Saturday, December 19, 2009

Online Mongolian Language Course

ANS 193: Introduction to Mongolian Language and Culture
January 21-May 6, 2010

University of Alaska Fairbanks and the American Center for Mongolian Studies are pleased to announce an online introductory Mongolian language course for the spring of 2010. The course will be offered for credit and cover beginner level competencies. The course will be taught by three instructors entirely online, so participation is open to anyone, anywhere with an internet connection. The number of participants is capped, so sign up as soon as possible to ensure a spot in the course.

For more information visit: or call 800-277-8060
Registration and other fees: $115
No prerequisites or textbooks
Course materials available at
Course description at

About Instructors:

T. Naraantsetseg is a Mongolian language instructor with over 15 years experience and 8 language book publications. She is a language instructor at the State Department Foreign Service Institute. She will be teaching from Virginia.

Brian White is a advanced-level non-native speaker of Mongolian and experienced foreign language instructor. He is the US Director of the American Center for Mongolian Studies, and lived in Mongolia for five years. He will be teaching from Wisconsin.

Curt Madison is an expert in distance education. He is the Director of eLearning Program Development at UAF. He will be teaching from Alaska.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

ACMS Faculty Research Fellowship 2010

American Center for Mongolian Studies is pleased to announce the first year of the ACMS Faculty Research Fellowship. The fellowship will support faculty members from US colleges and universities to conduct short-term field research in Mongolia between May and October 2010. Applicants must be US citizens or permanent residents currently teaching at a college or university in the United States.

DEADLINE TO APPLY: March 1, 2010

The program priority is to support faculty from non-research intensive universities and colleges, especially faculty who are helping guide student research projects or who can show how the experience will enhance their teaching and outreach. This grant may be paired with the US-Mongolia Field Research Fellowship (see, which funds student field research in Mongolia, to create a student faculty research team. The faculty member and student must each submit applications to the appropriate program, and should indicate in their research statement their intention to work together. Prior experience working in Mongolia is not a requirement, and the program is open to all fields.

Applicants must have an identified Mongolian institution or individual who will serve as their Research Sponsor in Mongolia. Applicants without formal contacts in Mongolia can contact the ACMS at to inquire about assistance in finding an appropriate Research Sponsor.

The fellowship award will include up to $2,500 for travel and living expenses. The funding is intended to serve as a catalyst and may be used in conjunction with funds from other sources.

More information about the program at
More information about the ACMS at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

US-Mongolia Field Research Fellowship

The American Center for Mongolian Studies (ACMS), with funding support from the US Department of State Education and Cultural Affairs Bureau, is pleased to announce the fifth year of the ACMS US-Mongolia Field Research Fellowship Program to support student field research in Mongolia in summer or fall 2010. The program will provide $500-$3000 grants to approximately 5 students from US universities to conduct academic field research in Mongolia between May and October 2010. Student applicants can be at an advanced undergraduate, masters or pre-dissertation doctoral level, and all fields of study are eligible. Applicants must be either US citizens or permanent residents currently enrolled full-time in a university or college in the United States. Students graduating in spring 2010 are eligible to apply. No previous experience in Mongolia required.

DEADLINE TO APPLY: March 1, 2010

The field research project should be conducted in conjunction with a Research Sponsor, such as a faculty member or senior researcher, and involve at least 6 weeks of fieldwork in Mongolia. Preference is given to projects in which the Research Sponsor will work directly with the student researcher in the field in Mongolia. To open the program to more potential collaborations, in 2010 the program will continue to consider funding well designed projects that demonstrate close collaboration between the student researcher and the Research Sponsor, even if the Research Sponsor is unable to travel to Mongolia to oversee the field research work. There are no eligibility restrictions with regards to the Research Sponsor's citizenship.

More information about all of ACMS fellowship opportunities at:
For questions, contact

Monday, November 16, 2009

ACMS Research Fellowship 2010-2011

The American Center for Mongolian Studies (ACMS), with funding support from the Henry Luce Foundation, is pleased to announce the third year of the ACMS Research Fellowship Program. The ACMS Research Fellowship Program annually supports three fellows to conduct up to 12-months of doctoral dissertation or post-doctoral research in Mongolia on topics in the Social Sciences or Humanities. Natural Science research is not eligible, unless there are clear areas in which the research furthers social, cultural, political, or policy knowledge relevant to Mongolia or the region.


The program seeks to promote research opportunities in Mongolia among scholars who have not included the country in their previous research, and to broaden the knowledge base of scholars already working in the country. Previous Mongolian Studies experience is not required, but projects should enhance knowledge of Mongolia and the Mongols within relevant academic disciplines or fields of study. Projects that link research conducted in Mongolia to research in other parts of Asia or across academic fields are especially encouraged.

Fellowship awards will include travel expenses to and from Mongolia, an accommodation and food allowance, and a stipend to cover research expenses. Awards will be adjusted based on the length of time spent conducting research in the region with a maximum award of $27,000 per fellow. Fellows will also have the opportunity to take intensive Mongolian language courses, select resources for inclusion in the ACMS Library, and participate in an annual academic seminar in Mongolia that will bring together international, regional and local scholars and students.

Research work under this program must begin between September 2010 and March 2011, and last for a continuous 6-12 months. Fellowship recipients must be based in Mongolia for the duration of their fellowship, but research travel in the broader region is encouraged. The 12-month term will allow recipients to stay in Mongolia for the academic year, which runs from September to June, and the summer months, which offer the best weather for field research.

More information about the program is available at or contact

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mongolia Lecture Series Inaugural Event

Co-Sponsored by the International Institute, Center for East Asian Studies, Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia, and American Center for Mongolian Studies.

Thursday, October 29, 2009, 5pm-7pm
At the Alumni Lounge in the Pyle Center (702 Langdon St.) on the UW-Madison Campus.

The lecture will be followed by the American Center for Mongolian Studies opening event and reception.

Ambassador designate to Mongolia Jonathan Addleton
"US-Mongolia Relations: Looking Forward, Looking Back"

Ambassador designate to Mongolia Jonathan Addleton will offer reflections on past encounters with Mongolia during his prior assignment as USAID Mission Director in Ulaanbaatar (2001-2004) -- and provide a perspective on future opportunities and challenges that are likely to dominate US-Mongolia relations in the years ahead. Drawing to some extent on recent Senate confirmation hearings, he will focus especially on five areas: development; private investment; democracy and good governance; security; and people-to-people relationships. Scheduled to depart for Ulaanbaatar in mid-November, his participation at the opening of the American Center for Mongolia Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison marks his first appearance at an external event since being confirmed as the next US Ambassador to Mongolia earlier this year.

Mr. Addleton has been a career member of the US Foreign Service since 1984. Previous assignments include service as USAID Representative to the European Union in Belgium; USAID Mission Director in Pakistan, Cambodia and Mongolia; and USAID Program Officer in Jordan, Kazakhstan, South Africa and Yemen. During his previous three-year tenure in Mongolia (2001-2004), he traveled extensively within the country and was involved in a number of USAID-funded programs, including the revitalization of Xaan Bank as well as small business development through the Ger and Gobi initiatives.

Prior to joining the Foreign Service, Addleton worked briefly at the World Bank and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, both in Washington, DC. He has a PhD and MA from Tufts University and a BS from Northwestern University. He has written two books, "Some Far and Distant Place" (University of Georgia Press), a memoir of a childhood spent largely in Pakistan; and "Undermining the Center" (Oxford University Press), an assessment of the impact of international migration on development. In addition, he has published articles on Asia in a variety of journals, including "Asian Survey," "Asian Affairs," "Muslim World," and the "Foreign Service Journal.”

Mongolia Lecture Series aims to promote discourse and sharing of knowledge about Mongolia and the Inner Asian Region and is organized by Center for East Asian Studies and American Center for Mongolian Studies

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Online Mongolian Dictionary

A student at University of Wisconsin-Madison brought a handy resource to my attention yesterday. It is an online Mongolian dictionary which appears to derive its entries through contributions from the user community. I have only taken a cursory look at it so far, but my initial impressions are good. It is a testament to the ever growing sophistication of modern Mongolia. The dictionary is at:

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Oyu Tolgoi: End of the Beginning

It is official. Mongolia and Ivanhoe Mines are married. On October 6th the government of Mongolia signed the long debated investment agreement with Ivanhoe and Rio Tinto to develop the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold deposit.

