Democratization, National Identity, and Foreign Policy in Mongolia in 2019

Democracy came to Mongolia in the aftermath of the Cold War as one of the uplifting success stories of that era, and it has survived for three decades despite conditions that many regard as hostile. Given the legacy of communism and the pressures attributed to Beijing and Moscow, this sparsely populated, landlocked country has not been regarded as a likely stalwart of democracy in the 2010s when overall optimism about the course of democratization has been receding. Here, I consider the reasons for success in sustaining democracy as well as evidence of its vulnerability, paying attention to recent debates indicative of national identity as well as foreign policy factors that continue to operate.

It is tempting to apply the criteria widely understood to be essential for strengthening 
democratic institutions to judge recent developments in Mongolia. After all, political leaders in the course of election campaigns or in their promises after electoral success trumpet these actions: fighting against corruption, separating the executive and legislative branches, and increasing judicial independence. Yet, as again seen in 2019, the actual political equilibrium that emerges involves leaders, once firmly in power, taking all necessary measures to weaken their opponents and to advance their economic interests. For those with a less demanding definition of democracy, such deviations from the ideal are not sufficient grounds to alter the verdict that Mongolia is the only Asian communist state, which not only successfully gained a democratic identity, but ranks close to South Korea and Taiwan on various democratization scales. Political power is transferred, over and over again, between two main political parties by free, fair, and inclusive elections, putting Mongolia firmly in the ranks of electoral democracies. Unusual circumstances have enabled democratization to proceed, but they stand in the way of its deepening. 

This paper makes three arguments. First, the favorable external environment has been a crucial factor for the democratization process since the mid-1980s. A geopolitically neutral Mongolia serves its neighbors’ interests; therefore, Beijing and Moscow have been reluctant to make any moves to trigger the traditional security dilemma, even if their shadows do not facilitate deepening the process. None of Mongolia’s new-found “third neighbors” has been dragged into unnecessary geopolitical confrontation over it, either in support of steps that further democratization or in confrontations that could be used to set democratization further back. Second, the survival of the ruling communist party, the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP), is a key constructive factor for the consolidation of the electoral democracy. The party initiated the political reform process while serving as an anti-incumbent platform for opposition parties as well as preventing a populist takeover, especially during the formative years of democratization. Similar to the Kuomintang (KMT) in Taiwan, the MPP successfully transitioned from a Leninist party—the oldest Asian communist party (established in 1921)—into a parliamentary party. Third, of late, corruption poses an increased threat for the country’s democratic institutions. It becomes more difficult to reform judicial institutions amidst intense power struggles than earlier in the transition. Now political actors are more concerned with gaining or increasing their political power through political parties, the legislature, and the cabinet, while attempting to control or influence the judiciary and law enforcement agencies. If, for a time, peaceful democratization was facilitated by keeping the massive security forces politically neutral in 1987-1996, now competitive attempts to use the security forces and law enforcement agencies for parochial interests are more visibly endangering democratic institutions.

An example of complicated democratic institutions is the case of Zorig Sanjaasuren, a prominent leader of the democratic revolution. Politicians in Ulaanbaatar began stirring the pot again in March 2019 after a period of relative calm. Recalling the Stalinist-type tortures in the 1930s, Minister of Justice and Internal Affairs Nyamdorj Tsend made a public apology for the torture of wrongfully convicted suspects for the 1998 murder of Zorig.1 Yet, his death, which brought to the surface the intense competition for power among politicians and business factions, lingers as an unfinished agenda for populists.

A few days after the empathetic statement of Nyamdorj, MPs watched the torture video (CCTV of the detention facility) just before debating the president’s bill to empower the three-member National Security Council (NSC) to recommend changes in the line-up of judges, prosecutors, and leaders of the Independent Authority Against Corruption (IAAC). As the public began to question whether the bill is unconstitutional, the same video was shown to media representatives, but journalists were allowed only to talk about some of its contents. Following passage of the bill, presumably in consultation with two other members of the NSC (i.e., the speaker of parliament and the prime minister), the president sent his list of nominees for top judges, chiefs, and deputies in the prosecutor’s office as well as the IAAC for parliamentary approval. Claiming that support for the presidential bill is the only way of saving the nation from falling into the hands of a corrupt, unaccountable judiciary and law enforcement officials, the majority of MPs not only voted in favor of the bill, but “rubber stamped” the list of new candidates.  

