Delivered July 31, 2008
I know that the members of the Commission on Security and
Cooperation in Europe are serious observers of Eurasian events and
that you are concerned about the direction of Mongolia's
democracy after the June 29, 2008, parliamentary election. I, too,
am concerned. Mongolia was once thought of as a vast but isolated
Central Asian desert with little relevance to the strategic
interests of metropolitan Europe or East Asia. And, indeed, as
recently as a quarter-century ago, that was a valid view.
In the 21st century, however, Mongolia has taken on a
geopolitical importance that it has not had for nearly 1,000 years.
Once a sparsely populated nation that was the colonial dominion of
Chinese emperors, then Manchurian ones, and for most of the last
century the Russians, Mongolia is now its own political
entity, completely independent of its historical
Mongolia possesses outsized mineral wealth, which today is still
largely untapped. It is a vast and essential geographic buffer that
diffuses border tensions between Eurasia's two superstates, China
and Russia. But most important, it is a vibrant democracy that
continues to grapple with internal challenges of corruption,
ineptness, and a touch of intramural mistrust and suspicion.
For these reasons, it is in the profound self-interest of the
members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
(OSCE) that Mongolia's democracy and independence be nurtured. So,
at the outset, I urge the United States, Japan, and South Korea to
insist that Mongolia be included in any "North East Asia Peace and
Security Mechanism" or permanent new "Guiding Principles
of Peace and Security in Northeast Asia" that promises to evolve
from the current Six-Party Talks process in Beijing.
A New Geostrategic Role
I recall a joke my Russian diplomatic colleagues used to tell in
Beijing 30 years ago. They posed a riddle: "What is most neutral
country in world?" The answer, they said, was Mongolia, "because it
doesn't even interfere in its own internal affairs."
But in the 21st century, Mongolia has become a geographic and
political locus of surpassing strategic importance-to the
United States, to the Russian Federation, and to China. By
reviewing the dynamic of interests these three nations have in
Mongolia, we can understand its importance to NATO and the broader
global community of democracies and, of course, to the OSCE.
First, let me say that I count Mongolia as one of the Soviet
Socialist Republics (SSRs) that gained independence with the
collapse of the former Soviet Union. Unlike the other SSRs in
Central Asia, which all chose post-Soviet governing structures that
were heavily presidential and hence easily twisted into
authoritarian despotisms and dictatorships, Mongolia alone
chose a parliament-centric government. This was because Mongolia
was the first republic to become de facto independent from
Moscow in 1986 when Mikhail Gorbachev sought to minimize the USSR's
frictions with China by granting Ulan Batar diplomatic autonomy
from Moscow. One of the first things that took place was Mongolia's
establishment of diplomatic ties with the United States.
In the 1980s, China's leader, Deng Xiaoping, set three
prerequisites for normalized relations with the USSR: the Soviet
military withdrawal from Afghanistan, from Vietnam, and from
Mongolia. By May 1989, when he made his historic visit to Beijing,
Gorbachev had met all of China's demands.
This meant that by 1990, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall
and the Romanian revolution, Mongolia was desperate to define its
new geostrategic role in Eurasia-one that would keep it from being
marginalized. As the patronage of the USSR receded, Mongolia
felt that it had been left hung out to dry in China's back deserts.
Wedged between its new imperial overlord, Russia, and its ancient
imperial overlord, China, Mongolia's political leaders sought a
"Third Neighbor." And their most important "Third Neighbor" was the
In 1990, and again in 1991, American Secretary of State James
Baker made visits to Ulan Batar, where he made a point of meeting
with young leaders of the anti-Communist student democratic
movement. So impressed by Secretary Baker's attention to these
young democrats was Mongolia's ruling Mongolian People's
Revolutionary Party (MPRP) that the MPRP unilaterally divested
itself of its monopoly on power and reorganized the country's
constitution into a truly democratic document, complete with
new political parties, free parliamentary and presidential
elections, a free press, and media journalism-all before the other
Central Asian Soviet Socialist Republics became autonomous.
Since 1990, Mongolians have voted in five general
parliamentary elections for Mongolia's Great Hural, or parliament,
with power flowing back and forth between the old Communist MPRP
and the new coalition of Democrats (in the Democratic Party,
or DP) and other independents. Some political parties are wholly
based on personalities, others on ideas, but it is certainly one of
the most vibrant new democracies in all of Asia.
This is not to say that Mongolia is now a Jeffersonian
republic. The MPRP still maintains a powerful and well-organized
political machine left over from Soviet times, and the MPRP is
still the champion of strong central government control of the
economy and welfare. In contrast, Mongolia's Democrats are in favor
of lower taxes, easier foreign investment, and a truly independent
judiciary necessary for the rule of law to take firm root.
The Hural Election and Its
This brings us to the June 29, 2008, election. I have
communicated with a number of people who say their independent
surveys had led them to believe that the Democrats were headed for
a victory, especially in the urban voting precincts of Ulan
Batar. One person e-mailed me, saying that as of 3:00 a.m. on the
morning of June 30, the vote count showed that, "By the result, 64
out of 76 seats at the Parliament were coming to Democratic Party
Yet, by 3:30 a.m., MPRP Secretary General Yo Otgonbayar had
announced that the MPRP had won the vote, and the MPRP headquarters
issued similar press releases every two or three hours until 6:00
p.m. June 30 saying that the MPRP had in fact won. Allegedly,
election commission units around Mongolia that were controlled by
MPRP commissioners fiddled the election results so that fewer
than 28 DP candidates were successful.
