Mongolia experienced a relatively smooth transition from being a Soviet satellite to being an independent democracy. It Mongolia ended seven decades of communist rule in 1990 and held its first elections in 1992. Since then, its transition to a democratic capitalist state has been largely peaceful.

By the 1980s, Mongolia like the Soviet Union was stagnating and the Mongolian populace had become dissatisfied with the rigid centrally controlled government and the domination of the Communist party. A process of liberalization and reform began in 1984 when the reformer Jambyn Batmongke became leader of Mongolia. Inspired by Gorbachev, he launched a glasnost and perestroika campaign, based some modest economic reforms and improved relations with China.

Changes in East Europe in 1989 led to protests against Soviet control in Ulaanbaatar. In March l990, large pro-democracy demonstrations and hunger strikes were held in sub-zero temperatures in front of the Parliament building on the main square in Ulaanbaatar. Radnaasumbereliin Gonchigdorj, a son of a Buddhist monk and a former math professor, was one of the leaders of the pro-democracy movement. Tsakhia Elbegdorj, who became prime minister in 2004, was another key member. He founded Mongolia’s first independent newspaper and was a charter member of a group now revered as the 13 First Democrats. He led the street protest that ultimately toppled the government, “We were tough, we went to jail, we led a hunger strike,” he said.

The demonstrations occurred less than a year after the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and some Communist hardliners wanted to used tanks and troops to put down the protests. Mongolia’s communist rulers were faced with an almost identical scenario as their Chinese counterparts. Students and working people had occupied the capital city’s central square, demanding that the next election be freely contested. But the outcome was different in Mongolia: the politburo split and the moderates, instead of the hardliners as in China, prevailed. Batmongke failed to sign the order for a military crackdown. News about the event was published in the local press and the government became very nervous. Batmongke was removed from power and political parties sprung up over night.

In March 1990, the politburo, fearing an Easter European kind of revolt, resigned, the Communist Party renounced power and changed its name to the Mongolian Peoples Revolutionary Party (MPRP) and called for elections. In May the constitution was amended to allow multi-party elections in July 1990. Within a few years, Mongolia was a full, functioning democracy.

Reforms and Liberalization in Mongolia in the 1980s

Like the countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Mongolia began to reform its social, political, and economic sectors and to be more open to the West. The changes set in motion by the replacement of Yumjaagiyn Tsedenbal with the reformist leadership of Batmonh in 1984. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Amidst the criticism of Mongolian leaders, the previous negative analysis of the historical role of Chinggis Khan was revised. Chinggis was seen in an increasingly favorable light as the Mongol nation's founder and a national hero, a position not well received in Moscow. Calls for publication of historical texts and literature in Mongolian classical script rather than Cyrillic grew, and usage of Mongolian rather than Russian-language words increased. Fears were expressed in official circles mid-way in 1989 that some of the new nationalist pride might be taking a dangerous anti-Soviet line, and appropriate warnings were made to those whose thinking may have been swayed by "bourgeois propaganda." *

Western material culture also took hold in reform-minded Mongolia. Semi-professional rock music groups emerged after a decade of low-key development and avant-grade art began to enjoy official sanction. The emphasis on cultural reform, however, appeared to concentrate on a renewed interest in traditional prerevolutionary achievements. *

Domestic organizational activity also took place. A new draft Constitution of the Mongolian People's Republic would be forthcoming was announced in August 1989 as part of the process of changing "outdated laws and rules necessitated by the process of renewal . . . ." Top leadership changes, such as when Minister of Defense Jamsrangiyn Yondon retired in September 1989 and was replaced by Lieutenant General Lubsangombyn Molomjamts, also took place. *

Mongolian International Relations During the Reform Era

High-level exchanges with the Soviet Union continued to be the norm in relations between Ulaanbaatar and Moscow, including Batmonh's brief "working visit" with Gorbachev to reaffirm the two communist parties' "close comradeship" in July 1989. As a sign of more openness among communist countries, in July 1989 Mongolia and Albania restored formal diplomatic relations and the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party normalized relations with the Chinese Communist Party. Indicative of the improved relations with China was the visit a month later to Mongolia by Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen. The capitalist world was not ignored, as the minister of foreign economic ties and supply was dispatched to Britain and the United States in July 1989 in search of investment and joint venture possibilities, and diplomatic relations were established with the European Economic Community in August 1989. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Dissatisfaction with Mongolia's previously self-imposed isolation and Soviet plans to reduce its economic presence in Mongolia led to great Mongolian efforts in late 1989 and early 1990 to expand foreign economic relations beyond the communist countries. Having joined the Group of 77 — the coalition of more than 120 developing countries in the United Nations — in June 1989, Mongolia sought to join the Asian Development Bank, establish official relations with the European Economic Community, and become a member of the International Civil Aviation Organization. Mongolian officials actively promoted joint ventures with capitalist companies and welcomed visits by Western and Asian business representatives. Plans were underway to teach foreign languages for trade purposes and to foster expanded tourism. *