In the following weeks, the police arrested Khurts, the former chief of intelligence and deputy chief of the IAAC, along with other officers in connection with the torture of the wrongly convicted suspects in Zorig’s murder. Then, the media were overwhelmed by corruption scandals related to former presidents, prime ministers, and cabinet ministers, fueling rumors on the street. It turns out, however, that none of the new appointees had made any promises of investigating current MPs for their alleged misuse of the authority to allocate billions of tugrug loans from the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) funds, for the disbursement of bonds and loans, and for the never-ending corruption scandals related to the state-owned enterprises (SOEs). If some progress was made by exposing past excesses, no confidence existed that recent and future excesses would be addressed. For critics, the path of deepening democratization ahead remains as uncertain as ever.

Democratization benefiting from geopolitical blessing

Since the mid-1980s, the external environment for Mongolia has remained favorable for its domestic politics. Its powerful neighbors have prioritized their strategic partnership rather than engaging in direct geostrategic competition in Mongolia. Despite its growing influence over the Mongolian economy, Beijing is still reluctant to upset the Kremlin by making investments that could disadvantage the Russian strategic and economic interests in Mongolia. Similarly, Mongolia’s third neighbors, notably the United States, Japan, and Germany, have not made any effort to use Mongolia as an arena to engage in unnecessary, direct geostrategic confrontation with either Russia or China. Rather third neighbors support the country’s democratic identity as a key foundation for their relations with Mongolia. Therefore, Mongolia’s domestic politics, especially the democratization process, has enjoyed thirty years of peace. Mongolia has sufficient democracy to dissuade the third neighbors from thinking of it as a candidate for a “color revolution,” while it is advancing so little to a deeper level of democracy or a model for others that China and Russia, each wary of antagonizing the other, would find cause to intervene seriously.

Two, key points need be made to underscore the arguments about geopolitical factors.     
First, the most important external contribution to Mongolia’s democratization has been the Sino-Soviet agreement to end decades-long military tension. After several rounds of consultations that began as early as 1982, Soviet leaders finally accepted the persistent demand of China to remove the so-called three obstacles to normalize the Sino-Soviet relations, one of which was the Soviet military forces in Mongolia.2 Although Mongolian leaders were caught by surprise by the Kremlin’s decision to make a complete military withdrawal, this decision had a number of significant implications for Mongolian democratization.  In order to normalize relations with China, the Kremlin removed Mongolia’s longest serving, ailing leader Tsedenbal Yumjaa along with his politically influential Russian spouse in 1984. Not only had his hardened anti-Chinese stance become a major hurdle for Sino-Soviet rapprochement, but his ill-timed taunting of China just as Moscow was beginning to normalize relations aroused Beijing to send an emissary to Moscow to demand his ouster. Already Mongolia had become an arena for Moscow and Beijing to prove that they could find common ground in testing their ties.

Preempting Gorbachev’s agenda of getting rid of the Brezhnev-era leaders of the socialist bloc, the removal of an authoritarian leader became important for the predominance before long of reform-oriented, moderate leaders in Mongolian domestic politics.
Moreover, it removed the Chinese military threat, which had provided justification not only for the Soviet military presence, but also for the militarization and communist-type control of Mongolian society. Mongolia effectively had become a garrison state, which imposed three years of mandatory conscription and military reserve duties for all males under the age of 45, established military and civil defense training programs for all government and educational organizations, especially secondary and post-secondary schools, and strengthened intelligence and informant networks. For instance, using the China threat, Tsedenbal purged a number of senior party officials who had criticized the corruption and incompetency of the Mongolian leadership, claiming they were part of an anti-party group with Chinese connections even though none of these challengers touched on matters of foreign policy in the 1960s, 1970s, and even in 1984. The Sino-Soviet rapprochement created the most favorable external setting for democratization, parallel to the impact of Soviet normalization with the Western powers providing obvious breathing space for the transformation of domestic politics in European socialist states.   

