“Mongolia is important and Mongolian politics matter” is a phrase we don’t hear very often, neither from policy makers, politicians, nor academics. Still, with increased interest in Mongolia on the international stage, and several new Mongolian Studies projects being pursued by world-class universities, perhaps it is time to start asserting that SMALL MATTERS.
This website starts with a simple, although potentially groundbreaking, presumption: small states matter in international politics and security. In this post, I want to focus on why Mongolia matters, and some preliminary ideas on what international actors are looking for from Mongolia as related to the most recent elections. While Mongolia is by no means a world power, a sophisticated foreign policy coupled with a booming mining sector and proven democratic stability has allowed the country to attract international attention on a scale usually reserved for larger actors. I propose that the 2012 Parliamentary election was important for two interrelated reasons: 1) a show of democratic strength and commitment to democratic development; 2) a test of stability for the economic/investment climate.
As I have stated in previous posts, Mongolian democracy matters not only as a domestic regime, but also as a type of international PR. For example, Mongolia’s democratic system has streamlined its relations with the United States. Mongolia has enjoyed US military assistance in training and technology in exchange for its support of the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Mongolia has contributed hundreds of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and has stationed peacekeepers around the world as part of various UN missions. In fact, much of Mongolia’s defense forces have been converted into a well-trained international peacekeeping force, with plans to increase the number to 2,500. The US has carried out much of this training out in the annual Khaan Quest military exercises.
The US-Mongolian relationship is greatly strengthened by shared democratic values. The US and Mongolia are both committed to the rule of law and both governments gain their legitimacy as a result of the democratic process. Unlike the CCP in China, the Mongolian state’s legitimacy is not solely based on the ability to provide economic returns (although that is certainly a very important factor). Rather, Mongolian elections must also be seen as legitimately reflecting the voters’ decisions. Concerns over electoral fraud and corruption add an extra complication to the state’s legitimacy. However, to date there has been no proof of any fraudulent activity large enough to suggest that the whole election was bought, and as a result the in-coming MPs will be at least largely legitimate, even if not necessarily viewed as such by all their constituents.
This election is yet another brick in the wall of proof that Mongolia has implemented a largely successful democracy. As a democracy, it is better able to cooperate with other democratic players: nations that would otherwise have little interest in Mongolia. Turning to Mongolia’s larger foreign policy goals, we can see that relations with other democratic nations are a key factor in the country’s efforts to extend itself beyond its immediate neighborhood. Mongolia is surrounded by two huge, distinctly non-democratic countries- Russia and China- both of which have exercised varying amounts of control over its domestic policies in the past. Mongolia is distinctly aware of the fact that as a small country between giants its sovereignty and general ability to control its own domestic policies are anything but a given. In response to this potential complication/threat, Mongolia has implemented a policy of cultivating relations with other world actors outside of its immediate geography through what is widely referred to as the “Third Neighbor Policy”. Notably many of Mongolia’s “third neighbors” are stable democracies with good human rights records. These include Japan, South Korea, India, the US, and various EU countries (i.e. Germany, France, the Czech Republic, and several others). Investors in Mongolia do not have to justify the morality of their investments to the same extent that they might when investing in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, for example.
Shared democratic values, as demonstrated by successful elections such as the one this June, provide Mongolia with a way to deepen relations with other actors and address its larger foreign policy, security, and economic interests.
Mongolia’s economy grew over 17% in real terms this past year, making it the fastest growing economy in the world! This little fact is often shocking to people, who write of the country as part of an undefined “third world”. Of course, this is up 17% from a rather low starting point, but still this remains a sign of development and is perhaps indicative that international investment in the mining sector is paying off for the country in general. Without judging prematurely, it is clear that international investors were watching this election closely for two things: signs of instability and signs of populism-influenced protectionism in the Mongolian market.
“Do you expect a repeat of the events of 2008?” many people, foreigners and Mongolians alike, asked me during the build up to the election. For those of you unfamiliar with Mongolian politics, let me briefly explain. Following the announcement of an MPRP (now MPP) victory in the 2008 Parliamentary elections, the DP called a protest, saying that the elections were fraudulent and corrupt. Things quickly got out of control and what started as a peaceful protest outside the MPRP headquarters turned violent, resulting in 5 deaths, the complete destruction of the MPRP building, and the partial destruction of the Cultural Palace (located unfortunately close to the party building). I did not expect a repeat of these events this year, and I am very happy to have been proven correct. Even though the events of 2008 where contained by the morning, such riots are by their very nature unpredictable and international investors and observers were notably anxious that any such repeat might have the potential to spiral out of control.
Perhaps more importantly, investors want to ensure that their investments are protected and that their contracts with the Mongolian government will be honored. When Mongolia implemented a windfall tax overnight on mining profits in 2006, investors became acutely aware that the rules of the game could change at the drop of a hat. While the windfall profits tax legislation was eventually repealed in 2009, it remains something of a scandal, and worried many investors, while simultaneously scaring off others (presumably). While some Mongolian political players are more or less predictable and open to international investment, one party in particular had a particularly populist slant: the MPRP-MNDP “Justice” Coalition. Dr. Julian Dierkes previously identified the MRPR-MNDP vote as a sign of populism, citing the fact that supporters are often drawn to the message of standing up to international market forces as well as resource nationalism. After winning 11 seats in the Parliament and quite likely becoming part of a coalition with the DP, we might conclude that some elements of populism remain popular in the Mongolian political and social sphere. Indeed with rising xenophobia, this seems hardly surprising. (See my previous post on Fears of Survival). Whether this will will translate into harder times for international businesses in uncertain, but I would venture to guess not, seeing as the DP will the be leading figure in any coalition and it clearly pro-business.
Considering increased economic interest in Mongolia following a record year of growth as well as the PR potential of democracy and adherence to human rights norms, I conclude that this election had at least some level of importance to Mongolia’s international partners. Although, let me admit that while from Ulaanbaatar everything Mongolian seems significant, the likelihood that any international players were loosing sleep over this election is not likely. What is also interesting is the fact that, from what I could tell, none of the parties had any explicit foreign policy message in their action plans/policies. While I maintain that Mongolia exercises notable agency in its foreign policy decisions, as a small country a domestic political change cannot upset foreign policy to the same extent that Presidential elections in the USA can. (More on Mongolian agency and choices later).
Note: A version of this article was published in the July 23rd edition of the UB Post, Mongolia’s leading English-language newspaper. Hopefully, a link to follow.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.