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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.

 

Optimistic Miners and Pessimistic Officials: Observations about the ‘Discover Mongolia’ Conference, Ulaanbaatar, 2015

By Guest Contributor , on 20 October 2015

Mongol2

 

This post was written by Byambabaatar Ichinkhorloo, a member of the Emerging Subjects project and a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the National University of Mongolia.

This year, ‘Discover Mongolia’, the 13th Annual International Mining Investors Forum, was held on September 3-4, in Ulaanbaatar. The conference was organized under the sub-theme, ‘Mining Without Populism’. The keynote speakers of the conference claimed that the fundamental issues that have hindered the development of mining in Mongolia are populism, investment decline, and state intervention in business freedom. The conference is organized annually by ‘Prime Info’, a subsidiary company of Mongolian Investment Holding Group, and the Mongolian National Mining Association since 2002 and has become the platform for mining companies to attract investment and discuss urgent issues with the government of Mongolia.

Figure 1. The Opening Ceremony featuring: P. Ochirbat, former President of Mongolia, Du. Jargalsaikhan, Chairman of Mongolian Investment Holding Group, M. Enkhsaikhan, Minister of Mongolia, and R. Jijgid, Minister of Mining.

The conference, as highlighted by former president P. Ochirbat in his opening remarks, collected more participants than the previous year. Over 70 different organizations registered in the conference and the conference hall was full in the morning half, especially during the first three sessions, which included sessions entitled: ‘keynote speeches’, ‘government hour’, and ‘business freedom in the mining sector’.  However, the number of participants decreased significantly in the following sessions and on the second day. Many of the participants, it seemed, expected the Prime Minister and other high officials to speak during the morning half, especially during the government hour. But two cabinet members Mr. Jigjid, Minister of Mining gave short opening remarks, and Mr. Enkhsaikhan, Minister in charge for mega projects, attended the first session, while during the government hour people from the department and division heads level presented.

Afternoon session.

Figure 2. Afternoon session of the Discover Mongolia conference.

Before discussing the conference and the investor and mining company’s perceptions about the current conditions of Mongolian mining, let me briefly discuss what has happened in Mongolia and the extractive sector in the past few years.

Mongolia suffered a sharp decline in foreign direct investment  (FDI) in the extractive sector from MNT 5.2 trillion in 2011 to MNT 0.8 trillion in 2014 (due to Oyu Tolgoi mine start up in 2010 and suspension of OT underground mine in 2013), according to Mongolian Statistical Office. The World Bank estimates that foreign direct investment in Mongolia declined from US$ 4.7 billion in 2011 to US$ 2.1 billion in 2013.

So investment in-flow has declined, and its effects on the Mongolian economy and politics have fueled many economic and political debates in Mongolia, with some suggesting Mongolia should receive IMF Stand-By arrangements, while others, including Ts. Elbegdorj, President of Mongolia, have urged an increase in debt to GDP ratio up to 80% and to reach an agreement with Consortiums of Investors on Tavan Tolgoi coking coal mine and Rio Tinto on Oyu Tolgoi mine. Mongolian authorities have not been unanimous on raising necessary funds for development of mining infrastructure while arguing about railway track gauge and other mega projects through additional loan and bonds that might fill the investment shortages.

Even the government foreign debt issues have affected public opinion  and created fear among the population, producing lively debates among social media based movements. So after months of debate, the parliament passed the government’s submitted laws related to debt management and fiscal stability and agreed to keep a debt to GDP ratio of up to 58.3% in 2015, 55% in 2016 and 50% in 2017 and 40% in 2018 and beyond.

As investment declines and the economy slows in Mongolia, there has been a rush to place blame on environmental movements that lobbied and supported the law with long name since 2009 (Law on Prohibiting Mineral Exploration and Extraction Near Water Sources, Protected Areas and Forests), which abandoned 488 mining licenses in water sources, protected area, and forests. Gold mining companies claimed compensation of MNT 202 billion from the government and later on moved against environmental movements especially targeting Ongi river movements through mass media while promising to increase foreign investments and Mongolia’s gold reserves.

After suspending the provision of new licenses for 5 years, the government began to issue exploration licenses through an online application system, based on priority rights in eastern and western Mongolia, from January 2015. This was one of the urgent issues that attracted the interest of many of the participants during the ‘government hour’ at the conference. According to the Ministry of Mining, the government is planning to provide 3000 exploration licenses in 30 million hectare lands and will keep all licensed area within 30% of Mongolian territory.

Government hour

Figure 3. During “Government Hour” session, featuring representatives from Ministry of Mining, Ministry of Finance, head of Mongolian Mineral Resource Authority, Governor of Umnugovi aimag, and Tax Department.

At the end of the conference, it became increasingly clear to us that many foreign mining companies and service providers are still positive about the future of the Mongolian extractive sector.  Chris MacDougall, from Mongolian Investment Banking Group, presented some of what he saw as the positive changes taking place in Mongolia, including the Foreign Investment Law, New Securities Law, Minerals law amendment, Tax Amnesty, OT Underground mining investment resolution and arrival of new Prime Minister Saikhanbileg in the past two years. “These changes made in the past two years are tremendous success of Mongolian government compared to previous ten years” stressed by Erdenes Mongol LLC.

Many participants also agreed that the failure to attract investors in mining projects has arisen due to the propagation of a  bad image of Mongolia by outsiders that has scared new investors away from Mongolia.  Panelists of the ‘business freedom’ session discussed how much Mongolia-related media is not transparent or clear or even true, and relevant institutions and agencies need to check for clarity. These insights were also reiterated in the presentations by Rio Tinto, Xanadu Mines, Aspire Mining, Erdenes Mongol companies. They asserted that Mongolia is open for business even though there are minor issues to be resolved, such as improving the business environment, transparency, and attracting Mongolia-specific investors.

Exhibition hall

Figure 4. Exhibition and poster by mining companies and mining service providers on the third floor, Corporate Convention Center, Ulaanbaatar.

Many participants expected more investment opportunity in the mining and mining subsidiary services, thanks to larger mining developments including OT underground agreement between Rio Tinto and Government of Mongolia and the soon-to-be expected Tavan Tolgoi agreement. As Minister Enkhsaikhan said at the conference, ‘the success of Tavan Tolgoi approval is around 10% even though it was 50% : 50% when it was submitted to the parliamentary approval’.

Enkhsaikhan and two other presenters highlighted the lost opportunities in relation to global commodity price cycles, and focused on how the Mongolian political cycles lost opportunities derived from global commodity cycles. It is true that many mining companies and development agencies are aware of the election-driven idle political period and try to reach agreements before election years. Many politicians and decision-makers became hesitant during election years and are slow to make any firm decisions that might affect his or her political reputations or election campaign. This in-activity reduces the number of new investments or or projects starting in election years.

In sum, there were two major tendencies among participants in the Discover Mongolia conference. One was to be cautious and pessimistic about the future of extractive industries in Mongolia and encourage laissez-faire or less government intervention in the mining sector, while securing more business freedom without any populism. Others, and often strongly  expressed by private companies,  saw the future of the Mongolian extractive sector in a more positive light, while seeking more secure investment and recommending the government of Mongolia to sell its bright news to the world, rather than focus on internal populist disputes.