Postcard from Mongolia

Choibalsan's statue guards the National University of MongoliaI recently spent five days in Mongolia on an academic enterprise. I left impressed by the students, but depressed about the country’s capital (Ulaanbaatar), its governing classes, and its near-term future.
Mongolia is isolated in several ways: by language (an Altaic tongue related to Turkish but to no neighbouring country’s speech), and also by geography. Many of the world’s nations are landlocked, but only Mongolia is "super-power-locked": it is completely enclosed by Russia and China. At its western extremity it almost has a border with Kazakhstan -- but no, Russia and China each dip so as to meet and perpetuate Mongolia’s envelopment.
Other isolating factors involve travel. The airport at Ulaanbaatar is served by only two airlines: the national carrier and Korean Air. But Korean Air is relegated to inconvenient arrival and departure times by Mongolia’s civil aeronautics authority -- which, what a coincidence, also runs the national airline. But if the intent here is to denude KA of passengers, it doesn’t work. The night I waited patiently for KA’s 1:20 am (that’s right, am) flight to Seoul, hundreds of Mongolians were crowding through passport control to do the same thing as myself, ie, leave, and not on the Mongolian airline. On the plus side, one often hears about bribe-takers at Third World customs-stations, but I did not encounter any in Mongolia.
Sheer distance remains another isolator, even in the jet age. Americans seeking to visit Mongolia face a three-hour flight from Seoul, right after their 14-hour flight to Seoul. On the other hand, the Seoul-Ulaanbataar flight is a comfortable widebody, not a rattletrap turboprop, so there’s something. For adventurous train fans, Ulaanbaatar is also a stop along the Trans-Siberian, running from Moscow to Beijing.
Dominating neighbours
Mongolia’s entrapment between Russia and China explains much of its sad political history in the 20th century. To escape domination by one is to embrace the suzerainty of the other. In the early 1920s Mongolia turned to the Soviet Union to save it from Chinese warlords (and from several centuries of de facto Chinese control). As a result, though it never became a "Soviet Socialist Republic", it did become a communist satellite state, furnishing a model that Moscow would later deploy in eastern Europe. With the convenient and unexplained death of its last Khan in 1924, Mongolia became officially communist -- the second such state in the world.
This must have added to Marx’s eternal torment: his theory was that communism would take power only, and inevitably, in advanced industrial nations. Instead, it took power first in Russia, which was barely industrialised, and second in Mongolia, which was (and largely remains) an economy based on cattle-herding.
Anyway, up went a statue of Lenin in front of one of Ulaanbaatar’s largest hotels -- and it’s still there. In 1942 the Soviets sponsored the founding of the National University of Mongolia -- and in front of that institution, up went a statue of Choibalsan, Mongolia’s own Stalin, whose contribution to Mongolian intellectual life, one student told me, was to kill thousands of intellectuals. This statue, too, is still there.
The continuing presence of Choibalsan’s statue in front of the NUM evokes different reactions along generational lines. The NUM’s official translator, a middle-aged man, described national attitudes towards the past dictator in phrases such as "jury still out," "not all his fault," "still revered by some," etc. "Like Stalin," he added. But the NUM student I had drawn close to was unequivocal: in his view, it’s outrageous to honour Choibalsan at all, especially at a university. "His policy was just kill, kill, kill," my friend said, struggling fearlessly with his imperfect English.
Democracy arrives, belatedly
In 1990, the Mongolian parliament, called the Ikh Khural, noticed that the Soviet Union was fading from existence, and that student demonstrators, outdoors in the sub-zero Mongolian winter, were demanding elections featuring more than one candidate. Thus did democracy, after a fashion, come to Mongolia. The country was divided more or less arbitrarily into 76 electoral districts, each of which sends one member to the unicameral parliament. However, a candidate must obtain an outright majority of eligible voters, so it is not uncommon to see districts trying repeatedly to achieve a successful election.
One would think the fall of Soviet control would be remembered as an unalloyed good, but not so. With Soviet control went Soviet money. What we in the West have taken to calling the "fall of Communism" is commonly thought of in Mongolia as the depletion of the trust fund.
The country’s present constitution, drafted in 1992, provides for both a President and a Prime Minister. Earlier this year the then-Prime Minister, Nambary Enkhbayar, successfully sought election to the Presidency. The resulting vacancy in his parliamentary seat has set the two major parties (the not-so-ex-communist Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, to which Enkhbayar belongs, and the free-market Mongolian Democratic Party) quarrelling over a deal they made to preserve, during the present parliament, the precarious equal balance that was the outcome of the most recent parliamentary election.
