinct in Mongolia?

A Mongolian journalist recently asked me, “Do you think that it’s possible for nomadism to become extinct?”  My answer was:

Mongolia has a long history of nomadic pastoralism, with herders raising livestock on the grasslands for thousands of years. Multi-species herds and mobility were, and still are, key aspects of pastoral livestock production. Mongolians also have extensive traditional ecological knowledge and understanding of the varied landscapes they use to raise livestock. Herders now face many challenges: an increase in livestock numbers, overgrazing, rangeland degradation, snowstorms, drought, livestock diseases, climate change, accessing new markets for livestock products, and conflicts with efforts to conserve biodiversity. There are also opportunities for herders to increase their incomes and improve their livelihoods. Herders will have to adapt to prosper, but as long as they manage the grasslands and livestock well and combine the best aspects of their traditional practices and knowledge with appropriate science-based range and livestock management, they should be successful.

The declining health of Mongolia’s rangelands and the sustainability of many current livestock production practices concerns me.

Nomads or Herders?  Nomadism or Mobile Pastoralism?

Mongolians use the word, малчин (mal=livestock; chin=specialist) to refer to people raising livestock, which is usually translated as a herder, not a nomad. The Mongolian term for nomad is нүүдэлчин, which translates as a “moving person” and does not necessarily mean someone with livestock. Here, I refer to Mongolians who raise livestock as herders (malchin).

Pastoralism is a social and economic system based on the raising of domestic animals for livelihoods rather than agriculture. The term pastoralism comes from the Latin word ”pastor,” which means ”shepherd.” Nomadism refers to a way of life where people have no permanent settlement but move from place to place and doesn’t necessarily involve the raising of livestock. Mongolian herders can also be termed pastoralists and since they move between seasonal pastures their livestock production system can be called mobile pastoralism. The term intensive livestock raising is now being used in Mongolia to refer to specialized dairy producers, swine and chicken production, and cattle finishing or fattening operations (e.g., feedlots).

The World’s Last Intact Grazing Land Ecosystem

Encompassing 1.56 million square kilometers, Mongolia is twice the size of the U.S. state of Texas. About 75 percent of the country is rangeland; ranging from desert to desert steppe, steppe, forest-steppe, taiga, and alpine meadows. Rangelands provide forage for livestock, habitat for wildlife, important watershed function, and social benefits and ecosystem services. Mongolia has one of the world’s last largely intact grazing land ecosystems. As such, the proper use of this important global resource should be a priority.

A Long Pastoral History

Mongolians have been raising livestock for thousands of years. A horse-based nomadic culture existed 3,500 years ago where burials with hundreds of associated horse sacrifices have been found. The rangelands nurtured numerous nomadic federations and the rise of one of the largest land empires the world has known during the 13th century. Livestock production practices that existed for millennia were transformed during the socialist period (1921-1990) and then again with the transition to a market economy in the early 1990s. Growing domestic and export markets for livestock products will drive further changes in livestock production practices.

Are Mongolian rangelands at a tipping point?

Mongolia has a robust rangeland monitoring system to determine the health of the rangelands. Ecological site groups and state and transition models for Mongolian rangelands were also recently developed to communicate information on vegetation changes as a basis for improved management. Many herders are organized into Pasture User Groups to develop grazing plans to improve range management. Unfortunately, much of the rangeland is still mismanaged and a “tragedy of the commons” situation prevails.

In 2017, researchers determined that some Mongolian rangelands were approaching an ecological tipping point if grazing pressure was not reduced.  They also warned that a cultural tipping point could be reached if demographic and social trends lead to erosion of herder knowledge and identity.  That report was based on 2014 data when livestock totaled 52 million head. The livestock population has grown by another 20 million head since then. Many herder households have given up herding and moved to Aimag centers or Ulaanbaatar and fewer young people want to become herders. This leads to a growing loss of traditional ecological knowledge among herders.

Mongolia’s Nomadic Heritage Threatened

Heavy livestock grazing, especially in riparian areas used for summer pasture, is widespread and there is increasing evidence of rangeland degradation. The latest rangeland monitoring data indicates that about half of Mongolia’s rangeland is degraded to some degree. The large growth in livestock numbers and lack of proper range management imperil the very foundation of Mongolian mobile pastoralism. Effective extension services to provide practical advice to herders are lacking. As a result, too much misinformation and inappropriate “knowledge” is disseminated on Facebook. Mongolia’s nomadic heritage is threatened unless ways are found to reduce the livestock population and balance livestock numbers with available forage.

Innovative approaches that build on indigenous knowledge and practices, incorporate new scientific findings, including emerging technologies, and adapt current livestock production practices to markets are needed to secure a sustainable range-livestock production system in Mongolia.

