Background Notes: Mongolia

Contributed By RealAdventures

Life in sparsely populated Mongolia has become more urbanized. Nearly half of the people live in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and in other provincial centers. Semi-nomadic life still predominates in the countryside, but settled agricultural communities are becoming more common.

Mongolia's birth rate is estimated at 2.7%. About three-fourths of the total population are under age 30, 38% of whom are under 14.

Ethnic Mongols account for about 85% of the population and consist of Khalkha and other groups, all distinguished primarily by dialects of the Mongol language. Mongol is an Altaic language--from the Altaic Mountains of Central Asia, a language family comprising the Turkic, Tungusic, and Mongolic subfamilies--and is related to Turkic (Uzbek, Turkish, and Kazakh), Korean, and, possibly, Japanese. The Khalkha make up 90% of the ethnic Mongol population. The remaining 10% include Durbet Mongols and others in the north and Dariganga Mongols in the east. Turkic speakers (Kazakhs, Turvins, and Khotans) constitute 7% of Mongolia's population, and the rest are Tungusic-speakers, Chinese, and Russians. Most Russians left the country following the withdrawal of economic aid and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhist Lamaism was the predominant religion. However, it was suppressed under the communist regime until 1990, with only one showcase monastery allowed to remain. Since 1990, as liberalization began, Buddhism has enjoyed a resurgence.

About 4 million Mongols live outside Mongolia; about 3.4 million live in China, mainly in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region; and some 500,000 live in Russia, primarily in Buryatia and Kalmykia.

In 1203 AD, a single Mongolian state was formed based on nomadic tribal groupings under the leadership of Genghis Khan. He and his immediate successors conquered nearly all of Asia and European Russia and sent armies as far as Central Europe and Southeast Asia. Genghis Khan's grandson Kublai Khan, who conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368 AD), gained fame in Europe through the writings of Marco Polo.

Although Mongol-led confederations sometimes exercised wide political power over their conquered territories, their strength declined rapidly after the Mongol dynasty in China was overthrown in 1368.

The Manchus, a tribal group which conquered China in 1644 and formed the Qing dynasty, were able to bring Mongolia under Manchu control in 1691 as Outer Mongolia when the Khalkha Mongol nobles swore an oath of allegiance to the Manchu emperor. The Mongol rulers of Outer Mongolia enjoyed considerable autonomy under the Manchus, and all Chinese claims to Outer Mongolia following the establishment of the republic have rested on this oath. In 1727, Russia and Manchu China concluded the Treaty of Khiakta, delimiting the border between China and Mongolia that exists in large part today.

Outer Mongolia was a Chinese province (1691-1911), an autonomous state under Russian protection (1912-19), and again a Chinese province (1919- 21). As Manchu authority in China waned, and as Russia and Japan confronted each other, Russia gave arms and diplomatic support to nationalists among the Mongol religious leaders and nobles. The Mongols accepted Russian aid and proclaimed their independence of Chinese rule in 1911, shortly after a successful Chinese revolt against the Manchus. By agreements signed in 1913 and 1915, the Russian Government forced the new Chinese Republican Government to accept Mongolian autonomy under continued Chinese control, presumably to discourage other foreign powers from approaching a newly independent Mongolian state that might seek support from as many foreign sources as possible.

The Russian revolution and civil war afforded Chinese warlords an opportunity to re-establish their rule in Outer Mongolia, and Chinese troops were dispatched there in 1919. Following Soviet military victories over White Russian forces in the early 1920s and the occupation of the Mongolian capital Urga in July 1921, Moscow again became the major outside influence on Mongolia. The Mongolian People's Republic was proclaimed on November 25, 1924.

Between 1925 and 1928, power under the communist regime was consolidated by the Mongolian Peoples Revolutionary Party (MPRP). The MPRP left gradually undermined rightist elements, seizing control of the party and the government. Several factors characterized the country during this period--the society was basically nomadic and illiterate; there was no industrial proletariat; the aristocracy and the religious establishment shared the country's wealth; there was widespread popular obedience to traditional authorities; the party lacked grassroots support; and the government had little organization or experience.