Second, in the following three decades, Russia and China have remained neutral to the Mongolian democratization process although both have enormous power to pressure or interfere in its domestic politics. This is not because either of the great powers respects the sovereignty of small peripheral states, but because they understand the desirability of keeping Mongolia as neutral as possible for their respective geopolitical interests. The Kremlin’s priority in Mongolia appears to be to keep Mongolia in its sphere of influence, without triggering Chinese security concerns.  During the Yeltsin period, Mongolia had disappeared from the Kremlin’s foreign policy map. In fact, it was unable to respond to Mongolia’s constant requests for the resumption of traditional bilateral relations. Then, since 2000, Mongolia reappeared in Russian foreign policy—mostly in connection to Putin’s Asia pivot strategy in its incipient form and, later, when it became official.  However, the Kremlin seemed more interested in defending its remaining “imperial” strongholds than interfering in the country’s domestic politics. The Kremlin successfully stopped Mongolia’s attempt to attract Western and Chinese investments in extending its railways, which could disadvantage Russian control over the only remaining “imperial” legacy in Eurasia. The move is clearly connected to Russia’s wider geopolitical strategy.3 Similarly, the Kremlin pressured the Mongolian government to change its policies and even investment agreements connected to uranium deposits. This move is also connected to Russia’s wider strategy to control its uranium production.

Otherwise, the Kremlin’s interests in Mongolia are historically limited. By 2016, it realized the impracticality of its desire to participate in exploitation of Tavan Tolgoi coal, and it abandoned its largest joint venture (i.e. the Erdenet copper factory) by selling its share to the Mongolian side and withdrawing Russian nationals.4 The resumption of their defense cooperation appears to be limited to less frequent exchanges and joint celebration of the anniversary of the Khalkhyn Gol (Nomonhan battle) of 1939, when Japan was defeated.

In contrast, Beijing’s leverage over Mongolia has increased substantially. First, China became the only market for Mongolia’s commodity exports. A policy shift affecting land ports, customs and tariffs, or import quotas could trigger an adverse effect in Mongolia. For instance, since 2008, the most pressing issue for Mongolian presidents and prime ministers with Chinese leaders has been to increase, or at least maintain, the annual quota for Tavan Tolgoi coal. Second, Beijing’s provision of preferential policies—30-day visa free entry, access to medical facilities, reduced transit tariffs, and even access to seaports and transit facilities—have increased Mongolia’s dependency even further. Third, China became the only provider of funding and labor for Mongolia’s large projects, from roads to housing complexes, to water treatment facilities. Interestingly, China made similar efforts in the 1950s-60s, building a sports palace, bridges, major roads, and factories.

Fourth, Mongolia has no option but to rely on Chinese financing for major infrastructure projects and loans/currency swaps as the country’s economy encounters crises due to inefficient, clientelist economic policies. Yet, China rarely uses its leverage over Mongolian politics as long as leaders in Ulaanbaatar respect the Chinese core concerns regarding Taiwan, Tibet, the Xinjiang-Uyghur area, and geopolitical neutrality of Mongolia from its strategic competitors like Russia, Japan, and India. The Chinese government apparently has no problem working with any leaders and parties arising from Mongolia’s competitive elections, patiently watching Mongolia’s domestic debates over the SCO membership, and projecting more institutionalized soft power to ease historical anti-Chinese attitudes in Mongolia. The one irritant that prompted the use of China’s economic leverage was Mongolia’s spiritual ties with the Dalai Lama.5 Otherwise, Beijing is more concerned with its partnerships with Russia and interested in resources in Siberia and Central Asia.  For Beijing, Mongolia can remain an insignificant, small, democratic neighbor, as long as Russian concerns matter and it keeps its behavior within clear limits.

