Fascist Symbolism in Mongolia

By Niels Hegewisch and Julian Dierkes

Recent attention to ethno-rock sensation The Hu has revived concerns about the (seeming) use of fascist iconography in Mongolian politics. While fascist symbols are immediately distasteful to Western observers, in Asia such symbols need to be placed in local contexts to understand their use. While it is important to call out rabid nationalism and xenophobia in Mongolia, not every ignorant embrace of fascist symbols is necessarily a sign of larger political tendencies. The challenge in distinguishing real worrisome political tendencies from context-specific symbolism, from purposeful provocation, or from plain ignorance can be seen in particularly stark relief with the rising popularity of The Hu.

Swastikas and Iron Crosses in The Hu Videos

The Mongolian folk rock band The Hu has become an international sensation (NPR | The Guardian | Foreign Policy). One of the crucial elements in their success may have been their striking, professionally-produced videos featuring rugged nature and nomadic Mongolian culture in rather bombastic fashion.

The band is popular in Mongolia itself in part because of their lyrics that offer thinly veiled jabs at the common fixation on material wealth and at politicians‘ populist nationalism.

However, some are casting doubt on this perception of the band as likable and principally critical. YouTube comments and various online discussions have focused their attention on close examination of one particular scence in the video for „Wolf Totem“.

The HU (Mongolian Metal) & The NeoNazis

At 5‘12“ in the video we see a hand wearing two rings. The designs of these rings suggest different interpretations some of which are clearly problematic.

The first ring shows a swastika and can be interpreted as a Nazi symbol or the Buddhist symbol for good fortune. The ring also features the symbol of the Mongolian state, the Soyombo, pointing toward “good fortune for Mongolia” as a possible interpretation. Swastikas (including the clockwise-turning version commonly associated with fascism) appear commonly in Mongolia in official as well as casual settings. They adorn government buildings, picture frames, and bumper stickers. Unfortunately, the Nazi version is sometimes portrayed as cool or fashionable as well, often out of apparent historical ignorance. Whereas Nazi symbolism is unambiguous in a European context, use of similar symbols in a Mongolian context is much less clear in representing any kind of association with fascism.

The second ring in the video displays a symbol of the Mongolian Choppers Brotherhood. This includes the German “iron cross”. The Brotherhood is well-established in Mongolia and generally perceived as an apolitical grouping of motorcycle enthusiasts. As such it is one of several similar clubs. The Brotherhood is particularly well-known for joining with the city of Ulaanbaatar in organizing the Steppe Wind music festival. The Hu performed at the 2019 festival and the opening motorcycle parade was led by Prime Minister and Harley-Davidson-enthusiast U Khurelsukh.

Mongolian motorcycle clubs largely look toward North America to model their activities and representation on. That is how the iron cross has most likely come to be incorporated into Mongolian symbolism as well. The iron cross has its origins in Prussian military decorations, continued to be awarded by the German army under Nazi rule, is still in use by the German Bundeswehr, and has had a surprising currency in usage in pop culture. Motor cycle gangs in North America are known to incorporate the iron cross into their iconography as a symbol of rebellion. The iron cross today also shows up in very different contexts like some extreme sports, where it appears to be in use without any political associations. The context of the use of such symbols is thus of particular importance. The care in interpretation would also apply to comments on a possible explanation for photos of a Brotherhood Facebook page that was only active in 2014 and is frequently mentioned by critics of The Hu. Photos on this page appear to show Brotherhood members showing off various Nazi symbols. While these photos in particular are provocative and disturbing, they do not appear to be reproduced in other Brotherhood materials, so any political leanings of the Brotherhood remain ambiguous.

Ambiguous Meanings

The rings that appear in the video can be interpreted as a reference to historical and contemporary fascism, but they can also be placed plausibly in an Asian context of Buddhist symbolism and North American motorcycle culture. In their public statements, the band has not hinted at any affinity with fascist ideology. The band webpage offers a derivation of their name from the Mongolian word for “person”. The band emphasized that Mongolia should not only be known for its military leaders and soldiers in an interview with The Guardian. They noted civilian accomplishments like the creation of a transcontinental postal system, the development of trade routes and the introduction of diplomatic passports.

Obviously, a clear statement from the band disassociating itself from fascism and its symbols would clarify much of the debate that has sprung up. There have been responses from people close to the band who emphasize that any symbolic connection to fascism is not intended by the band, nor should it be taken as an endorsement of political extremism. Instead, the band is explicitly and critically grappling with contemporary society and politics. Symbols that appear in their videos are metaphors for the current situation of nomads in Mongolia. Nevertheless, as the band continues to gain international recognition, they would be well-advised to recognize the context in which they will be performing in Europe or North America and to recognize the harm that a political misinterpretation of symbols can do to any messages they are trying to convey or any popular success they hope to have.

