By Julian Dierkes
Mongolia is not unique in the presence of conspiracy theories, nor in the presence of events and factors in those events that may lend themselves to conspiracy theories. Yet, in my experience, conspiracy theories have become dominant as a form of interpersonal (though not public as much) political discourse in Mongolia. I won’t scratch the surface on why that may be, but want to think about it at least.
Note that this thinking was inspired by a long-ago airplane conversation with Lauren Bonilla who continues to work on Mongolia as a geographer with a strong interest in Western Mongolia, but also in mining, and who was involved in Rebecca Empson’s “Emerging Subjects” project whose blog readers should keep a keen eye on.
Conspiracy Theories and other Political Explanations
A conspiracy theory is an explanatory hypothesis that suggests that two or more persons, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an event or situation which is typically taken to be illegal or harmful. [Wikipedia]
Conspiracy theories tend to see a secret design and intent behind all political events. Professed explanations, including those offered by actors involved directly, are never what they claim. Evidence is always an opportunity to prove a conspiracy through more far-fetched theorizing, rather than as an opportunity to disconfirm any explanation offered.
A Genealogy of Conspiracies
A close competitor to the conspiracy instinct is the “we’re nomads” explanation of life and the universe, though I get the sense that its dominance may be waning. Either way, If you think that the instinct toward suspecting conspiracies comes from a nomadic lifestyle, go right ahead and spin that story.
I tend to see contemporary Mongolia far removed from state socialism, not least because half of its population was born after the Democratic Revolution. Yet, I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that some state-socialist legacies in patterns of discourse and also, possibly, of understanding the world, persist, transmitted intergenerationally and through institutionalization in schools, etc. Given how prevalent the conspiracy theory has become, it is not unreasonable to look for its state-socialist roots.
En bref, I think those roots are shallow.
Yes, the Mongolian People’s Republic was governed by a conspiracy, of course. It was the self-confessed conspiracy of a Leninist party that saw the state under siege from enemies (an important element in motivating more or less violent purges), but pursuing a grander, long-term goal. Much knowledge about state activities was deemed secret (as it continues to be in the few remaining state-socialist countries and in other authoritarian contexts), as were discussions among the Party elite and decision-makers. So if Mongolians, say, in the 1980s, would have sought an explanation of a state action, the appropriate explanation would have, yes, been a conspiracy theory. They would have been right and justified in pointing to this conspiracy.
Yet, I don’t think that this veracity of conspiracy theories of state-socialist political events is the grounds on which the contemporary affliction with conspiracyology-omniexplanations is based. Why? Well, if it is a self-acknowledged conspiracy, what’s the fun in explaining it? “Ooohh, have you heard, what’s really behind the decision to issue an additional 5,000 residency permits for Ulaanbaatar … is MAXH!” “You don’t say”, said no one ever in the 1980s.
But perhaps it is an assumption of decision, including decisions with great significance for the whole population, made in secret that has carried over?
I cannot recall hearing conspiracy theories about political events when I started coming regularly to Mongolia in 2005 (note that I’m well into my second decade as a Mongolist now!).
Unfortunately, I didn’t start taking notes or blogging about such trivialities as the one way most Mongolians explain political events until later (note this blog is in its 6th year with more than 500 posts published), but as I learned more about Mongolian democracy, I was always surprised that there wasn’t any kind of conspiracy theory spun about the 1990 revolution. The seemingly inevitable foreign agitators or string-pullers have largely been absent from understandings of the events from the Fall of 1989 through the proclamation of the new constitution in 1992.
If there was a historical event that would be rife for conspiracy theories, I think, it would have to be a revolution that changed a country in very significant ways. And in some ways, we recently have seen the arrival of some conspiracy theories. In English, an example might be the recent attempt at revisionist historiography making a capitalist conspiracy responsible for the 1996 merger of the DP and election victory [I link to this article without endorsing its perspective.].
Also, in hindsight now, most explanations of the July 1 2008 post-election riots are also relatively limited in the depth at which they locate the conspiracy. That the demonstrations were deliberately instigated to question election results seems fairly clear, as is the fact that it was mostly DP officials who would have to be seen as the likely instigators. So, the conspiracy theorist is forced to speculate about the apparently premeditated or, God forbid, coincidental availability of alcohol in fueling the riots, an aspect of the sequence of events that seems neither a necessary nor a sufficient ingredient.
So, for my first give years of experience in Mongolia, I remember conspiracy theories as being fairly rarely offered. The one exception to that would be the murder of Zorig, and various attributions to DP rivals, dark mafia forces, or elements in the MPRP. Appropriately, that murder remains stuck in conspiracy limbo, note the recent interrogation of Zorig’s widow as a case in point.
Below, I try to list some factors that may be suspected in the prevalence of conspiracy theories.
Is there a conspiracy of the guilty?