In an ideal world the government would begin or would have already begun developing policy to go along with its new found cash flow. It will be interesting to see what they come up with beyond giving cash handouts of $1,000 per person. If my opinion counted, I would suggest public works projects for a working drainage system in Ulaanbaatar, real urban planning in the city that included parks and streets in the ger districts, rebuilding of wells across the countryside, and investment in the education sector as a start. But that is neither here nor there because I can't vote.

For now, I presume, the focus will turn to developing the mine site and the infrastructure to support it--not to mention the new gold rush mentality that will sweep the country as entrepreneurs and laborers head to the Gobi to seek their fortune. The last 5 years in Mongolia were wild enough with economic growth almost exclusively built upon speculation of great riches once the Oyu Tolgoi agreement was signed. Now with the prospect of real investment and substantial cash flow on the horizon one can only imagine the mad euphoria of get rich quick schemes that will grip every last person in Mongolia. These are heady times for sure.

Over the summer I had a chance to visit the Oyu Tolgoi site with a group of 15 Fulbright-Hays fellows from the US. Ivanhoe was very accommodating, and the camp manager provided us with an extensive tour of the facilities and area around the site. Oyu Tolgoi is situated in the least densely populated province in one of the least densely populated countries in the world. It is isolated to say the least. And yet, in this isolated corner of the world first-class economic and industrial activity is occurring. Although we visited at a low ebb of operations due to tense summer negotiations between Ivanhoe and the government, I was roundly impressed by the size and sheer magnitude of the project. It is a stunning contrast to just about everything else going on in the country, and at this point it's only in the initial stages of development. There is much, much more to come.

Of course there is a lot to consider beyond the development of the site itself. Water will be a huge issue. The site will demand a lot of water in a region that has very little. In-migration unregulated and unstoppable on a level commensurate with Ulaanbaatar is another serious issue. It is a desolate place now, but soon it could be a patchwork of ger districts in the desert. Then there is the inevitable and potentially accelerated encroachment of Chinese and Russian influence on Mongolia. It's enough copper and gold to attract more than just domestic prospectors.

When you see it, Oyu Tolgoi boggles the mind. It is going to be huge. A size unlike Mongolia has any experience with, and the next few years are going to be a wild ride with both positive and negative consequences. October 6th, 2009 marked the end of the beginning. Now the real work will begin.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Fellowships for Mongolia Specialists

The US Department of Education has recently announced competitions for research fellowships in which specialists working in Mongolia are eligible to apply. More information is available at:

Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Abroad Fellowship Program

Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad Fellowship Program

East/Southeast Asian Archaeology and Early History

University of Wisconsin-Madison has posted a couple of lecturer and tenure track positions recently for specialists in East Asian archeology and early history. Those out there who have experience doing excavations and other field work in Inner Asia, especially Mongolia, should consider applying. More information about the positions is at

Monday, October 5, 2009

ACMS Fall Speaker Series

ACMS Fall Speaker Series has begun. For information about the scheduled lectures visit: Check back regularly for updates to the schedule.

If you are planning to visit Mongolia between October and December 2009 to conduct research or study, please contact to schedule a date to give a lectures. The lectures must be conducted in English, and all academic disciplines are welcome.

CAORC Multi-Country Research Fellowship 2009 - 2010

The Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC) Multi-Country Fellowship Program supports advanced regional or trans-regional research in the humanities, social sciences, or allied natural sciences for U.S. doctoral candidates and scholars who have already earned their Ph.D. Preference will be given to candidates examining comparative and/or cross-regional research. Applicants are eligible to apply as individuals or in teams.

For more information about the program visit the announcements page of the ACMS website.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What I Did for My Summer Vacation

August was an extremely busy time at the ACMS. The center hosted a group of 15 US teachers for three weeks as part of the Department of Education's Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad program in addition to our summer language program and our usual work assisting scholars during the peak field season. The teachers spent 3 weeks in New Zealand before arriving in Mongolia, and in late July I flew there to meet the group and lead them north with a stopover in Beijing. The program was focused on how environments and landscape affect culture and history, and New Zealand and Mongolia both offered plenty of opportunities to compare and contrast these effects. For example, they both have more sheep than people, but only one has lovable little penguins with foot injuries.

As leader of the seminar in Mongolia I was in and out of Ulaanbaatar most of August, and as such this blog suffered a bit. Then at the end of August I moved to Madison, WI, and Robin Charpentier took over as the new Resident Director. Transition has made the blog suffer even further. However, as we enter October I am finally able to refocus some time on it.

Since July a lot has happened at ACMS and in Mongolia. ACMS relocated its US office to University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) in mid-September. Details on the move will be forthcoming in the next few weeks as we produce formal announcements and press releases. The Center for East Asian Studies has offered to host ACMS at UW-Madison, and they have been kind enough to appoint me an honorary fellow to facilitate my integration into the UW-Madison community. This move offers a lot of potential for growth for ACMS, as well as a very large academic community to promote Mongolian Studies.

I would be remiss in not thanking Western Washington University (WWU) for hosting ACMS over the last four years. WWU was a significant partner in the early stages of ACMS' development, providing much needed administrative and moral support. We, of course, look forward to continuing to work with WWU in the future as a member institution.

In Mongolia the Oyu Tolgoi agreement experienced a roller coaster ride over the summer. As of writing this, the agreement was still not signed but it was closer than it has ever been before to being completed. It is definitely a policy issue that seems determined to remain unresolved.

Ulaanbaatar also suffered from severe flooding over the summer. It was one of the rainiest summers I experienced there, and numerous times the lack of drainage and poor urban planning contributed to city wide flooding. I remember seeing an article I unfortunately did not read on a news website with the title "It's not the government's fault. It's the sky's fault." I wish I had read the article to determine whether the author was being sarcastic or not. I fear he/she was not.

More in the coming weeks...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Status of OT Agreement Update

Bloomberg is reporting that Ivanhoe Mines has agreed to meet with the Mongolian government next week to reopen discussions on the OT agreement (see here). This information seems lifted from the Ivanhoe Mines press release here. Neither are very informative, and much of the information I see on news sites in Mongolian either deal with the issue in a hypothetical, out of context sort of way or with mild to impassioned invective being hurled in all directions. There are not a lot of simple facts to be had. Given the limited information available at this point, however, it appears the agreement suffered a serious if not fatal setback last week. However, I am somewhat convinced it may in the end be less of a setback than it appears.

Parliament approved giving the government, led by Prime Minister Bayar, the authority to conclude the OT agreement without further parliamentary input. However, the resolution tacked on a proviso that any agreement has to conform with current laws; i.e., the final agreement cannot have any special exemptions that contravene current laws. This is seen as a shot over the bow of the government and Ivanhoe Mines by those who do not want to see OT contain exemptions from taxes such as the controversial "Windfall Profit Tax." Or, in other words, it was a seemingly successful last ditch effort by opposing factions in parliament to scuttle the deal. That's because the government is now authorized to negotiate and sign an agreement, but parliament took away all of its bargaining chips. Without the ability to tailor the agreement with exemptions, provisos, and amendments on tax and revenue issues, the government goes to the table without the ability to negotiate in a practical way.

That is the pessimistic view, and it probably is a fair assessment of the situation. If one side of a negotiation is anchored to a position, then it ceases to be a negotiation. However, what I am going to be looking for in the coming week is whether this, in fact, is an accurate assessment of the government's bargaining position. The first meeting between the government and Ivanhoe should hopefully shed some light on this. The fact that the government has the authority to sign an agreement means that, even hamstrung by the parliamentary resolution, Prime Minister Bayar finds himself in an unprecedented position of actually being tantalizingly close to concluding a deal. This has to be worth a lot in terms of attracting the investors back to the table, and hence the meeting in the coming week. Moreover, agreements are all about wording, right? So, the thing to look out for is the PM and other ministers discussing details of the agreement with Ivanhoe and Rio Tinto that conform to the spirit of the parliamentary resolution but still give the government the ability to move from its starting position, thereby making what looks like a setback actually the final stage of refreshed negotiations.