Jan 21 Update:

Alert Reddit readers have pointed out that The Hu have responded specifically to the appearance of the swastika in the video:

Nationalism in Mongolian Politics

Some of the reaction to The Hu in Europe and North America seems to be an unfortunate confluence of ignorance of the Mongolian context on the part of some observers, and lack of awareness of the inflammatory nature that is ascribed to symbols in other countries on the part of the band. However, even a more context-aware interpretation should acknowledge that Mongolian society and even more so Mongolian politics has a massive problem when it comes to a heightened and non-reflexive nationalism that can lead to racist and even anti-Semitic statements and can also lead to the use of Nazi iconography. Just recently such symbolism was visible in demonstrations by the short-lived “National Mongolian Front”.

Western journalists are prone to fall victim to the apparent provocation of the embrace of Nazi symbolism and this kneejerk search for Nazi symbolism has been extended to The Hu. While the provocation is real particularly in terms of rhetoric, its substantial relevance for contemporary politics is so far extremely limited.

It is important to emphasize that even vaguely coherently nationalist or fascist organizations like Tsaagan Khas do not play a significant political role in Mongolia. They may appear in public at demonstrations or rallies, but they have not wielded any influence in elections either in terms of shifting debates or frames of reference or in achieving any kind of electoral success at all. Such overtly nationalist or even fascist groupings will not shape the 2020 parliamentary election either. This is in clear contrast to virtually all of Europe where right-wing populism seems to have established itself firmly in national legislatures.

About Niels

Niels Hegewisch is a political scientist and the Mongolia country representative for the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, a German political foundation that is dedicated to global promotion of freedom, justice and solidarity. The Foundation has been active in Mongolia since the early 1990s.

Posted in Music, Music, Nationalism, Niels Hegewisch, Politics, Pop Culture, Populism, Protest, Social Issues, Society and Culture | Tagged | Leave a comment

Guest Post: Gender Mainstreaming in Public Administration

By Oyuntuya Shagdarsuren

At a glance, Mongolia may seem like a ‘paradise for men’ given the high status of men or a ‘paradise for women’ given the country’s high rankings on human development indices. Yet, the gender equality situation remains a mystery that requires an exploration into a complex set of considerations. This post briefly investigates the un/changing notions around gender roles and gender equality in Mongolia with a focus on public administration.

Un/changing roles of women and men in Mongolian society

Given the nomadic pastoralist background of Mongolian people, women have been traditionally seen as mothers and wives and men as heads of households with the leadership and decision-making roles both within the family and in social life. After the transition to market economy in the early 1990s, women in Mongolia have taken over some of the breadwinning roles and gained more decision-making power within their household. In a 2001 study, women reported that they didn’t want to depend on their husbands and emphasized independence. They placed importance in increasing their education and finding their status in life before creating a family (Batjargal 2006). Mongolia’s current reverse gender gap in the education sector makes it one of the few, distinct countries in the world where males are less educated than females and the young generation of the postsocialist period is less educated than their parents (Steiner-Khamsi and Stolpe 2006). However, men have always outnumbered women in decision-making positions across public service as well as in business and politics. Mongolian feminist activist Undarya Tumursukh (2018) argues that the post-socialist period and transition to neoliberal market economy has lowered living standards and the status of women because women were forced out of politics with the arrival of democracy.

Government policy on gender equality and gender mainstreaming

The government of Mongolia has undertaken mandatory duties to promote gender equality through internationally agreed documents such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995) and the UN Economic and Social Council’s agreed conclusions on gender mainstreaming (1997)  committing to take action to eliminate any (public or private) behaviour that is based on the inferiority of women and superiority of men. In other words, the Mongolian state has devoted to look into its gender-based power structures and eliminate the root causes of gender inequalities. One of the main ways to achieve this is by adopting a gender mainstreaming policy which is commonly understood as “integrating a gender perspective into all areas of policy and decision-making” (UNDP 2007, 4). Gender mainstreaming (jyenderiin medremjtei bodlogo, tölövlölt) is believed to have a transformative effect by changing attitudes in the public and private institutions and structures towards greater equality between men and women, boys and girls.

The Law on Promotion of Gender Equality (LPGE) was enacted in 2011 and mandates the principle that the state is responsible for ensuring equality of men and women and that the laws and state policies, programmes, plans and projects should include gender concepts (Art. 5.1.3 and 5.1.4).  As a result, a Gender Consortium (Jyenderiin konsortsium) and a National Gender Experts’ Group (Jyenderiin ündesnii shinjeechdiin buleg) were created to carry out gender analysis and to provide training and education. The national statistical office started generating sex disaggregated data on 49 indicators which are available online (UN 2016). An active operational structure exists that consists of branch gender councils (Jyenderiin salbar zövlöl) based at 13 ministries, 31 branch gender committees based at 21 aimags and 9 districts of Ulaanbaatar which receive guidance from the National Committee on Gender Equality (NCGE). The NCGE supports the development of gender strategies for all sectors of Mongolia. So far, gender strategies have been developed in the environmental (2014), finance (2016), construction and urban development (2017), education, culture, science and sports (2017), population, labor and social welfare (2018), food, agriculture and light industry (2018), geology, mining, petroleum and heavy industry (2019) sectors. All 21 provinces have adopted gender equality sub-programs.