In the 1990s, Mongolia’s endogenous democratization process coincided with American geopolitical interests of spreading ideas of political and economic liberalization. Even though the democratization process was initiated under the ruling communist party, US Secretary of State James Baker played an influential role in providing the most necessary economic and humanitarian assistance at the brink of state collapse, urging US allies to support Mongolia to gain membership in international financial institutions, and insisting that non-reversal in democratization is a key condition for Mongolia’s relations with the US and its allies.6 Because democracy strengthened Mongolia’s identity vis-a-vis China (similar to Taiwan versus the PRC and South Korea versus North Korea), provided an opportunity to gain full independence from the Kremlin, and facilitated integration into the international system beyond its two neighbors, there was not any major opposition to accepting the non-reversal conditionality. Since that time, democratization has still served the interests of Mongolia’s third neighbors, all of which have refrained from measures that could trigger unnecessary geopolitical competition with Mongolia’s two neighbors and, in the process, endanger that very democracy. Defense and security ties have been exclusively limited to activities supporting Mongolia’s peacekeeping capacity. A brief commodity boom in the first decade of the 2000s did not override the fundamental interests of the United States and other foreign investors in oil and gas deals in small states. Even Mongolia’s military deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo did not produce “rentier state effects” as happened to Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan, where Western powers prioritized their security interests (e.g. military logistical hubs) over a democracy agenda. Rather, Western interests in the Oyu Tolgoi mine provided more leverage for the public to pressure the government to increase transparency in its resource governance as well as increase Mongolia’s visibility in Western capitals and media. Mongolia’s peacekeeping deployments contributed to gaining full membership in the OSCE, which now observes closely the country’s parliamentary and presidential elections. In other words, the country’s democratic identity has remained a cornerstone of its relations with third neighbors and served as a justification for their increased presence (i.e. the EU mission), for cooperation with international organizations (the EU, the OSCE, and NATO), and for bilateral relations with developed democracies. Accepting as a centerpiece in its national identity democratization, Mongolia has gained geopolitical balance and increased its capacity to affirm its distinctiveness versus China and Russia as well as Central Asian states or former Asian communist states (Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam). 

In a nutshell, the avoidance of direct geopolitical competition in and over Mongolia among great powers has provided a favorable external environment for the country’s domestic politics, especially the democratization process. Both neighbors are in favor of keeping Mongolia a neutral state and reluctant to make any direct investments to trigger each other’s security concerns. At the same time, electoral democracy has remained a key element of identity—linking Mongolia with the world beyond its expansionist neighbors.  

Competitive parties

Within this favorable external setting, the survival of the ruling communist party has been a key factor for the consolidation of electoral democracy in Mongolia in several ways. Party leaders initiated political and economic reform by dismantling ideological controls, relying on a collective decision-making process, and empowering the legislature and state organizations. The ruling party did not take any measures to hinder the development of opposition parties in the 1990s, and it served as an anti-incumbent platform and organizational model for these new parties. Over three decades, the existence of an institutionally strong political party has not only prevented hijacking by populist leaders, but also contributed to political stability, as explained by three arguments given below. 

First, in the crucial period between 1987 and 1990, the Mongolian communist party had taken measures opposite to those of its counterparts in Moscow and Beijing.  Following the ousting of the authoritarian leader, new party leaders created a favorable atmosphere for open debate and criticism, reaching out to the public through party organizations. Instead of taking preemptive or repressive measures against dissenting youth or critical intellectuals, the party removed ideological censorship by early 1988 and directed the Ministry of Public Security not to intimidate anyone challenging party leadership.7 This makes the Mongolian communist party different from all other non-European communist parties, but similar to Taiwan’s KMT. Furthermore, leaders of the communist party relied heavily on the party’s collective decision-making process, which was institutionalized through the Politburo, Central Committee, and Party Congress—important for reforming the political party and increasing the legitimacy of its decisions. The party made clear its support for strengthening the legislature (People’s Great Khural) and the cabinet by appointing politically neutral technocrats to separate the party from these state organizations. This was not the case in the majority of Soviet republics, where communist parties were marginalized first by populist leaders like Gorbachev and Yeltsin and then generally banned in the aftermath of the August coup in 1991. As a result, the Mongolian political reform was backed up by political institutions; therefore, it acquired a broader base of support from the public than personalized reform—attached to a particular populist leader—or reform imposed from the outside by external powers.

Second, the ruling party played a constructive role in the formation of the competitive party system. From 1988, communist party leaders did not delay or restrict the opposition’s institutionalization process, starting from the political debate clubs, to movements, and to political parties. Party leaders permitted demonstrations, even provided facilities for their congresses and meetings, and maintained open channels with opposition leaders. The existence of a strong political party also provided an anti-incumbent impetus for opposition parties. All of the new parties may have lacked comprehensive election platforms and could not widely publicize their political agendas, but, due to the existence of a strong ruling party, they had an increased incentive to collaborate and challenge incumbents. The new parties could also simply adopt the organizational model of the ruling party as they began their institutionalization process. 
The survival of the ruling party also made Western party development assistance of the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) and American International Republican Institute (IRI) more effective. If the ruling party was replaced by multiple small parties, there would have been too many leaders to work with, and this would have been too challenging and costly for the international party assistance programs of either the KAS or the IRI, whose wherewithal was crucial for the opposition parties’ takeover of the presidency in 1993 and parliament in 1996. In fact, the ruling party did not restrict Western party assistance programs from the beginning, instead facilitating all of their requests to operate freely to develop the opposition parties.  

