Supporting Mongolia’s Democracy is Key to a Free and Open Asia-Pacific

In recent weeks, Mongolians participated in the second largest peaceful demonstrations since 1991, with hundreds of Mongolians participating in mass protests in Sukhbaatar Square in response to the allegations of billions of dollars stolen in export coal theft transactions to China with the involvement of more than a dozen Mongolian officials.

While most protests in Mongolia are held in the spring to avoid the frigid winter temperatures, the timing and magnitude of the current demonstrations call to mind the countrywide demonstrations in the winter of 1989 and 1990 leading up to Mongolia’s peaceful transition of power, and the emergence of a democratic Mongolian government in the spring of 1990.

This movement continues to characterize Mongolian civil society. Recent public protests are indicative of the problems inherent within the Mongolian political system, particularly corruption among political elite and the lack of enforcement by existing oversight mechanisms, as well as the country’s lack of economic diversification and reliance on mineral exports. However, the protests also represent the vitality of Mongolian civil society and the importance of continuing to invest in Mongolian civil society organizations and good governance initiatives.

Mongolia occupies a unique niche within Northeast Asia. It has only two direct neighbors, China and Russia. Both exert strong economic and political pressure on Mongolia, with roughly 86 percent of Mongolian exports sent to China, and 60 percent of its energy and fuel imports from Russia, with western Mongolia entirely dependent on Russian electricity.

Due to Mongolia’s reliance on its authoritarian neighbors, the country developed a “third-neighbor” strategy to strengthen its relations with other regional and international partners. This policy enables Mongolia to diversify its economic interests and investments, support civil society and uphold democratic norms in the country. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the “third-neighbor” strategy Mongolia built was hindered by border restrictions and languishing economic ties. However, throughout 2022 Mongolia sought to rebuild these relationships, two of the most prominent among them being with Japan and the United States.

2022 was a vibrant year for Mongolian multilateralism. It was the 50th anniversary of its diplomatic relations with Japan, and the 35th anniversary of U.S.-Mongolia diplomatic ties. Following a trilateral meeting held between the US, Japan, and Mongolia, the three countries released a joint statement which stressed the importance of maintaining the current rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific, highlighted many shared global sentiments between the three countries, and discussed ongoing international developmental investments in Mongolia.

In November, Ulaanbaatar welcomed the new U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia, Richard Buangan, and officials from both countries emphasized their joint commitment to democracy, rule of law, and fundamental human rights that ensure free speech. President of Mongolia U. Khurelsukh arrived in Japan on November 29th, the first head-of-state visit from Mongolia to Japan in 12 years, reaffirming the two countries’ relationship and affirming joint efforts to contribute to peace and prosperity in the region.

Alongside top-level diplomatic interactions, both Japan and the U.S. are engaged in supporting good governance and furthering inclusive civil society development. The Mongolian Foreign Minister recently took part in the World Assembly for Women (WAW) held in Tokyo, which emphasizes female leadership and inclusion and brought together female leaders from around the world. Japan continues to be one of the top providers of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) to Mongolia, with Mongolia receiving 299 million USD in bilateral ODA from Japan in 2020.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is also very active in Mongolia, and has major projects that focus on improving public financial management and inclusion in Mongolia’s government and civil society. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recently promised an additional $3 million to modernize the energy section and promote good governance in Mongolia, strengthening civil society organizations and independent media capacity.

There is still significant work needed to support Mongolian civil society and continue Mongolia’s development as an open, democratic state.

Mongolia’s economic resiliency remains tenuous while the state relies primarily on mineral exports and significant economic restructuring is key, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s economic growth is also hindered by corruption. While the OECD noted that petty corruption in Mongolia is gradually decreasing, high level corruption among government officials and the judiciary continues to be a major problem. Thus, there should be an emphasis on the creation of new laws that increase accountability and transparency within the Mongolian government and the enforcement of existing oversight laws and mechanisms, such as the Independent Authority against Corruption (IAAC). Additionally, as part of the Open Government Partnership, Mongolia has committed to improving the regulatory environment to ensure government accountability alongside establishing legal and regulatory frameworks for the autonomous development of civil society organizations in its 2023 National Action Plan.

International support can assist in this, both by working directly with government partners to provide anti-corruption training as well as promoting the inclusion of independent stakeholder and civil society groups that can hold the government accountable and help restore citizen trust in the Mongolian government. One concrete step Mongolian leadership can take in the next year to show their dedication to a free and open society is to engage in the 2023 Summit for Democracy. By not only attending the summit, which Mongolia has done in the past, but through proactively establishing commitments during the summit, Mongolia can further develop its third neighbor policies and strengthen civil society and democracy investment while balancing its relations with China and Russia.

Together with the United States, Japanese support of Mongolian civil society and Mongolia’s democratic norms strengthens the region as a whole. Programming within Mongolia, such as projects conducted by JICA and USAID, signify the investment in supporting civil society and upholding a rules-based order in Mongolia. This, in turn, is visible in the accountability Mongolians demand of their government in the ongoing recent protests. Ultimately, multinational engagement in Mongolia will further good governance and support Mongolia’s active civil society, continuing in the tradition of Mongolian independence and democracy.

Monica Weller
Monica Weller
International Republican Institute, Asia Program Associate