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Strong Old Soul

Even though there was some interesting movement (or non-movement from another perspective) on the mining agreement this last week, I unfortunately have no new updates at this point. That's because I was out of the loop for five days of relaxation in the khuduu (countryside).

I returned to Khotont Soum in Arkhangai Aimag where I was a teacher from 2002 to 2004. A lot has changed there since my last visit in the fall. New babies born, gas stations erected, a paved road laid, other improvements here and there. But, I was also sad to learn that my dog Bankhar passed away about 10 days before I arrived. He was an strong old soul, and accounts of age are arguably questionable in the countryside, but he was approximately 18 years old! That is fairly amazing for any type of dog in any type of environment, and that's 18 Mongolian winters outside! True, horses can live that long, and they do it outside, but somehow dogs get a little more credit for doing it because they generally live a more pampered life than livestock.

Bankhar was notoriously vicious to strangers and lovably sweet to those living in the khashaa (fenced in yard). Once in the middle of the night a jeep arrived at our khashaa to call upon the school director for some reason (I lived in a ger next to the director's house), and Bankhar literally jumped up on the hood of the jeep barking and spitting all over the windshield. No one in the vehicle would get out to pound on the gate, so they slowly backed up the jeep until Bankhar jumped off and then drove away. The story was relayed to us the next day by the driver of the jeep, and we all agreed that Bankhar was not to be messed with. At the same time, he was there every morning to greet me and was always ready for a little play. I felt very secure having him around.

My former school director is not one to get taken by sentimentality, but last week he spoke at length about how great a dog Bankhar was. He talked about how impressive it was for him to live so long and how both his strength as a guard dog and kindness as friend made him great. I have to agree. Rest in peace, Bankhar.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Khalkiin Gol

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Khalkin Gol (or Nomonhan from the Japanese perspective) which pitted the Soviet and Mongolian armies against the Japanese army in a pivotal fight on the Mongolian-Manchurian border in present day Dornod Aimag. Although ostensibly a border dispute, the battle turned into a test of strength for both armies. The Soviet Union and Mongolian side won a decisive victory putting any Japanese designs on annexing Mongolia and Siberia permanently to rest for the duration of WWII. Last week an international conference on the battle was held, and later in the summer the Russian president will come for a ceremony at the battle site. More information is available on Wikipedia for those interested in the details:

The town of Nomonhan and Khalkin Gol (Khalkin River) are visible in the satellite image below.

View Larger Map

More Details

Saturday's edition of Өнөөдөр has a few more details about the proposed agreement, some of which I have seen in other papers. Interestingly the article in Өнөөдөр is on page two and emphasizes statements from MPs who are declaring this is a bad deal for Mongolia. So, oddly it does not cast the deal in the best of light, and yet it is also tucked inside the paper. The other details according to Өнөөдөр, though, are:
  1. Mongolia will have a 34% equity share in the project, and the government will pay for it through 4 separate tax regimes.
  2. The agreement will be for 30 years.
  3. The project will be exempt from several taxes such as the value added tax and foreign workers tax for 7 years as construction for the project takes place. (This provision is not clear in the article, and it seems to also indicate an exemption from the Windfall profit tax).
  4. Rio Tinto and Ivanhoe mines will put down a deposit of $125 million which will be repaid by Mongolia at a concessionary interest rate.
  5. Construction must begin in 2 years of signing the agreement or the government can cancel the it.
Reading the different papers it is hard to get a clear definitive explanation of the terms of the deal, so I am not confident that anyone is reporting it accurately. Until the government publishes the draft, it will remain this way.

In other news, four employees in Rio Tinto's Beijing office were arrested this week for "stealing state secrets." This has created tension between the Chinese government and the Australian government which is being pressed by Rio Tinto to address the situation. For those who do not follow international mining news, a few months ago a Chinese mining conglomerate attempted to buy a strategic stake in Rio Tinto which was pursued by Rio Tinto's management but was ultimately defeated by Rio Tinto's shareholders. This made for some bad blood between China and Australia, and the arrest this week of the Rio employees naturally raises suspicion of continuing drama over that failed deal.

There was some speculation that one of the reasons the Oyu Tolgoi deal was floundering in the special and regular spring sessions of parliament was the fact that people here were wary of the fact that Rio Tinto was on the verge of becoming a company partially owned by a Chinese state run corporation. The stock purchase deal falling through may have contributed to a change of heart for some in parliament, as well as the addition of provisions that prohibit Rio Tinto or Ivanhoe Mines from selling their stakes to third-parties without permission from the government. So, corporate intrigue, geo-politics, and domestic politics are all affecting the trajectory of this deal. Very complicated, indeed.

Details of Deal Emerging

If there is a complete draft version of the deal that will be debated in parliament available in the public domain, I have still not seen it. However, on there is an article from Unuuduriin Mongol which describes some of the terms of the deal. The key points in the article are:
  1. The deal does not contain limits on the taxes collected from the project other than there being 7 specific kinds of taxes.
  2. Oyu Tolgoi will pay a depletion tax (or the government will receive a depletion deduction from its share of expenses) following the tax law provisions over a 10 year period. That is, as the mine extracts minerals, it will have to compensate for the depletion in the value of the site itself by subtracting that value lost from the total expenses of the government and thereby increasing the total amount of income for the government. Each year the site will have to submit a five year extraction plan, and it will have to ask for government approval to deviate from those plans. All equipment and extraction techniques will have to be international standard to mitigate the rate of depletion and depreciation on the area around the site. (Note: This part of the article is difficult to understand, and the author does not explain it well).
  3. Further the issue of water use and other natural resource depletion will be decided upon at the appropriate phase of the development process.
  4. Within four years after beginning the project, at least 90% of the employees must be Mongolian citizens. However, during the initial phases of construction, because the project will require foreign expertise, no less the 60% of employees must be Mongolian citizens.
  5. Fellowships to receive training and study mining issues at international and domestic institutions will be offered by Ivanhoe Mines and Rio Tinto (how often and to what extent the article does not say).
  6. The project will be subject to international audits, the provisions of which will be discussed between the project representatives and the tax authority.
  7. If ownership of the project is transferred to a third party without approval from the government, then the government will have the right to cancel the agreement.
There clearly has to be more to the deal, so this is just a sampling of what might appear in the final draft. Complicated stuff, though, especially No. 2 above, and it is not surprising it confuses a lot of people.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Learning Mongolian Parliamentary Procedure

The news portal site has illuminated what occurred in parliament today...somewhat. It is clear I need to learn a lot more about Mongolian parliamentary procedure, but, from what I understand of the explanation in this post, after much debate parliament voted to support the recommendations of the Economic Standing Committee with 39 of 59 members present voting for the resolution.

This is where it gets a bit fuzzy. Apparently the resolution based on the Economic Standing Committee's recommendations will be punted back to the party groups and standing committees for further debate and comment, and then it will be passed on to the full parliament again for formal debate. So, from what I gather, today's vote was on whether to consider debating the specifics of the agreement in the full parliament, presumably with an eye towards a formal vote on ratifying the agreement. In other words, today was a debate and vote on whether to debate and vote. Make sense? If this is a correct interpretation, then I would say Mongolia's democracy is thriving. It feels like I am in Washington. At any rate, today's vote means the agreement has moved to the next important stage of the process of being ratified...whatever that is.

An additional question the vote brings up for me is where were the other 17 members of parliament were during today's proceedings? Seems to me a bad day to miss a vote. Clearly there is still much I need to learn about how parliament works, and, based on the comments posted by readers below a lot of the articles online, I am not alone.