Third, the existence of a well-institutionalized party made the power (leadership) transition process easier than in countries without strong political parties. Since the power transition procedure had been made clear for party elites and the strong party institution reduced any uncertainty, Mongolian political elites established the precedent of exiting and transferring power not only during a crisis (i.e. the first hunger strike in 1990), but also after regular elections. In fact, the Mongolian case demonstrates that a strong party can prevent a takeover or hijacking by a populist leader. Two notable examples are the removal from influential positions of the former president, prime minister, and speaker N. Enkhbayar in 2008 and the wealthy factional leader M. Enkhbold twice in 2007 and 2019.

A similar claim could be made about the opposition party, but the party’s organizational strength is much lower in comparison to that of the former ruling party.  In addition to their ability to prevent the emergence of a populist leader, the ruling party elites also sought out ways to collaborate with and accommodate opposition parties from 1990. Despite resistance from some of its conservative members and populist political forces, party leaders managed to work together with opposition leaders in the constitution-making process and jointly relied on the professional expertise of the non-partisan, constitutional drafters. Also, after winning in the first multiparty elections, the new leaders of the ruling party welcomed opposition leaders by sharing key positions in the bicameral legislature and established a coalition government even though they held enough seats to establish a single-party cabinet. This was repeated in 2008, the MPP successfully convinced the opposition parties to establish a coalition government even after the party had more than enough seats in the legislature. The main reason behind this unusual type of collaborative behavior is apparently concern for political stability, linked to appreciation for the value of Mongolia’s democratic national identity for both internal and external purposes.    

The consolidation of electoral democracy arguably resulted from the survival of the ruling party, which played a constructive role and became an indispensable part of the new political system.  Since the 1992 constitution made political parties the only vehicle for gaining political power through competitive parliamentary, presidential, and local elections, it became impossible for populist politicians to accumulate power as happened in the majority of the former Soviet republics, including Russia. Over three full decades, political power has been peacefully transferred between two major political parties—the MPP and the loosely united Democratic Party (DP). The former ruling party and the main opposition party were engaged in systematic competition to control the legislative and executive powers. However, the two have been reluctant to provide opportunities for other parties to compete. Under public pressure, they finally agreed to introduce a mixed electoral system (i.e. 48 majoritarian seats and 28 proportional allocation seats) and a gender quota for nominations for the 2012 parliamentary elections. As a result, third parties won more seats that year. Although this was an important step toward promoting parliamentary democracy, leaders of the two major parties changed the rules back to the majoritarian system for the 2016 parliamentary elections. This resulted in a landslide victory for the former ruling party, which won 65 out of 76 seats. The Democratic Party won in the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections.8  However, both parties are struggling to gain popular support as they are unable to deal with growing clientalism and corruption. While their leaders have been pledging since as early as 2004 to fight against corruption, separate the blurred lines between the legislative and executive offices, and depoliticize the judiciary and law enforcement, none have taken bold measures. Instead, all have been concerned with controlling the legislature and the cabinet and, most of all, to strengthen their leverage over the judiciary, law enforcement, and other key agencies to the disadvantage of their political opponents while preparing for the next regular elections.

The challenge–the rule of law

Like many other states, Mongolia’s primary challenge to democracy is corruption. Since his inauguration, the current president twice asked parliament to dissolve itself before the upcoming elections in 2020 because he considers incumbent parliament members to have lost public confidence by not fulfilling their mandate to bring justice to Mongolia.9 Yet, members of the ruling party proposed instead collective resignation with the president since a number of allegations against him still have not been cleared by the courts and law enforcement agencies.10 Over the last decade, media coverage has been overwhelmed by unresolved corruption scandals, involving a majority of politicians, both in power as well as those now out of power.  Politicians and political parties skillfully use the corruption scandals in their political maneuvering. Once they achieve their parochial objectives or reach deals, the scandals are left unresolved. At the most, the IAAC anti-corruption agency and the police would simply put the blame on the chief prosecutor’s office for either dropping the case or delaying the investigation. For example, since 2016, major corruption allegations include the following:

  • MPP’s “65 billion tugrug” scheme of selling public posts;
  • “Just” Bank’s loan with Erdenet Copper Mine (as a collateral);
  • a mysterious purchase of a 49 percent stake in the Erdenet Copper Mine;
  • allegations about the Oyu Tolgoi (copper/gold) investment expansion agreement;
  • allegations related to the Tavan Tolgoi (SOE) coking coal mine;
  • misuse of the ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) forum funds, and,
  • misappropriation of funds set aside for small and middle enterprises.   