About Daniel Miller

Daniel Miller is a range ecologist who first came to Mongolia in 1992 as a consultant on an Asian Development Bank project. In Mongolia, he has worked on livestock development projects for the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, Mercy Corps, the International Finance Corporation, and the United Nations. He has been involved in rural development and biodiversity conservation programs in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea.  He has a Master’s Degree in Forestry from the University of Montana. He is the author of numerous scientific articles, book chapters, and photographic books about his work with nomads in the Himalaya, Tibetan Plateau, and Mongolian Steppe.   He is currently writing his memoir, A Cowboy in Mongolia: Sport and Adventure in the Mountains and High Plains of Asia which will highlight an uncommon career in international development and natural resource management, focusing on his passion for wide-open spaces, horses, and nomadic pastoral cultures.

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Comparative Impressions Kyrgyzstan-Mongolia

By Julian Dierkes

Some posts this summer are taking on a bit of a travelogue character, simply because I’ve been travelling. But the Mongolia-Kyrgyzstan comparison has always been of some interest, as Kyrgyzstan is the most likely comparison country for Mongolia in Central Asia for two reasons: 1. Until recent political turmoil, Kyrgyzstan was the most democratic of the former Soviet republics; 2. Some focus on mining in Kyrgyzstan’s development.

It was those similarities that led to my involvement in a workshop on “The State’s Role in the Resource Sector” in Bishkek in 2016. A 2021 article in The Economist also pointed to this comparison and was the inspiration for some of my thinking on the fragmentation of political power in Mongolia.

In the comparisons below, I’m following up on a November 2016 post making similar comparisons. Similarly, I was in Bishkek for three days and then on a countryside excursion for another three days. Note therefore, that my comparisons below are very impressionistic.

Following that previous post, let’s start with a city comparison.

Bishkek vs. Ulaanbaatar

Even though Kyrgyzstan has a much lower per capita GDP than Mongolia ($1,300 vs $4,500), Bishkek feels more developed in some ways, at least during a brief downtown visit. With a population of about a million inhabitants it’s significantly less populous than Ulaanbaatar.

Some of the signs of developments are Soviet legacies, I presume, for example  the large squares and tree-lined streets in downtown. Perhaps these have also been preserved somewhat by an absence of the (mining) boom times that Mongolia has experienced which have led to the construction of many large buildings even though the need for office space is not always clear. Ulaanbaatar also constantly seems to be playing catch-up when it comes to traffic and city-planning, while the pace of development must have been slower in Bishkek.

 

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There are some funny urban similarities, however. Door locks seem to be an equal challenge in that they always seem to be loose and about to fall out of the door. This was the case in Bishkek even though I stayed in a very modern apartment and it remains the case for many Ulaanbaatar apartments.

There is also an equally dense infrastructure of notaries (Нотариат in Mongolian, Нотариус in Russian) and pawn shops (ломбард).

While there are some state-socialist statues in Ulaanbaatar’s cityscape (Sukhbaatar, Choibalsan come to mind immediately), there seem to be more of these in Bishkek.

The young urban elite that walks downtown streets seems equally cosmopolitan and elegant. In the professional context that I visited Bishkek in (a summer school for junior scholars) I was impressed how bilingual (Russian-Kyrgyz) conversations were. This contrasted somewhat with the sense in the street that it was rare to see groups of young people that included Russian-looking and Kyrgyz-looking faces.

Kyrgyz and Mongolian felt slippers seem to be similar construction, but they were quite colourful at the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek.

 

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My impression of the much greater variety of fruits and vegetables at Osh Bazaar compared to Narantuul, for example, was confirmed again.

Countryside Impressions

We drove about two hours out of Bishkek for a writing retreat in a guest house. The drive was in the direction of Issyk-Kul and it was interesting to drive along the Kazakh border and actually through a transit corridor through Kazakhstan for a couple of hundred of meters.

One of the most noticeable aspects of driving out of Bishkek was that we passed through vast cornfields and a generally much more agricultural landscape. While there are big cultivated areas in Mongolia’s north, they tend to be entire valleys dedicated to fodder, rapeseed or wheat which smaller plots appear to be much more common in the Chuy region.

We also saw hardly any animals and that continued into the countryside. Makes for much safer driving when there aren’t roaming herds crossing the streets, but also makes for a different landscape. I was delighted to see the occasional donkey, an animal that is largely missing from Mongolia save for some threatened wild asses, primarily in the Gobi. And there were some horses on the back of Porters or similar small trucks being transported.

We also saw very large bushes of apparently wild seabuckthorn growing along rivers and creeks.

 

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One of the unfortunate observations was that those really flimsy plastic bags are still prevalent in Kyrgyzstan where they are no longer in wide use in Ulaanbaatar at least. The worst thing about them is, of course, that they tend to turn into litter in the countryside.

I did not notice a single basketball hoop in Kyrgyzstan in the city, nor in the countryside, though there seemed to be some recently-constructed soccer cages.

Finally, it appears that Kyrgyzstan is the land where late 1980s Audis go to die, just like Mongolia used to be the final resting place for Hyundai Accent and the favourite stomping ground for Toyota Prius. I don’t think I saw a single Prius in 10 weeks of travel through Kasachstan and Kyrgyzstan.

