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Post-election stalling in Ulaanbaatar: The case of Building No. 3

ucsarpl16 September 2016

This blog is the fifth in a series of posts about Mongolia’s 2016 parliamentary elections that were held on June 29th.

Mongolia’s June 29th national parliamentary elections and Ulaanbaatar city elections acted as a multifaceted anticipatory device. The elections could be said to form a symbolically cumulative conclusion to a troubled political and economic period. The result was a vast overhaul of the state hural and the winning of an 85.5% majority for the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP). However, looking deeper into the temporal flow of the pre-election and post-election period reveals not so much a culminating electoral event and political regime change at the national and city levels. Instead, for many people living in Ulaanbaatar, this year has proven to be one of ongoing waiting and uncertainty. This period has been punctuated by waves of speculation and markers in time that produce stalling caused by changing groups of the political class.

The materiality of stalling

For many people living in Ulaanbaatar, this stalling has had considerable material repercussions that began well before the elections. One local official told me that the providing of certificates of temporary possession (ezemshih gerchilgee) of newly acquired pieces of land was stalled on the 25th of May 2016 in the lead-up to the election. People claiming new land in the north of the city were attempting several times a week to try and process the right paperwork, but were consistently sent away to return ‘after the election.’ However, now almost three months afterwards, the processing of new land has not yet recommenced. In this period of bureaucratic stalling, people attempt to chase the right land official who visits on particular days, but are told that the land official is only currently dealing with ‘problem land’ and not new applications. However, to the average person, what counts bureaucratically as ‘problem land’ is opaque and not fully knowable. The fact is that many people in new plots of land are in varying forms of conflict with their neighbours as to the limits of boundary fences. Instead of waiting for bureaucratic decisions to be made in the meantime, people go ahead and secure their land in other ways.  For instance, they may stay on the land in an effort to hold it, and attempt to secure it with a fence before it can be officially recognised.[i]

Image 1: A new fence has been set up on a plot of land in the northern areas of the city.

Image 1: A new fence has been set up on a plot of land.

 

Waiting amongst disrepair

One group of people in Ulaanbaatar have been particularly hit by post-election stalling. Again, their story began a long time before this year’s elections. They are a people who have been left behind after the last economic peak of 2011 and have borne the brunt of the subsequent departure of major investment from Ulaanbaatar’s construction sector. In the heart of Zuun Ail, an area close to the city core and a prime area for redevelopment projects, lies a collection of old niitiin bair – former construction worker dormitories built during the 1950s. Building No. 3, like the other niitiin bair, stands as a two story building that consists of one room apartments. These buildings have never had running water, and residents obtain their water from nearby wells. The one advantage these buildings had was heating. In the earlier days of the rise in construction development a construction company sought to redevelop these buildings into apartments. Excited at the prospects of gaining access to better infrastructure including running water, and increasing the value of their property, many owners in Building No. 3 signed contracts with the company to exchange their apartments for new ones to be built in their place.

Unfortunately, funding dried up, the redevelopment of Building No. 3 did not go ahead and the construction company is rumoured to have gone bankrupt.[ii] Before this was known however, the internal infrastructure of several of the rooms were removed, including the heating pipes, windows, doors and floor boards which were sold for scrap. Several different parties are blamed for this, including some residents claiming that owners were told to remove the infrastructure to display intent to leave and compliance with the upcoming redevelopment. Since then, the rooms have been further vandalised. The end result has been that multiple apartments on the bottom floor of the building have been slowly filled with refuse, as rubbish has been routinely disposed of through the gaping holes of former windows over the course of some time. The building’s heating has been switched off, the building itself is in a crumbling state of disrepair and is unsafe to live in.

Image 2: Many of the building’s lower floor windows have been removed and rubbish thrown in anonymously over time under the cover of darkness.

Image 2: Many of the building’s lower floor windows have been removed and rubbish thrown in anonymously over time under the cover of darkness.

Image 3: An abandoned room in which the radiator and window have been removed.

Image 3: An abandoned room in which the radiator and window have been removed.

