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Anti-offshore Movements as the Place of Political Mobilization and Discourse Setting

By Guest Contributor , on 12 May 2018

 

This piece is by Sanchir Jargalsaikhan, a political scientist and activist broadly concerned with economic and political development in Mongolia and in the Global South. Sanchir was recently a visiting scholar at the Emerging Subjects Project at UCL. His main area of research focuses on problems of late and uneven development, democratization process in post-socialist countries, issues of trade, and investment, extractivism, poverty and debt in the developing world. He has an interdisciplinary research agenda that combines political theory, global political economy, and Central Asian and Russian studies. This blog post is a continuation on Sanchir’s last entry to the Emerging Subjects Blog. 

 

Our colleagues at the Mongolia Focus blog wrote couple of posts that discussed the Oyu Tolgoi mine and the current wave of corruption investigations and arrests, most recently involving former Prime Ministers Ch. Saikhanbileg and S. Bayar. Marissa Smith’s attempt to “turn the conversation to larger systematic factors” compliments this post very well. In my last entry on the Emerging Subjects blog, I elaborated on the genesis of anti-offshore movements in Mongolia. Today, I will take up a micro lens and attempt to dissect one of these movements.

The last few years in Mongolia have been characterized by growing social discontent amidst continual economic decline. Many Mongolians who are angry about present economic conditions think that they cannot find any outlet within the political system and therefore have been more and more attracted to act in an extra-systemic manner. In the absence of effective political channels and class based political parties, competent civil society organizations must exist if widespread grievances are to be voiced. However, our socialist legacy and poorly executed transition to liberal democracy has rendered our civil society incapable of effectively voicing people’s concerns. During the state socialist era, civil society wasn’t conceived as a distinct sphere detached from and in tension with the state. It was totally controlled by the state, starting from trade unions and ending with children scout programs. As was the case with almost all state-socialist countries of that time, civil society mobilization in terms of political party development and labour union strength that formed the basis of progressive populism in many mature democracies, was absent in Mongolia. However, this fundamental weakness was not properly addressed during the transition. The assumption was that weakening the state will necessarily strengthen civil society, as if it was a zero-sum game. When the government was scaled down and withdrew from its wide ranging socio-economic obligations, an enormous vacuum was created that was filled with different forms of civil society permutations spurred by Mongolia’s growing political liberalization. Besides the international donor community,there are numerous religious and philanthropic associations operating in Mongolia. These include movements related to environmentalism, feminism, alternative lifestyle, minority rights movements, LGBT activism and many other forms of ‘lifestyle politics’. This new form of political activism has been hailed as a symptom of a novel, ‘post materialist’ world (Giddens, 1994), no more occupied with questions of the distribution of wealth.

It is commonly believed that of the 44,000 registered Civil Society Organizations (CSO) in Mongolia, about 2000-4000 of them are more or less active. Yet, the availability of numerous civil society organizations often precludes policy and advocacy stratification. What happens in practice is that no single CSO is powerful or vocal enough to attract an adequate response from the general publicor the government. Ottaway’s (2000) take on CSOs describes Mongolia’s current situation better than I could. In her view “many CSOs act as trustees rather than genuine representatives of the constituencies on whosebehalf they lobby, and therefore, it is not clear that they have very strong roots in society.” The result is a weak civil society that is largely dependent on international organizations for assistance with operations and finances and/or on different vested interests. This is the structural reason for very low levels of actual political participation in Mongolia. This feature of Mongolian politics distinguishes it from many developed countries where civil society organizations, such as trade and labor unions have become mediators between political parties and working-class voters. Absence of effective mechanisms to articulate and represent people’s interests has made ordinary voters prone to populist politicians and parties. Mongolian civil society leader Undarya (2013) summarizes the state of the field perfectly:

“… at the threshold of anew decade wrought with risks as well as opportunities due to the mining boom, the field [civil society] is not adequately equipped to play the crucial role it needs to play – toempower citizens and communities to stand up against corruption and humanrights violations, to hold government and private sector accountable and chart amore equitable course of development. To play this role that only civil society canplay, consistent policy measures are needed to strengthen the field.