The rule of law is weak in Mongolia, which offers three important lessons for countries transitioning from a single-party state to an electoral democracy. First, is the danger of neglecting judicial reform while giving more emphasis and resources to establishing the legislature, cabinet, and presidency as well as electoral institutions. The most significant judicial reform was the establishment of the Constitutional Court, which examines and settles any disputes related to the new constitution and is composed of three members nominated by the parliament, three by the president, and three by the Supreme Court. All nine members are supposed to serve six-year terms. As a result of politically affiliated nominations by winning parties and presidents, however, the Constitutional Court began to lose credibility as it failed to defend the principle of checks and balances, separating legislative and executive powers. Although the 1992 constitution established the General Council of Courts (article 49) to ensure judicial independence, the council was not able to reduce political influence. After 1993, there had been no major judicial reform until 2013, when comprehensive judiciary reform policies were launched to increase the transparency, professionalization, and independence of the courts.  The salaries and funding for courts were doubled, marshal service (which is separate from the Soviet-style court decision implementation agency) was established, and new educational and training programs for judges and law enforcement personnel were introduced.  However, the judicial reform backfired as it began to trigger a bureaucratic turf war among law enforcement agencies and upset the political power equilibrium in control over the law enforcement agencies. By the 2016 parliamentary and 2017 presidential elections, a number of judicial reform decisions had been undone or shaped according to the interests of the winning political parties as well as varied political-business factions.  

Second, development of a genuine anti-corruption organization needs time, resources, and independence. In recognition of the prevalence of corruption and public discontent, the Law on Anti-Corruption passed in 2006 and the anti-corruption agency, known as the Independent Authority Against Cooperation, was established a year after in the hope it would be a central law enforcement institution. For the Mongolian case, the fight against corruption is not a new effort; it is rather an interrupted one. Historically, besides the communist party investigation commission (Намын Хянан Шалгах Хороо), there was the People’s Committee for Control and Investigation (Ардын Хянан Шалгах Хороо), which reported to the Presidium of the People’s Great Khural. Similar to the current role of IAAC, the main duty of the committee was to investigate complaints and potential corruption cases (mostly misuse of public offices and state property), and then to transfer them to law enforcement organizations and the judiciary for further investigation and prosecution. Under the Law on People’s Control and Investigation (1980), the People’s Committee for Control and Investigation had a main office (50 permanent staff), branches in all provinces, major cities, and districts (90 permanent staff), and support by 1,027-2,683 control groups in state industries and organizations as well as 1,930-2,487 control posts in agricultural units. 26-30,000 people were elected to these control groups and posts.11 A fight against corruption requires institutionalization, not just personnel. For example, Mongolian political leaders made such efforts in the period 1972-1990.  The People’s Committee for Control and Investigation was decommissioned in 1990 resulting in a loss of all experienced professionals, the dismantling of institutions, and even the dismissal of cases under investigation. In 1995, the parliament established a weak State Control and Investigation Committee; however, leaders and staff constantly changed following elections. It was understaffed and a non-operational body. Then, another body, the State Auditing Agency, was established in 2003, but it remained less influential and dependent on politics. Similarly, the IAAC has been struggling to gain independence from politics since its establishment. Under the recent bill, three members of the National Security Council are entitled to change the chief and deputy chief of the IAAC even before their six-year terms have expired, thus weakening the fight against corruption.

