Environmental, political, and corruption crises have collided to threaten the core of Mongolia's democracy.

By Christian Sorace/Sanchir Jargalsaikhan: Crossposted from Jacobin

Protestors filled Sukhbaatar Square, an open space in front of the Parliament building in downtown Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capital of Mongolia. As the temperature dropped below negative 20 degrees Celsius, they demanded the resignation of Mongolia’s parliamentary speaker and former Mayor of UB, Enkbold Miyegombo. These protests were precipitated by interdependent crises: a political crisis of trust in the government, recently inflamed by a corruption scandal, and a chronic air pollution crisis.

Ulaanbaatar means “Red Hero,” a term inherited from Mongolia’s past as a socialist republic (1924–92). Formerly a “showcase of socialist progress,” Ulaanbaatar has become one of the most polluted cities in the world. Mongolians sarcastically refer to it as Utaabaatar or “Smoke Hero” and describe their lives as trapped behind a “smoke curtain.” UB residents face a daily struggle in which the fundamental conditions of life can no longer be taken for granted. The words of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk are appropriate here: “The breathable air had lost its innocence.”

At the same time, Mongolians suffer from a miasma of corruption and state incompetence. MANAN, the Mongolian word for “fog” is also the acronym of the two major political parties, the Mongolian People’s Party (MAN) and the Democratic Party (AN). It is a telling nomination. Democratic elections generate their promises, expectations, disappointment, and resignation, punctuated by the periodic corruption scandal. The most recent scandal involves the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Fund (SME), intended for the provisions of low-interest loans to support local business ventures. In November 2018, investigative journalists revealed that the majority of the companies that received loans were tied to prominent politicians, often via family members, friends, and elaborate shell companies. Similar to air pollution, corruption—colloquially referred to as “money-eating”—is also viewed as a theft of the future. In the sub-artic weather last week, one protestor removed his shirt as a symbolic act of defiance. “I can endure the cold, but I can’t endure this kind of life. The cold is only temporary. But I do not want to be poor forever.” Or as one Facebook commenter put it: “These pieces of trash [officials] don’t care about our children, future, or economy … If we cannot separate ourselves from the fog, there is nothing optimistic that can be said about Mongolia’s future.” The future cannot be glimpsed through a veil of air pollution and fog.

Dirty Money

Despite pervasive anger over the unabated air pollution, last week’s protest was specifically triggered by multiple corruption scandals. As head speaker of the Parliament, Enkbold (MPP) is viewed by many as representative of the endemic corruption within Mongolia’s political institutions. However, speculation is also rife that the protests against Enkbold are part of a shadowy campaign and attempt at retaliation orchestrated by Enkbold’s intra-party rival, current Prime Minister U.Khurelsukh (MPP) who survived a no-confidence vote this past November, with the support of President Battulga. The fog thickens.

Despite allegations of conspiracies and factional subterfuge, the complaints and accusations against Enkbold resonate with many Mongolians who are frustrated with the state’s inability to address widening socioeconomic inequality, catastrophic air pollution in the capital, and the general well-being of the people. But it is important to realize that the state’s incapacity is not due to a lack of money or resources, but their inability to generate socially desirable results, which is why corruption has become such a volatile political issue.

If one looks at different development reports, political risk indicators, or investment climate projections concerning Mongolia, corruption is cited as one of the biggest issues that needs to be addressed. Despite public perception of pervasive corruption, and constant rumors of backdoor deals and negotiations, solid systematic evidence of the problem has been mostly absent until the eruption of the SME scandal this past fall. The spoils of distribution from the elite capture of loans intended to help diversify Mongolia’s domestic economy and loosen its reliance on export-oriented mineral extraction, operates as an ‘oxygen’ that feeds patron-client networks in Mongolia (the popular slogan “we are suffocating” can be applied to both the air pollution and fog of corruption). Although Enkbold was not named in the SME scandal, he was directly implicated in a scandal that broke before the 2017 presidential election, in which he was a candidate. An audio recording was leaked to the public of a conversation from 2014 allegedly between Enkbold and other high-level members of the MPP regarding “60 billion tugrug (about $25 million) deal to pre-sell government positions as part of an election financing. Despite the Mongolian Justice Department’s ruling that the recording was a “fake,” scandals, which resonate with previously held beliefs, are epistemologically impossible to refute, and further undermine the public’s trust in the speech of politicians, and political institutions, in general.

The problem is that corruption is a realistic approach to political financing given the design of Mongolia’s political economy and party system. A defining feature of Mongolian democracy and politics is the pervasiveness of patron-client networks within and across all major political parties. Unlike developed countries with a large revenue base and ability to collect taxes and transfer income and public goods to constituencies, the state in a developing country such as Mongolia only collects about 18% of its very small national income. There is very little left for redistribution after expenditures on salaries of civil servants, subsidies, and social security services. As a result, political mobilization in Mongolia is done through off-budget resources (such as foreign aid, loans, and sovereign bonds), creation of rents (ranging from the distribution of mining licenses to tenders of elementary school textbooks), and through different funds that are used to pay off supporters of the factions in power. In this perspective, corruption is not parasitical on the state, it is what keeps it functioning. 

Due to these structural reasons, anti-corruption efforts in Mongolia are largely ineffective. Formal state institutions lack the political will to tackle corruption as they are the primary trellises upon which patron-client networks flourish. Take for example the SME scandal: a fund was established through which money was siphoned away from its intended beneficiaries and redistributed to political elites and their families. To crack down on corruption would be to turn off the tap on party finances and desiccate the elaborate networks of patronage. Despite Mongolia’s formidable anti-corruption legal and administrative framework, it has not achieved enough to diminish popular perceptions of endemic corruption[CS1] . In many respects, anti-corruption reforms and the creation of parallel institutions and taskforces are not primarily designed to eradicate corruption but to satisfy evaluation scorecards of foreign donors, and maintain a veneer of democratic legitimacy.

