Protests in Mongolia

by Nathan Hamm on 3/27/2005 · 18 comments

Via Gateway Pundit, I see that there are protests in Mongolia. They’re invoking Kyrgyzstan, but are the situations comparable?

More than one thousand people marched in front of the Mongolian seat of government here demanding more democracy in a protest inspired by the revolt in Kyrgyzstan, witnesses said on Saturday.

However the Friday protest, organised by the Just Society-Civic Movement (JSCM), was forced back by a strong police presence amid cries of “the struggle by protestors in Kyrghyzstan led to the victory.”

In Mongolia, demonstrators claimed the JSCM had no ties with any of the major political parties, including the ex-communists which have been out of power since losing national elections in mid-2004.

They demanded the removal of corrupt officials and an investigation into former Prime Minister Nambaryn Enkhbayar and the diversion of 2.9 million US dollars of public funds.

Enkhbayar, who is currently president, was also accused of controlling and manipulating the media in his favour during the lead-up to the legislative elections held last June.

Witnesses said the protestors dispersed calmly but vowed to hold further demonstrations on April 7.

Personally, I’ll hold off on reading much into this. Not that I’m entirely doubting the source, but I’d like to see more than just one media outlet reporting on this (Zaman has an off-hand mention too) before I draw any conclusions about the JSCM’s protest. And, not that I’m saying these protests are a bad thing, but there’s been a tendency of late for pundits to misjudge protests in far-off lands.

I’m being skeptical here because though Mongolia has had a rocky couple years, the public responded in pretty impressive numbers when the government tried to rig the election last year. So, though JSCM seems to be a target of unfair treatment at the hands of police and that they have legitimate and believable complaints, it’s important to remember that Mongolia’s democratic institutions are in much better shape than almost every country between the Black Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It’s poor and there are problems with crime and corruption, but Mongolia is free (PDF). Without knowing more about JSCM, I’m more willing to call these protests a sign that democratic culture is alive and well and performing its role of checking abusive government.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


Sean-Paul March 27, 2005 at 10:00 pm

Damn, not another one. Especially as I know NOTHING about Mongolia. Always wanted to go there, but never have been.

Nathan, please tell them to stop. I’m still trying to digest Kyrgyzstan.

Nathan March 27, 2005 at 10:12 pm

I wouldn’t read too much into this one. And, even though I wouldn’t have predicted Akayev to fall so quickly, I will go out on a limb here and say that even if Enkhbayar has to step down or ends up in prison, it would be somewhat comparable to a corrupt leader in the West going down in disgrace. Big news, but it’s normal and healthy in a democracy. Mongolia’s government is pretty evenly split and there’s genuine political competition. Should be cake, and I only bother bringing it up so that no one jumps to conclusions before more evidence is in.

Sean-Paul March 27, 2005 at 10:17 pm

Good to know. I’m curious, did you ever make it to Mongolia? The closest I ever came was Inner Mongolia–rather, Chinese Mongolia–anyhow. Just wondering I’ve always wanted to go.

Nathan March 27, 2005 at 10:23 pm

I wish…

I swear I gotta do the Mongol Rally as soon as I’m able.

Sean-Paul March 27, 2005 at 11:43 pm

We should have an all blogging team do it! Woot!

Andy March 28, 2005 at 8:35 am

On my one visit to Mongolia almost exactly two years ago, I saw a pretty large encampment of protestors in the main square, right in front of the parliament building. People were protesting about land reform, if I recall correctly.

The protestors seemed to be pretty well entrenched, peaceful and there was no significant police presence – just two or three guys at a distance, keeping a watchful eye. I know I can’t extrapolate from one example, but peaceful protest seems to be a prety acceptable and normal thing in Mongolia, and not the sort of thing to strike fear into the hearts of government officials.

Sean-Paul March 28, 2005 at 9:37 am

Hey Andy, extrapolating from one example WHEN YOU HAVE BEEN there is a lot different and more credible than pontificating about it when you’ve never set foot in the place. As I am sure Nathan would agree, sometimes just being in a place, and sensing the atmophere and getting to know the people gives you a huge leg up one wouldn’t ordinarily have. I’m more inclined to believe Nathan’s POV on something, or yours simply because you have on the ground experience, than most people out there who know nothing about it.