 

People’s Anti-Offshore Committee or Ard Tumnii Onts Zövlöl’s (ATOZ):

Figure 1: Mandate for entry.

 

From September 2017 to February 2018, I visited several meetings and forums organized by ATOZ, a large movement that advocates bringing embezzled money from offshore accounts. From the outset, I became convinced that people participating in these events are casualties of various social, political and economic processes which, over time, have been internalized and reproduced in a very defeatist form of dissent – deep anger towards elites, democracy, and anything in between. The general feeling of being left out of what “was theirs” and what “was promised” rendered these discussions very inefficient from an advocacy and political stand point.

 

Figure 2: “One of my brothers is quite active in this petty ATOZ movement. But he doesn’t know term “offshore” and instead calls it “ovt shaar.”

 

What was clear was that these movements had very little resemblance to the ones lauded or ridiculed on social media. There have been several different waves of perception concerning these types of movements. The rise of environmental NGOS’s and movements that opposed proliferation of mining activities throughout the country, was often labeled as a rise of “slackers” and “racketeers”. The famous publicist Baabar went as far as describing them as “600 шантаажчин” or “600 racketeers.”

 

Figure 3: “ATOZ is the last chance to save our people!”

 

Another trend is to describe the people engaged in these activities as types of saviors and imbue them with responsibilities far exceeding their true potential. Since political parties do not represent Mongolian citizens interests and do not  allow people a platform to air grievances, these movements give a sense of hope that non-systemic movement could garner enough support to influence decision-makers or even contest an election.

 

Figure 4: A delegate is presenting and reading a poem.

 

The second main point that I observed was the division between ATOZ members into groups according to different potential strategies. One group was quite hesitant to approach politicians and was clearly suspicious of any type of “ulstorjilt” or doing politics. This group organized its meeting in a large hall that is owned by National Labor Union. Delegates from many aimags /provinces/ districts were allowed to present at the main podium along with main speakers. In between these speeches, singers performed and pledged their support for the cause. In order to speak on the podium people wrote their names on the queue spreadsheet paper and presented in that order. The time allotted to them was on average longer than at any meeting or gathering that I have attended in recent memory. Many participants delivered energetic and fiery speeches that concerned structural problems affecting Mongolian society as opposed to concentrating on specific issues such as offshore practices.

 

Figure 5: Tax specialist from Switzerland is presenting.

 

The other group’s meeting was held two weeks later at another hall that was rented. This group was explicitly working with the current president Kh.Battulga and his administration on the issue of offshore money. At the event I attended, two tax professionals who were invited from Switzerland through President’s Secretariat gave very technical presentations. The general impression was that a set of technocratic steps could be a way to fight tax evasion through offshore schemes. The audience was allowed to ask questions only after all the presentations were done and very little time was left. One person summed up the lingering feeling that was left at the end of the meeting, this is “politics as usual, where knowledable people come in, preach something and leave without trace.”

 

Figure 6: “Lets save our state from traitors [offshore account holders] and release our people from MANAN [MANAN or cloud refers to dominant two political parties stranglehold on Mongolian politics] bondage.”

Two overarching themes dominated both of these events: skepticism about foreign/hybrid interests, which was perceived primarily as a reason for the loss of national identity and sovereignty; and skepticism about politics, elites and democracy as well as about politicians embodying these processes, who are increasingly believed to only protect their own interests. Skepticism about loss of national identity and national independence arises from two interrelated suspicions. The first suspicion concerns the suspected widespread influence of foreign interests, be they government sponsored or corporate and the hypothetical infiltration of Mongolian society and politics in particular, by hybrids. The second suspicion was underlined through very colorful comment by one of the presenters at the ATOZ meetings. According to him: the “Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) and the Democratic Party(DP) are both skeletons and I am proud that I denounced my membership years ago. Glue, wood and a horn make up a bow.  Thieves, bandits, and prostititues make up [modern political] parties.” These suspicions have been frequently used by different political parties at an increasing rate that consequently reinforces latently held beliefs and worries by repudiating claims of politicians in vicious negative feedback spirals. These trends found its clearest manifestation during the 2017 Presidential elections and are likely to persist in future.

