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

RebeccaEmpson17 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.

Our debt: 10 million sheep during the Manchu period, 400 million today!

Guest Contributor23 June 2016

 

The following blog post was written by H. Batsuuri. It develops an analogical analysis between Mongolia’s current economic situation and the late Qing and early revolutionary period, at the beginning of the twentieth century. The similarities lie in the foreign economic and political domination partnered with national rulers that plays an important role in increasing debt, exploitation, poverty, and prompted resistance leading to the revolution.

H. Batsuuri is a Mongolian economist who graduated from the London School of Economics, and is a founder and editor of a social and economic journal Shinjeech meaning ‘Analyst’. He is also an Advisory Board Member of the Emerging Subjects project. In the last couple of years, he has been actively researching, observing, engaging and commenting on Mongolia’s current economy, politics and social issues and has suggested various solutions.

He has published dozens of research and newspaper articles addressing topical debates surrounding the free market, neoliberalism, capitalism, democracy, governance, debt, tax, bank, offshore, trade, mining, sovereign bonds, investment, international politics and so on. He is a leading public well-known figure giving in-depth observations and expertise knowledge, and is currently running in the upcoming national parliamentary election as a candidate for the Independence and Unity Party.

 

In 1844, a Chinese merchant met the French traveller Évariste Régis Huc in Russia. What the merchant told him is noted in historical records: “We have the same business to eat up the Mongols, right?  You eat them by your prayers, and me, by my trade and loan interests. We, the merchants devour them with their hair and skin. You don’t know the Mongols. Don’t you see? They’re all like children… The debt of the Mongols has no end. It is shifted from generation to generation. Oh, how great is this debt, it’s like the golden chest”.

What I learnt in history class in middle school as “The people made the revolution against the repression and exploitation of the internal and external greedy merchants, the rich and the aristocrats” has been engrained in my mind. To a 13 year old boy, the intensions of the external invaders was clear, but the reflections about the internal oppressors, and the reasons why Mongolians had to oppress each other has left many unanswered questions.

The 1911 National Revolution for Freedom and the 1921 People’s Revolution were both started to overthrow the foreign abuse and domestic repressive system – and they both reached their goals. At that time, the domestic and foreign oppressors worked hand in hand. Historical records show how some Mongolian traitors were bound up with the foreigners and closely cooperated on exploiting people and depleting national wealth.

Figure.1 The article, featured in “The Century News” journal, June 2016

Figure.1 The article, featured in “The Century News” journal, June 2016

 

Concerning the external debt of today’s Mongolia, the situation is very similar to that of the debt issues of 1911. When we look at the challenges around Tavan Tolgoi, the condition of Dubai contract deal for Oyu Tolgoi and the ever-increasing debts and loans, it seems like some of our decision-makers share the same life with the foreigners. One of the triggers of the 1911 Revolution was the foreign debt distress that Mongolians suffered from. At that time, Chinese merchants would bribe local chiefs and aristocrats to impose goods like tea, textile and other products that they brought from China to Mongolians with higher prices. In the case of goods loan, they would take interest that doubled or tripled the initial price. The merchants and pawnshop keepers would implement corrupt policy by conspiring with the local aristocrats and impose tough loan conditions and repayments. Even for their personal debts, the local aristocrats would act on behalf of the State and make people pay them.

For instance, a block of green tea, a product of high demand during that period, cost 0,8 lan (29,84 gr) silver piece. The merchants would lend a block of tea for 1 sheep (a sheep cost between 2 and3 lan or 74,6 gr-111,9 gr silver) and get a two-year old lamb for one-year-interest. If the debtor couldn’t repay his/her debt in a year, the lamb was calculated as a mother animal to give another lamb. This logic was applied in raw material trades like hide, leather and wool; so 2-3 sheepskin would be taken as an interest of one sheepskin.

As the Chinese merchants started keeping the part of the livestock (that they swindled from the Mongolian herders) in the pasturelands, the number of the Chinese men married with Mongolian women and herding livestock increased. Some merchants would hire poor Mongolian herders so-called “khuchnii khun” (man of labour) to raise their livestock. These merchants would pay nothing for their exploitation of the Mongolian pasturelands. At that time, the debt was categorized as “albany ör” (official debt) and “aminy ör” (personal/private debt). Both the official and private debts of aristocrats had to be paid by the common people. For the Chinese merchants, making contracts with the local authorities to supply them with great amount of loan for their personal and official use, and have their subordinate people pay these debts was a profitable and easy way to increase their wealth. In the debt solution order, the family and extended family of the debtor repay his/her debt in the case where he/she was not able to repay their debts; and the subordinate people paid the debt of the debtor who was deceased or disappeared. Chinese merchants Bayansan and Dalai mentioned their practice to solve their loan issues by bribe and corruption in the following way, “we get 10 lan for 5 lan and 20 for 10. We submit some part of the extra profit to the authority”.

Some rich Mongolians and aristocrats who sold the country had their own house and land in Beijing. This is similar to today’s political situation where certain decision-makers’ offshore accounts and real estate properties are located abroad. The Chinese merchants would try to keep the initial debt as the source of income by only collecting its interest. Besides, they would run a policy to get the raw materials and wealth of the Mongols with an extremely low price, or even for free.

The issues around the external debt, the conspiracy of the foreign and domestic exploiters, their oppression and corruptions that are recorded in the history, aren’t they familiar to you? To me, they’re too familiar. The Ard Ayush (Ayush The Folk) movement, known as the “Tsetseg Nuuryn Duguilan” (The Flower Lake Circle) in history, was actually a resistance against the external debt distress and the double abuse by the corrupted county chief Manibadar and the Chinese greedy merchants.

Figure 2. Ayush The Folk, the leader of the civil movement against the foreign and domestic exploiters

Figure 2. Ayush The Folk, the leader of the civil movement against the foreign and domestic exploiters

The records show that in 1911, the total amount of Mongolia’s external debt reached to 30 million lan of silver. If we suppose the price of a sheep for 3 lan silver, we must have had a debt of 10 million sheep at that time. As for today, our external debt is counted at least 24 billion USD. If we calculate one sheep for 60 USD or 120 million tögrögs, it means that we have a debt of around 400 million sheep. But we have only 55 million livestock, in which is numbered 24 million sheep. So we actually live inside a period of debt that is 40 times more than that of the Manchu-domination period. When we look at the expense of 4,5 USD for each income of 1 USD in our economy, it’s clear for the debt to be inevitable. One can naturally wonder what kind of distorted system and whose policy is running here…

When we look at the current socio-economic situation in Mongolia, we could summarize that it is under the same conditions that shaped the Chinese merchant’s exclamation “The debt of the Mongols has no end. It is shifted from generation to generation. Oh, how great is this debt!” that was said more than 170 years ago. Our ancestors resisted the injustice, stealth and repression made by the corrupted domestic and foreign oppressors. They burnt down the debt orders and liberated themselves and their future generations from the internal and external exploitation. But what about us? We shouldn’t leave debt to our children; we don’t have the right to darken their future. We must not accept the open and hidden oppression and swindling. We do have the choice and it’s already the time to make the right choice. The time has come to elect those who know the problems and propose solutions, those who have a clean reputation.

 

Bibliography

Б.Уламбаяр. МУИС. Түүхийн эрхлэгч Undated Гадаад болон дотоод худалдааны түүхэн тойм, алба татварын тухай, accessed May 2016.