Nathan March 28, 2005 at 9:47 am

Ditto on that. I would just add what you saw as more evidence of the point I’m trying to make. Most protests in Mongolia are over policy points, not fundamental questions of rule because those are the kinds of things people get worked up about in democracies. It’s not a dictatorship that’s teetering on the edge as some would, I get the sense, like to believe. Sometimes protests are just protests (and this could be a fringe group).

One Eyed Cat March 28, 2005 at 12:35 pm

Thanks for the follow-up. I really have been unsure what to make of the situation in Mongolia.


Raccoon March 29, 2005 at 1:13 pm

I think I have to agree with you, Nathan.

I have lived in Mongolia for three years, and had a good friend who knew Enkhbayar rather well. From what I’ve heard and observed the MPRP seems to surely not be the corrupt party. It seemed personally to me that they did a better job then the MDC. The MDC lost the elections in 2000, and then got elected again last summer–ousting the Communist incumbents. I think that Mongolia is one of the most democratic countries I’ve lived in, I believe that it is even more democratic then America (in my opinion).

Raccoon March 29, 2005 at 1:53 pm

BBC is now also talking about this:

yan March 30, 2005 at 6:32 am

Judging from what I have heard from close Mongolian friends and read, and from two short visits in 2002 and 2004..

I think the JSCM have been following the events in Kyrgyzstan (at least) even before the second round of the election. Many people seem to be fed up with both the MDC and the MPRP, since their grand coalition has turned into a big mess with the dissolution of the MDC, and apparently as well the whole Democratic Party. Actually, the ex-communists are not ‘out of power’, they just have to share.

While Mongolia certainly is free and quite democratic, there have been instances where authorities have abused their power and got away unpunished, e.g. the detention of MP Gundalai in 2003, or the divertion of state money for the electoral campaign in 2004. If I remember correctly, three western aimags had no electricity last summer because all the money had been used for the MPRP campaign and they couldn’t pay their bills to their Russian power suppliers. State TV and radio stations weren’t quite neutral either, but that was apparently no big change from the MDC reign.

Bryce Phillips April 7, 2005 at 2:34 pm

Before you dismiss these protests as just trivial lets liik at how many people a thousand is in a country of only two to three million people. Next consider the vast size of mongolia and the relitavly limited transportation infastructure of mongolia. Finally calculate that those one thousand were the few brave enough to march in spite of a large police presence and it looks pretty big. The change from socialism to a bourgeious and corrupt “Democracy” was disasterous for the people of mongolia. orphanages closed down. Ranchers and herdsmen no longer had a collective pool of resources in order to buy and sell. They no longer shared the work or the rewards. foriegin buissnesses and corrupt foreign officials plundered the wealth as once public property whwn up for sale. thousands of people were living homeless on the streets of ulan Batar and many herders froze or starved to death.

Even the former communist party was corrupted. The poor people of Mongolia, both urban and rural want to see an end to government corruption and a return to socialism and public ownership. They also want to see an end to men being sold into slavery and women being sold into prostitution or related industries in other countrties. Thousands of mongolian women are in South korea Japan or Taiwan in slave conditions and twenty two Mongolian men were found in slave conditions in a Wal mart in the united states. It’s time for the lies of bourgeoise capitalism to stop and its time for the suffering that was much less under socialism to stop

Nathan April 7, 2005 at 2:52 pm

So, what are you asking for, “true socialism” or something? You think that’s what the protesters want?

My whole point is that when supporters of just one party are the only ones protesting, I’m not going to read into it the imminent demise of a government. And, my point is more that this is not about toppling a dictatorship but cleaning up what is a democratic but corrupt government.

Native Speaker April 8, 2005 at 1:19 am

Basically, the JSCM was started by the emerging wave of young Mongolians returning home after getting education in the West.

Once back, they discover that the rampant corruption, political nepotism, established business/government/family networks make their knowledge and skills irrelevant.

They learn that making career in the government service requires connections and bribes, and building up an own business will take few years and much investment. No space for newcomers… Meanwhile, politics offer a cheap and easy way to manifest own aspirations.