Third, the Mongolian case also demonstrates the benefits of keeping the security services, including the intelligence, the police, and the military out of politics, while maintaining professional leadership—particularly in the golden period of democracy (1987-1996). As early as 1987, General Secretary Batmunkh ordered the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Public Security to maintain neutrality on any political matters and to restrain any type of harassment regarding dissenting and critical voices. This order was followed; no arrests were made against opposition leaders although the Ministry of Public Security was still under control for public safety concerns. In April 1990, the Ministry of Public Security, which consisted of the intelligence (the Committee for State Security), the police, border and internal troops, and the marshal service, was dismantled and the KGB-style informant networks disappeared. Also, in a similar timeframe, the People’s Great Khural made important decisions prohibiting political activities within security organizations as well as public servants, including uniformed personnel and diplomats, being involved in political party activities.  As a result, the military, intelligence, police and even diplomat service stayed out of the turbulent domestic political process and all remained until 1996 under professional leadership.  However, the neutrality and de-politicization of the security services and key state institutions were undermined as the winning political parties appointed party officials, who then used their power to bring party-affiliated officials and even business entrepreneurs to these state institutions in return for their support during the elections. This pattern continues today, as a result, the security services and key state institutions struggle to survive in this contested political terrain within a four-year electoral timeframe or even for a full year if competition for political power is intense. Despite laws with good intentions of providing at least six-year terms (i.e. beyond the election cycle), limiting the powers of political appointees, and empowering public servants, political parties, politicians, and factions look for ways to change or revise them for their parochial interests. The main objective is to seize power and impose their terms—instead of respecting the rule of law for a “fair” democratic game.  


Mongolia continues to enjoy its geopolitical blessing as all great powers avoid any direct geostrategic competition in this small, peripheral state. The brief commodity boom of 2005-08 did not result in geo-economic competition among great powers. Rather the mismanagement of commodity revenue as well as of government bonds caused Mongolian politicians to accept another round of IMF conditionality and to seek funds from China and Japan. China’s initial expectations of promoting Mongolia as an exemplary case for its Belt and Road Initiative have declined due to several factors, including the Dalai Lama’s visit in December 2016, Russia’s interest in protecting its dominance in Eurasian railways, and Ulaanbaatar’s unwillingness to join the SCO. In the meantime, US foreign policy concerns regarding Mongolia do not appear significant enough to reach the attention of the Trump administration. As a result, US commitment towards Mongolia remains almost entirely political, i.e. as a democratic outpost in an authoritarian neighborhood.  Within this relaxed geopolitical setting, the presence of strong political parties has played a crucial role in maintaining the electoral democracy.

If political leaders and parties are not able to uphold the rule of law, however, there is danger that a populist leader will succeed in discrediting the political parties and assert his control over the judiciary and law enforcement organizations. The frustrated public would likely prefer a strong hand rather than strong institutions. Therefore, Mongolian democratization could arrive at another crossroads, a critical one—whether to follow such positive examples as Taiwan and Romania by strengthening the rule of law, or to follow the negative examples of the Philippines and Hungary, where the rule of law is failing.  

1. “Ц. Нямдорж, “С. Зоригийн амь нас хохирсон хэрэгтэй холбогдуулан эрүүдэн шүүлт явагдсан”; Б.Содномдаржаа, “Т.Чимгээ нарын ар гэрийнхнээс уучлал гуйж байна,” March 21, 2019,

2. John Garver, “The ‘New Type’ of Sino-Soviet Relations,” Asian Survey, Vol. 29, No. 12 (1989), pp. 1136-1152.

3. See “Development Strategy of Russian Railway Holding for the Period until 2030,” May 27, 2019,

4. Lkhagva Erdene and Sergey Radchenko, “The Mysterious Sale of Mongolia’s Erdenet Mine,” July 9, 2016,

5. Edward Wong, “Mongolia, With Deep Ties to Dalai Lama, Turns from Him Toward China,” The New York Times, December 30, 2016.

6. Jargalsaikhan Mendee, “Small Islands of Democracy in an Authoritarian Sea: Explaining Mongolian and Kyrgyz Democratic Development,” (doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia, 2019), pp. 102-09.

7.   Ibid., p. 69.

8. Sergey Radchenko and Jargalsaikhan Mendee, “Mongolia in the 2016-17 Electoral Cycle,” Asian Survey, Vol. 57, No. 6 (2017), pp. 1032-1057.

9. “Монгол Улсын Ерөнхийлөгч Х.Баттулга УИХ-ын чуулганы нэгдсэн хуралдаанд оролцож, үг хэллээ,” May 23, 2019,

10. Л. Элдэв-Очир, “Ерөнхийлөгч огцорвол бид ч таръя,” May 23, 2019,; Ian MacDougall and Anand Tumurtogoo, “The Country That Exiled McKinsey,” May 14, 2019,

11. Jargalsaikhan Mendee and Julian Dierkes, “IAAC: To Change Directors or Strengthen the Institutions?” Mongolia Focus, August 7, 2018,атг-leadership-institutions-corruption/.