Implementing gender mainstreaming through MERIT Project

One of the major donors supporting gender equality initiatives in Mongolia is Global Affairs Canada. Its flagship project named “Mongolia: Enhancing Resource Management through Institutional Transformation” (MERIT) is being implemented since 2016 with an aim to stimulate sustainable economic growth in Mongolia by strengthening the capacity of public institutions and local communities to effectively manage the resource sector.

By engaging in gender analysis and training on gender mainstreaming concepts and methodologies, key partners from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), Ministry of Mining and Heavy Industry (MMHI), the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, the Institute of Geography and Geo-ecology of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and the Governor’s Offices in Dornod, Sükhbaatar, Töv and Dundgovi provinces recognized the importance of gender mainstreaming in their work and started integration of gender concepts into their policy and technical documents and organizational workplans. A series of Public Sector Leadership Symposiums co-organized with the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) trained directors, managers and senior officers from partnering organizations on introducing flat organizational models and human-centred design in the public sector.

The Leadership Symposiums opened doors for the decision-making personnel to start making important changes. One was to establish a Gender Community of Practice in March 2018 with an aim to enhance skills and knowledge of civil servants on gender mainstreaming. Subsequently, Dornod aimag organized a public sector management conference engaging 700 local civil servants and messages were delivered about gender-sensitive planning and reporting in March 2019. The Aimag Governor is actively working to develop women- and youth-owned start-up businesses. The province recently announced an anti-alcohol campaign while establishing a health clinic for men. Governor of Töv Aimag issued a decision in April 2019 regarding a “Family Day” to support parents working in civil service. Schools and kindergartens were advised to organize school-parent meetings on the first Friday of each month to align with civil servants’ work schedule to allow for more family engagement. Moreover, civil servants were given a paid one-hour leave between 5.00-6.00pm every month to attend their children’s school-parent meeting. Dundgovi Aimag Governor showed leadership and commitment by financing a gender situational analysis from the local budget in 2018 whereas most of the provinces received a central government or donor funding for this work. Sükhbaatar aimag’s male gender focal point is actively reaching out and working with planning and M&E officers to train civil servants at soum level on basic concepts of gender and gender-sensitive planning and reporting. The partner ministries at central government are equally active. A senior officer of strategic policy planning at MMHI used a results-based and a gender-sensitive approach when developing the implementation plan of the new petroleum policy. She developed gender indicators that serve as a model for a gender-sensitive, technical planning document. The management team at the MET has completed a six-months-long “Leadership and Gender” training program with 50 percent female representatives. Overall, an opportune moment is arising in Mongolia to advance the women’s status and promote greater equality among women and men.

About Oyuntuya Shagdarsuren

Oyuntuya Shagdarsuren is a PhD candidate at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) and the Department of Mongolian and Tibetan Studies, University of Bonn, Germany. She is also a Visiting International Research Student at University of British Columbia, Canada and a Senior Advisor with MERIT Project.

Posted in Gender, Oyuntuya Shagdarsuren, Public Policy, Public Service, Social Change, Social Issues | Leave a comment

2019 Mongolia Focus in Review

By Julian Dierkes

Our blog is in its 9th year. We smashed through our 600th post this year. Most notably we were recognized through a Public Outreach Award from the Central Eurasian Studies Society. Mendee defended his PhD. I’d say, we’re going strong!

Blog Readers

Google Analytics is an endless fountain of detailed information, it’s also a potential time sink, so here are some highlights of our readership in the past year:

Outlook

In the past, we have been very active during national elections and these activities have brought significantly more readers than in non-election years. The 2020 parliamentary election promises to be quite interesting, especially in terms of any expressions of voters’ frustration for example by supporting new political movements, but also in terms of the evolution of party structures (will the DP implode? will the MPP actually see a generational turnover?). We are hoping to continue to build on our track record of research-rooted, non-partisan analyses and commentary in this coming year.

Posted in Reflection, Research on Mongolia, Social Media | Tagged | Leave a comment

New to Ulaanbaatar December 2019

By Julian Dierkes

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

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

What has arrived?

