Since the coronavirus emergency began, a year ago, Mongolia has held two successful, in-person elections. While citizens were willing to endure lockdowns, they were also determined to participate in a free, multiparty democracy they are very proud of.
Mongolia is surrounded by its two giant neighbours, China and Russia, one of which is communist, while the other is a flawed democracy, at best. This remarkable fact prompted then US secretary of state John Kerry to dub Mongolia an “oasis of democracy”.
Mongolia declared its independence from China in 1911. It was led by a theocratic leader, on the Tibetan model, the Bogd Khaan, until 1921, when the Mongolian People’s Republic was established. In 1924, the Bogd Khaan died, possibly assassinated by Bolsheviks. The monarchy was abolished, most of the royals were killed, and the country remained a Soviet satellite until the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1990, Mongolia underwent a peaceful transition to democracy. By 1992, the country had a multiparty political system, a constitution, and a free-market economy.
Not only is Mongolia unique, in being the only high-functioning democracy in the region, the Mongolians also score higher on many developmental metrics than do other countries in their income bracket of roughly $4,000 per year. Adult literacy in Mongolia is nearly 99% which puts the country ahead of Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, India, and Pakistan. Mongolia’s Gini, or income disparity measure, is only 3.27, which is quite modest when the US and China both score over 4. The average Mongolian adult has nearly 10 years of formal education, on a par with European countries, such as Greece and Spain, and well ahead of India where the average adult only has 6.9 years of education. Mongolia ranks 106th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which ties the nation with Brazil. Press freedom is another area where Mongolia has done surprisingly well. Reporters without Borders rank Mongolia at 73rd, well above Israel and Hungary. And in terms of Quality of Democracy, Mongolia ranks 62nd in the world, while Russia ranks 132nd and China 152nd.
Dr Chinburen Jigjidsuren, a special health advisor to the prime minister of Mongolia, was recently elected to the Mongolian parliament, to represent Bayanzürkh district of Ulaanbaatar, the country’s capital. He gave several reasons why he believed democracy in Mongolia was of a better quality than what is seen in China, Russia, or Central Asia.
“First is geography.” he said. “We are located between two giant countries China and Russia. And, we are landlocked.” Mongolians have always fretted that their two hungry neighbors would gobble them up. Southern Mongolia, which has a Mongolian population larger than the country of Mongolia, is now the Chinese Province of Inner Mongolia. Similarly, the Eastern part of Russia contains the Republic of Buryatia, the Tuvan Republic and the Altai Republic, which are home to Mongolic peoples and were once part of the Great Mongol Empire.
While fear of annexation is a pervasive feature of Mongolian political life, a free and independent Mongolia also serves as a welcome buffer between China and Russia, two sometimes-allies who do not trust each other very much. If Mongolia were communist, perhaps Russia would be concerned that its allegiance would be with China. Consequently, allowing Mongolia to be a democracy with close ties to its “best third-neighbours”, the US, Japan, and South Korea, helps maintain the balance of power.
“Culturally we are nomadic people,” explained Jigjidsuren. Nomads are fiercely independent people. Americans often think of the early pioneers as independent spirits, who could fend for themselves and needed no help from government. But, unlike the pioneers, who were farmers, nomadic herders are tied to nothing, apart from their animals and their families, not even the land itself. Surveying the Mongolian steppes and watching the expert horsemanship of children as young as three years-old, cowboys are another symbol of freedom which comes to mind. But as free as cowboys were, they were employed by someone to guard the cattle. They had bosses. Traditionally, Mongolians, by contrast, answer only to the big, blue sky. Democracy, rather than totalitarianism, seems a better fit for a people who refuse to be owned.
Best lessons from both
“We are close to Europe and Russia, but we are also Asian,” said the doctor, echoing a sentiment that many other Mongolians have expressed. Mongolia is part of Asia, but has had close ties to Europe, allowing the Mongolians to take many of the best lessons from both. Chinese and Russian medium high schools coexist in Ulaanbaatar, right beside American and British schools. In all of the private and foreign schools, as well as the Mongolian national schools, English is the first foreign language. The average Mongolian is 28 years-old. A significant percentage of the people are internet savvy and speak English.
“Our literacy is high, 90%, and the people are very educated. They access the world through the internet with no restrictions like in China. So, we are free to communicate with the rest of the world,” explained Jigjidsuren proudly, adding: “These are big advantages to build democracy.”
The population is still growing, with more than two children per family. The government provides a great deal of support for children and families, including a monthly stipend paid to parents to encourage more births.
A healthy, young population, which is educated and connected to the internet demands quality and transparency from its elected officials. Facebook is used as a means for young Mongolians to communicate with their elected officials, while it is also used to publicise scandals or the improprieties of public figures. This is helping the country fight bribery and corruption, explained Jigjidsuren “We are becoming more transparent.”
The doctor related Mongolia’s success with democracy to its past refusal to become part of the Soviet Union. “Mongolia was never part of the USSR, because we admire freedom,” he said. “We are a nomadic culture, with a big history, and we had a very difficult time before the communist revolution. We were colonised by the Qing Dynasty for more than 200 years. So, freedom is very important to us.”
Shortly after this interview, a young, pregnant woman entered a hospital in Ulaanbaatar, where she gave birth. Immediately after the baby was born, it was determined that she had tested positive for Covid-19. She was turned out on the street in minus-25-degree weather, and told to wait for an ambulance which would take her to a special hospital. The story went viral on Mongolian social media and thousands of Mongolians took to the streets to protest her ill-treatment, as well as the coronavirus lockdowns, in general, which have left many with no income for nearly a year.
As a result of the protest, both the vice prime minister and the minister of health resigned. Bat Purev, former director general of the Financial Regulatory Commission of Mongolia, observed: “Mistreatment towards a newborn and mother who tested positive for Covid ignited people’s anger and frustration. So, the youth just went to the street without any organisation, except social media. That made the deputy prime minister and health minister write their resignation letters. That wasn’t the end, though. Today, the prime minister also decided to go!”
The pride that he felt for his countrymen and for a democracy that allowed citizens to hold their elected officials accountable was evident when he concluded: “It is quite beautiful to see how a new generation of Mongolians, with a dedicated sense of human rights is growing. And yes, Mongolia is still a jewel of democracy in the region.”