In an effort at swift socioeconomic reform, the leftist government applied extreme measures which attacked the two most dominant institutions in the country--the aristocracy and the religious establishment. Between 1932 and 1945, their excess zeal, intolerance, and inexperience led to anti-communist uprisings. In the late 1930's purges directed at the religious institution resulted in the desecration of hundreds of Buddhist institutions and imprisonment of more than 10,000 people.

During World War II, because of a growing Japanese threat over the Mongolian-Manchurian border, the Soviet Union reversed the course of Mongolian socialism in favor of a new policy of economic gradualism and buildup of the national defense. The Soviet-Mongolian army defeated Japanese forces that had invaded eastern Mongolia in the summer of 1939, and a truce was signed setting up a commission to define the Mongolian-Manchurian border in the autumn of that year.

Following the war, the Soviet Union reasserted its influence in Mongolia. Secure in its relations with Moscow, the Mongolian Government shifted to postwar development, focusing on civilian enterprise. International ties were expanded, and Mongolia established relations with North Korea and the new communist governments in Eastern Europe. It also increased its participation in communist-sponsored conferences and international organizations. Mongolia became a member of the United Nations in 1961.

In the early 1960s, Mongolia attempted to maintain a neutral position amidst increasingly contentious Sino-Soviet polemics; this orientation changed in the middle of the decade. Mongolia and the Soviet Union signed an agreement in 1966 that introduced large-scale Soviet ground forces as part of Moscow's general buildup along the Sino-Soviet frontier.

During the period of Sino-Soviet tensions, relations between Mongolia and China deteriorated. In 1983, Mongolia systematically began expelling some of the 7,000 ethnic Chinese in Mongolia to China. Many of them had lived in Mongolia since the 1950s, when they were sent there to assist in construction projects.

Until 1990, the Mongolian Government was modeled on the Soviet system; only the communist party--the MPRP--officially was permitted to function. After some instability during the first two decades of communist rule in Mongolia, there was no significant popular unrest until December 1989. Collectivization of animal husbandry, introduction of agriculture, and the extension of fixed abodes were all carried out without perceptible popular opposition.

The birth of perestroika in the former Soviet Union and the democracy movement in Eastern Europe were mirrored in Mongolia.

The dramatic shift toward reform started in early 1990 when the first organized opposition group, the Mongolian Democratic Union, appeared. In the face of extended street protests in sub-zero whether and popular demands for faster reform, the politburo of the MPRP resigned in March 1990. In May, the constitution was amended, deleting reference to the MPRP's role as the guiding force in the country, legalizing opposition parties, creating a standing legislative body, and establishing the office of president.

Mongolia's first multi-party elections for a People's Great Hural were held on July 29, 1990. The MPRP won 85% of the seats. The People's Great Hural first met on September 3 and elected a president (MPRP), vice president (SDP--Social Democrats), prime minister (MPRP), and 50 members to the Baga Hural (small Hural). The vice president was also chairman of the Baga Hural.

In November 1991, the People's Great Hural began discussion on a new constitution, which entered into force February 12. In addition to establishing Mongolia as an independent, sovereign republic and guaranteeing a number of rights and freedoms, the new constitution restructured the legislative branch of government, creating a unicameral legislature, the State Great Hural (SGH).

The 1992 constitution provided that the president would be elected by popular vote rather than by the legislature as before. In June 1993, incumbent Punsalmaagiyn Ochirbat won the first popular presidential election running as the candidate of the democratic opposition.

As the supreme government organ, the SGH is empowered to enact and amend laws, determine domestic and foreign policy, ratify international agreements, and declare a state of emergency. The SGH meets semi-annually. SGH members elect a chairman and vice chairman who serve 4-year terms. SGH members are popularly elected by district for 4-year terms. In the most recent parliamentary election on June 30, 1996, the opposition, running together under the banner of the Democratic Union won a landslide victory, taking 50 of 76 seats in the SGH. The first completely non-communist government was installed in July 1996, headed by Prime Minister M. Enkhsaihan.