 

Figure 7: Discussion during the interval.

However, a parallel theme that I was able to observe as I was participating in ATOZ meetings and demonstrations was that sense of many disengaged or disenfranchised people finding solace and community with one another. People were donating substantial amounts money [by their standards] to the cause and participating with great vigor and energy. A lady from Khovsgol province in North-Central Mongolia even volunteered to work as a secretary if ATOZ set-up an office in Ulaanbaatar. What was even more evident was people’s desire to understand and/or modify complex socio-economic terms built around a technocratic discourse. One delegate from a western province came up with an ingenious idea. According to him, “changing the term off-shore to “ovt shaar”” [cunny bastard] would “make it more relatable” since any person who owns an off-shore account is by definition a thief and bastard. Taking these different aspects of the movements into consideration begs the question – is it possible to attribute these movements and their underlying reasoning to only material or political motives? What if these movements play parallel functions and acquire their own life with a different internal logic? From this point emphasizing non-strategic aspects of protest, such as its discursive potential and subjectivities of different actors, certainly complicates the idea of rational social movements. They direct us to pay more attention to the varied aspects of the action framework of these movements.

 

References

Giddens, A. (1994). Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Ottaway, M. (2000). Funding Virtue: Civil Society Aid and Democracy Promotion. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

 

The Price of an Election: Split hopes and political ambivalence in the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar

By Guest Contributor , on 13 July 2017

This post was written by Liz Fox, a UCL ESRC-funded anthropology PhD candidate affiliated to the Emerging Subjects project.

 

[The material for this blog post was collected from a variety of sources that have been anonymised. For the privacy and safety of my many interlocutors, their stories have been aggregated. It does not refer to any specific place or people.]

“Come quick! They’re giving money after all!” Baatar rushed into the ger where his relatives were sitting, discussing the Mongolian parliamentary election that was taking place that day. The road to the election had been both long and disappointing and all present were in agreement that it had been the “dirtiest” election the country had seen in its 26 years of democracy. From the start there was mudslinging, or as it is known in Mongolian, “black PR” (har pr). Each of the three presidential candidates had been accused of one scandal or another, whether it was Ganbaatar’s (of the MAHN, or Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party) 50,000 KRW bribe from the Moon religious group, Battulga’s (of the AN, or Democratic Party) 44 companies and messy family life, including a Russian wife and a son connected to drugs, or Enkhbold’s (of the MAN, or Mongolian People’s Party) selling of land when he was UB mayor, his feature in two secretly-filmed viral videos that tie him to bribery and the selling of government positions, and the accusations that he is actually Chinese. Indeed, when the candidates were announced, many Mongolians said there was no one to choose from, they are all as bad as each other and that it was an “unelectable election” (songuuldgui songuul).

I arrived in an Eastern ger district of Ulaanbaatar mere days before the first round election and learned that there had been an upswing in support for Ganbaatar, the Revolutionary Party’s Candidate. For an area that had preferred the MAN over the AN in the previous year’s parliamentary election, the outright rejection of the ruling party’s presidential candidate seemed surprising; and yet, Enkhbold was said to be the worst of the worst. Ganbaatar, the outsider candidate, had managed to differentiate himself in the eyes of ger district voters from the two big party candidates as being an honest and upstanding man. Similar to the popular support that Jawkhlan the singer had galvanised in the parliamentary election a year before, this year Ganbaatar was felt to have a “heart” for the people of Mongolia. Like Jawkhlan, Ganbaatar’s lack of high level education was even seen as a bonus: “What university did Chinggis Khaan graduate from, huh?” a middle-aged supporter asked.

