Reflections on Mongolia


With perestroika and the decline of Soviet power in the late 1980’s, Mongolia entered the first period of its post-communist development. This romantic period was a time of hope; Mongolia was to become the next Asian Tiger. Yet with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the halting of related aid money, newly democratic Mongolia was faced with an economic crisis of epic proportions. The fruits of democracy were enjoyed as well; newspapers sprang up, their variety reflecting the budding of Mongolia’s new multi-party democracy. Churches tripped over each other to send missionaries to cultivate her fertile sands, and Buddhism re-entered the public sphere. However, the lack of visible progress led many Mongolians’ to enter into state of now-familiar disillusionment.

Elections brought the young Democrats into power, who hastily implemented an intensely neo-liberal plan to shock the Mongolian economy into complete liberalization. Despite optimistic forecasts from policymakers, the life of the average Mongolian took a serious turn for the worse. Problems that had been forgotten during the times of Stalinist ‘utopia’ ravaged the country. Unemployment, massive inflation (as much as 350%), shortages of essential goods, and an almost complete collapse of the Mongolian economy were among them.[^m1] Social ills soon followed, with Mongolian males and their fragile egos faring worse that the women; alcoholism and violence, especially, spread amongst the growing population of unemployed young men.[^m2] Such chaos swept the MPRP back into power, beginning another dark era of de-democratization, though with some economic recovery.


Big Brother is watching, don’t say the

Wrong thing, look the Wrong way.

Traditional systems dis-

Integrate. Morals, ethics, freedoms and structures of life on the steppe.[^m3]

Yet what happens when Big Brother falls?

The veil is lifted, euphoria blossoms;

The image of the Tiger mesmerizes,

Nurtured by romancing Western winds.

Yet change proves illusory, as do the goods

That once lined the oppressive shelves of state-owned stores.

A dissatisfied electorate speaks with their vote;

Old are replaced by new: the heroic Democrats

Stumble forward.

The electric paddles they hold still drip saliva,

Fresh from the drooling mouths of the waiting West.

With the suavity of a toddler’s first step, they apply the shock;

Sparks fly, illuminating their fresh faces frozen in naïveté and terror.

With the ferocity of a dead fish the Mongolian economy coughs,

Collapsing into torpor.


With the fall of the soviet-installed communist system, freedom was thrust onto the Mongolian people in every capacity. Suddenly, Mongolians were free to think, worship, vote, move, and work (if they could find a job) as they pleased. Yet with this freedom came an immense individual responsibility, to make it in this new system without the help of the state, a drastic change to say the least. Also, these freedoms came without any tradition—after 70 years of socialism, only a faint memory remains of what came before. Some consequences have been rapid urbanization, pastureland degradation, over-hunting and over-harvesting, and generally unsustainable patterns of development. Where a cohesive state plan once was, is now blind free market, ”me first“ capitalism.

According to various religious leaders, the economic crisis was, and continues to be accompanied by a moral crisis.[^m5] Alcoholism, crime, and violence all became endemic, though whether this was due to the abysmal economic conditions and lack of law and order, or the supposed demolition of Mongolian morals by the Soviets is not clear. That the moral structure was destroyed by soviet policies and oppressive moral policing makes sense only if people were truly too scared to think independently (like East Germany with the STAZI[^m6]). Nonetheless, Mongolians clearly have a dark history behind them, one that must be confronted if they are to move forward, ”Here in Mongolia… I think only with dealing with the reality, also admitting what went wrong, they can really find out again what they are, and what they want to be.“[^m7]

In greatest danger of degeneration by the toxic societal climate are the nation’s young men. Faced with a crisis of national identity, these young men and their already fragile egos must come to terms with the anarchy unfolding around them. The easiest way is to find a scapegoat: the Chinese (and Koreans). Thus groups of young men have formed together under the financial and moral manipulation of powerful politicians, to carry out a campaign of terrorism against foreign-owned businesses and their employees. Powerful messages of militarism from abroad catalyze this transformation.[^m8] Yet they are just that, pawns of people with money and an agenda.