Several people still live in this building and are unable to leave. Many owners, both living in the building and elsewhere, are desperate to find a solution to their problem – to find a different construction company deal, to receive compensation from the original construction company, or to simply find alternative housing. However, since the election period, simply being provided emergency alternative housing has become a main and urgent aim. Those still living in the apartment are working to a strict and unforgiving deadline: the looming onset of winter in an unsafe apartment building without heating. The situation is dire and resulted in Amnesty International Mongolia putting a call out to campaign for the former Ulaanbaatar mayor Bat-Üül to provide these people with alternative housing. This Amnesty International call-out has since been renewed and rebroadcasted since the elections. During the elections, election promises were made offering some solutions. This has meant that for these people, the elections acted as an important anticipatory device. However, as yet, the residents have not yet been provided alternative housing and cold weather is fast approaching.

Cleaning in defiance      

For the resident owners, this prolonged period of waiting has been a time of strategy, observation and flows of different types of actions. Just as the political stalling is prolonged and ongoing, so too are their different types of strategies. Here attempted ‘resolution’ of their situation, rather than an end point, is a maintaining device and important way to be heard. Residents have been involved in different court cases related to their situation. Much time is spent commenting on the ongoing situation while sitting in doorways of buildings and on the street, where updates are shared, compared and critiqued. They display an ‘active interaction’ between resistance and attempts to bring about change, while staving off the material flow-on effects of forced disrepair (Ortner 2016).

This was clearly seen on May 22nd 2016, when several residents spent a full day clearing all the rubbish out of the empty apartment rooms on the ground floor. This was a huge undertaking. The rubbish was putrid and some of it had even decayed to earth. This rubbish had been an invasion of their building, encroaching closely on their own small apartment rooms. Who had deposited this rubbish and what it actually consisted of was essentially unknowable. By cleaning it up, they were moving against the anonymity of an accumulation of urban waste disposal over a long period of time. They were rejecting the slow deterioration and destruction of their living space that had occurred through quests for bountiful profit for some, and a better quality of life for others:

Image 4: An apartment owner cleans out the accumulated and decayed rubbish of an empty apartment in the lower floor of his building.

Image 4: An apartment owner cleans out the accumulated and decayed rubbish of an empty apartment in the lower floor of the building.

Image 5: On May 22nd 2016, residents remove the accumulated rubbish from Building No. 3.

Image 5: On May 22nd 2016 residents removed the rubbish from Building No. 3.

Thanks to their amazing efforts, the rooms are now cleared. But the building’s current residents continue to wait. They plan to have everyone move upstairs, then seal off the corridors and the windows of the ground floor to stop further rubbish polluting their building. In this period of waiting, their only option is to carve out a better space and modify this building to their needs. However, in the last few weeks, residents have informed me that people are beginning again to throw rubbish into the building during the night.

Stalling in a far-from-normal election year

The promise of varying forms of assistance for residents of Building No. 3 is an election promise of severe personal, emotional weight. Providing emergency alternative housing can determine the health and well-being of a large group of people this coming winter. While some steps by new politicians have been taken since the election, alternative housing has yet to be confirmed. The failure to provide such housing puts these people into a dire and unknowable situation and has considerable material and felt ramifications.

Bureaucratic stalling in Ulaanbaatar at the height of summer was always going to have significant effects reverberating throughout the city. A land official told me, “it is normal for this [kind of stalling] to happen during an election year.” It is common for a new term of Mongolian national parliament to not be confirmed until September of that year. However, as Mongolia’s new politicians are aware, Mongolia’s recent economic oscillations mean that this year is no ‘normal’ election year. To address the looming decisions, the new state parliament was formed much quicker than usual.

What was described as a crisis in the lead up to the election has transformed to ever deepening gradations of ‘crisis levels’ without a clear end in sight. The course that Mongolia now needs to take given the government’s own economic assessment is by no means clear. Mongolia faces major economic decisions that, no matter which way they turn, will have significant geopolitical consequences. Mongolia is currently considering accepting IMF bailouts, while the Bank of China has set up an office in Ulaanbaatar, and waits to see whether Mongolia will open its economic borders to allow it to set up branches and commence operations in Mongolia.