Two nights before the election, a ger district-dwelling family and I sat in front of the TV in a small brick home, watching the final debate. The family were open with their criticisms, tutting and shaking their heads at almost everything Enkhbold and Battulga said. They spoke back to the figures on the television regularly with a “Shaaal hudlaa!” (What a liar!) or a sarcastic “Oo saihan yarij bn” (How nicely he speaks). In contrast, Ganbaatar’s earnest propositions were followed with resounding expressions of approval, “Yag zuw!”, “Unen shvv” or “Tiishdee”. It was clear that this election had become largely driven by emotion. For those on the margins who have seen 26 year of democracy lead only to increasing inequality and economic turmoil, the fat cats at the top eating the country’s natural bounty, sweet words and promises from wealthy politicians mean little. “They’re all the same,” people repeated, “they’ll say anything and then, when they’re elected, they’ll do nothing but eat”.

While there were rumours of cash hand outs in the run-up to the parliamentary election last year, politicians also used fairly “clean” techniques in their attempts to attract votes, such as building a new road or the distribution of the Tavan Tolgoi shares. This year, however, cash was flowing everywhere. Phone calls were made back and forth and what felt like hundreds of cars descended on the neighbourhood. Suddenly the call would go around, “the car is here!” there would be a rush to check for one’s ID card and four or five people at a time would leave the ger to meet the car. After the doors closed, each person would be handed a 20,000MNT note and told, “Vote for Enkhbold! After you’ve voted, bring your little white paper receipt back to us”. The passengers would then be dropped off a little distance from the local school that served as a polling station to avoid police detection. The party workers, temporary employees who stood to gain a 300,000 MNT salary for 20 days of work, would also receive payment according to the number of ‘white papers’ they collected from voters. In some areas, parties were offering 100,000MNT for 30 papers, in other areas it was 100,000 for 5. An instant economy of white papers then sprung up: people bartered over them, sold them to one another and told each other to deliver them to so-and-so. As matters unfolded on the ground, people were also glued to Facebook checking for news. A Democratic Party car carrying 120 million MNT to be distributed to voters in Western Mongolian provinces caused a stir. It was clear that both parties would do whatever it took to win.

Ger district families were quick to take advantage of the parties’ activities. Some relatives who live in the countryside but were visiting the city had wrongly heard that they could vote anywhere. Believing they could vote in Ulaanbaatar, they didn’t return to the countryside in time for the election. That, however, did not stop them from getting in the car and pledging to vote for Enkhbold in exchange for an easy 20,000MNT. A couple residents under the voting age of 18 were able to collect the money. Every person I know who took the MAN party’s money and voted, voted for Ganbaatar. Indeed, people took great satisfaction in having out-hustled the “hustlers” (luiwerchin) who had tried to buy their votes. Although the money was a bonus and everyone chased it, there remained some ambivalence and debate over whether it was truly clean. “They’ll say they bought us poor people’s votes cheaply,” one woman exclaimed passionately, the 20,000MNT note hidden in her clenched fist, “but they’re wrong! They didn’t buy anything. We didn’t even vote for their candidate. And anyway, why shouldn’t we take the money? They sit up there eating everything without a care for us out here. There’s nothing wrong with taking a little back from what’s been stolen from us!” While there was disappointment with the electoral proceedings, no one seemed completely cynical about the election itself. People voted for Ganbaatar with their hearts and truly hoped he would win, even as they worried that with the amount of money being splashed around by the big parties, their outsider candidate would have no chance.

Polls closed at 10pm and the election circus around the bus stop began to clear. People returned home to hear the 10 o’clock announcement of the early results. There was great shock and happiness when it became clear that Enkhbold had done poorly. The local area had indeed elected Ganbaatar, despite the payments, and the countryside relatives were relieved to see that their homeland had also supported Ganbaatar, without their votes. While the AN candidate Battulga lead the race, Ganbaatar’s strong showing looked like it would force a run-off election as no candidate would reach the minimum 50% of the vote. That prospect was incredibly exciting as people felt sure in a two-horse, second-round race Ganbaatar would win. The results continued to come it as the night progressed, the family remained glued to the television until around 2am. By that point, the picture seemed clear and the large extended family one by one fell asleep in their little brick home.

