New Internationalist

Mongolia

Issue 321

new internationalist
issue 321 - March 2000

Country profile - Saudi Arabia

[image, unknown] Mongol nomads survive on mutton, flour and tea. The mutton is boiled, the flour used for noodles or to bake bread: tea is served with salt. This uninspiring diet is staple for more than half a million Mongols living in felt ger tents and herding on the windswept steppe where winter temperatures can drop to 45 below zero.

But Mongols are endemically resilient. They have been conquerors and subjects, both on an epic scale. Their thirteenth-century Emperor Genghis Khan led his rampaging hordes into battle on horseback. They wrought havoc from Korea to the European Danube, mercilessly establishing the largest empire the world has ever known. But after Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, Mongolia was wracked by civil war; by the end of the seventeenth century the empire lay in ruins.

The neighbouring Manchurians from northern China seized their opportunity to invade, establishing a harsh regime which lasted 200 years until 1911. China was then swept up in republican revolution, and Mongolia declared itself a Buddhist monarchy under King Bogd Khan.

But in 1918 Chinese troops re-entered the Mongol capital, then known as Urga. Desperate to preserve Mongolian independence, a young warrior named Sukhbaatar appealed to the Russian Bolsheviks. With their help the Chinese invaders were repulsed and on 11 July 1921 Mongolia proclaimed a revolution. Urga was renamed Ulaanbaatar – Red Warrior, after Sukhbaatar. But Mongolia’s geography once more proved to be its nemesis: this time it was the Russians who didn’t leave, for almost 70 years.

When Bogd Khan died in 1924 Mongolia declared itself an independent People’s Republic, but was Soviet-dominated in every sphere. The classic vertical Mongol script was replaced by Cyrillic characters and Buddhism declared a canker. In the late 1930s Stalinist purges resulted in the slaughter of more than 15,000 monks and the razing of all but 6 of the 800 monasteries. Herding was collectivized and nomads compelled to live in co-operatives, selling produce to the state.

But Communism did not sustain the Mongols. By the mid-1980s the ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) had resorted to massive reforms to try to salvage an ailing economy and food rationing had been introduced.

The reforms did little to placate burgeoning political dissent and during the winter of 1989 thousands camped in the centre of Ulaanbaatar demanding political and economic change. They met with success, though the ruling MPRP shrewdly introduced private enterprise and foreign investment before allowing a vote. When the first democratic elections were held in June 1992 they were voted back into power.

But the reforms became sluggish and when Mongolians returned to the polls in June 1996 the US-backed Democratic Union Coalition won a landslide victory. The Democrats committed themselves to stringent reforms, known locally as ‘economic shock therapy,’ which included the privatization of 60 per cent of state assets by the end of 1999.

Private business has since spiralled, with previously unheard-of levels of wealth and poverty in its train. Young urban Mongols have embraced the Democrats’ vision almost without exception.

But the MPRP has proved a formidable opposition, capitalizing on power struggles within the inexperienced ruling coalition. They also enjoy massive support from herders, who believe the Democrats prioritize urban development. MPRP’s Natsagyn Bagabandi won a sweeping victory in the presidential election of 1997 and another general election is scheduled for this summer. Both parties insist they can lead this sparsely populated, nomadic country into a flourishing new commercial era.

Louisa Waugh

AT A GLANCE

LEADERS: President Natsagyn Bagabandi; Prime Minister Janlavyn Narantsatsralt.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $390 (China $860, Japan $38,160). When last profiled by the NI in 1989 the per-capita GNP was $2,140, thanks to Soviet economic support.
Main exports: copper, cashmere wool and livestock. There are also significant untapped oil and mineral resources.
Monetary unit: Togrog (Tg).

PEOPLE: 2.6 million.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 105 per 1,000 live births (China 38, Japan 4). Around 48 per cent of the population are ‘undernourished’. Rickets is a chronic problem. Rural areas rarely have running water or sewerage.

ENVIRONMENT: The Gobi Desert spans almost a third of Mongolia. Low precipitation and overgrazing have intensified desertification, especially in the south and east. A quarter of the national forest was lost in 1996 fires.

CULTURE: 80 per cent of the population is Halkh Mongol, practising Buddhism tinged with ancient shamanic rituals; Kazaks form a 6-per-cent Muslim minority.
Language: Mongolian (Altaic language). Many Mongols still speak fluent Russian.

Sources The State of the World’s Children 2000; Europa 1999; information supplied by the author.

Previously profiled November 1989

 

STAR RATINGS

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The commitment to halve poverty by 2000 has not been realized, as massive wage polarity continues.
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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
83%. One of Asia's best-educated countries, but the rate is now falling due to new rural school fees.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown]
All technology and machinery is imported, plus most food.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Widespread political freedom, although press autonomy is an ongoing controversy and prison conditions are notorious.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Urban status improving, though few women are in politics. Rural women bear the brunt of a harsh nomadic lifestyle.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
66 years - compared with China's 70 and Japan's 80.

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POLITICS

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Urban Mongols, especially the young, still accept the Democrats’ austerity measures for the sake of a gradually growing market economy. But chronic poverty is rising, and many nomadic herders claim the reforms have failed to offer them basics such as running water and electricity, which were widely available during the Communist era.

 

NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
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