I visited Mongolia in autumn 2018 to speak at a conference there on democracy and the media. During my stay I had the opportunity to get to know the country and its political culture a little.
Democratic Mongolia lies between the Russian and Chinese dictatorships and – as a so-called “landlocked country” – has no access to the sea. The Mongolians can therefore be blackmailed by Moscow and Beijing at any time and have to preserve their freedom with a lot of tact and diplomacy.
I have a lot of respect for this fact alone, bravely wanting to remain a democracy, where we often take democracy for granted in our latitudes. Mongolian society has changed significantly in recent years, from being nomadic in tents to living in settlements.
This brings with it a lot of distortions. The new branches are eagerly being provided with fences, which is an absolute first. In these new settlements there is often only one well for many families and limited electricity. And of course there is also a gap between those who need to reorient themselves and those who have been living in Ulanbaatar or one of the few cities in Mongolia for some time.
When I was a guest there, there were posters in the public space with rules of conduct intended to bring life in the city closer to the people from the steppe. Not everyone interpreted these reminders as neighborly gestures. Nevertheless, half of the 3.5 million Mongolians now live in the capital.
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However, the past also warns the living: Russia could invade Mongolia at any time today. However, that would severely affect the balance of power that the People’s Republic is striving for.
Mongolia exports copper and coal to the People’s Republic, with which it has long been involved in territorial disputes. In 1911, the country declared independence from the Qing dynasty, which was replaced by the Republic of China (today’s Taiwan) in the same year. Taiwan bizarrely maintained its territorial claims until 2002.
Alexander Görlach is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. The PhD linguist and theologian teaches democratic theory in Germany, Austria and Spain as an honorary professor at Leuphana University. In the 2017-18 academic year, he was at National Taiwan University and City University Hong Kong to conduct research on China’s rise. He is currently researching new technologies at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute and how they are used in democracies and abused in dictatorships.
In this phase of history, today’s Mongolia was referred to as “Outer Mongolia”, while “Inner Mongolia” has been part of the People’s Republic since 1947.
There, as in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, there are reprisals and oppression of the local Mongolian population. China’s ruler Xi Jinping is pursuing an extreme nationalist course that puts the Han ethnic group above the other ethnic groups.
During my stay in the country, I also learned that the German passport is voted the best in the world because, unlike other EU countries, Germans are allowed to enter Mongolia without a visa.
So the “third neighbor policy” seems to be working well between Germany and Mongolia. It is primarily the boys who support this course in the country: 60 percent of Mongolians are under 35 years old. At the moment, however, it is questionable whether the government can continue like this.
As China and Russia move closer together and form an anti-Western alliance, Mongolia could be forced into a third country in this axis, serving as a transit country between the two dictatorships. A memorandum for a new gas pipeline has already been agreed with Russia.
I was not able to take up another invitation to Mongolia this June. The German foundation involved in the conference withdrew as a Russian delegation was also invited. In the coming period, Mongolia will have to explore whether it will be forced to form an alliance with the regional forces or whether it can stay on the course of freedom and democracy.
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