  • yoga
  • pet dogs on and off leashes
  • Sunday morning joggers and bikers
  • wheelchair accessibility
  • the “#замчөлөөл” hastag, a city campaign to shame property owners about their infringement of public space. Seems – quietly – very successful when you look at many photos posted.
  • large-scale BBQ extravaganza on the banks of the Tuul river, particularly near the ASEM Road. On summer weekends, so many cars parked right on the riverside, BBQs planted right next to them, families camping out, some literally
  • drive-home service for drivers who have been drinking. You call the service, they drop off a driver who drives you home in your car and is then picked up again. Given – fortunately – much stricter enforcement of drunk driving laws, a great service!
  • bike lanes and bike parking, being shooed off bike lanes by riders (though not in December!)
  • street names and signs in the city
  • fat tire bikes
  • home air filtration systems that everyone is talking about
  • airport road is getting ever fancier, now there’s a giant overpass under construction just before crossing the Tuul on the way into town. Lots of fancy on/off-ramps popping up everywhere on roads. While I dread the opening of the new airport, construction of the (real) highway out there is under way
  • Canadian cold weather brands, Canada Goose and Arc’teryx are everywhere, fake or not
  • fully electric cars, charging stations
  • electronic payment systems. There is the transit card and a number of apps issued by Mongolian banks. There are some QR-code based payment systems. Often credit card payment is approved via a fingerprint reader.
  • coffee roasting. Not only is instant coffee being beaten back (it obviously still reigns in the country-side), but beyond mass market chains, small roasters are now appearing in the market. Some Mongolians are speaking of a new coffee addiction.
  • surveillance cameras. I recall seeing these first at large intersections, presumably to monitor traffic. Now, every other buildings seems to have haphazardly attached a CCTV camera to its facade. I do wonder how many of these are operational and where the feeds lead and if any of them are monitored.
  • street art (several years now, but I hadn’t noted this before) and newly commissioned public art
  • many more food and agricultural products from Mongolian sources available now
  • in April there had been a lot of concern about the lack of snow in the winter and the likelihood of drought. June brought some heavy rains and Ulaanbaatar turned quite green, almost lush.
  • convertibles
  • streetlights in the ger/khashaa districts
  • audible pedestrian crossing signals
  • green license plates for electric vehicles, yellow for natural gas vehicles
  • suddenly, there seem to be a whole lot more young people wearing reindeer boots, they seem to have supplanted Uggs as the fashionable choice for winter boots
  • awareness of plague of small water bottles in all meetings and in homes

  • 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

  • construction of new road to Nalaikh completed in Nov 2019

What has disappeared, or at least nearly?

  • stationary 80s-office-phone-looking old-granny cell phone booth
  • for-pay scales (actually, they seem to be hanging on)
  • free WiFi on Sukhbaatar, er Chinggis Khaan, er, Sukhbaatar Square, er, Chinggis Khaan Square
  • street kids (they seem to come and go)
  • packs of dogs
  • smoking
  • hillside Chinggis visible from the city centre as more tall buildings are constructed
  • stiletto heels
  • outdoor billiards tables
  • Natural History Museum, gone one week after photo below

  • small denomination bills.

What will appear in the future

  • navigation systems
  • mental maps shifting to street names/addresses instead of landmarks
  • new airport, apparently opening in 2020. I drove by there in summer 2017. Oh my, it is far from the city!
  • subway (really, I wish they had selected light rail instead, but who knows whether either will come)
  • urban renewal and historical restorations embracing district north of government house (National University of Mongolia, German embassy, etc.)
  • road signs in the countryside (and not just the very random, very occasional ones that can be found now)
  • network of cross-country riding (bike and horse) trails (though not in central Ulaanbaatar)
  • parking (meters), electric charging in parking spots/lots
  • Combined Heat and Power Plant #5 (yeah, right!)
  • hipsters discovering УАЗ (minivan and jeep)
  • giant hole blown into Bogd Khaan mountain to “drain” polluted air out of the valley (that actually is a proposal, but it will not appear! There also seems to be a proposal to blast away mountains on either end of the valley to let bad air escape!)
  • some kind of traffic routing system with overhead displays
  • Mongolia-themed coffee travel mugs

What will disappear in the medium-term future

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

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

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

What will disappear in the long-term future

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

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

Posted in Change, City Planning, Curios, Fashion, Heritage, Museums, Social Change, Ulaanbaatar | Tagged | Leave a comment

Back to the 2008 Future in Voting?

By Enkhtsetseg D and Julian Dierkes

After toying with the idea of a mixed electoral system, in which 50 seats were to be distributed based on the FPTP system and 26 seats to be distributed proportionally from an open party list, the ruling MPP took many by surprise this week with a new proposal to use the block vote system. 

