It’s December 10, 1989. A Mongolian band sings “The Sound of a Bell” at Sukhbaatar Square — symbolically waking up the Mongolian populace and welcoming democracy. Around this time, the Soviet Union is on the edge of disintegration. Although Mongolia was never a Soviet republic, the decades-old strong relationship, planned economy, and heavy financial aid have abruptly shifted — leaving Ulaanbaatar to find its own democratic ways to develop, grow, and prosper.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was indeed a purview of Mongolia’s political, economic, and social transformation. Mongolia’s leadership, too, had to transform. For many decades, Mongolian intellectuals were educated in Marxist-Leninist ideology and policymaking. Between the 1970 and 1980s, students who would later become Mongolia’s leaders studied abroad in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Irkutsk, and Ulan-Ude. The ideological and practical transformation had to begin from the top.
Faced with the rise of popular protest and hunger strikes, the leaders of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) refused to use force and were open to dialogue and negotiation. In an interview, the last leader of socialist Mongolia, J. Batmunkh stated “the demonstrations and the protests were something new to us. I gave them instructions that they should not use force under any circumstance. Any force shall not be used. There is no need to utilize the police or involve the military. The organizers of these movements and demonstrations should be responsible for social order. Actually, these demonstrators, participants, and protestors are our children.”
The resignation of J. Batmunkh’s government ended one-party rule in Mongolia. The emergence of Mongolia’s Social Democratic Party and the Mongolian National Democratic Party, together forming the Democratic Union Coalition, ushered Mongolia into a new era of a semi-parliamentary system. Mongolia’s first political change came in the 1993 presidential election. Mongolia’s first democratically elected president, Ochirbat Punsalmaa, wrote in his memoir “Time of Heaven,” that the June 10 edition of the French newspaper, Le Monde, said “Ochirbat has dramatically defeated his opponent, who had been nominated from the Communist Party.”
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The singularity of the Mongolian revolutionary process deserves to be underlined. Nothing predestined the country to experience such a development at a time when the Soviet Union had not yet collapsed and so soon after China, a few months earlier, had crushed the revolt of its youth on Tiananmen Square.
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The relative ease of the revolution was the result of a convergence between the reformers of the democratic movement and those within the dominant party. At the time, many agreed that change had to be profound to pull the country out of the doldrums of the 1980s, a decade of stagnation. Above all, many saw in the unfolding of events a historic opportunity to break with Soviet tutelage and to regain full independence and sovereignty. The events of the winter of 1989-1990, therefore, constituted a national revolution. It allowed Mongolia to fully assert its independence and sovereignty.
To fulfill the promises of the revolution, Mongolians progressively designed their own political and economic system. Mongolia’s democratization required a new constitution, replete with legislative and executive branches to support the country’s emerging outward-led economic policies.
Since adopting a new constitution — after two years of debate — Mongolian constituents agreed that the power should be distributed among the three branches of the state: the speaker of Parliament, the prime minister, and the president. Initially thought of as a semi-presidential system, the Mongolian political regime gradually evolved into a full parliamentary regime following two constitutional amendments adopted in 2000 and 2019. The choice of a parliamentary system was presented at the time as a tool to limit foreign influence on the Mongolian decision process.
The collapse of the Soviet Union hindered Mongolia’s economy, foreign investment, and joint projects at large. The abrupt change resulted in sudden privatization, liberalization of prices, and selling of all livestock. In addition, Mongolia was already facing a large sum of foreign debt with the Soviet Union.
Former Prime Minister P. Jasrai wrote, “Given Mongolia’s historical turning points, Mongolia became a member of COMECON [from the 1960s to the 1990s]. Because Mongolia was one of the weaker members of the economic group—in order to engage with others economically—it sought to attract foreign investment by receiving grants, soft loans, and establishing joint ventures. Although the construction project was not insignificant, in the end, the amount of foreign debt increased enormously.”
In order for Mongolia to rejuvenate its economy along the capitalistic school of thought, policymakers abandoned the planned economy. Moreover, to promote a new era of economic growth, Mongolian authorities chose a radical transition process based on the “shock theory.”
A gradual transition was difficult to envisage due to the structural dependency on the Soviet economy and the USSR’s Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON). The transition resulted in a violent economic crisis.
Mongolia’s GDP reached its 1989 level only in 2003, while the amount of foreign trade recovered its 1989 level in 2004. Unemployment and hyperinflation created social difficulties climaxing with the implementation of ration tickets in the early 1990s. Due to the importance of the crisis, the years after 1990 are considered a “lost decade” for Mongolia. Decision-makers had to capitalize on Mongolia’s comparative advantages, mainly the country’s natural resources, coal, and copper.
Moreover, at the end of the Batmunkh era, most COMECON countries faced similar economic challenges. This also meant competition for financial and economic resources. Mongolia sought to strengthen its already established diplomatic relations, mainly focusing on economic issues and seeking donor aid beyond Russia and China. Mongolia looked toward the four “Asian Tiger” economies — South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan — as examples of successful development models. Former Prime Minister Jasrai Puntsag wrote in his memoir, “If you were to say that Batmunkh only understood this in 1989, that will be a big misconception. Back in 1985, there was a new direction in Mongolia’s foreign policy. These years we initiated to strengthen Mongolia’s relations with Japan, China, and to establish bilateral relations with South Korea. We aimed to strengthen in economy and trade, science and technology, and development in humanities sector.”
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the abrupt democratic revolution deprived Mongolia of the security guarantees afforded it by the Soviet Union and forced it to ensure its own independence and the protection of its sovereignty. This situation led the authorities to formalize an innovative and original strategic response which plays on the democratic specificity claimed by Mongolia. This strategic approach is built around three priorities. First and foremost, Mongolian diplomatic endeavors aim to develop friendly relations with its two geographical neighbors, Russia and China. Mongolian diplomacy then focused on developing and strengthening privileged relations with democratic and developed countries, its “third neighbors.” In this pursuit, Mongolia has successfully secured strategic partnerships with Russia and China, and third-neighbor countries around the world in addition to its international peace-keeping operations.
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As Mongolia recently celebrated the 110th anniversary of the establishment of Mongol diplomacy, the country is moving forward with a robust foreign policy that engages the country in both regional and global affairs. The collapse of the Soviet Union transformed Mongolia, but Mongolia’s peaceful democratic revolution remains the keystone of Mongolia’s multi-pillared foreign policy approach that secures Mongolia’s national interests.