Mongolia urged to “open door” to Russian Mongols who want return to ancestral roots

Mongolia urged to “open door” to Russian Mongols who want return to ancestral roots
A Buryat boy in a Shaman ritual. / Arkady Zarubin, cc-by-sa 3.0
By Antonio Graceffo in Ulaanbaatar March 2, 2024

Activists from the United Mongols Development Foundation are urging Ulaanbaatar to consider adopting a compatriots law and introducing a "Mongol card" to facilitate relocation to independent Mongolia. Backed by the group's leader, Kalmyk Dzhangar Tyurbeyev, a petition has garnered thousands of signatures from residents of the three largest Buddhist republics in the Russian Federation: Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tuva.

Russia is home to several Mongolic republics, including the Republic of Buryatia, the Republic of Kalmykia, the Altai Republic and the Republic of Tuva. Buryatia and Kalmykia exhibit the strongest genetic connection to Mongolia, while Altai shows lesser genetic and cultural ties and Tuva has a weaker genetic link but a more robust cultural association with Mongolia.

Tuvans closely resemble Mongols in their dress and behaviour; in fact, photographs from Naadam festival celebrations in Tuva bear a striking resemblance to those seen in Mongolia.

Local government meeting in the Republic of Tuva (Credit: Agilight, cc-by-sa 4.0). 

The Altai people share Mongolic roots, although their language belongs to the Turkic language family, incorporating Mongolic loanwords. Similarly, the Tuvan people possess both Turkic and Mongolic ancestry, with their language also incorporating Mongolic elements.

Buryatia, located in southern Siberia, is the homeland of the Buryat people, an ethnic group with close linguistic and cultural ties to Mongolians. The Buryat language belongs to the Mongolic language family, and many cultural practices, like shamanism and traditional dress, share similarities with Mongolian culture.

A Buryat Shaman on the island of Olkhon, Lake Baikal (Credit: Arkady Zarubin, cc-by-3.0).

Kalmykia is located in southwestern Russia, situated between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. The language of the Kalmyk people is also part of the Mongolic language family, and traditions such as nomadic herding and Buddhist practices are prominent in Kalmyk culture. Similarly to Buryatia, Kalmykia has a diverse population, with Russians constituting a sizable minority.

Historically, Mongols from Russia have resettled in Mongolia, finding it easier to live among people who share their language, culture and religion. Thousands of Buryats avoided Tsarist conscription during the First World War, and later, fleeing Soviet repressions, settled in Mongolia, where their descendants are thriving today. More recently, conscription for the Ukraine War has heavily targeted ethnic minority populations in the Russian Far East, with Mongols from Buryatia and Tuva suffering the highest percentage of battlefield casualties.

Since the onset of the Ukraine conflict, over 100,000 Russians have migrated to Mongolia, where the Ulaanbaatar government has extended long-term visa arrangements to them. However, the majority of the Caucasian Russians who came to Mongolia stayed only briefly, opting to relocate to destinations such as Thailand and Vietnam, where obtaining long-term visas is easier and where Russian bank cards are more likely to be accepted. Those Russians who chose to stay in Mongolia predominantly belong to Asian ethnic groups with cultural or racial ties to Mongolia.

Several countries have implemented ethnic return visa programmes to facilitate residency, employment and investment for individuals of specific ancestries. Japan and Korea offer such visas for individuals with Japanese or Korean heritage, respectively. In Europe, similar programs exist in Germany, Ireland and Poland. Additionally, countries like Greece, Italy and Israel grant citizenship based on ancestral ties. These programmes have proven effective, offering numerous benefits to both the applicants and the host countries. However, extending similar programmes to ethnic Mongols could present significant complexities and be fraught with political and cultural challenges.