The Case for Block Voting

The system, otherwise known as the plurality-at-large voting, or multiple non-transferable vote, has been previously used twice in Mongolia, 1992 and 2008 parliamentary elections – of course, 2008 was the only election to result in post-election violence in Mongolia’s democratic history. As the Election Law is anticipated to go to a final vote later this week, surprisingly the Democratic Party and other smaller parties appear to support this system. Reasons cited by different parties justifying the use of system include:  

  • campaign costs will decrease
  • less vote buying 
  • less vote-padding by moving voters from one constituency to another
  • it is easier to understand for voters
  • less pork barrel politics
  • no risk of a constitutional challenge on elements of proportional representation

Some have argued this option is the lesser of two evils, as the 2016 Constitutional Court ruling rendered any form of proportional element impossible to adopt, leaving only two options: majoritarian ridings or this  block vote. 

It is unlikely that campaign expenses will decrease under this system. In fact campaign costs have continued to increase from one election to another and the 2008 election was not an exception: 

Election Campaign Expenditure and GDP

Parliamentary Election Expenditures (parties and candidates, in MNT millions) GDP per capita (MNT thousands)
1992 13.7 25.9
1996 209.3 326.6
2000 1,841.8 490.6
2004 1,558.4 858.0
2008 7,978.3 2,480.2
2012 36,863 5,876.8
2016 34,360.2 7,642.9

Source: C Burcher and F Casal Bértoa. 2018. Political Finance in Mongolia – Assessment and Recommendations. Open Society Forum and International IDEA, p. 19

Opposition to Block Voting

Plurality-at-large voting is rare in national elections, though a little more common in local elections across the world. The main criticism of block voting is that the results poorly reflect voters’ intentions.

For parties, it is also very challenging to make strategic decisions about support for candidates. If adopted for the 2020 election, it is likely that DP, MPP and MPRP will run full slates of candidates, but smaller parties may only run single candidates in multi-member districts to avoid cannibalizing their votes.

There are some who oppose the proposed system, citing the memory of the tragic events following the 2008 election. Counting tabulation is not an easy task for this system, especially if manual counting is in practice. As mentioned in the UPR report submitted to the OHCHR by Mongolian NGOs in 2010, “During the 2008 Parliamentary elections, polling station election committees worked continuously for a total of 87 hours with actual vote-taking lasting 15 hours and counting of ballots 72 hours. It is clear that with such a workload, both efficiency of the committee and reliability of vote counting results become questionable.” The 2008 election is the reason why Mongolia turned to automated vote counting in 2012, which has remained in use ever since despite suspicions and distrust often voiced by different parties when it is close to elections.  While the ballot scanning technology might help Mongolians avoid the same problems that surfaced in 2008, it is worth remembering that according to the current draft law on State Great Hural elections, electoral audit or manual vote counting is supposed to take place in 50 percent of all polling stations. 

Among the other justifications cited by those who oppose the proposed Block vote system include: 

  • it is not conducive to promoting representation of women, youth and less known candidates 
  • it will fuel intra-party competition, further weakening the institutionalization of political parties 
  • results are not proportional
  • it is confusing to voters

On the matter of representation of women in particular, note that the women’s caucus had proposed raising the female candidate quota from 20% to 30% but this was rejected in parliament.

The Folly of Last-Minute Selection of an Electoral System

There are no perfect electoral systems. All of them have their (dis)advantages. That does not mean that they do not make a difference, it just means that the choice has to be made deliberately to maximize particular goals.

In Mongolia, the choice of an electoral system has been made in haste for at least the past 3 parliamentary elections. There is no principle harm in this choice (although the block vote is rather unusual to be used in a national election and there are good reasons why that is), but the process is not conducive to careful deliberation of the (dis)advantages of that choice.

As can be seen in the rejection of an increased women’s candidate quota, it is too easy to make a hasty decision on the electoral system when this is left to the very last moment.

About Enkhtsetseg

Enkhtsetseg is an election and governance specialist with a particular expertise in political finance and election-related issues and regulations in Mongolia. She is currently working as governance program manager at Open Society Forum Mongolia. 

Posted in Elections, Enkhtsetseg Dagva, Ikh Khural 2020, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Ever-Creative Electoral System Discussions

By Julian Dierkes

Long-time readers of our blog (really committed readers are looking back on 8 1/2 years of analyses!) will know that I get very interested in elections and that many of my collaborators have also chipped on an understanding of campaigns, results, and implications.

With the recent approval of constitutional reforms (now only awaiting approval by the constitutional court), the electoral system was not constitutionally prescribed, so we’re awaiting amendments to the election law to clarify the system that will be in place for June.

The passage of these amendments also seems to have averted the possibility of early elections, so all expectations are for late June 2020.

Previously on this show…

Over the past several parliamentary elections, the election system has changed, incorporating elements of proportional and first-past-the-post voting. In 2012, it was a mix of 48 single-member districts with an additional 28 seats elected via nationwide party lists. In 2016,  Mongolia returned to straight-up majoritarian voting for all 76 seats.