In a way, JSCM guys question and challenge the status quo: “Look, we are here! And we [and you] have got a problem! Solve it or we will keep pressuring you” is their message to the both MDC and MPRP elites. 🙂

yan April 8, 2005 at 3:57 am

Departing President Bagabandi has made some valid remarks recently, at

“The president also talked about the recent freedom demonstrations. He said that because people are holding demonstrations peacefully, the government should pay attention to their demands and complaints and provide protestors with the opportunity voices heard to the public and organize the mutual discussion.

The authorities have recently taken measures to ban demonstrations, the president said, referring to demonstrations by Just Society Civic Movement. He said that protestors had been abused, their words had been distorted and they had been threatened and investigated. He added however, that the trend of accusing the government of dramatically increased levels of corruption had to be corroborated with factual information. He said a system for investigating officials in accordance with information published in the press is needed to ensure that the truth always prevails.”

He could have raised most of the other points in 2000 though, but didn’t.

Another article at

I don’t think you could find many Mongolians who’d want a return to socialism. One of the main points of the MDC campaign in 2004 was accusing the MPRP of aiming at a returning to one-party rule, as it had been in socialism. It is true, however, that people are fed up with the economic situation and corruption. Some thousand protestors in a city of > 800.000 aren’t really much, though.

I think Mr. Phillip’s view is seriously screwed. While it is true that transition was very difficult and brought grave social problems, most Mongolians were able to cope somehow, often with support of strong family ties (the downside of which, sadly, is widespread nepotism). There was no famine in the countryside, though there were grave problems with basic supplies in the cities around 1993 (What I heard sounds a bit like what is heard about Russia at about the same time, or Poland in the late 70s). I think there was actually quite little public property that ended in the hands of foreigners. Much ended up in the pockets of local officials or people connected to them, some was simply left to go to the dogs, the rest was largely kept by the state.
It’s true as well that many Mongolians live and work in other NEA countries in quite bad conditions, many illegally, few of them even as prostitutes. But they usually go there on their own will to earn some money, more than they could earn at home. It’s actually sort of an insult to automatically equate all illegal workers with prostitutes.

Baaska April 16, 2005 at 2:39 pm

I just stumbled onto your site here by following a link in a news piece somewhere. As a former Mongolian citizen, I thought I might share a couple of things about Mongolia.

First of all, word on the street in Ulaan Baatar is that the JSCM enjoys at least some corporate backing. The prevailing feeling is that they are probably no better than those that are currently in power. Admittedly, this is second hand, but it’s what my parents and friends have indicated.

Then again, this may just be cynicism. Mongolia did suffer from the changover to democracy from socialism and it’s very difficult for Mongolians to imagine that anyone with political aspirations is not corrupt (I’ve since found this true throughout the world).

Most of the traditional self-reliance characteristic of the Mongolian people eroded under Soviet influence. When Soviet funding was no longer available the country found itself lacking incoming funding (until the US and Europe began assisting) and also lacking the skills necessary to return to a traditional Mongolian lifestyle.

People seemed to be entirely unready for democracy when democracy was made available to them. Most Mongolians’ concept of democracy was that they should get essentially whatever they wanted without having to really do anything for it. A popular phrase that was (and is) heard, in response to insisting that some unpleasant activity (ie. work) be performed: “Bid chini ardchilsan orond amidarch baigaa biz dee” (Aren’t we living in a democracy?).

Most Mongolians don’t want to return to socialism, but they’d really prefer a democracy that works as opposed to the ones they’ve experienced thus far. I think they want what the rest of the world wants: a leadership that represents their best interests and provides for a higher quality of life. At best, the JSCM is about the business of cleansing the government of corruption. At worst, it seeks to exchange existing corrupted officials for corrupted officials that will benefit them. Probably, it’s somewhere in the middle.

By the way, from what I’ve seen since arriving in America, any Wal-Mart employee exists in “slave conditions”. Employment, in general, for those without education or qualifications tends to fall into that category. I suppose this is why crime is such an attractive option for many in the west, because it seems the purest form of entrepreneurship accessible to the general public. Bummer.

Previous post:

Next post: