June 21, 2005

June 21, 2005 | Commentary on Asia

Mongolia's Democratic Identity

Ulaan Bataar -- As one of the few Western election observers at the May 22 presidential balloting in Mongolia, I can report that the voting was fair, untainted by intimidation or overt monkey business. And, unlike previous election campaigns, the state-controlled broadcast media gave balanced coverage to each of the four candidates, according to a pre-election study commissioned by the U.S. National Democratic Institute.

So, the good news is that Mongolia has mastered the mechanics of ballot-box democracy.

The bad news is that the Communists still won -- in a relative landslide of 55% of the vote against three squabbling democrat-reformist rivals. Well, maybe it's not "bad" news. They're not "communists" exactly, even though statues of Lenin still occupy honored spots on Mongolia's dusty urban boulevards. The Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) is a disciplined, center-left party committed to parliamentary democracy with a populist focus on poverty-alleviation.

To a large extent, Mongolia's democratization is a fruit of its quest for identity after seven decades under Soviet control and six centuries as a Chinese vassal. Confronted with student protests in April 1990, Mongolia's ruling MPRP amended the constitution to abolish its monopoly on power and create a fully functioning democracy. Mongolian leaders differentiated themselves from both the brutal one-party dictatorship that crushed China's democratic movement at Tiananmen in June 1989 and from the Soviet Communist party wrestling with increasingly obstreperous independence movements in the Soviet socialist republics.

In Mongolia, orderly multiparty elections have been the strict rule ever since with four peaceful transfers of power, from the MPRP to the democrats and back, between 1990 and 2004. And the 50-50 results of the June 2004 parliamentary elections ultimately shook out into an MPRP-reformist "Coalition of 61" and a Democratic Party Premier.

As such, the May 22nd presidential election was just another step in Mongolia's process of asserting its independent political identity. The MPRP victor, President-elect Nambaryn Enkhbayar -- an erstwhile premier and now speaker of the Great Hural -- ran on a campaign of national solidarity and the slogan "we are powerful when we are together." The slogan echoed the glories of Mongolia's distant past, but it was also a sly dig at his opponents who all emerged from the Democratic Party, a party that Will Rogers would have recognized. ("I'm not a member of any organized political party," Rogers quipped, "I'm a Democrat.")

The American Embassy in Ulaan Baatar claimed to be neutral but was clearly relieved at the outcome. Mr. Enkhbayar was the only candidate to endorse strongly Mongolia's participation in Iraq and Afghanistan. The MPRP, which has been very eager for close ties with the U.S., signed an "Article 98" waiver agreement regarding the liability of U.S. soldiers under the International Criminal Court. Mr. Enkhbayar's main Democratic Party opponent, Mendsaikhany Enkhsaikhan, at one point asked if the government's decision to join the Iraq effort was constitutional because it didn't undergo Great Hural review. (Not that it mattered at the time -- the MPRP controlled 95% of the Hural seats anyway.) But although Mr. Enkhsaikhan freely admitted that over 70% of Mongolians supported a military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, American officials seemed a bit leery of a Democratic win.

The American stake in Mongolia is not insignificant. Aside from being a reliable diplomatic ally, Mongolia is also a poster child for democracy in Eurasia. Its messy, multi-party parliamentary system with its liberal election calendar has yielded an open society where political dissent is the norm, parliamentary debate is spirited, and compromise between parties and interest groups is common. This contrasts starkly with the rest of post-Soviet Central Asia, where presidential governments have resulted uniformly in strong, single-minded dictatorships. Leaders in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have all been in power since the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, in power since 1992, was the only exception. He resigned abruptly when widespread violence in the capital -- the "Tulip Revolution" -- sent the city into chaos, leaving long-term prospects for democracy unclear.)