Earlier this fall…

… a proposal was floated to change to a system of a single, nationwide riding where citizens would elect 76 members. Wow! That would have been interesting, but (fortunately for Mongolian voters, I think) this was dismissed

Current discussions

The current proposal (I haven’t seen the actual draft, discussion here is based on personal explanations from sources and my still-limited understanding) that is under discussion and may be before parliament by mid-December, calls for 50 directly-elected majoritarian ridings with new riding boundaries drawn on population numbers, and an additional 26 seats that would be popularly elected. Candidates would be listed by name with their party affiliation (if any) in parentheses and voters would have a single vote. The 26 candidates with the most votes would be elected under this system.

Under this proposal, there would be a minimum threshold that parties would have to achieve in the majoritarian ridings in order to be eligible for their nominees to be selected for the additional 26 seats. 5% is the threshold that seems to be under discussion which would be a significant hurdle for all parties but the DP and MPP as their candidates might not be seen to have much of a chance in ridings and voters might not choose to lend up to 5% of their votes to these smaller parties to make their candidates eligible for additional seats. Independents would – presumably – only be able to run in majoritarian ridings under this system.

Beyond this threshold there are still a number of elements that are unclear to contacts I’ve spoken to, including the question of whether voters would get one vote to select from the 26 party candidates or 26 votes. Both, however, are serious logistical challenges for the election and for voter education, I imagine.

A more detailed discussion of the election method might have to wait for passage of the law, presumably by Dec 25.

This proposal seems to advantage the two large parties (though the simmering DP implosion might make this THE large party and some splinters), and nationally prominent individuals who fly under the parties’ banner in the additional seat election. For example, PM Khurelsukh might well be expected to win an additional seat given his current popularity (“sleigher of bad air”), rather than running in a specific riding. Others with good chances in this system might be media and pop personalities and wrestlers whose prominent names might lead to their election.

It is quite unclear to me how a party might strategize around allocating campaign funds and campaign attention in such a system. The obvious strategy would be to focus resources on majoritarian ridings and to let candidates for the additional seats fend for themselves, but this would have to be thought out further.

(Dis)Advantages of Different Electoral Systems

From a more theoretical perspective, I fail to see particular merits to this proposal. Broadly speaking, majoritarian electoral systems are meant to make representatives more accountable to their constituents as they are tied to a specific location. By contrast, proportional systems are meant to reflect popular opinions more comprehensively and thus allow citizens greater input on substantive decisions.

The current proposal may have any elements of proportional systems in the calculation of the 26 seats (draft of law suggests single non-transferable vote), but the proposed additional 26 seats also give up on the principle of representatives’ ties to a constituency thus losing one of the main advantages of majoritarian systems. I am not sure what the arguments for this system are, other than electoral strategizing and the maximization of seats to be won by specific parties under different scenarios.

On next week’s episode…

Obviously, the current proposal might be discarded entirely or amended in various ways in parliamentary discussion. If the proposal does not pass, the most likely outcome may be a return to the 2016 system of 76 electoral ridings.

Posted in Constitution, Elections, Ikh Khural 2020, Party Politics, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Making News in November 2019

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan

Constitutional Revision

Just days before the celebration of the 95th anniversary of the abolition of the monarchy, the MPP-ruled parliament and DP president reached a compromise on a set of amendments to the 1992 constitution.  Today, at the celebration, President endorsed these amendments, demonstrating his unity with the Parliamentary Speaker and Prime Minister – but, no representation of the judiciary on the stage. 

It was neither an easy nor a thorough process to pass these amendments – especially as all incumbent office holders seem to have focused on ensuring their re-elections.

Electoral System

First, MPs successfully voted against any form of proportional representation. A mixed electoral system (majoritarian and proportional) was introduced prior to the 2012 parliamentary election, but changed back to a majoritarian system before the 2016 election. Despite their success of keeping the majoritarian system, MPs failed to increase the term and number of seats and did not even debate the possibility of reviving a bicameral structure for the legislature.  

Direct Presidential Election

Second, the president successfully saved the direct presidential election from going back to  pre-1992 practice of electing the president among the elected MPs. This has been and now continues to be the source for the power struggle between a directly-elected parliament and president. Both parliament and president legitimately claim that they are representing the majority of voters. However, the current compromise led to a curtailing of presidential prerogatives over the judiciary and a single six-year term.  

Strategic Deposits

Third, the majority of MPs and president supported enshrining the populist, but not-so-clear concept of “strategic deposits” in the constitution. Certainly, many current power holders would make this a key platform for the next elections, but many wonder if it will improve resource-governance. 

Outlook for Democracy

Regardless of parochial interests of incumbent power holders, the constitutional amendments, certainly, present a positive outlook for the country’s democracy.

Conflict Avoidance

Firstly, all parties, especially those in power, avoided to make changes that would trigger the political stalemate or strong public discontent.  Rather, all wanted to make a lawful decision and political compromise – as a result, they adjusted the laws and procedures. 

