Regionalization, Internationalisms, and Mongolia’s Almost Century-Old Mining Sector

By Marissa J. Smith

In English-language scholarship, Mongolia’s political-economic system has often been characterized as democratic and market-driven. Though not untrue, this characterization casts Mongolia as a unified entity, which redirects attention from how Mongolia is also regionalized, with an economy, political system, and broader society consisting of distinct networks. This may sound like a level of detail only relevant to those interested in hyper-local kinds of particularity. However, in fact recognizing Mongolian regionalization is also important for understanding Mongolia’s international roles, as well as the workings of its national government and economy, which as we ramp up for the next parliamentary elections, we would do well to remember are very complex.

My recently published (and open-access!) article describes this phenomenon as it relates to distinct parts and aspects of the Mongolian mining sector. While the mining sector of Mongolia, like the Mongolian nation-state itself, has often been discussed as a unified entity, privileging this perspective hampers understanding of mining in Mongolia and the Mongolian economy and politics at large.

As I discovered during my many months of anthropological fieldwork living around and working in the Erdenet Mining Corporation (“GOK”), established in the 1970s, Mongolians associated with the mining enterprise balance, on the one hand, a strong national identity as Mongolians producing wealth for the nation-state, with, on the other hand, robust ties to specific ethnic groups and border regions situated all along the over 8000 kilometer-long border (one of the longest in the world). I learned that, in fact, many working at the Erdenet mine are members of a number of ethnicities based in western Mongolia (Kazakh, Oold, Uriankhai, Zakhchin, Durvud, Darkhad, and Khalkha from Govi-Altai province) as well as eastern Mongolia (Buryat). Many of these ethnicities are based not only across the territory of Mongolia, but across international borders that have shifted repeatedly over the course of the last few centuries as processes of political and economic modernization were implemented and unfolded.

This is true not only of Erdenet, but also other socialist-era mines such as Nalaikh and Mardai, and these long and geographically widely dispersed legacies effect the development of the Mongolian mining sector today, including how major mining projects with new post-Soviet international partners are planned, developed, and operated.

This article is a result of my participation in a workshop at the University of Heidelberg last year, organized by Ivan Sablin and the project “ENTPAR: Entangled Parliamentarisms: Constitutional Practices in Russia, Ukraine, China and Mongolia, 1905–2005,” sponsored by the European Research Council (ERC). Sablin has developed the concept of “imperial entanglement” in his work, tracing how the historical interactions of Tsarist, Qing, Japanese, Soviet, American, and other major powers in the region has had lasting effects not only on how international borders have been drawn and systems of governance legislated, but also on how these have often been crossed and remade in continual processes that are not immediately apparent without the study of primary documents and on-the-ground research.

In the case of Mongolia’s international mining economy, international companies, institutions, processes based in the West like those discussed in Jennifer Lander’s new book are important players to understand. At the same time, it is also crucial to recognize the role of institutions that have had longer standing in Mongolia and the region. Erdenet and the Soviet, Tsarist, and Qing-established institutions with which it is entangled also exert powerful influences on Mongolian, Northeast Asian, and global economies and political systems.

Marissa J Smith. “Power of the People’s Parties and a post-Soviet Parliament: Regional infrastructural, economic, and ethnic networks of power in contemporary Mongolia.” Special Issue: Parliamentary Formations and Diversities in (Post-)Imperial Eurasia, ed. Ivan Sablin. Journal of Eurasian Studies, 11(1-2): 2020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1879366520916743

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He tweets @jdierkes
This entry was posted in Economics, Erdenet, Ethnic Groups, Geography, History, Mining, Population, Publications, Research on Mongolia and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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