Mongolia, with a population of only 3.3mn and a population density of two people per square kilometre, could certainly use more people. But one of the first and most obvious problems with Ulaanbaatar offering residence to people of Mongol ancestry is that the largest Mongol population in the world is in Inner Mongolia, China. In fact, Inner Mongolia has about 50% more Mongols than the country of Mongolia. Additionally, there are approximately one million Mongols dispersed throughout the rest of the People's Republic of China. If they were to all move to Mongolia, the country would be overwhelmed. Also, Mongolia lives and dies by its economic ties to China. Beijing would not be happy about Mongolia poaching its citizens. Repercussions would be sure to follow.

Another consideration is how Mongols would be defined. If the criterion is DNA, then Tuvans might not meet the qualifications, even though culturally they would likely adapt well to life in Mongolia.

Other ethnic groups within Russia also have Mongol ancestry, although they may not have their own republics. These include the Oirats, whose language shares similarities with Kalmyk and belongs to the Mongolic language family. The Evenks, Siberian reindeer herders, share some Mongolic heritage and speak the Evenki language.

Postcard from 1911 featuring Evenki people of Siberia (Credit: public domain).

Yakuts, the largest indigenous group in the Sakha Republic (also known as Yakutia) in eastern Siberia, have a language, Yakut, that belongs to the Turkic family, with Mongolic loanwords. The Yakuts share cultural practices like shamanism and epic storytelling with other Mongolian groups.

The Chuvash people reside in the Chuvash Republic within Russia. Although their language, Chuvash, belongs to the Mongolic family, they possess a distinct cultural identity shaped by centuries of interaction with Turkic and Finno-Ugric groups.

An Anatri Chuvash ensemble in traditional dress (Credit:Danton R, cc-by-sa 4.0).

Outside of Russia, one of the largest ethnic groups claiming ancestral ties to Mongolia is the Hazara. Numbering around six to eight million, they predominantly reside in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Hazara people identify as having Mongol heritage and face repression in Muslim countries. They are particularly repressed under Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.

In 2011, the Mongolian government initiated a programme granting asylum and student visas to Hazara individuals, but the effort proved unsuccessful. Despite sharing DNA with Mongolians, the Hazara differed significantly in dress, religion and language, making assimilation into Mongolian culture impractical. Consequently, the programme was discontinued. With the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan two and a half years ago, the situation for the Hazara grew even more dire. Many sought refuge in Mongolia, but were turned away by Ulaanbaatar.

A Hazara man in Ulaanbaatar describing his efforts to apply for asylum (A24 News Agency, screenshot).

In India and Pakistan, there exists a small population of Mongol people, also known as Mughals, who are descended from the Mongol rulers that established the Mughal Empire in South Asia. In the present era, they endure impoverished living conditions. Despite assimilating into the local population over generations, they retain Mughal influences in their culture, cuisine, and architecture. However, these elements have evolved considerably over hundreds of years, diverging from their Mongolian origins.

Other smaller groups claiming Mongolian ancestry are scattered throughout the republics of Central Asia. While many of these groups have assimilated and embraced Islam, a small minority have preserved elements of distinct language, religion and cultural traditions.

Considering the numerous cultural and political challenges linked to accepting Mongol descendants, it seems improbable that Ulaanbaatar would implement a comprehensive Mongol Card programme. Mongolia is wary of upsetting China through mass emigration, and native-born Mongolians are reluctant to become a minority in their own country.

However, it remains possible that Ulaanbaatar may continue granting long-term visas to Russian citizens, including those of Mongol ancestry. Conversely, citizens from the US, Europe and Western nations generally, regardless of Mongol ancestry, already benefit from straightforward visa processes in Mongolia, while individuals holding Pakistani or Afghan citizenship encounter greater difficulty. Thus, the Mongols whom Ulaanbaatar would likely desire to welcome into the country are already able to relocate.

Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA, is an economist and China analyst. He has spent over 20 years living in Asia, including seven years in China, three in Taiwan and four in Mongolia. He conducted post-doctoral studies in international trade at the School of Economics, Shanghai University, and holds a PhD from Shanghai University of Sport, and a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Antonio has authored seven books on Asia, with a focus on the Chinese economy.