Blocking Authoritarianism

Secondly, the new amendments strengthen Mongolian democracy by blocking any potential move toward authoritarianism, which has happened in many fragile democracies.

Protecting the PM and Budget

Thirdly, amendments raise the threshold for the parliament to change the Prime Minister, cabinet members, social and economic policies, and the state budget.  The empowerment of the prime minister and cabinet increase constraints on populist politicians and the political instability and frequent policy changes they tend to be associated with.

Judiciary

Finally, most importantly, new amendments strengthen the judicial independence by reducing the political interference and increasing professionalism. Therefore, the judicial independence will be regarded as an important step towards building public and private trust in judicial proceedings.

However, the implementation of these changes will depend on the will of political leaders who can consciously limit their natural, political power urge – “let’s change it” –  if these rules do not serve for their parochial interests. 

Social Discontent and Protests

Social discontent has been brewing in November.  Posts and tweets demanding MPs – connected with the SME Fund scandal (MPs abused their power to misappropriate the funds), Capital Bank bankruptcy (disappearance of social pension funds), and sexual harassment scandals of the Constitutional Court Chairman (Odbayar), and protests against demolishing historical sites (Prime Minister Genden’s home and Natural History Museum) – have been popular, but effects of the virtual protest and mobilization understandably limited.  The only political force – capitalizing on the social media – appears to be the XUN party.

Mongolian National United Front

The emergence of the “Mongolian National United Front” was short-lived, but demonstrated that any protests could be easily leveraged on existing social discontents and expanded into mass violence.  On November 8, leaders of the Mongolian National Unified Front (without proper registration) staged a mass protest, including 100 non-governmental organizations as well as representatives from other parts of the country. The protest ended as the leaders submitted their demand for dismissal of the current parliament – with an ultimatum of mass demonstration if the parliament refused the demand.  However, following a challenging day to control participants, MG Bayarmagnai (retired) resigned from his leadership role – acknowledging the attempts of some participants for instigating violence. On November 15, the parliament rejected the demand and consequently the General Intelligence Agency issued the warning for arrest if new leaders of the Mongolian National United Front advocate a violent take-over of power.

There are a few observations from this event.  First, Mongolia is not free from violent protests because the state’s inability to gain public trust in reducing the poverty gap and eradicating the corruption. Second, any tactics of using frustrated public for their short-sighted parochial interests would contribute to building up organizational capacity of the rent-seeking groups, but not necessarily true, value-driven protests.  It was not a long ago that MPs Batzandan, Lu Bold, and Oyun-Erdene used mass protest for their political objective of removing the speaker. Finally, the importance of de-politicization of security organizations, especially the police, military, and intelligence, should be further strengthened as the country moves into the next electoral cycle.

A note: during this period, the likelihood of a protest by Tavan Tolgoi coal-truck drivers has increased as the Chinese side reduced the quota for Mongolian coal. As Chinese coal truckers blocked the country’s main commodity export route in January 2018, Mongolian truck drivers (8,000-10,000) could cause another force majeure.

Fighter Jets in the UB Sky

On Independence Day, two-newly acquired fighter jets (MiG 29) surprised many, including Mongolians and foreigners in UB. In last August, the Russian aerobatic team fighter jets (Su 30) performed their maneuvers for the 80th anniversary of Khalkh Gol Battle – which stopped Japanese war campaigns towards Inner Asia and Siberia. Both events are not so surprising in other capital cities.

Fighter jets are first-responders and regarded a vital air defence element to enforce the air space regulations and to intercept or divert any potential threats (e.g., hijacked planes) from urban centres. The aerobatic teams perform nationally and globally. 

However, the timing of the donation of two MIG 29s raises eyebrows in Mongolia. 

Foremost, the operation and maintenance of fighter jets, ranging from pilot training, to maintenance of jets and to the ground support, is costly. This was the primary reason of decommissioning the MiG 21 fleet in 1990. Many taxpayers would be curious about the operational cost, particularly, at a time when the government has been struggling to manage the debt-ridden economy. 

Second, Mongolia has been the unique signalling post for major powers, especially its powerful, expansionist neighbours – who traditionally compete for sphere of influence. If we assume the other reason for the withdrawal of the Soviet air bases and decommissioning of Mongolian fighter jets was the normalization of Sino-Soviet relations, one would suspect the Kremlin is signalling its geostrategic concerns of China.  

However, it is important to highlight for Mongolians who grew up in 70s-80s, jets raise memories of never-ending sounds of fighter jets and overloaded trains with military supplies and equipment. The Soviets maintained four air bases (Nalaikh, Maanit, Choir, and Choibalsan) with over hundred fighter jets whereas the Mongolian military maintained two squadrons (i.e., two dozen fighter and training jets) in Nalaikh. 

