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.


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.


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.

Posted in China, International Relations, Mongolia and ..., Russia, SCO, United States | Tagged | Leave a comment

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

More Constitutional Amendment Proposals

By Bulgan Batdorj

We want to briefly update our audience on the constitutional amendment in Mongolia since our last article Constitutional Amendments.

There are two draft proposals, one submitted by the 62 members of parliament on June 6, 2019, and a second draft proposal submitted by President Kh. Battulga on July 16, 2019. The Parliament of Mongolia has issued decree 72 which establishes a committee to synchronize these two drafts. There has been a large number of consultation sessions organized with various stakeholders, including political parties, civil society organizations, researchers, economists, and government organizations. This week the irregular session of the parliament has had the second reading of the draft proposal submitted by the 62 members of the parliament.

Pres Battulga’s Proposals

The President’s draft proposes to increase the number of Parliament members from 76 to 108. The draft did not have rationale as to why it proposes to increase it to specifically 108 but it says that the current number is significantly low especially given the geographic location, natural resources, and population growth. His draft also proposes to increase the number of years from 4 to 5,  a mixed electoral system, a prohibition of MPs with cabinet duties, except the Prime Minister. The President also proposed to have at minimum threshold of more than 50.001 people to create a political party in addition to other regulations on the political party.

The draft amendments are touching upon a few issues that have been challenging the political and economic stability in the last two decades. Those are: lack of clarity of the division of power and accountability of the parliament, cabinet, and presidency. Secondly, the uncertainty of independence and the accountability of the judiciary. Thirdly, more attempts to refine regulations around local settlements. The natural resources or mining developments is the pushing factor for many of these changes and challenges.

Public Reaction

This amendment certainly differs from the previous two amendments as those amendments did not include any form of consultation at all. The active participation of civil society organizations, researchers, various political party representatives, and public figures are a sign of maturing democracy. The debates and discussions, however, seem not to have moved much beyond a “person-centered” perspective to a “content” focus.

This is the first big public consultation in the last 25 years. This consultation has exposed a lack of knowledge about the constitution in the general public.

Information availability

There has been an extensive list of information available on websites and social media, both formal and informal.

Social media are reporting rich information through infographics, videos, expert debates, and discussion on the amendments.

Posted by Бодлогод залуусын хяналт ТББ on Thursday, August 8, 2019


The parliament’s website also archived and shared the videos of all discussions and their briefs in addition to the draft laws.



January 12, 1992 – Mongolian Democratic Constitution was adopted with six chapters and 70 articles. Chapters address the Sovereignty of Mongolia, Human Rights and Freedoms, State Structure, Local Governance, Constitutional Review, and Constitutional Amendments.

December 23, 1999 – Amendment to the Constitution was adopted by 68/76 MPs votes that MPs could serve in the cabinet. The amendment was vetoed by President N. Bagabandi and considered unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court.  This issue of “davhar deel” (double deel) has been a hot topic since 1996 Constitutional Court Case of D. Lamjav, who filed a case that MPs having a double duty to serve as a cabinet member was unconstitutional. The Constitutional Court have ruled that MPs could not join the cabinet without resigning their seats. There are articles on our blog that covers  the issue of “double deel” in our articles PS: Constitutional Reform  and Khurelsukh Cabinet.

January, 2001 – Amendment to the Constitution, the same amendment that enables the MPs to serve in cabinet was passed here again by the Parliament among six other amendments. The previous amendment was vetoed and considered unconstitutional by the Constitution Court, thus the Mongolian People’s Republic Party (elected 72/76) submitted adopted the amendment later approved by the President.  These  7 amendments are called “degrading 7 amendments” and often debated that three of the seven was very essential changes and the other three were damaging and one was neutral.

2010 – Law on the Constitutional Amendment Procedure as adopted by the parliament providing detail on the amendment of the constitution. This law also prevents many of the articles to be amended (Constitutional Articles 1; 2; 3; 4;, 5.1-5.4; 6.1; 8.1; 9.2; 10.1-10.2; 12.1; 14; 15; 19; 20; 22.1; 30.1; 38.1; 41; 47; 49.1-49.2; 68; 69).

