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.

The Other "Tolgoi"

Over the weekend I made a trip out to the eastern part of Umnugovi Aimag with my wife and a group of friends from Khankhongor Soum. Along the way we stopped at Tavan Tolgoi which is Mongolia's fantastically huge coal deposit and the other "tolgoi" after Oyu Tolgoi (the copper and gold mine near Khanbogd Soum). It was an impressive sight to behold. It was a large open pit mining operation, and although it is not even close to working at full capacity, it was amazing to see the amount of trucks coming and going from the pit. We were all greatly impressed by the size and potential scale of the project.

A few kilometers down the road we were flagged down by reporters from Channel 25 who were interviewing truck drivers and people like us about the conditions around the mine and on the road. Listening to our driver talk with the reporters I got a new sense of the uneasiness that regular people feel about the mining agreements at Tavan Tolgoi and Oyu Tolgoi. In particular when asked about the large trucks coming and going from the mine site tearing up the jeep trail used to go from the aimag center to the Chinese border, he made the comment that it was a bit frightening because the trucks were large, wipping up dangerous amounts of dust and he didn't know who the drivers were--Are they Mongolian or not? Who do they work for? Where do they come from and where do they go?

These questions struck me as reflecting a much larger worry of average people. Seeing the shear size of the Tavan Tolgoi mine site one is almost awestruck by it. So much mineral wealth. And, yet, where is it going? Who is going to reap the benefits of that wealth? Is it a very large fraud on ordinary people? If you don't even know who the drivers are, how can you know who the people making the real money are?

Of course, there are answers to these questions if one goes looking for them, but that is not what most people do. Instead in the absence of information people worry and they let their imaginations take control of what they know from experience. In Mongolia this is a particularly unproductive and insidious thing to happen. Owen Lattimore described the following in his book "Nomads and Commissars" (Oxford Press 1962) in a chapter entitled "Autonomous Mongolia: Years of Frustration" when referring to the forces that led to that nationalist movement that eventually became the socialist movement in the 1930s and 40s:

The people felt that every time there was a deal over national autonomy, over debts to Chinese merchants, over anything at all, there was also a sell-out. The big fellows came out of it with new titles, emoluments, and stipends. Then they turned around and wanted more taxes and special contributions from the people to pay for it all. They incited ordinary Mongols to massacre and beat up Chinese merchants and money-lenders, and burn their account books, but that just put the big fellows in a position to say to the Chinese, later, "Well, forget about my personal debt and I'll help you to collect the rest." (pg. 65)

There are some unsettling parallels between that passage and the present situation in Mongolia. One almost feels that it could be written today with "Chinese merchant" replaced by "mining conglomerate." It makes one think of the old adage the more things change the more they stay the same.

It is a real concern that ordinary people do not trust anyone to make the proper decision regarding the mineral wealth of the country whether it be Mongolia's political leaders or the people negotiating the mining deals for the multi-national corporations. I always understood that in an academic and abstract way, but seeing Tavan Tolgoi for the first time made me feel first hand a sense of the real worry that ordinary people have. It is the same feeling you get when you sense that a trick is being played on you. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and Mongolia loses its best chance at accumulating real wealth because people at the top are playing a game.

It is easy to become cynical and read into these feelings that nothing good can come of all this, as if the sentiment that the rich get richer; etc, is the only alternative. The mining agreements have been painfully slow to move towards fruition. On the one hand, this could mean that the "big fellows" are just trying to position themselves to become even wealthier at the expense of everyone else. On the other hand, it might mean that the worries of ordinary people like my driver to eastern Umnugovi are actually having an influence on the process. A third option is that both are occurring with a whole lot of other political machinations in between which makes the whole thing one big Gordian knot. Whatever it is, it is certainly not easy.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mongolia and Conservatism in the US

Over the weekend I was finishing up Robert P. Newman's "Owen Lattimore and the 'Loss' of China" (UC Press 1992), and I came across the following passage:

Sokolsky reviewed the "great power of Ghengis [sic] Khan, which in the 13th Century conquered China and conquered much of Europe, east of Germany. It held Russia for a prolonged period. It held India and the Mongol Empire in India. It is Mongolia which is being revived as a power in this attempt to force upon the world the United Nations. This peril which is really greater than one imagines because, to us, the name Mongolia hardly means anything anymore and yet, out of that desert land has come this great power which at one time dominated much of the world and which can do it again if armed and given the direction and guidance that could lead to that. This, then, is our peril at the time." (pg. 507)

The passage is a transcript from a radio broadcast on ABC July 16, 1961 in which conservative columnist George Sokolsky was reacting to news that Owen and Eleanor Lattimore were in the People's Republic of Mongolia on a study tour at the same time the Kennedy administration was exploring the possibility of diplomatically recognizing Mongolia. According to Newman, a firestorm was unleashed by the coincidence of these two events among ultraconservatives, causing people like Sokolsky to make fatuous comments like the one above. Surely only the truly ignorant and uneducated at the time would have accepted the recognition of Mongolia as first step in reviving the Mongol Empire under the auspices of the United Nations?

Yet, these sorts of musings unfettered by reality and basic research seem to still find their way into conservative media in the United States. The above passage reminded me of a full page ad printed last year in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) by Center for Individual Freedom (CFIF) expressing real and immediate concern that Mongolia was backsliding in its commitment to protect private property rights and democracy, implying that it was moving down a path ideologically hostile to the foreign policy of the US. True, the ad was not an editorial, so it did not necessarily represent the views of the newspaper. But, WSJ still printed the ad, which called for punitive action against Mongolia in the form of removing its Millennium Challenge Account funds if progress was not made in its allegedly deteriorating record of upholding the rights of private businessmen.

I believe the very same week an article was printed in the Washington Times painting Mongolia as a significant player in a worldwide sea born smuggling ring of illicit materials to rogue states. The Times article is an amusing read because it comes across as a similar attempt to Sokolsky's passage above to construct a conspiracy from one's readers' active imaginations without reference to common sense or basic fact. I do not contest that Mongolian ships have occasionally been used for nefarious purposes (I have not researched this, so it could be true), but taking it to the level of geo-political maneuvering sort of defies logic. I would not be surprised to learn that 9 in 10 Mongolians and an equal ratio of parliamentarians are unaware that Mongolia even has a maritime fleet. It is more likely a criminal matter than a geo-political matter. The government can hardly enforce the traffic laws in Ulaanbaatar, should we be surprised that it is unable to control who flies the Mongolian flag on international waters on occasion? The argument in the editorial seems very far fetched and construed to support a particular agenda.

This entry is not intended to be a survey of US conservative views on Mongolia but rather a reflection on historical and modern examples of the strange views on Mongolia that can make their way into print in the US. It is altogether possible that liberal outlets also have an odd predilection to present fantasy about the situation in Mongolia, but so far I have only seen the really weird stuff come from the right. It makes one wonder what the fascination with Mongolia is and why there is little effort to actually do even the most rudimentary research to support conjectures about the country. The simple answer probably involves the desires of business interests seeking to reap profits or ideologues seeking to promote particular beliefs in a world that matches that which is invented for the pages of newspapers. Understanding reality, in the case of Mongolia's reality, may not be nearly as attractive for those particular people. It's not exactly mass denial or outright lying but rather a wishful attempt to use the power of argument to bend reality to conform to the requisites of one's own agenda.

One conclusion that I have come to from reading Newman's book is that Owen Lattimore's biggest crime was actually doing research (e.g. learning local languages and customs and interviewing regular people in Inner Asia) and then reporting the truth back to power. One can see recent parallels in other geo-political hot spots in the world in which prominent people have suggested listening, showing empathy, doing field research, and reporting the truth about people who inhabit those areas to make better policy decisions. When there is big money involved, though, it is fair to surmise that it is easy for people with active imaginations to paint a picture they want policy makers and the public to believe is true. It does make one pause and consider that with $100 billion worth of copper and gold sitting in the Gobi Desert, it behooves everyone--Mongolians and foreigners with a vested interest in Mongolia alike--to be educated about the basic facts of the world and Mongolia's own history. Otherwise, even ideas as ludicrous as Sokolsky's above or the Washington Times editorialist's can potentially gain traction in the absence of credible and forceful arguments based on facts and reality.