(Revision: Two members were not present because their seats are open. President Elbegdorj's former seat and one seat from MAXH according the Mongolian Parliament website at So, where were the other 15 members?)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Public Response to OT Deal

It is difficult to get a full picture of what the general public response is to the spreading news that a deal on Oyu Tolgoi may be nearing, but based on information in the online media and TV9 the response so far has been tepid. Although, that may be a bad way to put it, because it could just as easily be that everyone is waiting with baited breath to see what happens. It is such a hot political issue, though, one might expect an explosion of indignation at the way parliament has sprung yet another important decision on the public. Instead, there was a protest which drew, based on what seemed to me a liberal estimate on, about 60 people to Sukhbaatar Square today. The TV9 report made it look more like there were 16 old ladies and a couple of out of work jeep drivers at the protest. Not exactly what one would call a political force on the trajectory of the deal. Whatever one might say about the way politicians work here (see the previous post), they just might turn out to be effective tacticians in this case; that is, if the goal is to get an agreement finally signed without special interest groups derailing it once again.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mining Deal Before Naadam

There was a committee meeting in parliament today to discuss issues surrounding whether to sign the stability agreement with Ivanhoe Mines. This appears to be the first public movement on the issue since rumors began circulating that an agreement might be reached before Naadam. Admittedly my Mongolian ability is not superb, but based on a few articles I have seen it looks like the editors of some news organizations are not particularly pleased with this rumor.

See here: УИХ Оюутолгойн гэрээний төслийг ямар ч байсан хэлэлцэхээр боллоо
And, here: Оюутолгойн гэрээг наадмаас ємнє батлахаар шуурхайлж байна

The tagline for the second article is rather telling. Let's see if I can interpret it with some accuracy. It is: Аливаа томоохон шийдвэрийг олон нийтийн анхаарал єєр тийшээ хандсан vед хулгайгаар хийдэг нь улстєрчдийн гэм биш зан болсон зvйл.

Interpretation: It is a case of politicians' predilection to take all serious decisions by theft when society is looking the other way.

Not a resounding endorsement of the decision to finalize things quickly. But, at the same time this is not surprising. It is a highly political issue. The fact the rumor is receiving a somewhat official airing in the media, though, may indicate that a deal is not only close but robust enough for everyone to feel it can be discussed freely. Maybe the hope is this gives the illusion of debate, even if cursory in nature, so as to allow the deflection of criticism post-signing. A plausible way to rush a decision is to catch someone off guard, pausing just long enough to suggest an opening to give comment, only to move quickly to resolution. In retrospect you can claim there was an opportunity to speak and the other person didn't take the opportunity, so the person has no right to complain. Can you do that with a multi-billion dollar mining deal and a whole society? As always, only time will tell.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Bloody White Baron

Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg's name was as bizarre and tortuous as his life story. James Palmer retells the story of the "Mad Baron" Ungern-Sternberg, whose military career culminated in 1921 with a brief period of tyrannical rule over Khuree (Ulaanbaatar) and the surrounding countryside, in a recently published book called "The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia."

The Mad Baron is one of those historical personalities that at first blush makes you think you have encountered a piece of fiction. Surely it can't be true? I would have heard about this before. It is so bizarre. At least, that is how I reacted the first time I heard about the Mad Baron a few years ago. Once the story sunk in, though, it seemed less improbable relative to the many twists and turns in Mongolia's history, especially during the 20th century. And yet, it's still a pretty fantastical story.

James Palmer goes to great lengths to chronicle the Baron's early career and the events leading up to his invasion of Mongolia in 1919. The Baron truly lived up to his many nicknames which implied an insane and/or sadistic personality, and the book is full of rather gruesome tales of Ungern-Sternberg and his officers dispatching of people in very inhumane ways. The stories are the type that are difficult to read and comprehend but also difficult to turn away from. The atrocities he and his men committed were so extreme that they almost take on a sense of fictional violence like in a horror film. Freddy Kruger and Jason are fictional characters with no "based on a true story" attached to them, though, so these stories amplify the lore and legend of Ungern-Sternberg being more (less?) than human, possibly the personification of evil.

The book is an interesting read, and Palmer does a good job of telling the story. His descriptions of Mongolia at times tack towards inaccurate and superficial, but the Baron is the star of this story, so these minor issues are easy to overlook. It's also not clear at times what the sources of information in the narrative are. Citations often seem randomly distributed. He draws upon several primary sources from archives, but he also refers to "Beast, Men, and Gods" by Ferdinand Ossendowski often in the narrative as a secondary source. As a non-expert on the issue, it is not possible for me to assess whether this is a problem for the validity of the story as Palmer has written it. However, I was left at many points in the book in which a "fact" about the Baron was presented without a citation wondering: "How could he possibly know that without a supporting document or eyewitness account?" I don't usually like it when people nitpick details like that, especially for a non-academic book meant for a popular audience, but in this case, since there are not many other accounts of Ungern-Sternberg's life, this book is likely to be used in the future to educate many people about this story in history. It would be nice to know for sure if the "facts" can be accounted for. Nevertheless, it is worth a read if one has an interest in this truly bizarre figure in Mongolia's history.

The book is available in the ACMS library.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Rumor Mill at Full Production Levels

The international press and local rumor mill are at full production levels regarding the Oyu Tolgoi stability agreement between Ivanhoe Mines, Rio Tinto, and the Mongolian government. Conclusion of the agreement is apparently imminent according to some sources. See the following article for an example:

Talk is that Ivanhoe may win approval in Mongolia

The skeptical among us have pointed out that this sort of statement of imminent signing has been in the press numerous times before with the depressing result of more of the same. A scholar at the center pointed out that at about the same time the rumors began circulating, Rio Tinto made some financial transactions which strengthened confidence in both Ivanhoe's and Rio's ability to finance a deal if it is signed. This drove share prices up for Ivanhoe before the imminent signing rumors began leaking into the press, possibly creating a confounding element in people's appraisal of the situation. See the following article for an example:

Ivanhoe Soars After Rio Sells Shares to Repay Debt

The final twist is that most of this news has not made its way into the local media. This is indeed very interesting, because it raises some interesting possibilities. Is it because the rumors are false? No need to report on something that is patently untrue and counterproductive? If this is the case, then the local media has suddenly turned a new leaf. It would be so unlike them to show such a disciplined level of journalistic integrity. (Yes, I am a cynic with regards to the local media).

Another possibility is that a deal is nearing but it is extremely fragile. So fragile, in fact, that everyone involved would like to keep it quiet from local agitators until it is either pushed through or gains enough strength to stand against a potential tide of opposition. But at the same time, in order to strengthen bargaining positions, one or both sides are leaking information to international interests to create momentum behind the deal. I am inclined to believe this possibility is in play at the moment. A deal is ready to go, but it is not robust enough yet to get a full public airing. Are members of parliament living by the old adage that it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission? It may be so, and it may be the best strategy given the incendiary nature of the issue for some vocal oppositional factions. With some poll estimates showing that over 80% of the public would like to see an agreement signed, though, it may not be all that bad of a political strategy in the long run.

In the end, time will tell if it is for real or just more of the same.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Post-Election Riot One Year On

Things have been so hectic at the center lately that July 1 came and went without me taking notice of any events to remember the post-election riot last summer. I've seen a few articles in the newspaper examining the effect of the riot on the political landscape in Mongolia over the last year, but I missed the official or unofficial events organized to mark the day. A straw hat poll of different people around the office and at a reception Thursday evening indicated that I didn't miss much. Surprising, really, that someone didn't organize an ceremony to mark the day. That said, I don't sense a top-down conspiracy to suppress the memory of July 1, 2008 but rather a collective desire to let bad things remain in the past.

This was driven home by a colleague who said, "It wasn't that big of a deal." I definitely disagreed, and I reminded him that the mood in the city last summer was one that was decidedly dark; that is, until Tuvshinbayar won Mongolia's first gold medal in the Olympics. That moment was a moment of redemption, which was typified by the scene on the steps of parliament when political enemies Prime Minister Bayar (MPRP) and then MP Elbegdorj (DP) stood hand-in-hand above their heads intoxicated letting loose primal screams to the crowd in the square. Clearly the city and the country was in need of a catharsis. It was a big deal--the riot. The collective amnesia in this regard is something I find understandable and yet puzzling at the same time.

It is understandable, because leaving the past in the past is a desire most of us have when bad things happen. What is puzzling is that there doesn't seem to be a politician or a political group that feels the exact opposite. I have heard that families of the victims killed the evening of July 1 are petitioning to have a memorial erected in the park in front of the old MPRP building, possibly on the very spot Lenin's statue currently stands. But, this apparently has not gained momentum or a broad base of support. In a purportedly polarized political system, though, it is baffling, in a sense, that political leaders have not taken this issue up as political bludgeon against rivals. The event has enough fodder for both sides to use to their advantage. Repressive government, out of control opposition, failed social elite, you name it, and that evening has a political hook for your position. The lack of such political maneuvering, however, may lend credence to the hypothesis that Elbegdorj's presidential victory retroactively legitimized the parliamentary elections and therefore fully delegitimized the basis of the riot, making it become in the minds of most people what it probably always was--an act of political bravado and bluff that spun widely out of the control of the organizers. If this is true, it makes sense politically why people would choose to forget. It is a minefield of an issue that really holds no value to anyone with political ambitions.

In the end, the epilogue written for the July 1 riot may not be all that impressive or interesting. That in itself is interesting, though, because when one thinks back at that night in an honest way it really looked like things were falling apart.

Ulaanbaatar Heritage

An intern working for us this summer has made an interesting website discovery. Well, it is a discovery like Columbus discovered America. He was scooped by Chris Kaplonski who has a link to the website on his own website, and, of course, the people who made the website knew about it. Nonetheless, it is a nice find.

A Japanese anthropologist, according to Chris Kaplonski, in collaboration with Mongolian counterparts, developed a survey of Ulaanbaatar architectural heritage. Dozens of buildings and other structures in Ulaanbaatar have basic metadata entries, pictures, and maps of their locations. The metadata entries cover the basic stats and history of the buildings. It's a neat site, and I am trying to think of ways to raise awareness about it. This blog entry is one way. Maybe someone will see it and have a burning desire to add to it, too. It definitely needs work, but nevertheless it is a good first start.

The site is at:

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mongolia Profile on Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera did a recent profile piece on Mongolia. It is fairly interesting given the depth of the report, and the new president got some hard questions from the interviewer. Both parts are below.

The freeze frame has two of Mongolia's "Top 50 Most Important People" according to a fun book in the ACMS library. Sumati in the top screen is the director of the Sant Maral Foundation whose survey data I have referred to in other posts. And, President Elbegdorj needs no introduction in the bottom screen.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Simple Propositions about Complex Circumstances

In President Elbegdorj's inaugural address in the great hall of the parliament building he emphasized the historic importance of this year's presidential election, laying out in stark terms the challenges facing the nation. Poverty, corruption, indolent and incompetent leadership, monumental choices regarding Mongolia's untapped wealth, and other issues to make the most idealistic wither at the thought of trying to solve them. Echoing a bit of President Obama, he called on all citizens to work together in the common cause to overcome these challenges, as his presidency will need their support to achieve a new future for Mongolia.

The idea of a new future for Mongolia has gotten me thinking about the fact that the public discourse surrounding politics in the country has a tendency to devolve into simple propositions about complex circumstances. Predicting Mongolia's future is a game that everyone participates in, yet the level of play never seems to rise above the amateurish. Things are often painted in stark, polarizing ways that lack the full nuance of the situations, with the ultimate unfolding of reality diverging almost routinely from the commentary and analysis provided by the social and political elite. Both Mongolians and foreign observers are guilty of doing this, taking a complex web of political and social interests and distilling it down to one or two simplistic notions nearly devoid of context or predicated on flimsy historical facts. A happened because of corruption. B is occurring because of the inertial effects of the "Communist mentality." C is the manifestation of neo-Putinism. D is just Mongolia for you. These sorts of ideas are thrown around so often without critical analysis, I think we all get sucked into believing, probably out of habit and expediency, that analyzing complex political issues in this way is not only acceptable for Mongolia but most effective.

It, of course, is not effective, because the vast majority of us remain unable to predict with any sort of accuracy how political situations will ultimately be resolved. Complex issues like the mining agreements, for example, remain mysteries, and I perceive this to be the case for everyone, from the streets to the Prime Minister's office, with the degree of the mystery only varying marginally with the level of one's own access to primary sources of information. The discourse and analysis does not match the complexity of the situation, and it inevitably fails the test of time.

I came across a passage written by Owen Lattimore in "Nationalism and Revolution in Mongolia" that is not exactly a perfect fit to what I am describing but nonetheless it draws a sufficient analogy to the kind of discourse that predominates when analyzing Mongolia's present and future:

Revolutionaries tend to make history too simple. They burn with a fire in which they try to sear away the infinite complexities of individual character and the infinite multiplicities of social variation, so that they can confront the absolutely bad with the absolutely good. But revolution is not in fact a melodrama of the "good" against the "bad." It is the most tragic form of history, in which good men often make bad decisions not for evil reasons but for reasons of human weakness that may range from ignorance, or partial knowledge (which is often more treacherous than ignorance) [emphasis added] to such things as a mere hesitancy in making up their minds which, in less urgent times, would not matter much either to them or to their fellows. By the same token, revolution is also a phase of history in which the irony is often supplied by the "good" decisions made by "bad" men. (pg. 32-33)

In the passage he is speaking to the multifaceted circumstances that befell Mongolia roughly 1900-1940s where Mongolia faced historic and monumental decisions regarding its social and economic system and, of course, of utmost importance even today, about its sovereignty. But, it is also a good working analogy for the conventional framework used to produce propositions about Mongolia and the direction it is heading. The problems are more complex than dichotomies of good vs. bad, socialism vs. capitalism, democracy vs. autocracy, and yet the vast majority of commentary wholeheartedly embraces this framework.

There is nothing wrong with a political leader such as President Elbegdorj using simple propositions to make more profound statements, but I sometimes wonder if we are all not doing ourselves a disservice by not demanding more of the leaders of Mongolia and ourselves in terms of examining the circumstances more critically for, as Lattimore writes, the "infinite complexities of individual character and the infinite multiplicities of social variation." As Mongolia's exposure to complex geo-political circumstances, especially in the mining sector, continues to grow, a great deal of the success or failure of the decisions made will rest on whether they were made out of ignorance, partial information, or genuine and effective analysis. At this point, however, the current state of affairs indicate to me that the road ahead to a new future for Mongolia is still one cloaked in fog.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mongolia Has New President

Elbegdorj was sworn in as president this afternoon. After taking the oath of office, which was administered in the parliament building, he gave a speech to those in attendance. After that he changed out of his del (traditional Mongolian robe) and into a business suit to give a speech on Sukhbaatar Square and review a military parade. Here are a few of photos of the Sukhbaatar Square events.

Summer Ritual

It has taken so long to happen that I foolishly thought this year we might all escape a summer ritual in Ulaanbaatar. It turns out that it is a summer ritual that affects millions of people across the Eurasian continent who are unlucky enough to live in flats supported by a Soviet designed infrastructure. I learned this fact last summer when a reporter from the BBC did a report on the very same ritual happening in Kiev, Ukraine in his apartment block. What ritual, you may ask? The ritual of losing hot water service for 2-3 weeks each summer for "cleaning and maintenance" on the pipes. Hot showers are a distant memory at my apartment block until July 6th when service starts again.

This summer ritual is a curious aspect of the heating and water systems constructed under the Soviet-style centralized economic model. Until seeing the BBC report last year, I had always thought it was a phenomenon special to Ulaanbaatar. However, it seems we are not alone in being deprived the luxury of hot water for the sake of the system.

Someone in the diplomatic corps once told me about a similar situation in China. The Chinese government notified his embassy that hot water service would be discontinued for several weeks for "maintenance" at the diplomatic housing complex. The foreign service officer then replied to the Chinese government by telling them if that was the case, then the embassy would expect a reduction in the price of rent paid on the diplomatic housing. The government balked at this. But the embassy persisted on the claim that reduced service meant reduced payment. The response on the Chinese side was to complete the maintenance in 3 days rather than the normal 3 weeks, which saved the government from losing much sought after rent money but caused another problem altogether. It demonstrated to everyone else that it was possible for the work to be done quickly if the right incentives were in place.

Sometimes I wonder if the summer ritual in Mongolia might also lack the proper incentives to make it shorter overall. That is the reason I call it a ritual. I am not entirely convinced the long wait is anything more than bureaucratic sloth manifest as a yearly occurrence. It's of course silly to complain too much about not having hot water in a city where a significant portion of the population does not even have access to running water hot or cold, but it is indicative of larger problems of efficiency and administration that affect everyone. At any rate, for the next couple of weeks I join millions of other people in the world experiencing this summer ritual.

Monday, June 8, 2009

ACMS Research Fellowship Seminar

Alternative Concepts: Conducting Research from a Mongolia-Centered Perspective

9am-3pm - June 25th, 2009, Open Society Forum Conference Room

The American Center for Mongolian Studies (ACMS), with funding support from the Henry Luce Foundation, will organize a seminar with the theme “Alternative Concepts: Conducting Research in the Mongolian Context” as part of the first year of the ACMS Research Fellowship Program. The ACMS Research Fellowship program brings a cohort of 3 US scholars to Mongolia each year to conduct dissertation or post-doctoral research. The seminar will be free and open to the public. The working language of the seminar will be English.

More information about seminar is available here: ACMS Research Fellowship Seminar.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Campaign Survey

Several of the English news outlets in Mongolia are reporting that the Open Society Forum recently conducted an analysis of campaign publicity and a survey of where people received their information during the presidential campaign. An example story, which appears to be the same story being recycled by all the news outlets is here: There are two interesting things about the analysis and survey.

1. The amount of negative stories and information from both campaigns and the media in general was essentially the same. Assuming they selected stories randomly and there was a uniform, if not overly objective, analysis of the content, then the 3 percent difference might just be noise. At any rate, there is evidence that both campaigns had an equal share of sinners and misguided supporters.

2. The number of people who tended to believe negative stories about the incumbent president was higher than the number of people who believed negative stories about the president by a wide margin. This is really interesting.

Number 2 raises several questions about the survey methodology; e.g., were respondents randomly selected, was there a control for party affiliation, what was the exact wording of the questions, and so on. Assuming the numbers are accurate from a methodological and therefore statistical standpoint, the next set of questions is: What is the reason for the large margin? Were negative stories about Elbegdorj more patently false? Was the Democratic Party more astute at framing issues and attacking Enkhbayar's character? Were people more predisposed to believe negative stories about the incumbent and to disregard negative stories about the opposition? Are responses a true reflection of people's beliefs, or do the numbers show a reverse bump for Elbegdorj post-victory? That is, are people remembering the situation differently because he won the election?

A related observation from this data is that a majority of those surveyed tended not believe the negative stories about either side. What that actually means in terms of votes is impossible to say without more information, but it does say something about the respondents themselves. Either they really were not swayed by the stories or they are aware enough of the political process and the lack of credibility of media outlets to want to openly state that they are not naive, even if in fact they may be. Does this indicate that the average voter is far more sophisticated about his/her media consumption and personal analysis than popular sentiments might concede?

The news stories about the analysis and survey don't answer any of the vital questions these data raise, and I am not sure if Open Society Forum will release the report in full (I will try to get my hands on it). The story does demonstrate further, however, that the voting public in Mongolia may be tougher to pin down than common wisdom indicates. We need more work done like this, especially by people willing to go the next step and to analyze the results.

Navigating Bureaucracy

As our busy season begins in the Ulaanbaatar office I am reminded of the need to share a bit of advice to international scholars coming to Mongolia to conduct field research for the summer. Make sure you work with people experienced and wise in the ways of navigating Mongolia's bureaucracy. In-laws, former students, a guy you met on the flight over, or anyone else who does not actually interact with the government on a regular basis is probably not going to cut it if you're planning to do something complex, which in Mongolia could be requesting just about any service provided by a government agency.

Mongolia has a complicated (and inefficient) bureaucratic system which is exacerbated by the fact that each ministry and sub-department has its own rules and interpretations of rules. There is also a tendency for bureaucrats to not volunteer pertinent information, further making things opaque, confusing, and all around frustrating. The crazy thing is, though, if you know the rules, most of the time it is really easy and quick to navigate the bureaucracy. That may seem like an exaggeration, but it really is true when it comes to academic research. I am not about to make excuses for government systems, and I am not saying this is true for all agencies, all the time. However, in my experience a significant percentage of the trouble foreign researchers encounter is due to making the following common mistakes:

1. Assuming there is no rule governing an activity because no one has ever said there was a rule.
2. Assuming the problem is a language barrier, and any person fluent in Mongolian should suffice in rectifying issues.
3. Mistaking a lack of pertinent information for an arbitrary and capricious process, and therefore a "corrupt" process.

Mistake one is the most common mistake. It probably comes from a very basic fallacy in which researchers assume their local counterparts know all the requirements governing research activities. This is often not the case, in part, because some projects are outside the experience of the local counterparts, or they themselves have been working blithely unaware that they are violating the law. They may be just as ignorant of the rules as their international colleagues. Therefore, it is always a good idea to think "Does this require special permission in my home country?" and if the answer is "Yes" or "It seems like it would" then you probably need special permission to do it in Mongolia, too. Local counterparts can generally get away with breaking the law or violating regulations because of enforcement difficulties created by a lack of resources at relevant agencies or just a plain lack of awareness among everyone involved. No such "shadow" environment exists for foreign scholars because of the very fact that most foreign scholars stand out, and therefore authorities can be selective about enforcing rules and regulations on those who more often than not are in fact violating rules and regulations, even if naively.

Mistake two is probably the most subtle and therefore insidious mistake that international researchers make. All interactions with the government in Mongolia are people-to-people. That means that the person acting on your behalf should have strong interpersonal communication skills, be able to garner respect from local authorities, and in general have enough experience to navigate new areas of the bureaucracy. An international researcher who hires a 20 year old college student to act as translator for 25,000MNT per day should not be surprised if at government agency after government agency he/she encounters obstacle after obstacle. Would one rely on an inexperienced kid to handle a complex task in one's own home country? No, of course not. The situation is no different in Mongolia, and often language is a necessary but not sufficient tool for solving problems. Experience is far more important in the end than language ability, and yet we see scholar after scholar putting all their faith in people who have only one skill: being bilingual.

Mistake three is just poor thinking. Bureaucrats the world over are notoriously unhelpful, incompetent, and arguably sadistic. No one ever says, "Boy, I am looking forward to going to the Department of Motor Vehicles today!" without a obvious tone of sarcasm. Government offices are like dentist offices, places most people go when they have no other choice. This is true in every country I have ever lived in. The best policy is to always assume that the government official is actually doing his/her job, and the obstacles one is encountering are due to mistakes one and two above, or because one is just having a bad bit of luck dealing with a stubborn civil servant. Interpersonal communication skills of the variety that Dale Carnegie made famous in his book "How to Win Friends and Influence People" are more likely the solution to the problem than distilling everything into bromides about corruption, developing countries, or "Communist mentalities." This is not true of every country, but in Mongolia one is better served to think the best rather than the worst of the government officials one encounters.

The point of writing all this is to remind everyone that the American Center for Mongolian Studies staff have the experience and interpersonal communication skills to effectively deal with the Mongolian bureaucracy. Our batting average is not 1.000, but it is pretty high. We often find ourselves helping scholars resolve big messes they have created for themselves (although they rarely see it that way--sigh) because they made the three mistakes above or some other unique mistake that boggles the mind. Sometimes I wonder why this is the case, and one possibility is the fact there are few people or organizations out there reminding people there is a system that is fair, somewhat effective, and quick if one works with people who actually know the rules. When in doubt, send us an e-mail: It's what we are here for.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Another Dictionary

The ACMS library has acquired another Mongolian dictionary published by the Academy Sciences. It is a 5 volume unabridged dictionary, which, according to a couple of sources, was awarded "The Best Publication of the Year" by some unnamed body that issues such awards. It is an impressive publication and another source of definitions for contemporary Mongolian. The Golden Age of Publishing is truly upon us!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

More on the Presidential Election

"Sant Maral" Foundation has been conducting a survey called the "Politbaromter" for several years to measure the opinions of citizens nationwide. The April survey was published just before the presidential election. It is not clear if Sant Maral randomly selects its respondents, as the survey does not contain information about the methodology used, but it does say a "representative sample of 1,240 respondents" from the city and several rural provinces was taken. I mention the survey because it offers some contradictory data to some of the international coverage of the election.