There have been many other attempts for amendments that we also addressed on our previous articles, Likelihood of Constitutional Reform, PS: Constitutional Reform and Double Deel, Thoughts on Constitutional Reform, Constitutional Revision, and A Little Correction to Mr. Enkhsaikhan’s Push for Constitutional Reform. They go until 2014.


Posted in Civil Society, Constitution, Democracy, Governance, Party Politics, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Special License Plates

By Julian Dierkes

Okay, I confess, I’m a bit of a license plate geek, but only a little bit.

Maybe this is one of those things that growing up in (West) Berlin did to me. While the West German cousins had lots of different kinds of license plates all around, for the most part we only ever saw “B-” and that made us, well me at least, curious about the other strange license plates on visiting cars. Go ahead, google something like license plates, and you will find a whole community of enthusiasts!

Fast forward to regular visits to Ulaanbaatar and I can’t help but look at license plates and figure them out. Mongolian plates are relatively straightforward in that they have a two-letter abbreviation for the aimag where the car is registered. For Ulaanbaatar, that is УБ or УН. The third letter seems to be randomly assigned followed by a four-digit number. Of course, that number matters in the capital as it determines days on which the car cannot be driven around (1, 6 = Monday 2, 7 = Tuesday, etc.).

Official Cars

In January 2018, there was a bit of a Twitter uproar over Justice Minister Ts Nyamdorj’ new car.

Note the license plate, 0101 УБҮ. But while at one time “official” cars were recognizable by their license plates, this seems to have led to so much abuse that these official plates have been abandoned. Military (ЦАБ) and border patrol (ХЦА) are still recognizable by their numbers.

Diplomatic Plates

Then there are the red, diplomatic license plates. They start with the letters ДK to signal corps diplomatique. Embassies receive license plates that follow the ДK with a two-digit number that signals the embassy this car belongs to. The numbers are assigned in the order that embassies were set up in Ulaanbaatar, I think:

01 = Russia | 02 = China | 03 = North Korea | 04 = Czech Republic | 05 = Hungary | 06 = Germany | 07 = Vietnam | 09 = Bulgaria | 10 = Cuba | 12 = Kazakhstan | 13 = UK | 14 = Turkey | 15 = India | 16 = Japan | 18 = Laos |  19 = USA | 20 = South Korea | 22 = France | 24 = Kuwait | 25 = Slovakia | 26 = Canada | 30 = Australia | 32 = EU.

I’m still trying to find out why some numbers are missing (08, 11, 17, 21, 23). Perhaps they were assigned to embassies that have closed down in the meantime? Yugoslavia seems to have been 11. Presumably, there were two different numbers for Germany (East and West) at some point, so perhaps that is one of the missing numbers?

There are additional red license plates that are used for international organizations, etc. ДK 9900 are generally cars registered to the UN and its organizations. Some of the (honorary) consulates also get diplomatic plates.

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National Pride Without Museums

By Julian Dierkes

It’s tourist season in Mongolia again. Tourism has been discussed as a possible route to economic diversification, but also faces a number of challenges, for example short seasons and the lack of touring infrastructure.

But during a recent Ulaanbaatar stay, Marc Tassé and I came to talk about museums in Ulaanbaatar and the curious facts that despite the great pride that Mongolians take in their nation and its history, the museums are really somewhat lacking as an element in attracting tourists.

National Pride

As will become clear in any conversation with Mongolians, pride in the nation and its history is strong. There is the ever-present Chinggis Khaan, of course. The hype has died down since the 850th anniversary of his birth when Chinggis Khaan was ubiquitous and anything seemed to be named after him. The extent to which reference is made to a figure that is somewhat reviled and feared in the rest of the world and hit his zenith more than 800 years ago can sometimes be almost comical. It is also a massive distraction to many activities. The recent decision to close the government fund to support Mongolian studies (which in itself seemed to have a strong preference for historical and cultural studies projects; yes, you can sense some bitterness in this social scientist focused on contemporary Mongolia), and then open an Institute for Chinggis Khaan Studies (instead) is just one indicator of this focus on somewhat long-ago history. Yet, this focus comes with pride.

Generally, this pride carries both positive achievements, as well as a negative othering vis-a-vis neighbours, especially China.

Given this pride, one might expect a celebration of Mongolian history and Mongolian-ness in Ulaanbaatar. Surely, the state socialist period brought with it its fair share of hero worship (certainly not Chinggis Khaan, but the Sukhbaatar tomb on Sukhbaatar Sq for example) and didactic approaches to history, but where is the grand museum of Mongolian history, or the museum of the modern revolutions (1911, 1921, 1990)?

Existing Museums

There are museums in Ulaanbaatar, of course. First and foremost perhaps the National Museum as it appears in the above tweet. But the fact that I have visited it only twice in nearly 15 years of regular trips to Mongolia probably suggests the shortcomings of that museum. For the purposes of the questions I’m addressing here, suffice it to say that the National Museum is not a great draw.


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I hadn’t visited the National Museum in many years, nice opportunity to refresh/correct my historical knowledge. #Mongolia

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There is the Museum of Natural History, focused on archaeology. Again, not a great draw, although apparently at least the dinosaur exhibit is being resurrected in the former Lenin Museum.

In terms of national history, the Winter Palace is perhaps the most attractive with its collection of artefacts from the past 100+ years of history in an historical building that is increasingly disappearing in its surroundings as is the case for all historical buildings. It is also a bit of removed from the centre of town where most well-to-do foreign tourists might end up staying.

Anyone who comes to visit Ulaanbaatar with kids will not want to miss the Puzzle Museum. There is a lot of pride in Mongolia in display there, but the museum is hardly a national showcase, in part because it is also somewhat removed from the city centre.

It was only this summer that I’ve been introduced to the Ulaanbaatar City Museum by Pawel. The museum is small, but has two wonderful maps, an artistic rendition of historical Khuree, and a development plan from late in the state socialist period. This museum and its collection has some potential to be the corner stone of tourist activities in Ulaanbaatar, but is still far from realizing that potential for the causal visitor.

Then there are the National Art Gallery and the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts, but those are in a slightly different category given their focus on art.

The most ambitious aspirant to a central tourist site is probably the Chinggis Khaan equestrian status that is about 50km outside of town in surrounding Tov Aimag. It is certainly an expressive of pride, though limited entirely to Chinggis Khaan. Impressive it is, shiny in a pastoral Mongolian landscape, huge. It is a project promoted by Press Battulga, of course, but the larger historical theme park around it is still in progress. The small museum in the base of the statue is also somewhat limited.

Aimag Museums

The museums in provincial capitals come closer to the aspirations of a museum as an expression of regional and national pride. Inevitably stuffed to the gills with local artefacts, these museums tend to focus on cultural artefacts and prominent local individuals, historical or more contemporary, and taxidermy. They are pedagogically old-fashioned with many rooms of glass display cases that are explained or even marked eclectically. These museums are often staffed by knowledgable locals who do not shy away from offering lengthy tours and discourses on exhibits. Yet, a national draw for tourism they are not.


The exception to that general pattern would be the Kharkhorin Museum. It is perhaps the most modern of Mongolia’s museums. Yet, it suffers from the same pedagogical shortcomings that most Ulaanbaatar and aimag museums suffer from, namely that exhibits are focused on documentation and display, but not on drawing visitors in or explaining connections between different phenomena.


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Some of the main buildings at #Mongolia-s oldest monastery, #ErdeneZuu.

