Many Fear Mongolian Government Decision Heralds Another Privatization, Securing of the Status Quo Possible
Last week during an extra session after the final day of its fall session, Mongolia’s Parliament voted that the state acquire the share of the Erdenet Mining Corporation held by the Mongolian Copper Corporation. The share, 49% of the Erdenet Mining Corporation, had been sold by Russian State Corporation Rostec at the end of June. Investigations by the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Law as well as international journalists and scholars (The Diplomat, Mongolia Focus, Jargal DeFacto) allege that the Mongolian Copper Corporation is a shell company, its purchase of the 49% financed almost exclusively through the Trade and Development Bank, Mongolia’s oldest and one of its largest, most internationally-held private banks, as well as the state Bank of Mongolia, partly with Chinggis Bond revenues earmarked for development projects.
Bloomberg and the Associated Press have run headlines over stories about the action prominently featuring the label “nationalization”. However, while the Mongolian People’s Party, which took power after the sale and whose members are leading the charge to revoke it, may be often taken by foreign observers to be devotedly following the example of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party that governed Mongolia during over six decades of state socialism, their members have long demonstrated their willingness to participate in privatization. A major reaction by the Mongolian public to the latest moves has been that the 49% has been taken away from the Mongolian Copper Corporation by the government in order that it be given to other businessmen and corporate actors, ones with ties to politicians (of both major parties) currently in power. That is, the government’s taking of the 49% from the Mongolian Copper Corporation is widely viewed as the opening move in another example of the kind of corruption they accused the June sale of (see Mendee J.’s comments), made while the sale was being contested in Parliament earlier on, and summary of Lhkagva E.’s interpretation and comments by Julian Dierkes about Mongolians’ suspicion of collusion across party lines. On Tuesday the Mongolian People’s Party said at a press conference that it is discussing forming an openly traded company though it is unclear as to whether this would include the 51% owned by the Mongolian state as well as the 49% ordered to be taken from the Mongolian Copper Corporation.
— Putin (@khovdog) February 13, 2017
(“Who is going to take the milk of the spent old cow?”)
As President Elbegdorj noted in his address to Parliament (in which he urged the assembly to not approve the measure to take the 49% from Mongolian Copper Corporation, warning that such a move would deter foreign investment), the Erdenet Mining Corporation involves and directly benefits tens of thousands of Mongolians. As President Elbegdorj suggested, the loss of Mongolia’s “Milk Cow,” arguably the nation’s commodity most easily converted to cash, if the 49% were mismanaged would likely result in a political backlash. Erdenet has been the nation’s largest taxpayer and produces at least around half its copper concentrates. Elbegdorj noted plans for further development of Erdenet, including a long-proposed copper refining plant. The last serious such proposals at a national level have been to build the refinery at Sainshand, on the Trans-Mongolian Railroad, located between Erdenet and Oyu Tolgoi, a project now dormant.
The grades of copper sulphide ores in Erdenet’s forty-year-old open pit have sharply decreased as the mine has aged, though its oxide ores could be exploited with new processing plants.
Mongolia and Russia
The political situation is precarious. Mongolians are watching on-going Romanian anti-corruption protests much as they did in 1989 (media outlet Mongolia Live posted posted a statement of solidarity with Romanian protestors on February 1, saying that “corruption is extremely high in both countries”).
The matter of the Erdenet 49% remains mired in an ongoing crisis, in which the failure of public benefits to be realized by other operations, here the Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi mines in particular, has forced Erdenet, as the lone major functioning enterprise, into the spotlight, as also happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Currently, Mongolians are waiting for response from Rostec and the Russian government. As Foreign Minister Munkh-Orgil visited Russia on a working visit February 13-14, Mongolian journalists and social media users were quick to note that the Erdenet matter was not discussed in press conferences, and the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to inquiries that a meeting between Munkh-Orgil and Rostec CEO Sergei Chemezov had not been requested. The text of a letter reportedly sent to Prime Minister J. Erdenebat from Chemezov and circulated among members of Parliament was printed by major news outlets news.mn and medee.mn, stating that reversing the sale would damage Mongolia and Russia’s reputations in the eyes of investors, and suggested that the matter be taken to an arbitration court in Singapore. If true, this text could be understood as a move to keep Russian-Mongolian relations in a holding pattern, as public discussions between Lavrov and Munkh-Orgil did, continuing to gesture towards the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Eurasian Economic Union, and One Belt One Road’s China-Russia-Mongolia Economic Corridor as wellsprings of cooperative economic development. These have so far been unsuccessfully tapped, however, and Lavrov restated firm Russian opposition to a Chinese-backed dam project that has gotten the furthest of any of the OBOR projects in Mongolia. Munkh-Orgil will visit China February 19 to 20.
What can be expected to happen now with the 49%? And with Mongolia’s international and regional relationships? As emphasized on this blog and elsewhere Rostec demonstrated substantial desire to “cash in” the 49%. A possible scenario is that the Erdenet 49% be reprivatized to entities that will maintain the status quo (as also before Rostec acquired the 49% in 2007) in which Erdenet maintains Mongolian ties to Russian enterprises and involves social groups beyond the Ulaanbaatar-based elite (members of which have included many of the most adamant proponents of Erdenet’s privatization over the course of the last three decades), groups that are in comparison marginalized in Mongolian politics and business. The activity of these networks has long been demonstrated to have benefits for the nation as a whole.
There is some speculation that the sale and its illegalization are moves to force Russia’s hand to lend more aid to a Mongolia in deep crisis. (As a piece from Bloomberg’s editorial board stated three days ago, “the [Mongolian] government, along with a state-backed development bank, is on the hook for more than $1 billion in maturing bonds over the next year, starting with a $580 million payment due in March.” Currently, Erdenet constitutes a, if not the, major nexus of Russian-Mongolian relations in the form of important trading relationships between firms; for instance on February 2nd director of Russian manufacturer Uralmashzavod’s mining division named Erdenet as a major purchaser in an interview with leading Russian business journal Kommersant. In 2007, Erdenet joined other privatized Soviet enterprises when the 49% was taken into Russian state corporation Rostec, and thus was rearticulated with other such enterprises as well as the Russian state. It can easily be imagined that Russians as well as Mongolians are worried about the loss of tax revenue, business activity, and employment (not to mention the risks to the city built around the Erdenet mine, one of Mongolia’s only two second cities and a major infrastructure hub) were the Erdenet Mining Corporation to collapse. Furthermore, Cold War-era Mongolia expert Robert Rupen (in How Mongolia is Really Ruled: A Political History of the Mongolian People’s Republic, 1900-1978, Stanford:Hoover Institution Press: 1979, pg. 92) remarked as Erdenet was under construction that the gigantic mining operation (at the time, Asia’s largest open pit mine), city, and the road and railways connecting it to Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk constitute a “defensive shield” for the section of the Trans-Siberian Railway that had to be built close to the Mongolian border in order to pass south of Lake Baikal.
About Marissa Smith
Marissa Smith obtained her PhD from Princeton University’s department of anthropology in 2015, after defending a dissertation about Erdenet and its position in local, national, regional, and international contexts. She currently teaches at De Anza College in Cupertino, California.