Although rarely recognized, Mongolia is of critical geopolitical importance as well. Its 1.5 million square kilometers of real estate is a stabilizing element in Eurasia that keeps border frictions between its two giant neighbors, Russia and China, from reaching a critical mass of conflict. In 1969, the specter of a Soviet nuclear strike on China was the immediate threat that galvanized President Richard Nixon into exploring a strategic alignment with China. In 2005, the U.S. sees an independent Mongolia as a stabilizing buffer between Russia and China. But how long Mongolia can remain economically independent from China is problematic. Once its economy is absorbed by China's, how much political independence it retains may simply be a matter of opinion.

Frail Economy

Mongolians are very self-conscious about their importance in the global scheme of things. Despite the wide expanses of the Mongolian steppes, there are only 2.5 million Mongolians to herd about 23.5 million head of livestock -- sheep, yaks, camels, cattle and horses. While they have one of the most productive copper mines in the world, 85% of its output goes to China, and that only meets an eighth of China's demand. In 2004, the country's GDP grew 10.6%, but at least half of that is due to higher prices in international metals exchanges, not increased production.

And Mongolia's once-profitable cashmere industry, which accounted for 16% of exports in 2004, is in a depression with the expiration of the international Multi-Fiber Arrangement, which abolished textile quotas. The end of the MFA means Chinese mills and weavers no longer need Mongolian factories for quota visas and now secretly (and illegally) ship raw cashmere wool across the border to Chinese factories, leaving 40,000 Mongolian workers idle. That, combined with dreaded "dzud" winters that have killed off nearly a third of Mongolia's livestock over the past five years, has led to frightening unemployment and a mass migration of herdless herders, gers (yurts) and all, into vast ger-towns encircling Ulaan Baatar. Official jobless statistics are pegged at 6-7%, but Mongolian politicians admit that figure doesn't reflect much of the recent rural in-migration, which could number more than 100,000.

Addressing Mongolia's economic dislocations will occupy the government for decades. Needless to say, Mongolia cannot possibly pose a security threat to either of its neighbors for decades to come, if that. Mongols worry, however, that the collapse of the Soviet Union has left a vacuum that China seeks to fill consciously or unconsciously.

Chinese Vice Premier Madame Wu Yi arrived in Ulaan Baatar with great fanfare on May 24, just a day after snubbing the Japanese Prime Minister in Tokyo. While outwardly cordial, Mme. Wu was evidently a bit miffed that the Mongols hadn't used one cent of the US$300 million in low-interest loans that President Hu Jintao offered during his June 2003 visit. Mongol officials described the Chinese vice premier as "tough" but were edgy about specifics and said, "It is hard to separate politics from economics." They did say Mme. Wu offered a $200 million loan for infrastructure improvement in mining areas close to China (whether it was more money or a subtle way of cutting down the original offer, the Mongols were not quite sure). Despite the desperate need for new infrastructure funds, Mongol officials told me they remain nervous that the strings attached will only increase Chinese control of their economy. In 2004, 48% of Mongolia's exports went to China and 38% of direct foreign investment in Mongolia came from Chinese companies. Those figures are swelling rapidly in 2005.

Looking for "Third Neighbors"

For American diplomats whose job it is to think about such things, an independent Mongolia is a desirable security interest that they try to work into policy prescriptions. For Mongolians, it is their very existence. Mongolian scholars, speaking in private, see their new democracy as an essential element of their country's new identity separate from its previous Chinese and Russian overlords. (The Soviets occupied the country from 1924 through 1990.)

In 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker visited Mongolia and extended a hand of partnership to Mongolia as a "Third Neighbor." The concept electrified Mongolians, who had never dared think of themselves as anything but real estate over which Russians and Chinese had fought for centuries. Since Mr. Baker's visit, finding additional "Third Neighbors" to help buttress the nation's international identity has been a central tenet of Mongolian foreign policy.