The shock upon awakening to hear that in the night Enkhbold had somehow overtaken Ganbaatar cannot be overstated. Apparently, one province’s election centre had lost power during the count and when the power was reconnected, the numbers favoured Enkhbold enough to push him ahead of Ganbaatar. In the ger district, it was universally considered a fraud and a lie. People felt for Ganbaatar, they argued he had run a clean race – unable to raise the funds to distribute the kinds of cash that the other two candidates threw around – and yet, or perhaps therefore, he had lost. Some days of confusion and dismay followed. There was debate over how exactly the second round would be organised, but eventually it became clear Ganbaatar had been cut from the race: the second round would have no clean candidate.

In the days between the first and second round elections, the only positive people could find in the situation was the possibility that the second round election might encourage even bigger cash hand-outs. Ger district residents had heard from countryside relatives that up to 50,000MNT per vote had been being distributed and were excited at the prospect another cash bonus. This hope, however, was only half the story. Politically-speaking, people remained committed to Ganbaatar, or at the very least committed against the two remaining candidates. A plan began to form to submit black ballots at the very least as a protest against Ganbaatar’s stolen election and perhaps even to force a third election with three new candidates.

Rumours continued to swirl about the dark methods by which Enkhbold would assure his own victory: apparently, his party workers would collect people’s registration numbers and then ‘hack’ the electronic voting machines to ensure that those votes would go to him. Indeed, two days before the election a relative arrived at the home asking the family to write down their registration numbers and promising to give them 20,000. As it happened only two siblings were home at the time, one 19, the other 23. What followed was a tense but jovial negotiation. Their uncle tried to use his relative authority to ‘encourage’ them to write down all the eligible family members’ ID numbers, while the other two slid between positions, sometimes deferring to their absent mother’s authority (their mother being the uncle’s elder sister) telling him to ask her, and other times insisting that they be given the money up front or that they would only sell for a higher price. Eventually the uncle left to try to collect the neighbours’ ID numbers, telling the two he would be back in the evening.

The morning of the election came and went without event. The previous day the ruling party had released a sudden notice that the ‘children’s money’ (20,000MNT/month per child) that had been stopped for all but the poorest families since February would suddenly be restored: the full amount being automatically deposited into people’s accounts. Queues at the bank reached into the hundreds. For the ger district family, this development was a disappointment. As a poor family they had been collecting the children’s money every month as a vital part of their monthly income. As such, the windfall that came to richer families did not come to them at all: further proof in fact that the ruling party didn’t care about the poorest citizens. It wasn’t until the evening until Baatar burst into the ger announcing that there would be pay-outs after all. This time no car came and the eligible voters walked to the polling station. A phone call told them to wait behind a small shop that sells second-hand clothes. Then a further call told them to go behind the school. A third call then told them to vote first and collect the money afterwards. The family duly deposited their blank ballots and then began to congregate with neighbours and relatives outside the polling station. Rumours spread this way and that, and yet no money appeared. A middle-aged man told me, “It’s sad isn’t it to see how we Mongolians will run after only 20,000MNT. But what can we do? We need the money and if they’re going to give it out why shouldn’t we have some?” Tired of waiting at the bus stop, people headed home. Eventually that night the money came: another 20,000MNT each.

Despite his efforts, both black and white, Enkhbold did not win the election. Battulga defeated him and will be inaugurated today (the 10th). Ger district residents seemed to have lost interest in politics the day after the election. Some people even said, “Maybe it would have been better if Enkhbold had won: what can a AN president do in the face of a majority MAN parliament?” People were proud of their blank ballots: around 100,000 were cast across the country, but not enough to force another election. For the most part, however, things returned to normal: politicians don’t care about the ger district and their chronic absence speaks louder than the occasional sweet words ger district resident’s hear around elections. Ger district residents resumed their lives, briefly 40,000MNT richer but without any hope that positive change would be on the horizon.