By Julian Dierkes
Two important notes up front:
- I cast sideways glances at Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan more than other countries, for historical/cultural similarities, resource-based development trajectories and landlocked-next-to-Russia-and-China status shared with Mongolia. I have no particular expertise on Kazakhstan.
- I do not think that major political upheavals in Mongolia are likely, even in the medium term.
Lessons from Kazakhstan Interest
As the protests in Kazakhstan have unfolded in the last few days, I have been watching comments online, largely because I am somewhat interested in Central Asia. As I have been learning about the long-standing political grievances that have been brought to a boil by gas price increases, I have also been noticing how information about Kazakhstan is presented and presents itself on Twitter.
At various moments, I have thought about this in terms of what would happen if there was some kind of political event that attracted global attention in Mongolia. Such a moment has not really occurred since the post-election riots in 2008. Oddly, I was in Mongolia and observed that election, but was en route back to Canada to pick up my family to spend the rest of the summer in Mongolia, while the actual riots unfolded. Also, this was pre-Twitter and pre-blogging for me personally.
Comparing International Coverage
Obviously, international English-language coverage is mediated by journalists, but also academics, even more so in the case of a region like Central Asia or a country like Mongolia, generally seen to be “obscure” by audiences in the Global North. In fact, academics with deep area expertise probably have a larger role to play in this coverage than in many other instances because a) we know and understand stuff, and b) there are no/few foreign correspondents based in these countries, and c) nearby foreign correspondents don’t actually know much. Even more reason to imagine a media event involving Mongolia and plan for it a little bit.
The current events in Kazakhstan and the past events in Kyrgyzstan just once again show the futility of the area study/disciplinary study debate. Without accurate empirical knowledge, no theory has a chance to explain the world. And vice versa.
— Asel Doolotkeldieva (@ADoolotkeldieva) January 6, 2022
In coverage of Kazakhstan it is relatively clear that Russia is a reference point for many observers, journalist or otherwise. When foreign correspondents report, it tends to be the correspondents based in Russia. Likewise, diplomatic services, international organizations and donors tend to place Central Asia within units focused on the former Soviet Union. By contrast, any coverage of Mongolia from the near-abroad will come from Chinese cities and Seoul. That will obviously shift perspective and reference points for journalists. It also precludes any language abilities among journalists to provide coverage.
For Mongolia, international English-language coverage really has waned and I do not get the sense that there is significant coverage in other European languages or in Japanese or Korean. The exception of a media landscape that may be offering more coverage now than 10 years ago or so (yes, during the mining boom, funny how that focused attention) is probably the Indian media sector. Not only does India appear to be teaming with a great variety of outlets from very serious journalism, including investigative journalism, to less salutary aspects of online media with shallow click-bait articles also appearing regularly. The strength and cross-Asia reach of Singaporean media companies also means that they occasionally take a look at Mongolia. I do not have a strong sense of Chinese or Russian coverage of Mongolian affairs.
There were never many correspondents based in Ulaanbaatar, but at least some used to come visit somewhat regularly. Those visits were largely limited to elections except for a few journalists who ensured that they came back periodically (for example Matthias Müller when he was still based in Beijing for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung). At the same time, some Mongolian voices have really established themselves as English-language reporters (perhaps most prominently T Anand and B Khaliun).
Some Ground Rules for Myself
Depending on whether I am physically in Mongolia or not, that will imply a different role, eye-witness/reporting vs. analysis/providing context.
Whether or not I’m in Mongolia at the time of event
- Establish hashtag early on, use it consistently
- probably no need to spend any time/energy on ensuring that journalists will find me. Any standard search will quickly lead them to this blog and I do regularly interact with many journalists in any case
- anticipate likely interpretations to counter/address/reinforce them
- if there is time, offer responses to likely interpretations via blog, for example role of China, Russia, mining, state-socialist legacy is almost certainly going to come up
- analysis/interpretation by Mongolians will almost certainly be rich in conspiracy theories, these will seem quite authentic, but I would certainly want to temper them by addressing systemic/structural factors
- there are almost certainly going to be Chinggis Khaan jokes, might as well make them myself, but just a couple 😉
- time permitting, offer resource lists pointing to (open access) literature, own research, individuals who can speak authoritatively
- there will be some surprising voices present in discussions, individuals who have visited Mongolia but have not participated in any academic or policy debates about Mongolia
- one of my greatest assets will be to be able to provide context to pronouncements by Mongolian individuals, publications, and institutions that will not be familiar to almost all journalists and observers
- various centres and organizations will host panels online to provide updates and discuss situation. Helpful to interested audiences to make those thematic rather than a more repetitive version of “what’s happened?”