But this raises the question: if corruption is an entrenched and enduring part of Mongolia’s political system, why are the protests happening now? Why were there no mass demonstrations two years ago, after the revelation that “60 billion tugrugs” were allegedly spent on political appointments? Are the current protests simply a ventilation of accumulated anger and frustration? Or, is something—or someone—else stoking the embers of popular anger? Although we cannot definitively answer these questions, it is worth calling attention to the involvement of fellow members of Enkbold’s ruling MPP in tandem with two members of the opposing DP (one of them MP Batzandan was removed, and the other, MP L. Bold resigned voluntarily before the demonstration). The leader of the demonstration, MP Oyunerdene, also happens to be a close friend and protégé of the current Prime Minister—U.Khurelsukh who just survived a no-confidence vote. There is also speculation of the involvement of President Battulga whose Trump sounding election campaign slogan “Mongolia will win” has been adapted to sarcastically describe his followers as “winners[CS2] .” The emergence of a cross-party faction attempting to topple the government points to serious rifts within Mongolia’s ruling class.

Democratic Disenchantment

But even if such fractures exists, the prospect of significant political change is obscured by the fog. From the perspective of many ordinary Mongolians, Enkbold’s resignation on its own would not solve the corruption problem. In the words of a local resident: “If Enkbold and his cronies left, a new set of people would sooner or later take their place.” The prevalent feeling that the state is a conduit for corruption is expressed in the popular phrase that the politicians move through a “corridor of injustice” in which deals are made hidden from public scrutiny.

The perception that most politicians are interchangeable is not only due to endemic corruption but is also a symptom of the global trend described by the late political scientist Peter Mair as the “hollowing of democracy” in which political parties no longer represent distinctive ideological platforms nor give voice to the needs and aspirations of their constituencies. In the 2017 presidential election, dissatisfied with their lack of choices, about 1.5% of voters organized to cast a blank ballot. The white ballot was not merely symbolic; if neither candidate received an absolute majority in the second round of voting, Mongolian electoral law would have required the parties to select different candidates.

The problem goes deeper than lackluster individual politicians and touches the core of the party system itself. There are no discernible differences in the visions, platforms, and policies of the MPP and DP apart from vague semantic hair splitting and mutual recrimination. When political parties are interchangeable, voting is reduced to the repetition compulsion of punishing the incumbent. According to the sociologist Julian Dierkes: “When you line up MPP policies and compare them to DP policies, there is no ideological pattern to be found in either and voters would be unable to guess what position these parties would take on particular initiatives or challenges in the future.” Here fog takes on an additional meaning of indistinction and loss of a political horizon that could provide an alternative, or any, orientation. Mongolia’s unfolding political crisis is ultimately a crisis of democracy.

Polluted Air

Mongolian’s trust in the political system is further eroded by its inability to ameliorate the ongoing air pollution crisis in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. The reasons for the pollution are extremely complex but are necessary for understanding the current sense of crisis in the air.

After Mongolia’s transition to democracy in 1992, like elsewhere in the post-Soviet world, Mongolia’s economy plummeted. In the countryside, Soviet subsidies disappeared, and collective herds were privatized. Without these infrastructures of support, herding became an increasingly difficult and costly process for many families. To make matters worse, climate change has intensified and multiplied the number of extreme winter storms or “dzuds” in which tens of thousands of animals starve or freeze to death annually. As herding has become a less tenable mode of economic survival, migration to Ulaanbaatar has swelled. A city that was built during the socialist era to support a population of 500,000-600,000 people is now home to around 1.3 million people, over 60% of which live in ger districts (a ger is a traditional felt tent or yurt in Russian). The defining characteristic of the ger districts is that they are not connected to the city’s heating infrastructure. To stay warm in the freezing winter, ger district residents burn cheap and toxic coal. Hence the air pollution catastrophe.

Thus far, the government has tried several measures ranging from providing free electricity at night during the winter; subsidizing fuel-efficient stoves; subsidizing clean burning fuel; banning coal burning (a basically unenforceable measure unless other sources of heat are provided); abrogating the constitutional right to freedom of movement by temporarily banning all migration to Ulaanbaatar; continuously threatening to call a state of emergency; and, experimenting with larger-scale plans to redevelop the ger districts by demolishing them and building apartments in their place. None of these attempts have been successful in mitigating the air pollution. The level of desperation and lack of trust in the government manifested itself in a widely circulated petition beseeching the UN to “push the #Mongolian #Government into action and rid the Mongolian people of this horrible situation.” When the government is no longer the addressee of the demands of the people, on what basis does it retain legitimate authority?

Politics beyond Forgiveness?

One of the slogans to emerge from the corruption scandal is: “We will not forgive.” To forgive would be to reset the clock and start again. Like Bill Murray’s character in the movie Groundhog Day, it would be to begin each day with the knowledge that one is stuck with no ability to change it. Regardless of whatever you do that day, the next day when you wake up, the same script will play itself out. To withhold forgiveness, however, is to hold open the possibility of a future beyond resignation—a protest against what Lauren Berlant refers to as “crisis ordinariness.” According to Berlant, the language of crisis and urgency can merely become “a way of talking about what forms of catastrophe a world is comfortable with or even interested in perpetuating.” It may generate discourse, outrage, compassion, and hand-wringing without actually changing anything. Elections come and go like seasons. Corruption scandals are like passing storms. But the fog will never clear on its own accord.