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Orange Turquoise Paint

By Julian Dierkes and Munkh-Erdene G

If you’ve ever visited or live in Mongolia, you regularly encounter bright turquoise and orange floors. These are very prevalent in all older public buildings, but also in temples (well, the orange anyway) with the turquoise generally reserved for walls (though not exclusively) and the orange for (wooden) floors.

What gives?

Here are examples I photographed on recent trips:

Where did these colours, possibly literally the paints, come from, when did they show up and why are they so common? Answers have not been very satisfying (to us).

Cheerful Colours

Sure, orange and turquoise are cheerful colours, but even granting that there may be culturally-specific and institutionalized preferences for and associations with different colours, we cannot imagine that these two colours dominate the cheer sweepstakes to the extent ob being ubiquitous. Also, relative absence of these two colours in private and newer buildings suggest that a cultural preference can’t be the only factor at work.

History

Some acquaintances suggested that the origins of this colour scheme lie in the state-socialist era. That would likely change explanations around, perhaps focusing on chemical make-up of paints, or a (single?) source for these paints within in Comecon (Mongolia was a member since 1962)?

We have even heard explanations that reach back further, pointing to left-over camouflage green colour pigments from World War II production stockpiles as an element in the initial formulation of the turquoise colour.

Given central planning’s strong push to standardize, this colour scheme may have then be applied almost universally with post hoc claims at the cheerfulness of the particular hue.

We have yet to have any luck in identifying some popular terminology for these colours or jokes related to them, but would be very eager to hear any if you know of them.

Religious Meaning

Countering this Soviet-origin story of the orange paint at least, is the prevalence of this tone of orange in religious buildings associated with Tibetan Buddhism. From saffron robes to wooden elements at temples, the colour is common throughout Buddhist structures, so the adoption of a similar colour as a Soviet standard seems to be surprising.

Deel Belt

The predominant colour of a Mongolian man’s silk belt, often referred to as “дурдан бүс” is commonly orange rather than pure yellow. This color is widely considered as symbolic of the sun and wisdom. It serves as a representation of the owner’s “хийморь” a term that directly translates to “wind horse,” signifying fortune and spirit. Traditionally, the belt is always kept in an elevated position, not the ground, showing respect, and sometimes is kept away from contact with women, external influences, and is not to be stepped over.

In Mongolian tradition, women do not traditionally wear this type of belt, which is why they are referred to as “бүсгүй” meaning “beltless” or “without a belt.” This practice further underscores the cultural significance of the belt as a gender-specific emblem. However, now the usage of a belt is not gendered.

Again, this suggests that this colour resonates well in Mongolia, but it is unlikely to explain the Soviet origins.

Ger

The interior of a Mongolian traditional yurt, known as a ger (гэр), mostly orange. This vibrant hue can be observed in various elements of the yurt’s design, including the sky window, pillars, poles, and even some pieces of furniture such as the chest of drawers (авдар), wardrobe, table, chairs, door, and kitchen cabinetry. Some scholars suggest that the circular design of the ger holds symbolic significance, often representing the universe and the interconnection among all living beings. In this context, the sky window can be interpreted as a representation of the sun, while the supporting poles mimic the rays of sunlight. The choice of the color orange within this cosmic framework may be seen as a homage to the profound influence of the sun, symbolizing its cosmic power and its essential role in nurturing and preserving life.

Copper Content?

Similar answers also noted the possible association between turquoise and copper given the colour of oxidized copper. That would explain prevalence at Erdenet to some extent, perhaps, as well as parallel association of copper and turquoise hill in Oyu Tolgoi. This was also the origin of my attempt at a pun in referring to turquoise halls, as Oyu Tolgoi’s logo includes the same colour scheme, of course.

We are no colour chemist, but quick searches at least have not revealed any use of copper in the production of turquoise pigments.

Conclusions

We suspect that there is some Soviet-era origin of the paint that extends beyond Mongolia as recent conversations in Kyrgyzstan suggest that the colour scheme had been common there at one time as well, though restricted to rural and older hospital buildings now, apparently. This may have not been a single origin, but perhaps it was. Apparently, the colours have not acquired any kind of status as pop-cultural icons.

Despite the origins, the colour scheme clearly resonates in Mongolia with religious meanings and copper mining serving as some of the elements of this resonance.

About Munkh-Erdene Gantulga

G Munkherdene is a Senior Lecturer, the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology the National University of Mongolia, and an Executive Secretary of the Mongolian Anthropological Association. His research interest focuses on the social life of ninja miners (artisanal gold miners), nationalism, cultural heritage, globalization, capitalism, development, and mining in Mongolia.

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Change in the Countryside July 2023

By Julian Dierkes

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

I’ve kept a similar list for countryside changes, somewhat less regular as extended visits to the countryside don’t come nearly often enough for me. Earlier notes appeared in June 2019 | October 2017June 2017 | October 2015. Additions/edits to that list are marked in italics below, candidates for omissions in strikethrough.

Note that some of the “what has arrived” entries are based on a self-driven trip to several “destination ger camps”, so I likely noticed that from the driver’s seat even though they may have been around for some years.

Visible Manifestations of Social Change in the Countryside

What has Arrived?

  • Guardrails in some curves on major cross-country roads
  • While street signs (speed limits, warnings of curves, etc.) used to be a curious rarity (“when there hasn’t been a sign for 100km, why this one?”) they now seem to appear in clusters.

 

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  • The state is reasserting its authority in some places. Roadside safety inspections of vehicles have returned. On a drive between Baruun-Urt and Chinggis (<3 hrs) we were stopped by police three times: marmot inspection (we weren’t carrying), tire disinfection, seatbelt check. The latter was really a bit of a local police extortion attempt.
  • Fences around large parcels of lands. As far as I can tell these are hayed for winter fodder as nothing seems to be planted there. Fences keep out animals in this case to let grass grow.
  • Pretty significant agricultural activity, esp. around Darkhan and Erdenet. Many locations and huge fields that I don’t remember seeing on first visit to the area in 2008. Entire valleys dedicated to wheat and rapeseed in particular in 2023.
  • I’ve long heard discussion that many of the projects carried out with the Local Development Fund were public toilets. I have now seen some of these!
  • Not all fences around xashaa (property lots) are wood anymore. There are some prefab concrete slabs, corrugated metals, etc. Some residents are also integrating shipping containers into their fence.
  • Ger district conversions in towns. We saw this in Baruun-Urt for example.
  • Virtually all aimag districts now seem to have at least one tall building (8+ stories).
  • New, modern houses are appearing in soum centres. Only buildings in towns that don’t have a big wooden fence around them.
  • “No littering” signs.
  • Motorcycle helmets.
  • Even soum centres have significant tree planting programs going on. Freshly-planted trees in so many public and private spaces.

  • Bike infrastructure in towns and many kids riding around on bikes.
  • Very communicative drivers. For example, signal right means, “it’s clear, you can pass” and signal left “no, don’t pass”. Sometimes you get flashing hazards as a thank you, but they can also mean “animals in the road”. It was less clear to me what the flashing headlights mean. Sometimes they seemed to be the oddly-universal, “speed trap” ahead, but sometimes there wasn’t a speed trap after that. While you’re passing, flashing headlights mean, “cutting it a bit close there, buddy”.
  • Thule-style roof boxes in cars travelling between cities and towns.

  • Real coffee has appeared at ger camps.
  • Some ger camps have also embraced green houses.

 

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  • There are Khushuur (Хушуур) stands everywhere along the big roads.
  • We actually witnessed sun screen being applied to a Mongolian child!
  • I had heard mention of herders using their Prius to move a herd, but actually saw that. Highlight was when the door of the Prius opened to bark at a recalcitrant sheep.
  • Herders listening to podcasts. Well, at least I saw some herders with earplugs.

What has Disappeared, or at least, Nearly Disappeared?

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

What will Appear in the Future?

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

What will Disappear in the Future?

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

 

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What won’t Disappear in the Medium Term?

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

By Zorigtkhuu B

The Naadam Festival is a one-of-a-kind celebration of nomadic culture, symbolizing national independence and featuring a blend of arts and sports, which took place last week. It is the largest gathering for all Mongolians, taking days off to celebrate their traditional nomadic culture and heritage. It is beautiful to see almost everyone in their traditional clothing Mongolian deel and happiness, pride and joy on everyone’s face.

In recent years, it is not only limited to Mongolians wearing their traditional clothing but also thousands of tourists from all over the world are seen in Mongolian deel during the Naadam festival. Every year, an increasing number of international travellers visit Mongolia during the Naadam festival, to enjoy and experience the festival.

Herder Ulaankhuu’s triumph

One of the highlights of this year’s Naadam festival was the unexpected and remarkable victory of Mr. Ulaankhuu’s horse in the three-year-old horse (Шүдлэн) racing tournament held on July 10th, the first day of the festival. Mr. Ulaankhuu, a regular horse trainer and genuine nomadic herder, pleasantly surprised everyone with his achievement. Mongolians were especially thrilled by this accomplishment since it’s been decades since they last witnessed a horse from an ordinary nomadic herder claiming one of the top 5 positions in the prestigious horse racing tournament.

Despite being called the “Public” Naadam festival, in recent years, the public has expressed criticism, labeling the horse racing events at the state level as the “Oligarchy” Naadam. This is due to the prevailing perception that winning a top position in horse racing is heavily influenced by factors such as being a successful businessman, a member of a business group, or a member of a political party. As a result, ordinary horse trainers and herders have very limited opportunities to secure top positions for themselves and their horses. The cost of supplements and IVs necessary to support their horses is often beyond their financial means.

Conversely, the “oligarchy” has a distinct advantage as they possess the financial resources to afford skilled horse trainers and a dedicated team to prepare their horses for state horse racing. As a consequence, they dominate the competition and consistently claim titles and reputations without much difficulty. This situation has led to the public’s frustration and perception that the festival, which is supposed to represent the nation’s cultural heritage, has become skewed towards favoring a privileged few, rather than embracing a fair and inclusive spirit.

As a result, Mr. Ulaankhuu’s achievement brought immense joy to the audience, and their happiness was evident through the outpouring of support on social media. People had been eagerly waiting for a long time to witness an ordinary horse trainer/herder succeed in the competition. When he entered the central stadium to receive his prizes, he was greeted with a heartwarming welcome from the entire audience. They cheered enthusiastically for him and his horse rider son, celebrating their remarkable accomplishment with genuine excitement and admiration. The moment was truly special and memorable, as it symbolized a triumph for those who felt underrepresented in the face of prevailing challenges within the horse racing community.

Preserving and enriching the culture amid challenges

As a Mongolian, I find the Naadam festival incredibly beautiful to watch. However, I get concerned how some of these unfair or corrupt practices are normalized rather than preserving and enriching the three manly games. In my previous year’s articles, I highlighted the ongoing presence of backroom dealings for the state title and the problem of doping in Mongolian Wrestling. Recently, a young wrestler named E.Oyunbold, who holds the second highest state title “Арслан,” has been prohibited from participating in any wrestling tournaments organized by the Mongolian National Wrestling Association due to multiple instances of doping. However, he maintains his innocence, claiming that he has been falsely accused and defamed. Moreover, there is an ongoing issue where higher state-titled wrestlers make the backroom deal with lower-ranked wrestlers before the 5th round of the wrestling tournament when the lowest state title is awarded. Higher-ranking wrestlers deliberately lose to the potential wrestler who will earn the state title. Following the matches, the senior ranking wrestlers claim that they were merely offering support to the lower-ranked wrestlers. However, whether they genuinely supported them or intentionally lost them for financial gain remains uncertain. This raises concerns about the integrity of the sport and the authenticity of the competitive spirit in Mongolian Wrestling.

Despite these issues around wrestling and horse racing, Mongolians celebrate their traditional cultural ceremony “Naadam” every year. The Naadam’s celebration in addition to the three games, archery, wrestling and horseracing can be enriched to showcase wider range of skills in addition to the horse racing. I recently attend a Stampede in Williams Lake, BC, Canada for the first time. This cultural event was exceptionally interesting for me to watch as the bull and horse riders are very skillful, professional and very well trained. It was clearly seen that this event attracted thousands of local and international tourists from Canada and Internationally. It is the same as the Mongolian Naadam festival, held once a year for 3 days. As a Mongolian living in Canada, I think we need more entertainment involving our bull and horse riders to entertain the local and international audience during the Naadam festival.

About Zorigtkhuu (Zorig)

Bat-Erdene ZORIGTKHUU is a mining professional currently working at Gibraltar mine in BC, Canada. He holds a Master of Applied Science degree in Mining Engineering from the University of British Columbia, where his research focused on Mining Local Procurement (Local Content) in Mongolia. Before pursuing his academic career, Zorigtkhuu worked for the Mongolian Mining Corporation, in Mongolia.

Zorigtkhuu’s experience in the mining industry, combined with his academic research, has given him a unique perspective on mining local procurement and its impact on the industry. He continues to be passionate about finding sustainable solutions for the mining industry and improving the lives of local communities affected by mining operations.

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Party Landscape and Constitutional Amendments in Summer 2023

By Julian Dierkes and Marissa J. Smith

While the MPP has now had a supermajority in parliament since 2016, the 2024 election is beginning to loom and the newly adopted constitutional amendment and amended Law on Elections with their shift to a larger parliament elected partially by proportional representation, obviously fits into the current party landscape to some extent.

After initial consultations about the creation of a mixed election systems and the doubling of the membership of parliament in early May, the amendment calls for a parliament of 126 members, 48 of whom would be elected by proportional representations from nation-wide party lists. Julian’s previous comments on this expansion and change to the electoral system remain the same.

For the current proposal, it is unclear to us what the significance of the numbers of 48 (proportionally elected members) or 126 (total members) is other than a desire to have a smaller number than the initially proposed doubling of parliament where 126 was perhaps a compromise. The sudden addition of two directly elected seats to go from 76 (in place since the democratic revolution) to 78 also remains somewhat obscure.

What positions are the more established parties taking toward this constitutional amendment and what might motivate that support? Conventional wisdom on electoral systems change typically looks to the self-interest of parties participating in that decision, i.e. some kind of calculation whether a given party is more likely to win a majority under proposed electoral systems.

MPP

Since the re-merger of the MPRP into the MPP, the MPRP no longer plays a separate role in these discussions despite the efforts of former president and MPRP leader N Enkhbayar to generate a different constitutional reform process during the past winter.

Why would the MPP support a mixed proportional/majoritarian systems?

If self-interested calculation dominates a party’s decision, it is surprising to see the MPP support proportional representation since the party has done very well with a majoritarian system in the 2016 and 2020 elections.  But this surprise fits with earlier observations that the MPP is struggling with its supermajority in parliament. That struggle has its roots both within the party, where the central party bodies seem to provide little policy direction and research, but also in the relations between individual MPs and the cabinet.

During the session on June 16, 2023 in which the Law on Elections was amended to conform with the new amendment, Speaker Zandanshatar stated “There are many interests that want to divide Mongolia, keep it disunited, powerless, and undeveloped. […] There should be a unified position in foreign and domestic policies for the greater interests of the country. In this sense, the Election Law has been amended and this law must be consistently followed.” This would seem to associate the move with stability on the part of the MPP.

The factor that has been discussed more recently, partly in the wake of Apr and Dec 2022 protests is that the absence of an effective opposition in parliament is more likely to lead to protests as discontent does not have a political outlet within parliament.

MPP support therefore seems to be rooted in its prospects in the 2024 election (good), coupled with a calculation that giving up a certain number of seats to the opposition may actually strengthen governance. On the other hand, civil society organizations have raised concerns about provisions in the draft version of the new Law on Election that would place further limits on the amount of money that can be spent on campaign-related print media, stating that “that Mongolian politicians have been avoiding traditional media and seeking to manipulate information through the “artificial” possibilities of social media and social networks.” (The text of the final law is not yet available.)

Looking at individual MPs’ calculations in supporting the constitutional amendment, I would have to guess that some of them might feel secure in their majoritarian seats while others may be speculating that they would have a good chance on a national list. Take nationally prominent politicians, perhaps L Oyun-Erdene, as an example and one would presume that he would be able to secure a very high spot on the MPP party list (especially if he remains as party chair in a year’s time) thus allowing him to rely on national prominence in running for re-election, while there will be others who will be jockeying for list placements if they feel less secure about their chances in a majoritarian district. The wildcard in these calculations originally were initiatives, subsequently defeated, to institute a “zipper” system for the party lists where nominations would alternate between men and women. This would limit the number of “safe” list spots that might be available to men and since most MPP MPs are men, this might intensify the jockeying for spots. The other wildcard would be a calculation of whether directly-elected MPs might somehow carry more weight in a newly-constituted parliament for being backed by a constituency unlike the more amorphous proportional representation route. That might make itself felt in committee assignments, for example, which might be reduced due to the increased membership in parliament. On the other hand, as we have noted before, there has been a tendency in Mongolian governance to attempt to curtail the potential for MPs or aimag governors to devolve resources from the center to province or soum-level administrations; restructuring parliament so that only some of its members are associated with aimag-based constituencies aligns with this trend.

Regardless of these individual calculations, the MPP caucus in parliament seems in favour of the proposed changes, either through their own conviction or the party general secretary’s “whip”.

DP uniting, fighting against KhUN

It is still unclear whether the DP has actually overcome its divisions including the fight over the party seal this Spring to reemerge as a credible political force. In the debates about constitutional amendments, the DP oddly seems to be taking the position that it would benefit from a two-party system as it is encouraged by a majoritarian election system. I find this odd for a number of reasons: a) what about democratization? The only clear difference with the MPP in defining political party agendas, were efforts at deepening political participation, for example through local decision-making. While this agenda had been abandoned under Battulga, it does remain as one of the defining characteristics of the DP, so it is peculiar to see the DP apparently opposing the introduction of proportional representation for fear that it might have to share opposition status with KhUN or – potentially, depending most likely on the minimum threshold require for entry into parliament – other parties. b) The DP’s reaction therefore has been primarily one that seems to be targeting KhUN. KhUN is not alone in having discovered neo-liberalism as an ideology, many aspects of MPP legislation could also be described as that, but the DP clearly seems threatened by KhUN and thus seems to be treating proposals for constitutional revision and changes in the electoral system as a defensive battle against KhUN rather than as an opportunity to counter the MPP’s traditional strength in local organization, for example. DP rhetoric thus seems to want to brand KhUN as an “MPP puppet” and as performing the MPP’s bidding.

KhUN looking for an electoral strategy

The National Labour Party (KhUN) appears to have taken a different ideological direction recently, but it remains very focused on pursuing strategies toward greater representation in parliament. KhUN and its lone MP, T Dorjkhand, have thus been broadly supportive of the addition of seats elected by proportional representation based on the calculation that KhUN would have a greater chance at winning seats that way, especially with its presumed strength in urban ridings. Note that Enkhbat’s relative electoral success was not exclusively built on urban support, but he certainly returned large numbers of votes in Ulaanbaatar that would lead to a conclusion that a proportional representation electoral system would benefit KhUN.

The DP charge that KhUN and Dorjkhand are somehow acting on behalf of the MPP here seems somewhat far-fetched and the usual conspiracy theories that seem to accompany all political action in Mongolia.