The president is the head of state, commander in chief of the armed forces, and head of the national security council. He is popularly elected by a national majority for a 4-year term and limited to two terms. The constitution empowers the president to propose a prime minister, call for the government's dissolution, initiate legislation, veto all or parts of legislation (the SGH can override the veto with a two-thirds majority), and issue decrees, which become effective with the prime minister's signature. In the absence, incapacity, or resignation of the president, the SGH chairman exercises presidential power until inauguration of a newly elected president. In the most recent presidential election on May 18, 1997, the MPRP candidate, N. Bagabandi, was elected with 57% of the vote.

The government, headed by the prime minister, has a 4-year term. The prime minister is nominated by the president and confirmed by the SGH. The prime minister chooses a cabinet, subject to SGH approval. Dissolution of the government occurs upon the prime minister's resignation, simultaneous resignation of half the cabinet, or after an SGH vote for dissolution.

Local hurals are elected by the 18 aimags (provinces) plus the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and cities of Darhan and Erdenet. On the next-lower administrative level they are elected by provincial subdivisions and urban subdistricts in Ulaanbaatar and the municipalities, Darhan and Erdenet.

President--Natsagiyn Bagabandi
Prime Minister--Tsahiagiyn Elbegdorj

Mongolia maintains an embassy in the U.S. at 2833 M Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20007; tel. (202) 333-7117, fax (202) 298-9227.

The rapid political changes of 1990-91 marked the beginning of Mongolia's efforts to develop a market economy, but these efforts have been complicated and disrupted by the dissolution and continuing deterioration of the economy of the former Soviet Union. Prior to 1991, 80% of Mongolia's trade was with the former Soviet Union and 15% was with other Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA) countries. Mongolia was heavily dependent upon the former Soviet Union for fuel, medicine, and spare parts for its factories and power plants.

The former U.S.S.R. also served as the primary market for Mongolian industry. In the 1980s, Mongolia's industrial sector became increasingly important. By 1989, it accounted for an estimated 34% of material products, compared to 18% from agriculture. However, minerals, animals, and animal-derived products still constitute a large proportion of the country's exports. Principal imports included machinery, petroleum, cloth, and building materials.

In the late 1980s, the government began to improve links with non-communist Asia and the West, and a tourism sector developed. As of January 1, 1991, Mongolia and the former Soviet Union agreed to conduct bilateral trade in hard currency at world prices.

Despite its external trade difficulties, Mongolia has continued to press ahead with reform. Privatization of small shops and enterprises is largely complete, and most prices have been freed. Privatization of large state enterprises has begun. Tax reforms also have begun, and the barter and official exchange rates were unified in early 1992.

Between 1990 and 1993, Mongolia suffered triple-digit inflation, rising unemployment, shortages of basic goods and food rationing. During that period, economic output contracted by one-third. As market reforms and private enterprise took hold, economic growth began again in 1994-95. Unfortunately, since this growth was fueled in part by over-allocation of bank credit, especially to the remaining state-owned enterprises, economic growth was accompanied by a severe weakening of the banking sector. GDP grew by about 6% in 1995, thanks largely to a boom in copper prices.

Economic growth stalled in 1996 due to unusually large and widespread forest and steppe fires. These caused damage estimated at more than $2 billion and scared away much of the crucial tourist trade at the height of the brief summer season. At the same time, world prices of two of Mongolia's major exports--cashmere and copper--fell. When the newly elected Democratic Union took office in July 1996, it faced a widening budget shortfall, worsening balance of payments problems, and a banking system in crisis. It undertook almost immediately an aggressive program of economic "shock treatment" designed to eliminate the last vestiges of the centrally planned economy, which included energy price liberalization, privatization of housing, and elimination of virtually all import tariffs. Mongolia joined the World Trade Organization in January 1997.