The dominant narrative in the international media seems to be that the presidential election represented some sort of sweeping mandate for change. This, of course, is the narrative that the opposition party and the president-elect hammered home in the campaign. The election results show that in the city Elbegdorj's victory was decisive, and in the countryside he was competitive but lost the popular vote. The corollary conclusion from this is that there is a significant divide in political views between rural and urban constituencies, with Ulaanbaatar being predominantly more pro-Democratic Party (DP).

Both these claims are dubious. The president-elect won by little less than 4 percent of the popular vote. That is a respectable margin, but it also means that over 47% of the population voted for the status quo. Hardly a mandate for change. The second claim about the rural and urban divide is curious for the simple fact that the vast majority of the city's population until recently were residents of rural constituencies. This means that either the average migrant to the city is a DP supporter or that somehow living in the city makes the MPRP less appealing. The latter explanation seems to me to have a bit more bite, but maybe not for an obvious reason.

These voters are not anti-MPRP in the city, but rather anti-government. They are anti-government because arguably their living standards have fallen in comparison to rural constituents due to the reality of life in the city in comparison to the countryside--especially because public servant salaries have increased and the government employs a significant number of people in rural communities. Poverty, lack of services, crime, and unemployment in ger districts is naturally going to focus a lot of acrimony towards the people who are doing nothing to correct the imbalances; in other words, the government--not necessarily a particular political party.

This is demonstrated in the Sant Maral survey in the questions "In your opinion is the MPRP headed in the right or wrong direction?" and "In your opinion is the DP headed in the right or wrong direction?" The respondents for "right direction" for both questions are very similar across constituencies with a slight lead for the DP. However, respondents for "wrong direction" show a much stronger belief that the MPRP is heading in the wrong direction in the countryside and nationwide--but not in Ulaanbaatar. "Don't know" responses are similar to the "right direction" responses with approximately 36%-40% of respondents.

These questions garner somewhat ambiguous results, but the pattern, if there is one, seems to me to be an anti-government one. In other words, MPRP is competitive with DP (if 35%-40% responding you're headed in the right direction is a competition) in terms of satisfied constituents, but it is less competitive with dissatisfied constituents. This does not translate into a gain for DP, though, which might indicate that similar results would occur if the DP was the ruling party. A more likely explanation is that undecided city dwellers go to the polls thinking "Who is in charge?" and then vote for the opposition party.

Then one gets to the question about satisfaction with the government and the opposition, and the results show the government with a slight lead over the opposition nationwide. There are more people satisfied and less people dissatisfied with the government than the opposition, but basically the results are the same. There is only a marginal difference in opinion. Unfortunately there is no data parsing rural and urban, but given that Ulaanbaatar is approximately 50% of the population, any difference would probably be marginal like the reponses above.

This data suggests that either people are fairly apathetic about the political process or non-partisan voters (independent voters as we call them in the US) are not entirely convinced either party is all that good. Hardly a mandate for sweeping change. I would put my money on a calculated check on power and optimism that maybe change could come with someone new as the explanation for Elbegdorj's victory as opposed to broad reputiation of Enkhbayar or the MPRP.

The second part of the international narrative is somehow the new president will wield tremendous power in determining the status of important issues such as the Oyu Tolgoi and Tavan Tolgoi projects. There is no doubt that the new president will try to involve himself in the process, and, as I alluded to in a previous post, he may have a better opportunity than any other president to impose himself on these important issues. But, there will be a political cost to him and his party if he tries to overreach.

First, back to the Sant Maral survey. Nationwide 40% of respondents think that the government (i.e. Prime Minister and Cabinet) should take a leading role in solving the country's problems. Parliament is the choice of 19.3%, and the president comes in at a distant third with 11.3%. Currently the government is a coalition government, a concession the MPRP accepted in the summer to have DP parliamentarians accept the results of the elections. There was no legal imperative that compelled MPRP to accept a coalition government given that the party won an outright majority of seats in Parliament. There certainly was a political imperative as the party struggled to distance itself from allegations of vote rigging and a fraudulent election. Power sharing was a visible way to demonstrate the party had not conspired to "steal the election."

With the victory of Elbegdorj, the magnanimous concession of Enkhbayar, and the statements from Bayar that it is not the MPRP's habit to contest the results of elections it has lost (starting the revisionist narrative about the parliamentary elections), and the perceptions of citizens about who has ultimate responsibility to solve the problems of the country, there is a possibility that the political pressure to maintain the coalition government could quickly erode with an overreaching and meddlesome president from the opposing party. The stage is already set for MPRP to dissolve the current government if politically they can get away with it. They did it in 2005 when the opportunity arose, and one would assume they'll do it again if they can. And, if Elbegdorj is an obstructionist without reason or wide popular support, then it is reasonable to think at some point in the coming year a new government will be formed under an full MPRP cabinet.

But, there would be a price to be paid, albiet a moderate one, on the MPRP side if things came to this. MPRP holds a 45 seat majority in Parliament, but that is 6 seats short of making legislation veto proof. That means that MPRP will still need to reach out to moderate DP members and the three independent MPs in order to ensure that any challenges from the president can easily be defeated. So, it is probably more likely for a new government to be formed if the president alienates 5 or more opposition MPs sufficiently enough to force them to accept a MPRP government, a not completely unlikely possibility given that Elbegdorj was forced to resign from his chairmanship of the DP after the Parliament elections due to significant internal dissent.

The bottom line: It is all very complicated, and it is too soon to tell what will happen. The one thing that is certain is that the president-elect's options are limited and the pressure is on him. There is much more that could go wrong for him than the MPRP, so the real unknown is whether he'll be able to beat the pressure while at the same time deliver noticeable and productive change. The other interesting thing to look out for is whether dissenting (from Elbegdorj) DP members and independent MPs will be the real winners from the election. If MPRP forms a new government, the real power will accumulate around MPs who will swing a legislative vote, further eroding the president's relevance if the MPRP wins the public relations and political horsetrading battle.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

ACMS Mongolia Turns Five

The ACMS opened its first office in Ulaanbaatar on May 27th, 2004 in a ceremony attended by ACMS Executive Director, the university president, US ambassador, members of the media, and the academic community. The center was originally housed in a two room office in Building No. 1 of the National University of Mongolia, but moved to Building No. 5 upon its completion three and half years ago. In the spring of 2007 the center moved to its current location, opening for the first time a library, reading room, and resource center large enough to provide services to hundreds of students and faculty per week.

To mark this milestone, ACMS will host a reception on May 28th after the Speaker Series lecture (the 67th lecture to date). More information about the lecture at

The lecture and the reception are open to the public. We hope to see you there, and we hope to see you in the center over the next five years.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Mongolia Elects New President

It’s official. According to, the General Election Committee has called the presidential election for Ts. Elbegdorj over his rival current President N. Enkhbayar. A year on from the parliamentary elections, which resulted in a riot that destroyed the MPRP headquarters and parts of the Cultural Palace, Mongolian voters seem to have voted for change. The preliminary results give President-elect Elbegdorj 51.24 percent of the vote nationwide, or just over a 40,000 vote lead out of 1.097 million total ballots cast (again, according to

I spent most of Sunday monitoring the election in Chingeltei District in the 12th-16th microdistrict polling stations. As the day progressed and I saw the amount of people voting, I started to get a feeling in my gut that things might go Elbegdorj's way. I thought Elbegdorj had little chance in winning the election before Sunday. However, something about the mix of people I saw voting and the extreme effort that everyone seemed to be making at the polling stations to remain fair, started to work on my gut. Something just seemed to indicate that people were taking the election seriously, and the people showing up at the polling stations were not interested in the status quo. This bares out in the election results for the city, at least, where Elbegdorj won by more than 12 points. He also seems to have remained competitive in the rural constituencies losing by only 2 points.

It is certainly not my intention to suggest that I guessed the correct outcome, but only to convey that I sensed that my previous estimation about Elbegdorj's chances was incorrect. The feeling actually compelled me to think about what if Elbegdorj won. What would that mean for the political landscape in Mongolia?

