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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.

 

Recap of ‘Mongolian-Made’ Capitalism Workshop

By Lauren Bonilla, on 9 December 2016

What forms of capitalism are emerging in Mongolia?  How capitalist is Mongolian capitalism?  These are questions that an interdisciplinary group of scholars associated with the Emerging Subjects project at University College London and the National University of Mongolia (NUM) explored at the workshop, ‘Mongolian-Made’ Capitalism, held at the Mongolia-Japan Center in Ulaanbaatar on November 16th.  The goal of the workshop was not to produce a definitive answer about what capitalism ‘is’ in Mongolia.  Rather, the workshop explored the ways in which capitalist economic activities have become part of many Mongolian peoples’ everyday lives, and how this in turn shapes capitalism more broadly.

While we called the event a ‘workshop’ during planning, in actuality it felt more like a conference given the large number of people in attendance and the quality of research material presented.  Expertly organized by Rebekah Plueckhahn and Bumochir Dulam, the workshop brought together junior and senior researchers from disciplinary backgrounds including anthropology, economics, geography, and sociology.  As Rebecca Empson explained in the introduction, the workshop served to feature aspects of research conducted within the larger Emerging Subjects project, especially collaborations between researchers at UCL and the NUM.  Because the workshop occurred a little past the halfway point of the Emerging Subjects project (2014-2018), and followed many months of fieldwork in Mongolia, it provided a chance for us to present initial findings and get feedback from others before the next phase of analysis, writing, and publication.

Audience 3

Over 100 people attended the workshop, including a large number of undergraduate and graduate students from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at NUM, as well as faculty from other university departments, researchers, journalists, and politicians.  Workshop panels were chaired by a wonderful group of university professors and public leaders: S. Munkhbat (NUM, Political Studies Department), B.Tuvshintugs (NUM, Economics Department), and Ts. Delgermaa (Ministry of Environment and Green Development, Director of Onon River Authority).

In addition, interlocutors involved in the research of Emerging Subjects’ project members – such as herders, mining investors, entrepreneurs, and environmental activists – came from Ulaanbaatar and the countryside to attend the workshop.  The diversity of backgrounds and the availability of simultaneous English and Mongolian translation during presentations contributed to lively engagement among those in attendance, especially during tea and meal breaks.

Tea break

QA

 

Making Capitalism

Rebekah and Bumochir kicked-off the workshop by calling attention to the varied meanings of capitalism, both as a theoretical concept and as an empirical experience.  Rebekah drew theoretical insight from scholarship on the heterogeneity of capitalist practices, highlighting how capitalism is never a complete project, but always something that is being constructed through the interaction of local and global processes.  She explained that the workshop presentations demonstrate the concrete, grounded ways in which capitalism is constantly made and remade through social practice and engagement with the material world.  Attending to the specifics of capitalism in this manner is quite different from approaches that tend to treat capitalism as an abstract background context from which economic activities and interventions take place.

Bumochir’s presentation extended these points by critiquing the notion that capitalism is a singular as well as recent economic form.  By tracing the long durée of capitalism in Mongolia, he explored how practices associated with capitalism, such as private property ownership, wealth accumulation through debt and usury, and market integration have deep historical roots in the country, particularly during the period of independence in the early 20th century.

Bek and Bumochir

From this overview we also learned that Mongolians have long been co-creators, not just recipients, of capitalism.  I built on this idea in my discussion of the active role played by Mongolian individuals in developing the extractive industry as a pillar of the market economy following Mongolia’s democratic transition.  I. Byambabaatar further elaborated this theme by illuminating the diverse non-capitalist economies that proliferated in Mongolia following the mainstreaming of national neoliberal economic politics in the 1990s.  He detailed how activities he termed ‘survival assemblages’, such as trading animals skins and scrap metal, or mining for gold, continually flourish in the midst of capitalism, perhaps enabling its very existence.

Byambabaatar

 

A Capitalist Continuum?

For some Mongolians, the fact that the economy is a mix of economic forms with varying degrees of market, state, and individual influence seems to present some ideological and practical challenges.  G. Munkherdene introduced us to the rise of pro-capitalist intellectuals in Mongolia who seek to both conceptualize and create ‘genuine’ capitalism as opposed to the ‘wild’ or ‘primitive’ (zerleg) capitalism that is often said to characterize the country’s volatile economy.  Through the publication of western books about liberal economic theory, and the high level of interest among groups of young people to read and discuss these books, he argued that there is the sense that Mongolians could, and should, model a ‘genuine’ capitalism that exists elsewhere (though namely in America).

Tea break 4

This view of the Mongolian economy as being on a linear path stretching upwards towards an economic ideal seems to be prevalent not only among these intellectuals, but also among Mongolians more generally.  For instance, following the talk I gave based on research with S. Tuya about pre-election gifting strategies among political candidates, a number of attendees variously asked whether the giving of gifts like noodles or cash before an election is a corrupt symptom of a kind of ‘embryonic’ experience of democracy and capitalism.  One person questioned whether these practices will persist as Mongolia becomes “more developed” and “less like America 50 years ago”.

The Generative Nature of Capitalism

While tracing economic trajectories and comparing economic forms in Mongolia to elsewhere has value analytically and in terms of policy-making, many of the presenters at the workshop challenged an evolutionary approach to the economy that presumes the existence of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ stages of development.  Instead, there was an interest in capturing and understanding the generative quality of capitalism to bring about new social, economic, biophysical, and political worlds (an orientation common in current scholarship in economic anthropology).