I’m in Mongolia
- Communicate liberally, but include occasional caveats regarding limits of what I can observe
- change Twitter bio to include cell phone/messenger contact details
- pin Tweet listing other on-the-ground sources, preferably Mongolian, communicate with them ideally through some group or shared messenger resource
- clear prioritization of quality media, especially organizations/journalists I have been in contact with before/that have provided intelligent coverage in the past
I’m not in Mongolia
- On-the-ground information should always be prioritized/pointed to
- Mongolian voices should be prioritized where possible, including women
- consider comparisons (temporal, international) and point to aspects of comparisons that seem useful on the basis of knowledge of Mongolia. What about repeated cycles of protest in Kyrgyzstan that could be compared to a protest event in Mongolia, for example?
- scan non-English discussions, media outlets and their local contacts, be sure to amplify these to wider audiences
In the end, I cannot resist to consider any parallels between the context that may have led to these protests in Kazakhstan (my limited understanding) and the situation in Mongolia.
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) January 5, 2022
While there are some superficial similarities, I do not think that there is much to compare here in terms of the political situation. The large Kazakh minority concentrated in Bayan-Ulgii but present throughout Mongolia is a twist on the bilateral perspective of course, as that minority will have a different view of events in Kazakhstan than other Mongolians and will also heighten focus on events there.
But compare Freedom House rankings (Freedom in the World 2020) as an example:
Kazakhstan = “not free” 23/100
Mongolia = “free” 84/100
Or, the BTI Transformation Index (2020) on political transformation:
Kazakhstan = “hardline autocracy” 3.8/10
Mongolia = “defective democracy” 7.3/10
While you may quibble with methodologies and specific aspects of different rankings, that stark a difference is measuring something quite significant, I would argue. Also, while many Mongolians often focus on the defects in their democracy (I have written about this difference in perspective), they may not be aware how oppressive other polities are. After all, as the authoritarian ruler, N Nazarbayev has only begun to relinquish his power, maybe, over 30 years after independence. I do not really see Ochirbat, Elbegdorj, Khurelsukh or any other individuals establishing a dynasty in quite the same way.
The dynamic of oil and gas as an industry also seems quite different. Oil and gas projects are – inevitably – giant projects. There is no small-scale domestic sector, never mind any artisinal mining. Erdenet and Oyu Tolgoi may be the only projects that are vaguely comparable to oil and gas projects. While some insinuate all kinds of corrupt practices at Erdenet, especially in the past 10 years or so, that mine has supported the Mongolian budget for over 30 years prior to these developments. And, while there are also all kinds of insinuations about corruption at Oyu Tolgoi, I have argued that the fragmentation of political power makes corruption at a grand scale seem unlikely to me.
All that is to say that Mongolians have had many avenues to express their grievances, including elections, so that the kind of eruption that we’re seeing in Kazakhstan would almost certainly be of a very different nature should it ever happen in Mongolia.
And the request for military support from Russia is also not imaginable in the Mongolian context.
Additions as the situation Kazakhstan evolves:
- The whole narrative of foreign interference would be interesting in the Mongolian context as the only plausible interference would be Chinese or Russian…
- Part of the narrative that is emerging in Kazakhstan is, “The protesters in Almaty appeared mainly to come from the city’s poor outskirts or surrounding towns and villages.” This would obviously be a question to ask in any protests in Ulaanbaatar, i.e. to what extent is this pent up frustration in the ger districts? In the end, it’s important to remember that there are significantly more poor people in a city like Ulaanbaatar (presumably Almaty as well?), so not surprising that they might dominate protests. But I’m certain that any narrative in Ulaanbaatar would focus on attempts to pay protesters and draw on ger districts residents in such a fashion.
- In many instances of coups or requests for foreign intervention, the reason may have been to thwart an internal, rival coup of sorts. To the extent that this would involve the military or security forces, this would seem to be very unlikely in the Mongolian context where the military has been under civilian control and is well-removed from political ambitions as we also argued in response to Battulga’s assertions of a militarization of the state in 2021.