Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are autocrats on a roll. Russia is threatening to invade and dismember Ukraine for a second time and its “peacekeeping” troops have returned from Kazakhstan after propping up a corrupt government dedicated to one-party rule. China is accelerating its military buildup at an alarming rate posing a direct threat to Taiwan and using its advanced weaponry, economic weight, and diplomatic bullying to become the hegemon of the Asia-Pacific region—over 20% of the global land area. As NATO countries scramble to implement a plan for pushing back on Putin and the U.S. works with allies to counter Chinese aggression, it’s time for the U.S. to double down—supporting democracy in Mongolia.
It is hard to believe that, beginning in 1205, the Mongols, led by their leader, Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khan to the Mongols), rode out of the steppe of Central Asia and in the space of roughly two decades conquered an empire stretching from the Caspian Sea in the west to the China Sea in the east, and from Siberia in the north to Tibet in the south. At its zenith, the Mongols ruled the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever known. Now it sits landlocked between Russia and China.
Mongolia made another mark on Central Asia’s political map in 1989. Then a client state of the Soviet Union, a people-power revolution led by a group of hunger strikers threw off the yoke of Communist Party rule and established a free-market democracy with a constitution that enshrined individual liberties and guaranteed human rights. The Soviet Union was on the verge of its collapse and China’s economic takeoff was just beginning.
It was in this political vacuum that U.S. assistance coupled with non-government organizations including International Republican Institute, Asia Society and European counterparts worked with Mongol civil society and government to root institutions critical to a new Mongolia’s economic and political order. The 1996 parliamentary elections saw the first peaceful transfer of political power in modern Central Asian history as Mongols voted out the Mongolian Peoples Revolutionary Party and gave the governance gavel to a coalition of opposition parties. Since that time, power has see-sawed between parties at the presidential and parliamentary levels.
Despite sitting between two giant, aggressive neighbors, Mongolia has emerged with a political independent streak and serves as a regional conveyor belt for democratic ideals. The country has good relations with North Korea and remains an open window on an alternative political and economic process for visiting North Koreans. In 2016, the Dali Lama visited infuriating China. Military deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan supporting U.S. interests caused upset in Moscow.
Former president Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, elected to serve two, four-year terms beginning in 2008, established a government fund that brought parliamentarians from Kyrgyzstan to exchange governance experiences. Mongolian NGOs established relations with reporters and civil society groups in Myanmar shortly after the National League for Democracy won elections to discuss freedom of the press issues and the importance of independent media.
Successive Mongolian governments have reached out to the West as part of its “Third Neighbor” foreign policy to diversify diplomatic and economic relationships and sent more than 18,000 soldiers on U.N. peacekeeping missions. Impressive for a country of just over three million people.
For all these accomplishments all is not well in Mongolia today. The BTI Transformation Index, a key measurement of public attitudes towards economic and political progress, cited mounting corruption in politics and especially the judicial sector as threats to further development. Transparency International’s (TI) 2020 report ranked Mongolia 118th out of 180 countries on its Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2019, TI chastised the government for political interference in the judicial process stating, “[This] political interference in the judiciary would be alarming at any time, but it is all the more alarming when set against the backdrop of corruption allegations against parliamentarians themselves.” TI also raised alarms about the criminalization of defamation calling it “another disturbing attack on media freedom threatening anti-corruption efforts.” In 2018 the media company IKON.mn reported that 110 of 132 businesses receiving low-interest loan from a government program were politicians or their relatives.
Further fanning the flames of political interference in the judicial process is the arrest and jailing last year of Erdeniin Bat-Uul, the former mayor of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capitol. Apparently urged on by politicians sympathetic to Russia, Bat-Uul is being charged with policies he undertook during his tenure; chief among them was rooting out corruption in city government. Mongolia’s political future and institutions are quietly under attack by Putin and Xi as both jockey for influence and control of this critical buffer state. Subverting institutions through corruption is a powerful weapon to accomplish this goal.
Democracy-building takes a lot of determined, long-term effort. U.S. AID states Mongolia “struggles with a weakening system of checks and balances, blurring between business and political power, and inconsistent implementation of the law and government functions.” Last year, USAID budgeted $13 million for governance and civil society programming; all well and good. But Mongolia needs more and not just dollars. Frequent visits by government officials and U.S. political leaders can serve to reinforce the Third Neighbor concept, and the U.S. can do more to sponsor all-important trade delegations to further buttress Mongolia’s fragile economy and diversify trading partners.
It has been more than 30 years since Mongolia’s political transition. Its remote location in Central Asia and few economic ties make it easy for the U.S. to overlook. Mongolia will never have military importance to the U.S. However, it can serve as a political laboratory and a beacon of freedom in a very tough neighborhood. Mongolians will decide on the government that suits them best at the ballot box. President Biden has made democracy promotion a core national interest. It’s time to push back on growing authoritarianism. It’s time to double-down on Mongolia.
*Mike Mitchell was Mongolia Program Director for the International Republican Institute, www.IRI.org, and consults on governance issues.