While bureaucratic stalling is common during an election year, acts of stalling this year are especially critical given the far-reaching economic fallout that has affected so many groups of people. However, where there is stalling, there are also new possibilities. While people wait to see whether this ‘crisis ordinary’ (Berlant 2011:10 c.f. Rebecca Empson this blog series) will deepen into a chasm of economic disrepair that the country as yet cannot see an end to, some people see this interlude as the opportunity to divert their current course. Let’s just hope that the new political representatives of Zuun Ail at the city and national level will find ways to manoeuvre their newly acquired power to allow the residents of Building No. 3 to access alternative housing this winter. These are one group of people who simply cannot afford to wait.

 

For more information on Amnesty International’s campaign for this case, please see: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa30/4793/2016/en/

 

© All photos by Rebekah Plueckhahn

A sincere thank you to Doljinsuren and Erdenezayar for assistance with this research.

[i] Living on land as a way to ‘hold’ and prevent others from claiming it has long been a part of land access in Ulaanbaatar since 1990.

[ii] While conducting research on property in Ulaanbaatar, more stories emerged of other similar failed redevelopments of other buildings in different areas of the city.

Political Atmospheres in the Lead-up to the Parliamentary Elections, 2016

ucsaar017 August 2016

This is the second in a series of posts about Mongolia’s 2016 parliamentary elections that were held on June 29th.

 

Ulaanbaatar is dusty, bleak and windy. Waiting for the bus, I am forced to seek momentary refuge in a KFC doorway when, out of nowhere, the sky turns an ominous brownish yellow. High-speed wind torpedoes through the city and lashes across my body filling my nose and mouth with dust. I haven’t learnt the art of always wearing a scarf around my neck to protect against such moments. The climate is unpredictable and so is the political atmosphere. Like political life itself the storm appears to come out of nowhere.

It’s early May 2016 and there is still some ice on the Tuul river. Snow can be seen on the mountains to the South. Workmen are starting to put down new pavements and are planting trees along the roadsides. The news reports that the police are undergoing crash courses in English. Everything must be in place for ASEM (the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting).  In contrast, deserted construction projects lie in wait for new investment. Small shops are getting rid of stock before they close down, with sales offering up to 30-40% off. Rumours spread that a measles epidemic has erupted and infant moralities are spiralling out of control across the city. No doubt the government will hide all of this from its foreign visitors when they arrive later in the summer.

Navigating through different visions

Navigating through different visions

 

With the so-called ‘economic crisis’ two things have become apparent. Where the rich are stuck with unfinished property and dormant mining licences they cannot act on, the poor have lots of cheap goods, now mostly broken and used for something else, but which they bought on credit and have to pay off. Everyone talks about debt and its vast accumulation. It is certain that the Democratic Party will not be re-elected, but who will take their place? Will it be a coalition? Will any of the Independent candidates be elected? What of the new and emerging parties – why do they seem to implode through internal factions?

empty office buildings

Empty Office Buildings

 

In the afternoon of the 4th May, I receive an SMS message from a friend that a Mercedes-Benz has just driven past a bus stop in the centre of town and thrown hundreds of thousands of tögrög out of the window at people waiting for the bus. Could this be a political move related to the elections? Is it just the tip of the iceberg of many more such events? If so, who is the man in the car? Through what connections has he got hold of such large amounts of cash? By the end of the day, and on (apparent) police investigation, it is confirmed that this was simply the action of a man who had been arguing with his wife. The speculations die out and the event is soon forgotten.

Abandond mine site

Abandoned Mine Site

 

On the 11th April, a prominent politician and businessman’s offices are raided at the Bayangol Hotel, presumed, in part, due to the on-going ‘railway scandal’ where miles and miles of purchased tracks have been left to rust on the steppe. A large group of people, including the national judo team and various politicians come out to support him at the location. Special forces police officers can be seen seizing boxes and taking them away live on TV, but he’s never arrested himself. ‘We’re just really living in a society where the law is no longer the law’, his daughter laments. Speculations about internal factions aside, in this gesture of power we are invited to be reminded that the state holds ultimate power.

Stalled buildings

Stalled Building Work

 

After the event, rumours circulate about future arrests and a list that has been drawn up with the names of those who might be targeted next. People in the countryside speculate that money laundering by big bosses has triggered flows of cash to purchase antlers from the forests. At night, people have been seen trying to sell their government-allocated shares to eager Chinese buyers (shares which the government later agreed to buy back), and during the day the atmosphere is intermittently hijacked by the stopping of traffic to allow blacked out cars with sirens to dart past with ASEM-related visitors as they speed through the city. The façade of buildings along the main roads are being painted. Motorway shoulders are being raised to hide unsightly slums.