It is not only the young men who face the new deluge of media imagery from abroad. Where they were once shielded by an overprotective government, Mongolians are now left completely exposed to a barrage of alien culture, ”Its not just the lifting of the pressure, it’s the moving of a completely different world, with all the television, with all the Western, European, American values and which come in a completely unrealistic way.“[^m9]


The Christians say, ”Of course! This Beast is Lost,

Searching for the Something more.“

The Mormons wait with their sharp suits and

Clean-cut lines. What happened to that

Which once filled this place? A Buddhism since

Gutted by the years of not-so-subtle stifling;

Banished to a realm of irrelevance. Yet does Christ,

And those who use His name, truly fill this void?

Do the 50% under 25 really know

That to which they subscribe?

Or that over which they passed

To accept this foreign faith?


>”The free market is blind, following it blindly leads to collapse.“ –Ganbaatar, CEO Confederation of Mongolian Trade Union[^m10]

A look around Ulaanbaatar is all one needs to sense anarchic levels of freedom. Buildings sprout from a cement sea like the grass that once grew beneath. Chinese workers scurry about, erecting monuments to the new Lords of the Land: the â‚®ugrik, the â‚©on and the Â¥uan. Law and order resonates nowhere; the MP’s poaching marmots send a clear message to the rest of their people. The insanity that is traffic in UB reflects this; why obey traffic laws when those who write them show such blatant disregard? Walking the streets, one sees street children begging for food from well-dressed businessmen and politicians as they descend from shiny land-cruisers. The emerging Mongolian middle class makes UB feel like the capital of a much more prosperous country than it is. One need only travel in any direction outside the city center to witness the kilometers and kilometers of families trying to eek out a living in this new system, despite the odds against them.

After 15 years of transition from authoritarian communism to the current ‘democratic’ free-market system, Mongolia is approaching a precipice, a point of no return.[^m11] Corruption in the highest levels of government breeds corruption in the lower levels. A growing shadow economy, and widespread bribery indicate the financial interests that are developing and becoming entrenched. Perhaps the most frightening development has been the worsening of Mongolia’s elections. Once famous for its quick transition to internationally approved elections, suspicious events during the 2004 elections call such innocence into serious question.[^m12] Such corruption only worsens existing problems of poverty, unemployment, insufficient infrastructure, growing crime and violence, and especially a pervasive air of lawlessness. While some manage to be optimistic about the future of governance, cynicism seems to be far more pervasive.

In order to secure their future, Mongolians must work through their disillusionment, come to terms with their past take ownership over the present and future of their country. They must take their democratic rights in hand, no matter how tenuous they may feel, and use them to catch the rapidly closing doors of political legitimacy. Only by building a viable civil society movement, with support from the public to keep a stern watchful eye on all aspects of government, does Mongolia stand a chance for a truly sustainable future. Without such a movement, politicians will continue to work for their own interests, and corruption will continue to flourish. The growing symbiotic relationship between government and business will become one of permanence.


The Mongolian cat still bares her humble teeth,

If only in campaign ads.

From her mouth peer politicians: slick suited,

Pockets fleeced with Copper and Gold.

They will reform, herald a new era;

Or so they say. Until then

The youth wander the streets, crackling

With insecurity and xenophobia.

Coal fills the winter air;

Pastures fade;

Lines form to overpay at ger district water pumps;

Drunks stumble across sidewalks, their bloodshot glassy eyes half-open;

Street children recede to the sewers, watching the world above pass them by.



[^m1]:Sanjaasuren Oyun, ”Burning Issues in Mongolian Politics & Economy,“ September 18, 2007.

[^m2]:T. Undarya, ”Democratization: Challenges and Opportunities,“ September 17, 2007.

[^m3]: Such as traditional land use practices, and the freedom to migrate where one wants.

[^m5]: D. Dashdendev, ”Story of a Mongolian Christian,“ October 10, 2007; Ueli Minder, Personal Interview (2007); Serge Patrick, ”The Catholic Church in Mongolia,“ October 12, 2007; Aleksei Trubach, ”History of Orthodoxy in Mongolia,“ October 11, 2007.

[^m6]:Ueli Minder, _Personal Interview_


[^m8]:T. Undarya, ”Democratization: Challenges and Opportunities.“

[^m9]: Ueli Minder, _Personal Interview_

[^m10]:Ganbaatar, ”Mongolian Civil Society and Social Issues,“ September 21, 2007.

[^m11]: T. Undarya, ”Democratization: Challenges and Opportunities.“


One Reply to “Reflections on Mongolia”

Comments are closed.