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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.

 

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

By Rebekah Plueckhahn, on 16 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.