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For the Kharkhorin Museum it is almost painful that many of the questions that might come to mind quickly when visiting the site are not answered. Where exactly were the different sites in the Orkhon valley? How does the site of Erdene Zuu relate to that of the Chinggisid capital? Why did some buildings at Erdene Zuu seem to survive the destruction of religious institutions in the 1930s? For all the focus on Chinggis, this museum is surprisingly tight-lipped. In many ways, many museums in Mongolia follow a model that I recall from my childhood in Germany. It is assumed that a visitor is interested in the subject matter of displays, these displays are a visual and topical encyclopedia of sorts.

What’s Missing?

There is plenty of history to discuss, there are plenty of landmarks, and there is lots of pride in Mongolia’s past. What is generally missing is presentations that engage visitors beyond the mere display of artefacts.

Oh, and a mining museum in Nalaikh, of course, and the museum to document the abuses perpetrated by state socialism.

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Change in the Countryside June 2019

By Julian Dierkes

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

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

Visible Manifestations of Social Change in the Countryside

What has Arrived?

  • Guardrails in some curves on major cross-country roads
  • While street signs (speed limits, warnings of curves, etc.) used to be a curious rarity (“when there hasn’t been a sign for 100km, why this one?”) they now seem to appear in clusters.
  • The state is reasserting its authority in some places. Roadside safety inspections of vehicles have returned. On a drive between Baruun-Urt and Chinggis (<3 hrs) we were stopped by police three times: marmot inspection (we weren’t carrying), tire disinfection, seatbelt check. The latter was really a bit of a local police extortion attempt.
  • Fences around large parcels of lands. As far as I can tell these are hayed for winter fodder as nothing seems to be planted there. Fences keep out animals in this case to let grass grow.
  • Pretty significant agricultural activity, esp. around Darkhan and Erdenet. Many locations and huge fields that I don’t remember seeing on first visit to the area in 2008.
  • I’ve long heard discussion that many of the projects carried out with the Local Development Fund were public toilets. I have now seen some of these!
  • Not all fences around xashaa (property lots) are wood anymore. There are some prefab concrete slabs, corrugated metals, etc. Some residents are also integrating shipping containers into their fence.
  • Ger district conversions in towns. We saw this in Baruun-Urt for example.
  • Virtually all aimag districts now seem to have at least one tall building (8+ stories).
  • New, modern houses are appearing in soum centres. Only buildings in towns that don’t have a big wooden fence around them.
  • “No littering” signs.
  • Motorcycle helmets.
  • Even soum centres have significant tree planting programs going on. Freshly-planted trees in so many public and private spaces.

  • Bike infrastructure in towns and many kids riding around on bikes. [Add South Gobi kids on bikes photo tweet/instapost]

What has Disappeared, or at least, Nearly Disappeared?

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

What will Appear in the Future?

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

What will Disappear in the Future?

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

What won’t Disappear in the Medium Term?

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

By Julian Dierkes

In June, I visited Mongolia as a tourist for the first time. Well, sort of. On my 26th visit to Mongolia, I accompanied a tour to provide some insights into contemporary Mongolia to complement a Mongolian tour guide (who fortunately was very knowledgeable on wildlife in particular).

This clearly was only a snippet of the tourism business, but I came away with some observations.

Obviously, visit Mongolia!

The Tourism Business

When the challenges that arise in a resource-rich economy are discussed, economic diversification is almost always mentioned as an urgent goal for Mongolia. Tourism is one of the industries that most analysts point to in order to capitalize on the incredible wealth that Mongolia has in its nature, but also to build on an international “brand” of being perceived as very remote, somewhat exotic.

Very often, these discussions eschew mass tourism as a target, but rather more high-end niche tourism, some kind of “eco-tourism” (whatever that may be).

Hurdles to the development of the industry are generally seen in infrastructure (flight connections and roads, but also accommodations, restaurants, etc.) and in the short duration of the tourist season (roughly June-August) that presents a challenge for human resources and infrastructure.

Previously, I had written about the possibility of tourism clusters, but also the rise of domestic tourism.

The Standard Tour

My sense of what the standard tour is, is the following: 9-12 days including visits to Kharkhorin and Gobi destinations. Transport either by minivans or Land Cruisers. Overnight at ger camps.