The Enkhbayar campaign called on Mongol voters to remember their identity as descendants of Genghis Khan -- a proud people with a great heritage. American officials here respect this facet of Mongolia. Hence the elaborate care with which the U.S. Embassy and the Washington D.C.-based International Republican Institute dispatched its own election monitors to the far reaches of the Mongolian Steppes. While America's chief geo-strategic interest in Mongolia is as a stabilizing buffer, Mongolia is perhaps more valuable as democracy's single success story in the former Soviet empire east of the Urals.

But Washington has been pretty feckless in sharing this view with the rest of the democratic world, such as it is. For some reason, Washington can't get the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) to admit Mongolia -- "too many countries already," they say, "try again in 2007." How about the six-nation Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue? North and South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the U.S. are members of this semi-formal security group of senior diplomats and defense officials. But when Mongolia was mentioned, the Russians and Chinese balked. "North Korea has decided not to attend this year, so let's not include Mongolia until North Korea rejoins," was the excuse Beijing used to justify its hesitation. Some countries are uncomfortable with Beijing's position, but are willing to humor the Chinese. Others, like France, consider Mongolia to be in China's sphere.

France, Mongolia and "Greater China"

While Mongolian participation in "Operation Iraq Freedom" won profound gratitude from the Bush Administration, it earned Ulaan Baatar enmity in Paris. France subsequently vetoed Mongolia's application to join NATO's "Partnership for Peace," a security forum that includes all the former Soviet states. Nothing against Mongolia, mind you, it's just what passes for geopolitics in Paris these days.

This is how the French ambassador in Ulaan Baatar, Nicolas Chapius, described it to a group at Mongolian National University in November 2004: "Strategically, there is a continental triangle 'standing up to' (although the Mongolian interpreter translated this as 'opposing') U.S. hegemony - the European Union, Russia and China."

A Mongolian scholar read these words to me from his notes of an open speech Mr. Chapius gave on French policy toward Mongolia. He quoted bullet points in French, which he said Ambassador Chapius gave him after his remarks. "We see this policy [toward Mongolia] within the framework of cooperation between the European Union and Greater China." When it comes to Mongolia, the scholar paraphrased the French official, "we don't want to frustrate our friends the Chinese."

China certainly does not want Mongolia to consolidate its identity as a democracy or as a land of devout Buddhists. On Monday, May 23, the Buddha's birthday, many of the Mongolians I met were fasting in observance, including my interpreter and a doctoral candidate in international security. In November 2002, Beijing cut all rail service (the only rail service, actually) to Mongolia for a nail-biting 20 hours while Ulaan Baatar hosted a visit by the Dalai Lama. Beijing gets hysterical whenever any country hosts the Tibetan exile leader, but apparently China opposes the Buddhist Nobel Peace Laureate more than it opposes nuclear weapons in North Korea, because it refuses to take equally stern economic action against Pyongyang. Needless to say, the Dalai Lama was high on the agenda for President Hu's July 2003 visit to Mongolia -- and it definitely was for Mme. Wu Yi's visit, although none of my interlocutors would say as much.

In reconstructing their identity, Mongolians are resurrecting their reverence for Buddhism -- hence the Mongolian frustration at China's pressure on the Dalai Lama's visit. China's creeping control over Mongolia's economy -- and the fact that Mongolia's profitable construction industry is almost completely manned by Chinese workers -- is generating antipathy toward China. Russians are liked in Mongolia, but Russian is no longer the second-language of choice among students, nor is Chinese. English is. Japanese diplomats and scholars are popular for their enthusiasm about Mongolia's culture and history. But Americans are particularly welcome, which probably annoys the Chinese.

No one expects China to be happy with an independent Mongolia, but it is the best way to help keep China and Russia apart. The best way to ensure that Mongolia's two neighbors respect her independent identity is to integrate that isolated land into regional and global security structures like APEC, Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue, and Partnership for Peace. And it is up to American diplomats and their Japanese counterparts to shame their counterparts from other European and Asian democracies into supporting those efforts. After all, it's for their own good.

John Tkacik a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review