It is too early to tell, but there seems to be a reasonable argument to make that Sunday in many ways constituted a win-win situation for the ruling party. If Enkhbayar had won, then the status quo would have been maintained. An obvious win. Where we stand is slightly more interesting because the loss of the presidency at first blush may appear like a serious blow to the MPRP. However, it seems to me that much of the political pressure going forward is placed on Elbegdorj and by extension the opposition party. Another win for MPRP.

The president is a somewhat ill-defined position in the Mongolian constitution focused on being a ceremonial figurehead. However, there are provisions in the constitution which give the president the ability to impose himself on the political process; for example, the right to veto legislation passed by parliament. President Enkhbayar had made a point of stretching the limits of presidential power during his term by vetoing legislation and, most spectacularly, imposing a state of emergency and calling up the military during the riot last summer. This use of power was seen by his critics as an overreach, but his supporters saw it as a proper interpretation and execution of the powers vested in the president's office.

Elbegdorj is therefore inheriting an ascendant office with precedents that will allow him to impose himself more on the political process. Maybe much more than any previous president, in fact, and he has demonstrated in the past he is not afraid to start a political brawl.

This is where the real difficulty lies for Elbegdorj and where the opportunity may lie for MPRP. Prime Minister Bayar and President Elbegdorj will most certainly become contentious public rivals (if not already contentious enough). But, Bayar's authority to push the political process forward is given automatically by his status as the head of government. Elbegdorj, on the other hand, is inheriting a position that is imbued with some nascent executive powers, but the extent of those powers is still very much up for political debate, even if the electorate may be predisposed to accepting efforts to further strengthen them. The progress made with Enkhbayar could be easily undone by a politician ill prepared to handle the delicate nature of indirect power that the presidency represents. One too many gaffes or attempts to wield power that turn into obvious and easily defeated overreaching, and one's opponent in a rival party can look quite good by comparison.

The pressure is on Elbegdorj to perform, because, assuming the next few days pass without incident from MPRP supporters, the victory could potentially put a stamp of legitimacy on the parliamentary elections through revisionist history. The victory demonstrates that MPRP does not wield absolute power, and it took defeat magnanimously--unlike rival parties in the parliamentary elections. From a political strategy standpoint, it would make sense to play up this aspect of the election and then stand back and hope the new president makes a fool of himself.

I am not suggesting this is what will happen. I have no idea what kind of president Elbegdorj will make, or what kind of strategy MPRP will adopt to counter this victory. However, the political pressure will naturally build on Elbegdorj to perform above average as president and to effectively challenge the power of the government led by Bayar (assuming rivalries remain). I see the road ahead being much more difficult for the new president and somewhat easier for the ruling party because of the nature of the political situation. The onus is on the new president to prove he can deliver the change he promised, and if he fails to deliver, he may diminish the office of the presidency and his own party in the effort. The work begins today, and one almost thinks the old phrase "careful what you wish for..." is apt for the current situation.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Golden Age of Publishing

The evidence seems to be mounting that we are experiencing a new golden age of publishing in Mongolia. Admon Press seems to be reprinting old titles and producing new content at rate possibly unprecedented even during the Socialist Era. One item that has me particularly excited is the reprinting of the standard Mongolian dictionary which has not been published by all accounts since the mid-sixties. The ACMS library has a copy of the old edition, and next month we'll purchase the new edition (see them side by side in the picture). At the risk of revealing myself as a complete nerd, this new dictionary is a truly exciting thing for anyone interested in studying Mongolian, especially at the advanced level. The dictionary is only 39,500MNT which means it is within easy reach of most libraries, organizations, and a substantial portion of the population, and it contains updated and new entries completely in Mongolian.

Culture and language are inextricably linked, so dictionaries are much more than tools for learning or translating. They are also a record in time of the essence of a society. I shouldn't overdo it, but it is a fairly momentous occasion to have this dictionary available, because really good dictionaries that capture the essence of Mongolia are the exception not the rule. As a native speaker of English and non-native speaker of Japanese, I have almost boundless selection available to me in terms of dictionaries. I took for granted when I first arrived in Mongolia that quality dictionaries would be available for the language, because it made sense for any community of speakers to focus substantial time and effort on documenting a language. The Oxford Dictionary for English is the standard by which all English dictionaries are measured with its extensive information about not only the definition of words but also the etymology of words and extensive examples in context. I foolishly thought I would find something similar in Mongolia, and instead I found that the most widely available dictionaries were those used solely for translating Mongolian into other languages or vise-versa. You can't beat the natural forces of economics when it comes to less commonly spoken languages is what I quickly learned.

The new addition of the Mongolian dictionary does not have the history of words like the Oxford Dictionary, but this is understandable because of the scholarly effort it would take to assign histories to even a small portion of the total Mongolian lexicon. It would be a great project, though, if a Mongolian scholar or group of scholars put together a dictionary in the manner the Oxford Dictionary was developed through years of individual scholars and lay people contributing their tacit knowledge of the language as described in the book "The Professor and the Madman." In the absence of the history of words, though, the entries in the new edition of the dictionary do include substantial numbers of examples in context which is very helpful.

In this emerging golden age of publishing, I am curious what the margins are like for the publishing companies? I wonder not because I want to go into publishing myself, but rather in hopes that the money is good enough to sustain the industry. Published works are an integral part of any society, and it is heartening to think a written record of the current era is being produced at an unprecedented and, hopefully, sustainable rate.

City Pride

Every so often a musical group produces a song that is a fitting homage to a city. I think the Lemons on their most recent album have done this with their song "1983...1986" which is a light tribute to Mongolia's city. The video is particularly fun for its historical footage of Ulaanbaatar before the frenetic and unfettered development of the last two decades. An idyllic reminiscence of much simpler times gone by.

It is easy to sometimes forget that Ulaanbaatar has a storied past as a crossroads and cosmopolitan destination for Eurasian explorers, travelers, merchants, and spiritual pilgrims. Recently the ACMS library purchased a book that was published in 2006 in commemoration of the 800th Anniversary of the founding of the Great Mongol State. It is a fairly thorough photographic and pictorial history of the city, and includes some amazing archival pictures such as the dedication ceremony of the Sukhbaatar statue on Sukhbaatar Square when the square was an huge open patch of dirt and there was no parliament building. The photos are supplemented with passages describing different aspects of the city's development overtime, which for those unaware, has been going on for 370 years! I would encourage anyone with curiosity about Ulaanbaatar's history to stop by the center and look at the book. It is also available at Internom bookstore at the unbelievable price of 30,000MNT.

Ulaanbaatar can be an eyesore much of the year, but with the budding of spring leaves on the trees the city is becoming greener by the day. The Lemons song, the book, and the reemergence of natural colors outside the center windows does remind me that for all its faults Ulaanbaatar is a unique city that each citizen can find pride in. It is a 370 year work in progress, and, for all its supposed isolation, it has certainly never been a utterly boring place to live.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hidden Gobi

As part of a weekend trip out to eastern Umnugovi Aimag with friends from Khankhongor Soum, the school driver from Khanbogd Soum (a mutual friend) led our group out to an interesting geological formation about 30km from the soum center. He emphasized to me several times that few people knew about the place, and everyone in the Khankhongor contingent confirmed this by repeating several times they had never even heard of the place let alone had visited it previously.

I am not a geologist, so I could only marvel at the site and wonder how it was formed. The rock looked like a cross between granite and crystalline concrete. It was very rough and it easily broke under modest pressure. It looked as though the rock formed initially under a sedimentary process, and then later the area was shaped by some sort of erosive force. I was compelled based on intuition and knowledge barely remembered from a geology class I took over ten years ago in college to think that it formed under the influence of water. It had several hallmarks of water erosion, especially pock marks born into the sides of boulders. But, that would suggest that a very large sea or other body of water with currents was present at the location at some point in its history, and I am not sure if there was such a body of water in the Gobi. The hypothesis therefore has an obvious flaw, and I remain ignorant of the true cause of the formations.

If there are any geologists out there reading this with ideas, please do offer comments. It was a truly interesting place.