Posted in Constitution, Democracy, Democratic Party, Elections, Ikh Khural 2024, JD Democratization, Mongolian People's Party, National Labor Party, Party Politics, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

New to Ulaanbaatar May 2023

By Julian Dierkes

I’ve been keeping lists of things that are arriving to/disappearing from central Ulaanbaatar: November 2022 | August 2022 | December 2019 | June 2019 | April 2019 | December 2018 | August 2018 | October 2017 | June 2017 | May 2016 | December 2015 | May 2015 | November 2014 | May 2014 | October 2013 | June 2013 | October 2011 | August 2011. More informal versions of these observations also appear in the /ulaanbaatar/change/ category.

Bulgan added her observations in Spring 2022.

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

This list was cruelly interrupted by something that was new to the world in 2020, a global pandemic and thus restrictions on travel. After not being able to visit for 32 months, I finally made it back in August 2022.

What has arrived?

  • 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
  • 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!
  • fixies
  • airport road is getting ever fancier, now there’s a giant overpass just before crossing the Tuul on the way into town. Lots of fancy on/off-ramps popping up everywhere on roads.
  • fully electric cars, charging stations, green license plates for electric cars, Tesla
  • street art (several years now, but I hadn’t noted this before) and newly commissioned public art

 

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  • Prius-based delivery services around downtown for online orders, food, etc. Just like informal taxis, lots of Priuses (?) roaming central Ulaanbaatar to pick up/deliver orders, fleet of Prius clustered around restaurants in the evening to take diners (and drinkers?) home
  • skateboarders and electric scooters
  • several new parks: North of Winter Palace, Southeast corner of Sukhbaatar Sq, also astroturf on Sukhbaatar Square (summer 2022) seemingly quite popular as picnic spot
  • When I first started visiting Ulaanbaatar in mid-2000s, streets were tree/shrub-lined. Trees disappeared, perhaps for lack of watering, but are definitely back now in the urban centre
  • Oat milk and lactose-free milk. Of course, good health reasons for both, but still a little odd in the land of meat and dairy.
  • Eye makeup with small glittering tears in the corner of an eye. Note that I am not much of a fashion correspondent, but I remember seeing this first in Japan in the early 1990s when it was called ピカピカ, I think. Cat eyes have also arrived.
  • Coffee choices. Not just Korean chains, but more local choices appearing.
  • Taste for spicy foods. Surely this has arrived via Korean food, but quite the contrast to years ago when spices seemed entirely absent.
  • Movember
  • Solar panels on commercial buildings, also on balconies, in downtown core

  • The development of Mongolian brand consumer products, especially food products has been happening for years and I can’t pinpoint the moment they started appearing on grocery shelves in big numbers. While I still find New Zealand butter in Mongolia strange, most of the dairy shelf is now made in Mongolia, for example.
  • So many renovated sidewalks with paving stones, benches, and planters.

  • Yoshinoya – 吉野家. How obvious are beef bowls for the Mongolian market, but their appearance is sudden to me.

What has disappeared, or at least nearly?

  • for-pay scales (actually, they seem to be hanging on)
  • supposedly haunted house South of Choijin Lama Temple
  • Victims of Political Persecution Memorial Museum
  • private fences encroaching on public land/sidewalks
  • It seems like (Korean) convenience store chains are replacing the small grocery stores that were ubiquitous in the downtown core. Not gone yet, but waning.

What will appear in the future

  • navigation systems
  • mental maps shifting to street names/addresses instead of landmarks
  • subway (really, I wish they had selected light rail instead, but who knows whether either will come)
  • urban renewal and historical restorations embracing district north of government house (National University of Mongolia, German embassy, etc.), but perhaps it will be too late for that

 

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  • road signs in the countryside (and not just the very random, very occasional ones that can be found now)
  • network of cross-country riding (bike and horse) trails (though not in central Ulaanbaatar)
  • parking (meters), electric charging in parking spots/lots
  • Combined Heat and Power Plant #5 (yeah, right!)
  • hipsters discovering УАЗ (minivan and jeep)
  • giant hole blown into Bogd Khaan mountain to “drain” polluted air out of the valley (that actually is a proposal, but it will not appear! There also seems to be a proposal to blast away mountains on either end of the valley to let bad air escape!)
  • some kind of traffic routing system with overhead displays
  • Mongolia-themed coffee travel mugs
  • Mongolia-themed bicycle stands, for example roof structure of a ger as a steel structure
  • vending machines
  • Chinese cars

What will disappear in the medium-term future

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

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

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

What will disappear in the long-term future

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

  • new (to Mongolia) cars that are right-hand drive
  • the neo-classical Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, with its Stalinist (if that’s an architectural style) spire [Tough call to make as the MFA building is now dwarfed by its own annex]
  • deels in the city [actually, they seem to be making a bit of a fashion comeback among young people]
  • some of the downtown university campuses
  • buildings of 4 floors or less in the urban core
  • Russian minivans (УАЗ452)
  • the Winter Palace. It won’t disappear entirely, but it is more-and-more surrounded by a very urban and very tall landscape making it look somewhat forlorn, a fate it shares with many other buildings
  • heritage buildings
  • street vendors with their little cardboard boxes of tissues, lighters, soda, perhaps rounded out by pine nuts or other offerings
  • that colour in staircases and hallways of apartment and public buildings.