Prospects for development outside the traditional reliance on nomadic, livestock-based agriculture are constrained by Mongolia's land-locked location and lack of basic infrastructure. Mongolia's best hope for accelerated growth is to attract more foreign investment. New foreign investment in the first half of 1997 totaled $16.7 million, a figure that the Mongolian government seeks to increase dramatically.

In the wake of the international socialist economic system's collapse and the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, Mongolians began to pursue an independent and non-aligned foreign policy. The Prime Minister called for co-existence with all nations, and Mongolia follows a general policy of expanding relations with as many countries as possible.

Due to Mongolia's landlocked position between the new independent states (NIS) of the former Soviet Union and China, it was essential to continue and improve relations with these countries. At the same time, Mongolia is reaching out to advance its regional and global relations.

As part of its aim to establish a more balanced non-aligned foreign policy, Mongolia is seeking active supporters and friends beyond its neighbors and looking to take a more active role in the United Nations and other international organizations. While it is downgrading relations with most of its former East European allies, it is pursuing a more active role in Asian and Northeast Asian affairs. Mongolia is seeking to join APEC and has applied for membership in a number of technical regional organizations including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

High-level Mongolian officials and/or parliamentarians have made official visits to countries including China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Nepal, the Philippines, Pakistan, and several Western European countries. Mongolia also has established diplomatic relations with a number of other nations, among them Oman, Brunei, and Israel.

The U.S. Government recognized Mongolia in January 1987 and established its first embassy in Ulaanbaatar in June 1988. It formally opened in September 1988. The first U.S. ambassador to Mongolia, Richard L. Williams, was not resident there; Joseph E. Lake, the first resident ambassador, arrived in July 1990. Secretary of State James A. Baker, III visited Mongolia in August 1990, and again in July 1991. Mongolia accredited its first ambassador to the United States in March 1989. Most recently, Prime Minister Enkhsaihan visited the United States in October 1996.

The United States has sought to assist Mongolia's movement toward democracy and market-oriented reform and to expand relations with Mongolia primarily in the cultural and economic fields. The United States granted Mongolia most-favored-nation status and has supported Mongolia's transition to political democracy and a market economy. In 1989 and 1990, a cultural accord, Peace Corps accord, consular convention, and Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) agreement were signed. A trade agreement was signed in January 1991 and a bilateral investment treaty in 1994.

USAID has provided almost $80 million over the past 5 years in technical assistance and training for Mongolia's democratic and economic reform program. Of that total, some $38 million has gone for emergency energy assistance, which has been instrumental in keeping Mongolia's power and heating system operable through the country's harsh winters. In FY 1998, the bulk of USAID energy funding is being used to support rural economic growth by providing a reliable, cost-effective source of electricity through purchase of U.S.-made diesel generators for a number of provincial capitals.

The U.S. is also directly supporting Mongolia's democratization by working with U.S. non-governmental organizations to provide training for parliamentary committee organization and constituent service and has recently launched a program to establish public affairs organizations and legislative relations offices in every ministry. U.S. assistance also provided technical assistance for the drafting of the 1992 constitution and for non-partisan voter education guides for the 1996 parliamentary election.

The U.S. provides support for the Mongolian government's economic reforms through a $2 million Economic Policy Support Project that includes a full-time American policy advisor in the Prime Minister's office. The advisor has worked closely with the Government of Mongolia to set the policy agenda of the current government and provides policy advice and expert technical assistance for the government's major reform initiatives.

The Peace Corps currently has 49 volunteers in Mongolia. They are engaged primarily in English teaching and teacher training activities. At the request of the Government of Mongolia, the Peace Corps has agreed to develop new programs in the areas of public health and the environment. Plans call for increasing the number of volunteers to between 60 and 80 within 2 years.

Ambassador--Alphonse La Porta

The U.S. embassy is located in Micro Region 11, Big Ring Road, Ulaanbaatar; tel. [976] (1) 329-095 or 329-606, fax 320-776.

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