So, why do conspiracy theories seem to occupy so much of public discussion in Mongolia today. Well, just like even paranoids have enemies, even conspiracy theorists sometimes might be right. Maybe Mongolian decision-makers have become more prone to conspire to bring about situations that are otherwise illegal (echoing the Wikipedia definition). There is a sense that corruption has really taken root in the political class and many Mongolians seem to be hesitant when asked to identify politicians whom they assume not to be corrupt. This has led to a stand-off of mutual accusations that are never investigated. For me, developments in 2017 have reinforced this sense of endemic corruption. When everyone is accused, but no one if found guilt, that easily looks like a conspiracy of criminals sworn to secrecy.
But the rapid development of social media and various forms of the press have brought about a proliferation of media views that is out of step with reporting ethics and standards. Many observers have lamented the close ties between political actors and media outlets in particular and these ties that are often not publicized or acknowledged give rise to suspicions about the veracity of reporting. While there are several efforts underway such as the Press Institute, investigative reporting is still developing and has likely not built up the credibility to effectively combat conspiracy suspicions.
Along with underdeveloped reporting standards, there are perhaps also underdeveloped information consumption habits. This leads to outlandish sums being proffered in allegations of conspiracies that are not questioned by large parts of the public. In the context of the 2017 presidential election, I’ve written about the prima facie plausibility (or lack thereof) of allegations against presidential candidates. Allegations about foreign conspiracies (most often Russian or Chinese) also often assume an inordinate amount of interest in Mongolia that is a bit out of step with the importance that Mongolian might hold in foreign decisions.
A Power Elite
There is also a widespread and perhaps growing perception that the group of people effectively “running” the country is relatively small. In the Fall of 2017 the talk was all about “the 30 families”. While there are arguments about how big this group should be and who is part of it, there is a definite sense that there is a power elite that is an overlap between political and business decision-making. As many of those ties are also not acknowledged openly, more opportunities to speculate about such ties arise.
Yet, the small size of the Mongolian population should also inoculate discourse against conspiracy theories. One of the aspects of conspiracy theories that I find least plausible is that any conspiracies can remain secret. In the Mongolian context, there may be a small power elite, but around that “inner circle” there is a wider circle of Mongolians, many of whom know each other well. Is it really plausible that conspiracies could be kept secret from that wider group? Not to me.
Of course, as Mongolia’s economy has grown over the past 10 years, the stakes have risen. The economic pie that is being divided is now much bigger, but that also raises suspicions about the size of the pieces that different individuals and groups are claiming.
As stakes have risen, more and more transparency mechanisms have been put in place (form the EITI to parliamentary reporting requirements and the Glass Account laws). These mechanisms along with revelations such as the Panama Papers have heightened awareness of corruption whether or not it is on the rise.
Ad hoc Political Decisions
Political decisions in Mongolia are hard to predict and thus their interpretation is open to speculation and suspicion. The parties do not have coherent ideological stances or perspectives so that every larger decision appears to be negotiated in a pragmatic fashion. In choosing between three presidential candidates in 2017, for example, voters had very little of an opportunity to think about decisions that a candidate might make if faced with some specific situation. For example, if a new mineral mega-project was discovered, could you predict what position Pres. Battulga would take on the development of such a project as opposed to the stance that M Enkhbold or S Ganbaatar might have taken? Could you predict how the MPP would react to a new project as opposed to the DP? I think not. That means that when decisions are made, they are not explainable in terms of a party platform, are fundamentally tied to the configuration or political actors, and the lack of transparency about political and business connections among actors means that all decisions become subjects of speculation and inference.
The Future of Conspiracies – Am I bullish on conspiracies?
For the moment, I am afraid that conspiracy theories are more likely to become more rather than less prominent in political discourse. The main countermeasure to such theories would be more information and a desire to have and use more information to interpret or explain decisions. But the current mutual-accusation-corruption-stand-off does not bode well for more and better information becoming available. More information would likely result from a popular anti-corruption movement, but the rise of such a movement may well depend on not just the availability of more information, but also the public’s interest in basing more of its political discourse on information rather than on rumour and speculation.
Very interesting post. Thank you for taking this on.
Will think about this more. But for now:
1. The issues are structural, and thus efforts to tighten journalistic standards, increase transparency, educate the public etc. will by themselves have limited effects (and can make things worse).
2. A closer consideration at the role of secrecy in Mongolian politics up through to day is warranted.
I was just reading the new “Combatting Corruption in Mining Approvals,” which gives lots of details about the processes involved in granting, transferring, and notifying about mining licenses. Interesting to consider in terms of government secrecy. https://www.transparency.org/_view/publication/8093
Also, omething I have thought about a lot since Katherine Verdery has been doing work on the Romanian Securitate and its successors, Mongolia has not “opened” its socialist-era “secret police” files… I think there are good reasons this hasn’t/shouldn’t be done, and I don’t think that drawing a sharp distinction between authoritative/socialist vs. … “good” (?) … polities does us much good here.
Finally, I think some of the anthropological work on “gossip,” “cursing,” etc. done with more “nomadic” Mongolians (and elsewhere! Some interesting work has been done for instance about American “fraternal orders”) is applicable to these discussions about high politics, but yes, it can be a slippery slope.