Ger Camps

The ger camps are situated close to major tourist destinations (Kharkhorin with Erdene Zuu; the Flaming Cliffs or Khongor Dunes in the Gobi, etc.). There are very few activities around the ger camps other than the main site.

Ger camps used to be an accumulations of yurts with a main building/large yurt to serve meals in and side buildings for washrooms (sometimes including showers).

Now, many ger camps offer so-called “attached facilities”, i.e. a ger with an attached washroom, typically another, smaller ger, or other building placed between two gers and then divided in half to offer two washrooms. There is a central facility (typically a permanent structure, sometimes in the form of a large ger) that is used to serve meals. Meals are generally inoffensive, i.e. some salads, rice, meat.

The camps are typically summer-only, though there are a few that are trying to establish themselves as year-round destinations.

Over the last several years, camps have clearly attempted to raise standards, often hand-in-hand with raising prices.

Yet, in construction (especially the washrooms) and also staffing (typically by university students for the summer) these camps don’t quite meet expectations of a 3-star hotel, esp. by North Americans. Most Americans seem to expect a shower attached to their bedroom and that expectation is being met by many camps, but the bathrooms are often somewhat rickety. Electricity is typically availably but perhaps only through a single outlet.


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Prettiest ger (yurt) interior I stayed in on this trip.

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By contrast, these camps have lost much Mongolian flavour. The food is generally not Mongolian, even some of the elements of Mongolian summer meals that are more popular with many travellers (fresh milk/yoghurt, orum, etc.) are rare.

Though there are exceptions, camps appear to be bunched in certain location. The pattern that seems to be holding here as it does with other Mongolian businesses: if someone meets with success in a business others try to copy that success rather than understanding what might have made for this success and then seeking innovations for a similar success. That implies a great standardization of tours.

We first stopped in Amarbayasgalant which is not only a gorgeous valley, but also one of the more significant monasteries in Mongolia. It is generally not on the standard circuit because it is too far from other destinations and tour operators don’t respond to that distance by building a camp halfway between Amarbayasgalant and Kharkhorin, for example, but by ignoring it as a destination.

The camps are clustered around a few “attractions” that tend to be monasteries or unusual natural sights, but rarely focus on wonderful Mongolian natural settings.


Standard tours generally include long days of driving which leave travellers tired enough to need a rest upon arrival at a camp. As I mentioned, camps offer no experiences beyond the attraction that they are focused on. No maps for hikes, for example, or opportunities to milk cows/horses, ride horses, engage in archery, or hike.

Tours rarely stay for two nights in a single camp leading to an on-going feeling of a rush from one camp to the next. While the journey is often the destination in Mongolia and rides across the landscape can be surprisingly variable, the camps add very little to the experience.

Bumping along off-road can be quite exhausting leaving little energy to explore much else.


As I discussed above, destinations are somewhat standardized. It’s actually amazing to see the number of monasteries that have become destinations despite the nearly-complete destruction of religious institutions in the 1930s. But documentation of history is relatively sparse (I’m working on another post on Ulaanbaatar museums that touches on this), and without a guide, explanations do not really exist.

Nature is stunning almost everywhere and sights are often fascinating to see, but they can feel somewhat incidental to the tour.

Animals in the landscape are still a huge draw. Even when they are domesticated, herds of animals seemingly roaming by themselves (they are not, of course) through a fence-less landscape are a sight that I certainly do not tire off. There are a variety of birds and other animals to be seen, I got lucky on these two trips to have seen black-tailed gazelles and wild ass, though that is not guaranteed, of course.

Concluding Observations

I saw relatively little in the tour business that would allow this to be scaled up to become a more significant sector of the economy. To reach the goal of 1mio tourists, it is not only new flight connections into Ulaanbaatar that will be necessary, but the tourism business itself might have to become more attuned to market segmentation and more aware of the attraction that Mongolia undoubtedly presented.

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