In the end, the General Election Commission, which has eight
MPRP members and one DP member, certified a major MPRP
victory-45 seats in the 76-seat Great Hural.
There seems to have been quite a bit of questionable
involvement by MPRP local officeholders in the oversight of polling
places. Then there were allegations that MPRP officeholders
denied polling registration to DP voters. There were
allegations of improper MPRP busses transporting voters to the
polls, and of vote buying, of multiple voting, missing
ballots, lax security for ballot boxes, etc. How many of these
allegations are based on firm evidence rather than partisan
suspicions I cannot say, but international election observers did
not report any problems.
One anomaly seems to have stirred serious puzzlement,
however. The MPRP candidate for the Hural seat representing the
city of Darkhan, Mr. Khayankhyarvaa, a local governor who was
blamed for a major environmental disaster in the city (a mercury
spill), was elected to the seat with the highest number of
votes. Clearly, something fishy was going on.
On July 1, DP activists began collecting petition signatures in
Ulan Batar's main square, Sukhbaatar Square, demanding an
investigation of the election oversight. A large crowd gathered,
both sympathizers and onlookers. At 6:00 p.m. that evening, a
group of the DP coalition attempted to present the petition at the
MPRP headquarters building on Sukhbaatar Square. Security guards
blocked their approach, and apparently two television news
stations broadcast live footage of the security guards beating
the petitioners on the steps of the MPRP building.
At this point, rocks were thrown, and police fired rubber
bullets. This was followed by more rocks, followed by Molotov
cocktails-and outright rioting broke out. Five people were
killed, and apparently 300 or so were injured, including 30
police. Several hundred were arrested. The Democratic Party now
calls for the release of 200 of the arrestees who are apparently
still in custody.
This was the only such incidence of mass political violence
in Mongolia's modern history, and apparently it shook up not just
the government, but the rioters themselves. By midnight, Mongolia's
president (formerly an MPRP leader) declared a four-day "state of
emergency"-an unprecedented move-and closed all TV stations except
for the state-run national TV outlet.
There was some indication that the MPRP intended to blame
the riot on the instigation of top Democratic coalition
leaders, specifically Tsakhia Elbegdorj, a former prime minister,
and have them arrested as well. Thus far, cooler heads
Implications for Eurasia
The survival and success of Mongolia's infant democracy is no
trivial matter for the democracies of Eurasia. It alone of the
former Central Asian Soviet states has a parliamentary system
and therefore has the most promising hopes for continued
political pluralism. The MPRP are generally honorable men, but
no well-organized former authoritarian party in a new Asian
democracy should be given the impression that the world is not
watching what is going on in its land.
Mongolia has been a valued contributor to the community of
Eurasia's free states in a number of ways, most notably by its
strong support of the West in the war against terrorism. But there
is a danger in permitting that kind of support to turn into a
get-out-of-jail-free card (or a put-dissidents-into-jail-free card)
as it has for some of our other Central Asian partners.
The success of Mongolia's "Third Neighbor" policy also has
a broader implication for Eurasia's geopolitics. Mongolia is wedged
tightly between Russia and China. In 2007, China accounted for over
half of all Mongolia's foreign trade; over 70 percent of Mongolia's
exports go to China, and 30 percent of imports. China accounts for
almost half of all Mongolia's foreign direct investment.
This brings up another problem. While official figures for
unemployment are only around 3.2 percent, the general
consensus in Ulan Batar is that the numbers are near the
twenties-for the simple reason that many traditional Mongolian
men don't think working for a wage is manly.
Most construction work in Mongolia's capital (and on all
Chinese-invested projects) is done by Chinese crews. One report has
over 15,000 Chinese legal construction workers in Mongolia, with
"several thousand more working illegally; many employers
prefer to hire Chinese, who cost less and are believed to work
harder." A cynical joke goes like this: "Why
are there so many Chinese people constructing new buildings in Ulan
Batar? So they will have some place to stay after the invasion."
One simply cannot take for granted Mongolia's continued
independence from China. Although rarely recognized, Mongolia is of
critical geopolitical importance. 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 2008, 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
Looking to the Future
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 the Asia-Pacific
Economic Cooperation forum, the Northeast Asia Cooperation
Dialogue, NATO's Partnership for Peace, and, of course, the
OSCE's Asian Partner for Development Program.
Additionally, it is up to American diplomats to shame their
counterparts from other European and Asian democracies into
supporting those efforts. After all, it's for our own good.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is
Senior Research Fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage
Foundation. These remarks were delivered before the Commission on
Security and Cooperation in Europe.
 Personal e-mail received by author, July
3, 2008, time-stamped 9:17 a.m. (Eastern Time).
 See BBC News, "Mongolia Calls State of
Emergency," July 1, 2008, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/asia-pacific/7483286.stm
(September 1, 2008). Mongolian Prime Minister Sanjagiin Bayar
alleged that Democratic Party leader and former Mongolian Prime
Minister Tsakhia Elbegdorj was "misleading people and inciting
 Ola Wong, "Mongolia's China Syndrome,"
Far Eastern Economic Review, April 20, 2008.