In both symbolic and economic terms, 21st century Mongolia is defined by the railway that links Russia to China. This railway was created by a handshake between Joseph Stalin and Zhou Enlai in 1952, (Rossabi, 2005, p. 226) and it is a strategic connection that Russia and China are still competing to control today ("A new Great Game has started between China and Russia to control the direction and route of Mongolia’s railway lines," Bulag, 2010, p. 100). In this interstitial economic position, Mongolia is always in danger of coming under the overweening influence of one or the other of its two neighbors, if not both. In contrast to the Soviet period, Mongolia has effectively avoided such domination since 1989 through what we could call "a democratic gambit" that has paid off.
There have been some remarkable political events in Mongolia just within the last few months of 2014, but they are, perhaps, remarkable for being unremarkable: they affirm what Western Democracies would consider to be "normal politics", in stark contrast to what passes for normal in the rest of post-Communist Asia. Reuters reported an orderly parliamentary vote to remove the Prime Minister, with 14 days of debate ensuing to select a replacement. (Reuters, 2014) This deliberative transition-of-power may be favorably compared to recent events in the would-be democracies of Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar (dare we say Laos?); and, of course, it is an even stranger contrast to Mongolia's immediate neighbors, Russia and China.
One quite attractive thing about the Mongolian transition [to democracy] was that we made the political and economic transitions side by side. Some skeptics say that it’s impossible to make dual transitions, political and economic transitions, in Asian countries. But Mongolians broke that stereotype. We proved that it can be done in every country, in every corner of the world; it can be done. We proved that… Imagine—just 20 years ago we had a North Korea-like society and today we are chairing the Community of Democracies… (Elbegdorj, 2011, p. 179)In asking when and how Mongolia made its transition to democracy, we have a useful metric provided by the Freedom House rankings of political rights scores. We can see at a glance in figures 1 & 2 that Mongolia underwent momentous change of some kind in the years 1989–1991, in a transition punctuated by elections in 1990 and 1992.
It is misleading to even describe the transition as requiring the years "1989–1991". The first demonstrations were organized on December 10th, 1989; (Elbegdorj, 2011, p. 178) roughly six months later, in June 1990, elections were held, "without bloodshed, not shattering a single window". (Ibidem) However, as the Freedom House stats indicate, the highest-possible rating for Mongolian democracy was not achieved until 2012 (cf. figure 1 & 3).
The defects of Mongolian democracy in the 1990s are familiar (to myself, personally) from critiques of Laos and Cambodia: there is significant dissatisfaction with the combination of government corruption and reliance on foreign donor-agencies, in a period of widening social inequality and commodification of natural resources. With these lines of criticism duly noted, we should still observe that Mongolia has been much more successful in its transition than Cambodia, Laos, or perhaps even Taiwan (i.e., despite the valid complaints about malfeasance, and the incompetence or indifference of foreign aid interventions, etc., that are familiar from elsewhere in Asia, in the same period).
|Mongolia in 2014: garbage in the foreground, and smoke rising from burning garbage in the background. Photo credit = Kruntch.|
Working on opposite sides of the Sino-Soviet divide, the Cold War was an era of animosity between China and Mongolia. In some ways this shaped current relations between the two countries, and set the stage for Mongolia's leap toward democracy when the collapse of Soviet power (ca. 1989) provided the opportunity for them to do so. Prior to the death of Mao Zedong, the Mongolian government regularly issued official criticism and insults toward China as "nothing but a manifestation of Sino-Soviet relations". (Madhok, 2005, p. 144)
After Mao's death, however, the fate of Mongolia came to be weighed in the same balance as China's other Soviet-allied neighbor, Vietnam. In April of 1979, China dissolved their "friendship treaty" with Russia (making the Sino-Soviet split more overt than ever before, reflecting the escalation of armed hostilities between the sides in Southeast Asia); the direct cause for this shift was the dispute over the control of Cambodia and Vietnam, although further justification for hostilities was soon enough supplied by Russia's invasion of Afghanistan (just a few months later, in December of the same year). (Ibid, p. 148)
China's aggressive posture in this period was not wholly irrational. Although Mongolia and Vietnam may seem to be very small threats on a map, they were threats backed up by the Soviet military. Russia directly garrisoned Mongolia's border with "probably as many as 100,000 [troops]". (Rossabi, 2005, p. 228) Even worse, these were rivals who made the same claims to Communist orthodoxy that China made itself, i.e., appealing to the same notions of political legitimacy that the population of China had been trained to respect since 1949. At a minimum, Mongolia had the capacity to mobilize the ethnic Mongolians within China ("Inner Mongolia") to fight for secession; at a maximum, Mongolia could provide the pretext for a Soviet-led invasion.
Meanwhile, the Mongolian side engaged in baiting tactics clearly intended to elicit an angry response from China. Examples include hosting (and celebrating) the Dalai Lama as a lecturer at a "Peace Conference" in 1979 (Madhok, p. 163), and the sudden deportation of 1,764 Chinese residents (as enemy aliens) in 1983. (Ibid, p. 165) Although these actions served geopolitical goals (largely defined by the Soviet Union) they had an effect on the attitudes of the general populace of Mongolia. Decades of propaganda and petty skirmishing prepared Mongolians to regard China as a threat and a potential enemy at all times.
There were other sources of tension: in 1989, Mongolia's GDP was $664.60 per capita (measured in 2012 US dollars, adjusted for inflation) whereas poverty-stricken China was at less than half that rate, $307.50. (Sabloff, 2013, p. 6) This is an important reminder of Mongolia's relative success during the Communist period (i.e., relative to total disasters such as China and Cambodia), and it was a simple disparity that would have been humiliating for social planners in Beijing to behold. Mongolians, also, were aware that Chinese Communism had been more violent and more economically implosive than their own version of the creed, partly because they shared a language with the "Inner Mongolians" who experienced the oppression of China's Cultural Revolution directly, and partly because Mongolia's government-controlled press published "severe critiques" of events in China as they unfolded. (Rossabi, 2005, p. 227–8)
|Mongolia in 2014: difficult to distinguish from cities in Eastern Europe (or even central Canada). Photo credit = Noremac55|
In reference to that one year, 1989, we can hardly give too much emphasis to the fact that Mongolians witnessed the rise and fall of the Tiananmen Square protests in the news media during the same year that they commenced their own transition to Democracy. (Rossabi, 2005, p. 30) The concurrence of the Tiananmen Square massacre and its aftermath (in 1989–1990) made it clear to all concerned that the movement toward Mongolian democracy was (at least implicitly) "anti-Chinese", and not merely "pro-Western". They were consciously choosing to take a path opposed to the one that Deng Xiaoping had just demonstrated his commitment to (and that China had offered various justifications for, in a period of unusually intense international scrutiny).
The relatively-gradual emergence of strong opposition parties and power-sharing agreements in parliament was probably the most significant factor delaying the country's ascent to the highest ranking in the Freedom House charts. The country's rapid transition to democracy (in 1989–1991) was made possible by the eagerness of Mongolia's own People's Revolutionary Party to reinvent itself in a democratically-elected, parliamentary form; however, this same process (described by Rossabi, 2009, as "the transmogrification of a Communist Party") resulted in a single party having a tremendous advantage over its competition in the first few elections following after the reforms. The newly converted ex-Communists were well-organized, and facing only an "inexperienced and fragmented opposition". (Rossabi, 2009, p. 2)
The Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) remained in power until May 24th, 2009, when Mongolia's Democratic Party won elections outright for the first time, with 51.21% of the vote. (Bulag, 2010, p. 98)
In the process of shaping and being shaped by democratic reforms, the MPRP did more than just put new paint on an old house. In the years immediately prior to the elections (1987-1989) the party publicly renounced its faith their formerly glorified founder-and-national-hero Choibalsan. Massacres and other sins of the past that had formerly been taboo became subjects of open discussion in the state-controlled press. There was an admission of wrongdoing in the deaths of over 120,000 people in an era of purges, 1937–9, along with an airing of new ideas to "develop democracy". (Madhok, 2005, p. 175 et seq.) We may safely assume that the situation in 1989 would have been dramatically different if the MPRP had not undergone this period of soul-searching prior to the transition.
It turns out that Western-style democracy does resonate well with Mongolia's cultural and social values, (Sabloff, 2013, p. 194–5) providing the basis for the public perception of governmental legitimacy, even in periods when corruption scandals and economic crises draw scorn on their parliament. This same legitimacy was evidently perceived and accepted by both Russia and China. Mongolia's giant neighbors have been content to negotiate with the elected government of Ulaanbaatar as an equal party in the ensuing democratic period (despite the very real inequality between the sides).
|Mongolia in 1990.|
It is important to read the element of risk in this chapter of history, and not to treat the positive outcomes as a foregone conclusion: Mongolia's democratic gambit could have ended with the collapse of domestic support for the newly imposed system (that was as much capitalist as it was democratic), or with the direct intervention of foreign powers (i.e., Russia or China could have responded by establishing a client-state in place of an elected government).
Some aspects of the Mongolian model of transition could be reproduced (in China or elsewhere) and one important aspect is clearly unique, and cannot be imitated. (i) The disclosure of past wrongs (ca. 1987–9, i.e., prior to liberalization) and the discontinuation of the glorification of violence in the history of the party itself, etc., was clearly a crucial factor in the MPRP refashioning itself to play a leadership role in the transition to democracy. This could be imitated by Communist Parties elsewhere. (ii) Contrary to many common-sense assumptions that gradual change will preserve social harmony, the breakneck pace of Mongolia's transformation (with most major changes accomplished within a period of only six months) seems to have avoided any bloodshed or even broken windows. This is perhaps a lesson for both the East and the West: there is no a priori reason to assume that delay will ease tensions, nor that liberalization (of the press, of civil society, etc.) will increase conflict. (iii) What cannot be reproduced elsewhere is the sense of national self-preservation that did (in my opinion) provide a guiding motivation for both ex-Communist elites and grassroots voices to accomplish democratization as rapidly as possible: Mongolians seem to have apprehended that their independence (from both Russia and China) relied on their having an autogenous source of political legitimacy that would be recognized on the international stage. Adopting a blatantly Western-style democracy served that legitimating function, and we now know (in retrospect) that it suited Mongolian culture and values well enough. (Sabloff, 2013, p. 194–5)
We need not believe in democracy as a universal value to recognize (empirically) that it can serve radically different cultures with no common origins (and Mongolia provides a positive example, even if Cambodia, Thailand, etc., provide negative ones). Mongolia may now boast that they not only became Communist before China, but also became a fully-functioning democracy before China --perhaps even before Taiwan.