Here are three guesses – we would put forward to explain the re-appearance of jets in Mongolia.

Response to Mongolian Requests

For one, Russia is simply responding to Mongolia’s long-overdue request of reviving its air defence capabilities, resuming the training of pilots and technicians, and maintenance of limited operational and training capacity. For this purpose, neither NATO members nor China could assist.

Symbolic Russian Gesture

Second, the provision of military arms could be the easiest and symbolic one for the Kremlin as being the second largest arms exporter and Putin’s efforts on capitalizing the past allied history with many of former socialist states as well as Soviet republics. 

Russian Concern over Rising China

Third, Russia might be concerned with rising China – especially its growing political and economic clout into its traditional sphere of influence in Mongolia and Central Asia albeit President Putin’s friendly appearance with Chinese President Xi and unsubstantiated remarks about ‘comprehensive strategic partnership.’  

 

Posted in China, Constitution, Democracy, Foreign Policy, Governance, Ikh Khural 2020, Judiciary, Military, Mining, Mining Governance, Party Politics, Politics, Presidential 2021, Protest, Russia, Social Movements | Tagged | Leave a comment

Constitutional Amendments Adopted

By Julian Dierkes

While some details remain curiously unclear (as is so frustratingly often the case with Mongolian legislation and reporting on it, the Ikh Khural approved a number of constitutional amendments on Nov 15. While these are subject to a presidential veto, it seems like Pres. Battulga will not be vetoing these amendments so that they are likely to enter into law.

It thus seems like the uncertainty Mendee and I wrote about in October will come to an end without an election (until the regular June 2020 election) and without a referendum.

Here are some of the most significant changes that have been approved for 19 of the 70 articles of the constitution (no official translation available yet):

  • Natural Resources – (1) exploitation of natural resources will be based on long-term state policies, benefits to the National Resource Fund to improve the living conditions and equal distribution; (2) citizens have a right to know the environmental impacts of natural resource exploitation; (3) strategically important deposits will be governed by the public.
  • Political parties – (1) structured along democratic principles and financially transparent; (2) state funding for political parties will be governed by law [implying revisions to the law on political parties but also public funding for political parties would be funded by the state].
  • Policy continuity – (1) parliament determines policies (social development and economy); (2) parliament cannot increase the proposed state budget; (3) restrictions on changes to long-term developmental policies.
  • Referendum – prohibits conducting a referendum which threatens the country’s independence and sovereignty.
  • MPs – (1) can establish temporary investigative sub-committee with support of 25% of MPs; (2) recall an MP or violations of the Constitution, their oath or criminal convictions;
  • Government – (1) Prime Minister and four cabinet posts can be MPs; (2) Prime Minister changes the cabinet members without parliamentary debates and presidential consultation;
  • Presidency – (1) minimum 50 years old; (2) single, six-year term;
  • Judiciary General Committee – (1) total 10 members: 5 members would be appointed by judicial professionals, 5 members would be openly contest; (2) work for only single four year term;
  • Judiciary Disciplinary Committee – will be established – the committee will have power to remove or take disciplinary actions against judges;.
  • City status – all provincial centers, Darkhan, and Erdenet will gain city status.

These amendments will enter into force on May 25, 2020.

As more specifics about these amendments become known, we will discuss more of the implications of these amendments.

Posted in Constitution, Democracy, Elections, Governance, Judiciary, Mining Governance, Party Politics, Policy, Policy, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

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

By Jade Marie Richards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Jade Richards

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

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

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

CESS Public Outreach Award

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

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

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

Mongolian Constitutional Revision Leads to Uncertainty

By  Mendee Jargalsaikhan and Julian Dierkes

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

Background

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

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

Governance Challenges

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

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

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

Reform Efforts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Ahead? 

 This presents three possible options.

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: Doping in Mongolian Wrestling

By Zorigtkhuu B

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

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

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

Mongolian conspiracy at its finest

Oyunbold denies the test result.

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

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

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

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

Innocent until proven guilty?

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

The military title is not about the military title

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

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

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

About the author:

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

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

 

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

Guest Post: Don’t Forget the Ground Game

By David Chace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pictures of My Walk to Work

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


Some Other Common Bummers for Pedestrians:

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

What the Ground Game Means to Voters

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

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

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

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

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

About David

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

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

US Offensive toward Mongolia

By Julian Dierkes and Mendee Jargalsaikhan

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

Past Relations

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

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

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

Mongolia’s Long-Term Desire to Cement Strategic Partnership

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

Recent Initiatives and Visits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Symbolic

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

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

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

Likely Consequences

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

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

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

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

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US Interactions Not a Win for Mongolia

By Julian Dierkes

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

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

Symbolic Gains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Likely Consequences

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

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

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

Evaluating Symbolic Gains vs Likely Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about North Korea?

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

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

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

Some Thoughts on Future Developments

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

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