Bayartsetseg and Rebekah Plueckhahn’s collaborative presentation illuminated the capitalist landscapes that are coming into being in the ever-changing ger districts of Ulaanbaatar. They showed how the strategies people employ to obtain land possession rights and access to infrastructure– such as constructing wood fences or occupying land through the tactical placement of one’s home or business – is transforming the material, legal, and commercial dimensions of land around the city. According to them, everyday strategies are not simply responses to capitalism, but means of creating landscapes that are productive of new forms of economic activity and ways of living.

Bayartsetseg Bek

Also highlighting the strategies employed to generate economic activity was C. Narantuya and Rebecca Empson’s interdisciplinary examination of the popularity of business groups in Mongolia.  Given the current climate of economic crisis, where the private sector is struggling to access cash and repay mounting debts with little support from the government, they discussed how informal groups formed between small and medium enterprises across diverse sectors like mining, catering, and construction create potentials for sustaining business through the trading of resources like tenders, contracts, contacts, and materials.  This, in turn, shapes the structure of business in Mongolia, whereby group alliances can be more a matter of ensuring survival than profit accumulation per se.

Groups

 

Capitalisms’ Risks and Crises

While capitalism can present new possibilities, the workshop also highlighted the risks and crises that are inherent in capitalism as a restless and often ruthless form of economy.  For Mongolia, the nature of risk and crisis seems to be growing as a result of Mongolia’s recent embrace of foreign debt.  This was the topic of H. Batsuuri’s talk, which analyzed Mongolia’s high levels of public and private debt.  He argued that debt accumulation in Mongolia, particularly by private enterprises, has become dangerous because debts are dominated in foreign currencies rather than the depreciating tugrik.  He suggested that a looming debt repayment crisis may be far worse than what is portrayed by the government and the media, with few long-term solutions in sight.

Batsuuri1

Increasing financialization has thrust Mongolia into global circuits of debt and accumulation.  It has also changed the scalar orientation of people’s lives.  D. Byambajav demonstrated this in his talk about herders living in the vicinity of the Oyu Tolgoi mega-mine in the Gobi.  He discussed how herders have lodged complaints about mining-induced environmental impacts with the IFC, which has financed the project operated by Rio Tinto.  While large-scale mine developments have contributed to experiences of livelihood and resource dispossession in the Gobi, he shows that it has also ushered in new opportunities and challenges to address these experiences at transnational scales.

Byamba Mining 3

Hedwig Waters’ talk revealed in ethnographic depth what it feels like to live the contradictions of capitalism on Mongolia’s geographic and economic edge.  Documenting her recent fieldwork in Khalkh Gol along eastern Mongolia’s Chinese border, she shed light on the growing discontent among rural people as they negotiate the surge of ‘outsiders’ from Ulaanbaatar, China, and elsewhere seeking to turn a profit from their land through export agriculture, oil development, and illegal border trade.  Hedwig illuminated how residents of Khalkh Gol are questioning the current political and economic status quo using language that bears striking resemblance to the grassroots populist protesters who supported Donald Trump in the US election because of his purported commitment to protectionism and promise to bring about something new.

Panel

 

Other Possibilities

The topic of what economic possibilities exist for Mongolia (and elsewhere) featured at the end of the conference.  We were honored to have former parliament member and Minister of Environment and Green Development, S. Oyun, wrap up the workshop with a discussion of the need to move beyond economic activities that privilege growth and profit at the expense of human and environmental well-being.  Drawing on the new climate economy concept, Oyun made the argument that Mongolia has the potential to move away from a market- and export-oriented economic structure and lead the development of other industries, like those that harness intangible and intellectual assets.

Yet, as many speakers and participants noted, one of the challenges that seems to persist for Mongolia is the failure of legal and political systems to uphold and put into practice progressive measures that would foster diverse and more viable livelihoods, environments, and economies.

Panel2

What’s Next?

Following the workshop, a few media outlets in Mongolia covered the workshop.  The UB Post wrote a story in their print version, Büro 24/7 interviewed Bumochir, and TV9 featured an interview with H. Batsuuri for their Daily News Program.  In the coming months, presenters will transform their talks into articles that we plan to publish in a special issue of an academic journalWe also anticipate that the collaborations that have begun between scholars at UCL and NUM through the Emerging Subjects project will be just the beginning of long-term research partnerships.

For more information about the workshop, feel free to contact the organizers, Bumochir Dulam (b.dulam@ucl.ac.uk) and Rebekah Plueckhahn  (r.plueckhahn@ucl.ac.uk), or download the Workshop Program.

Helpers

afterparty4

afterparty2

Afterparty1

afterparty3

 

Many people contributed their time and effort to make the workshop a success.  Special thanks goes to the National University of Mongolia’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology.  In particular, we extend sincere appreciation to: Ts. Tsetsegjargal, the chair of the department; members of departmental staff, D. Dolgorsuren, M. Oyundelger, M. Erdene, and Sh. Uranchimeg; and students, B. Erdenezaya and B. Doljinsuren.  G. Munkherdene also provided invaluable last minute assistance.  Finally, we are grateful to the National University of Mongolia, the Japan and Mongolia Culture Center, and the Puma Restaurant.    

All photos © B. Doljinsuren.