Meanwhile, the President is accumulating power. (See this impressive list of his "prerogative rights".) A bright student I spoke with – who is one of those fighting to keep the MPRP from shafting the MDP – compares the Mongolian presidency to that of Kazakhstan, and gloomily expects Enkhbayar to be around as long as that country’s Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Development takes longer
Street maintenanceMongolia today features some foreign investment and much foreign aid; the problem is, I am not at all sure Mongolians understand the difference. There’s no doubt about the Mongolians’ desire to integrate into the global economy, but they don’t seem in any hurry to take certain necessary steps. Investors like transparency in government, yet almost all Mongolians I spoke with (students, professors, translators, lawyers) told me the government is corrupt, and getting more so. Investors like law courts in which contract disputes can be fairly and swiftly adjudicated; Mongolia’s courts take forever, and are clogged with libel suits by politicians against journalists and activists.
And then there’s infrastructure. Despite what the Mongolian Tourist Authority may make you believe through its websites, Ulaanbaatar is both a Third World city and a Soviet city, and it looks both parts. Imagine the dullest, worst-maintained eastern European capital you know of; then imagine all the things that nonetheless make it pretty or distinguished -- and then take all those things away: that’s Ulaanbaatar. It scarcely existed before the Soviet era, so the architectural style is early Stalin, and the maintenance standards are late Brezhnev. The Soviets, by the way, gave the city its name. "Ulaanbaatar" means "red hero," and no move is or has been afoot to change it. Russia’s Leningrad is once again St Petersburg, but Mongolia’s capital is still "Red Hero".
UN agencies and NGOs will continue to grow here like the abundant weeds in the city’s parks, but if it’s foreign investors the people of "UB" want to attract, there are some basic steps they will have to take to keep those folks from heading right back to the airport: Maintain the sidewalks. Trim the vegetation in the public spaces every once in a while. Put up street signs in Roman as well as Cyrillic print. (That’s another thing the Russians left behind that the Mongolians haven’t changed: their alphabet.)
More civic improvement idea? Give the streets names: some don’t have any, including some big ones. Publish city maps: I couldn’t find any, either in UB itself or on the internet. The closest I came were the cards the hotels publish showing their location. These show only the immediately nearest streets, and are entirely in Cyrillic. They are available only at the hotels that print them, so they’re only useful if you’ve already found the place at least once. (In fairness, inexpensive and pleasant hotels can be found, and they have reliable hot water during prime morning shower-time.)
Another urgent project for UB: develop, somehow, a culture of respect for traffic laws. If you know Boston or Rome, you may think you’ve seen the routinisation of reckless driving, but until you’ve been to UB, you really haven’t. Here, traffic lights are barely even advisory, close calls are as close as the nearest car, and fender-benders are nature’s way of saying hello. Prudently, almost all cars in UB are already beat-up: American welfare recipients would turn up their noses at them at Honest Ernest’s lot. Car seats: leather? polyester? vinyl? No: bare and crumbling foam rubber.
Hope for the future
I can, and would like to, conclude with some good impressions. Ulaanbaatar may have been born falling apart, but at least its denizens can always be found fighting a continuous, if desperate, rear-guard action against dilapidation: painting here, fixing a window there, washing a floor, sweeping a garbage-strewn yard. The people here are poor, but they are bustling: one sees lot of small shops prospering, and young families promenading. It’s a universe away from poor areas in the world’s richest nation. American slums are full of despair; Ulaanbataar seems full of hope, even if the basis for that hope is far from evident.
Another good impression: the students I met. They were eager for what we could teach them about American law, and hopeful for reform in their country. Those with whom I had a chance to discuss future ambitions don’t envision escaping to Korea or the US: they want to bring honest politics and the rule of law to Mongolia.
I just hope they don’t think of American constitutional law as a box of amulets that will solve their problems in a twinkling. Their own constitution is a mixture of American-style structuralism, individual rights from the common law tradition (they have a Takings Clause, for instance), broad presidential powers, and European-style rights declarations that threaten to judicialise every social or personal problem. "Doesn’t this violate the Right to Equal Treatment Under Law?" I was asked by a practicing attorney. The answer: maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t -- you never can tell with equal rights clauses: all you can do is litigate.
Neither American structural constitutionalism, nor the common law, nor Euro-UN human rights jurisprudence has any roots in Mongolian history and culture. What does? Nomadic herding, and violent world conquest. Those are really the only things Mongolians, as a nation, have ever done.* I urged the students not to lose their present idealism, and to build a Mongolia that can do a lot more.
David M. Wagner lectures at Regent University School of Law.
* According to the Dalai Lama, Mongolian Buddhist monks produced much religious literature during roughly the 16th through the 18th centuries, which is still held in high esteem in Tibet. This is quite possible. Buddhism came late to Mongolia, but it caught on strong. By the mid-20th century there were about 17,000 Buddhist monks in Mongolia. Choibalsan killed them all.


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