Triggers for Upheaval: Yes, But It Depends

By Mendee Jargalsaikhan

I agree with Julian on the point that Mongolia is not a violence-free state like any others, but I would make a distinction between rioting, which is a momentary violent public disturbance, and public demonstrations or mass protests.  I argue the likelihood of turning mass protests into rioting or violent civil conflict is low in the case of Mongolia.

Vulnerability to Violence – Mongolia at the Crossroad

According to the Fragile State Index, which measures the probability of a state’s vulnerability to conflict or violence (using data from the UN, WHO, WB, GINI), Mongolia ranks 130 out of 178 countries in the stable category.  Here, South Sudan ranks as the most vulnerable (1) whereas Finland is considered the least vulnerable (178).  Although Mongolia sits comfortably in the stable category, 3 out of 10 indicators begins to raise some concern of vulnerability.  The external involvement (i.e., external intervention) – 7 out of 10, uneven economic development (i.e., economic inequality) – 6.1 out of 10, and fractionalized elites – 5.5 out of 10.  Here Mongolia is at the crossroad – can easily go either way.

From the civil conflict theoretical perspective, Mongolia has some features that conducive to violent conflicts.  The proportion of young males (15-29) is significant (but not high) and social fractionalization along ethnic, religious, and social lines does exist.  It has over-populated urban centres, esp., the capital city.  The country has some history of previous violent rioting experience, for instance, the most recent is the July 1 event in 2008.

At the same time, there are some structural features that reduce the likelihood of violence.  The continental weather and Mongolian culture/lifestyle takes the frigid cold months (November to February) and short summer months (July and August) out of the rioting or protest calendars. The proportion of ethnic minority is less than 10 percent and religious true-believers are around 60 percent while many Mongolians appear to be cultural believers of respective religions rather than committed fundamentalists.  But, these positive features will not make Mongolia a violence-free, peace-loving state. If the inequality gap increases, state institutions lose their legitimacy and professionalism, elites neglect the rule of law, and the public disappointment (and grievance) rises. From these perspective, I am in total agreement with Julian and see Mongolia is at the crossroad – moving in the direction of Finland or South Sudan/Afghanistan.

Rioting – Possible

Taking the risk of being speculative, I see several potential triggers for momentary violent rioting.  The following list is neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

  • Anti-Chinese Rioting – with growing Chinese demographic presence (e.g., tourists, workers, businesses), the likelihood of sudden rioting is very possible.  If we look at the well-known symbolic politics theory of ethnic violence (Kaufman, 2006), the conditions for ethnic violence are present.  There are myths (to justify ethnic hostility toward Chinese), lingering fear(e.g., existence of Mongolians is at stake), and opportunity seekers (e.g., political leaders, ultra-nationalist groups).
  • Kazakh versus Mongolian Rioting – although the Kazakh population (3.9 percent) was well-integrated during the communist period, noticeable tensions between Kazakhs and Mongols exist. Kazakhs reside in communal clusters in Ulaanbaatar, Khovd, and Selenge and Tuv provinces while making up 75.5 percent of residents in Bayan-Ulgii province. Mongols living in Bayan-Ulgii province have been experiencing the challenges of ethnic minority while Kazakhs living in other parts of Mongolia seem to have similar feelings and grievances. Unless the government pursues policies to reduce these tensions and increase understanding among Mongols and Kazakhs, the sporadic tensions or violence are gradually building up and explode over small misfortune.
  • Mining-Related Rioting – there could be two types.
    • One is the potential small scale clash between local communities, who would eventually lose their patience over negative impacts of mining businesses. If the stress, especially the environmental and social impacts grows, and authorities fail to deliver on promises, the local community would eventually protest, that would cause momentary or sporadic violent clashes with mining company security forces as well as artisanal miners (i.e., ninja miners).
    • The other potential rioting is coal drivers in the area of Tavan Tolgoi mine. There are about 7-9 thousand drivers transporting the coal from Tavan Tolgoi mines to China.  Even though the Prime Minister and his cabinet members promised to fix the situation and improve the working environment of these drivers, nothing has been delivered.  Instead, the government is in favour of opening additional routes (Chinese port), which require thousands more drivers.  Without introducing any significant measures of controlling these drivers, the government is now increasing the chance of rioting – which could easily block the main commodity exports from Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi and it would take a quite time to control the crisis.
  • Sporting-Related Rioting – this is least likely category of rioting in Mongolia. However, if the current tension between wrestlers from Uvs and others continue, it can result in small scale sporting riots. It would be hard to imagine this would lead to massive violent public disturbances.

In partial agreement with Julian, I see these types of rioting could occur in Mongolia and we had past experiences (anti-Chinese in 1960s, small-scale clashes between Russian and Mongolian kids in Erdenet in 1980s, public violence between people, who defending the conscript and the police in Ulaanbaatar the late 1980s).  But, they were small in-scale and easier to contain due to the nature of the controlled society. Now, if the government fails to contain and/or design policies of preventing from these types of rioting, all would have multiple political, economic, and social impactions for Mongolia. And, the most costly, frightening scenario would be the gradual creation of the environment and culture for vicious cycles of violent conflicts and rioting.

Peaceful Mass Demonstrations and Protests

Like happening in Central and Eastern Europe, Mongolia is likely to experience massive public demonstrations against corruption in coming years – if the state could not make any significant efforts to uphold the rule of law. However, I put forward three reasons why the likelihood of turning these mass protests into violent rioting is low in Mongolia.

  1. these mass protests are organized and led by political entrepreneurs (some for true causes, some for opportunities).This requires preparation, planning, and also some back-up plans for emergencies.
  2. the police and security organizations are informed in advance and at least prepared for the worst-case scenario.
  3. all actors avoid losing the initiative to gangsters or mobs. The apparent take-over by the gang or mob would certainly impact public participation. Since December 1989, all past mass protests, except the July 1, 2008, were peaceful and controlled by organizers and contained by the police.

Just like the third wave of democratization, the majority of former socialist states has been entering into the wave of anti-corruption massive protests (e.g., Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Slovakia, Lithuania, Armenia), now Mongolia is not an exception.  But, I would believe these protests would be massive, but peaceful as happened in 1990s.

About mendee

Jargalsaikhan Mendee is a Deputy Director of the Institute for Defense Studies of Mongolia. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of British Columbia, and MAs in International Relations from the US Naval Postgraduate School and in Asia-Pacific Policy Studies from the Institute of Asian Research of the University of British Columbia.
This entry was posted in Corruption, Human Rights, Inequality, Kazakhs, Nationalism, Wrestling, Younger Mongolians and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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