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New Constitutional Amendments Toward Expansion of Parliament and Proportional Representation in Parliamentary Elections

By Julian Dierkes

In mid-May it is looking like the constitution will be amended.

D Amarbayasgalan has been very involved in process of proposing amendments as General Secretary of the MPP (more information about Amarbayasgalan)

MPs were urged to discuss proposed amendments in their constituencies during the week of May 8-12, further debates will continue in parliament, but a final vote may be taken before parliament breaks for Naadam.

To start with my bottom line: I do not feel terribly passionate about these amendments. I struggle to see the reason for the expansion of parliament, I appreciate the addition of seats that are to be elected through proportional representation, but I worry about embedding electoral issues in the constitution and about more frequent constitutional amendments.

What are these amendments?

While other amendments (most notably around the kind of issues the Constitutional Court might hear) have been discussed, in the end, the current proposal amounts to two amendments: expanding parliament from 76 to 152 seats, and specifying proportional representation as the electoral method for those additional 76 seats.

Expansion of Parliament

Like the “double-deel” this has long been a topic of conversation in Mongolia. Way back in 2015 I had already been puzzled by suggestions that the Mongolian parliament was somehow to small and offered some comparisons to state legislatures in Canada and Germany. Many of those comparisons continue to hold today. Take my home province of British Columbia. The population is larger than Mongolia’s (at 5m of whom 4.3m or so are of voting age, compared to Mongolia’s 2.2m or so of voting age), the Legislative Assembly (parliament) currently has 87 seats, set to increase to 93 given population growth. Mongolia’s 76 member parliament does not seem out of proportion, even taking into account that a national parliament, especially in a centralized unitary state like Mongolia has some sovereign tasks that a provincial assembly would not deal with.

So, is there an urgent need to expand parliament? International comparison does not suggest that and really, there has not been a rationale offered in the Mongolian context either that I find terribly convincing.

Implications?

One obvious negative implications is financial, ie parliament with 152 members will be more expensive to elect and to run than with 76 members, no doubt.

One positive aspect that one might speculate about is that a further dilution of power (taking additional MPs to be diluting the power an individual might yield, esp. over several rounds of parliaments) may reduce opportunities for corruption. That is highly dependent on the power balance between parliament and cabinet, something that will presumably shift with a larger parliament.

[Later addition based on further discussions:] There may also be an operational aspect to the size of parliament. While my comparisons to other legislatures suggest that size relative to population is not unusual, there are arguments that the work of parliament is hampered by its size in Mongolia, for example as MPs attention is divided across 3 standing committees where much of the important drafting and revising of legislation happens. That challenge could also be addressed by more resources provided to MPs in the form of legislative assistants, etc., an area that would be good for parliament to address in any case, but I recognize that an expansion of the number of MPs may also address this issue somewhat.

Proportional Representation

As a German, I have grown up with proportional representation at the federal and state level, but also with an election system that is a mystery to many voters and that is currently changing to curtail the growth of the Bundestag. In Canada, I chafe at the lack of representation of minority views in a majoritarian system. Yet, I also recognize that all varieties of systems have advantages and disadvantages, there is not that one perfect system. So as much as my personal preference are systems based on/including proportional representation, for Mongolia, I would prioritize stability over experimentation and I have long worried about the pattern of new electoral systems for every election despite the admirable job that the General Electoral Commission does in voter education.

So, while I welcome the introduction of proportional representation and recognize that it has come to be thought that this requires a constitutional amendment, I do worry that the threshold for amending the constitutions is being lowered. Yes, proponents seem to be hoping that enshrining a proportional system in the constitution will lead to greater stability, but I fear that it just means that parties may be tempted more often to introduce constitutional amendments.

Implications

There are very significant implications of a mixed electoral system for political parties and their strategies. Enough to consider these in a separate post.

Depending on specifics to be determined by the electoral law, a nation-wide proportional list would shift power to Ulaanbaatar voters to some extent. While votes currently count more in less densely populated aimags (variable of course as the number of members from different aimags varies), the national list could be dominated by Ulaanbaatar voters.

Open Questions

There are a number of questions regarding the electoral system that will be settled by an election law, not through the proposed constitutional amendments. While proposals for such a law are floating around these may not be cast into legislation for some time. But questions include:

  • proportional how? The current discussions seems focused on a largest remainder system (for an excellent discussion of different systems, see Andrew Elllis’ primer)
  • gender quota? Most recent discussions seem to suggest a requirement for gender alternation on the proportional party lists. If enacted that would signal a significant boost to women’s representation in parliament.
  • national list? Current majoritarian districts are multi-member, so perhaps some are imagining regional districts for the lists? A national list seems somewhat obvious, but that remains to be determined.
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