The political atmosphere is characterised by a sense of fits and starts. Things suddenly emerge as if from nowhere. They are followed by a period of intense speculation and a search for connections and comprehension. Then, just as quickly, they seem to dissipate into the background again and things return to some sense of normalcy.

Plastic Bottles

Plastic Bottles

 

As the weather warms, the Tuul river begins to thaw. In the mornings men and women, sometimes with children in tow, come to gather plastic bottles along its banks, carrying them home in plastic woven bags on their backs. Every now and then these people travel back by bus from Zaisan sitting awkwardly with their enormous luggage slipping across the floor into the elites who live here. As it gets warmer, I walk across the river and up into the mountains beyond. A small trickle of water appears, but instead of this leading to a large torrent, a few days later the water disappears completely. People speculate that the government has syphoned off part of the river to provide water for the new ASEM buildings being built for the foreign visitors, providing further evidence, they lament, that they can’t ‘carrying the state’ correctly. Two days later, however, the river begins to flow again when the ice thaws further up in the mountains, and just as suddenly the speculations disappear.

Asem buildings in construction

ASEM Buildings

 

Recalling these events hints at the way in which politics is currently discussed in Mongolia. That is as rumour about the motives of politicians and businessmen, rather than an actual discussion about policy. The drying up of the Tuul river and the rumours which surrounded it, as well as the lack of interest when the actual reason was revealed, is just one such case. In the lead up to the Parliamentary elections this year, people were constantly searching for meaning – connections and explanations – in actions they found difficult to read and understand. In fact this searching for meaning and speculation is what politics is in Mongolia. It is the speculation of connections and motivations beyond the visible and tangible. To understand politics – or to think politics – is to understand the underside of things, beyond the way things appear to the ordinary eye, to uncover the workings of a kind of magic or religion.

‘Nothing can be understood’, one friend recounted, ‘if the networks underneath are not known and understood’. He elaborated further, ‘if you don’t understand the motivations of individuals then politics in Mongolia is impossible to understand’. Searching for the motivations behind actions that seem strange is –sometimes – the only way people are able to process the wayward atmosphere that seems to characterise so much of political life in Mongolia. Speculation and circulation of rumours, of factions, motivations, alliances and actions of individuals dominates political talk. And while the new younger politicians are seen as potentially hopeful (they have not, as yet, the trail of speculated exchange of favours attached to them), they are all locked within the dominant parties and have little room to make a mark. It is as if, tightly held within alliances of debt and obligation, there is no room for new political visions to emerge. Everything is understood and explained as driven by personal business gains that bind people to each other and constrains as well as determines their actions.

Layers of Speculation

Layers of Speculation

 

In this atmosphere politics, as we might imagine it, appears a kind of empty shell. People feel they are living in an economic system (capitalism) rather than a political one (democracy now appears jaded and opaque). And because the economic system persists, regardless of who is in charge, politics itself appears defunct, a point that makes attaching the term ‘crisis’ to the word ‘economic’ a kind of political parody (cf. Roitman 2014, and Rebekah Plueckhahn on the political atmosphere of stalling and suspension after the elections). In this light, we might ask what work the term ‘crisis’ does in narratives about the economy in Mongolia? From one perspective it appears to be a political move to try to contain the moment in a specific temporal framework – a fallacy, of course, when it is now realised as the norm. Here, the ordinary is the speculation and incoherence of political life, there is no progress of access, or threat to another. The economic crisis is not an exception to the ordinary. There is, in many ways, a sense of a ‘crisis ordinary’, of […] ‘a process embedded in the ordinary that unfolds in stories about navigating what is overwhelming’ (Berlant 2011:10). In attending to these stories as they unfold, maybe politics is not such an empty shell after all. In these ways of navigating – sometimes overwhelming relations of debt, both monetary and social, and the complex entangled relations of obligation and favour that flow in their wake – life is always intensely political. It is just being played out in a different sphere from that which any election promises would have us believe.

 

All photos © Rebecca Empson.