In December 1989, Batmonh announced that relations between Mongolia and China had been normalized and that conditions were favorable for cooperation. Some of the geopolitical developments that lessened tensions with China also brought Mongolia farther into the mainstream of world affairs. Mongolia participated more actively in international organizations and improved relations with a growing number of Western countries, including the United States, which established diplomatic relations with Mongolia in 1987. In a first-ever visit of a Mongolian People's Republic leader to a non-communist country, Prime Minister Dumaagiyn Sodnom made a six-day trip to Japan in March 1990. A most-favored-nation trading agreement was signed and Japan agreed to donate U$3 million worth of medical equipment and supplies and encouraged Japanese firms to assist in the construction of a steel mill in Mongolia. *

Economic Conditions in Mongolia in the 1980s

In late 1989 the new openness about economic conditions brought forth a deputy minister of foreign economic relations and supply's admission that many official statistics had been falsified during the Tsedenbal years to bolster claims of economic progress. Mongolia watcher Alan Sanders, when reporting on the revelation, said "The deluge of phoney statistics has had some effect — not least on Mongolian economists, who have been using them for planning purposes." The statistics had found their way into United Nations publications and been used for years by foreign analysts projecting the state of the Mongolian economy. Users of the economic data in this book thus are warned to keep in mind the "official" nature of many of the figures used. After the admission, both the leadership and the media criticized the provision of inaccurate economic statistics to United Nations agencies as well as Mongolia's refusal to seek economic assistance from Western countries. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

In late 1989, the government revealed the existence in Dornod Aymag of the Mardai uranium mine and the nearby town of Erdes, which were built and run as concessions by the Soviet Union. Established by a 1981 intergovernmental agreement, the mine began shipments of uranium ore to the Soviet Union in 1988. It was also disclosed that unemployment officially was 27,000, but unofficial estimates ran as high as three time that figure. Furthermore, Mongolia was more forthright about the economic drawbacks stemming from the country's political and ideological orientation. *

Political Changes in Mongolia in the Late 1980s and Early 1990s

The 1980s ended with a the Seventh Plenary Session of the party congress and a two-day session of the Great People's Hural. The party plenum retired three Political Bureau members and appointed two new, younger men to candidate membership. The plenary session closed with a resolution calling for more energetic implementation of the party's economic and social policy and a promise to hold the Twentieth Congress of the Mongolia People's Revolutionary Party in late November 1990. For the first time, Great People's Hural sessions were broadcast nationally over both radio and television as the deputies approved a draft socio-economic development plan and a draft state budget for 1990. Universal, equal, and direct suffrage through secret ballot for national and local assembly elections was provided in a draft law also approved by the Great People's Hural.

In December 1989 and early 1990, the Mongolian Democratic Union, a group of intellectuals and students labeled as an "unauthorized organization" by the government-controlled media, started holding rallies in Ulaanbaatar, first to voice support for the party and hural documents on socio-economic reconstruction but later to demand democracy, government reform, and a multi-party system. They also advocated bringing Tsedenbal, who had been living in Moscow since 1984, to trial for having allowed Mongolia to stagnate during his thirty-two-year regime.

An early response from the Political Bureau was the announcement that it had rehabilitated people illegally repressed in the 1930s and 1940s. Amidst contradictory reports of whether or not the party and government had both granted official recognition to the union but banned public assemblies and demonstrations, the media criticized the union for making "ridiculous and contradictory statements" about the administration's reform efforts. Union members, believing they were acting in defiance of the public assembly ban, continued to hold mass rallies and issue calls for action by the government. Despite the ambiguous status of the Mongolian Democratic Union, the government and party were propelling the nation toward further reform and openness in the 1990s.

Early Democracy and a New Constitution in Mongolia

Mongolia is the home of Central Asia’s only multi-party democracy. After the MPRP renounced power it won in the elections in July 1990. The constitution was revised to give Mongolians greater political and individual freedom, including the rights of free speech, religion and assembly. In January 1992, the Mongolian parliament ratified a constitution that included separation of power among the executive, judicial and legislative branches.

The Soviet military pulled out of Mongolia in 1992. For the first time in 400 years Mongolia was neither a Chinese colony or a Soviet satellite. Once banned figures like Genghis Khan were resurrected. Now his face is everywhere: on bottles of beer, in offices of bureaucrats, on the currency. After a statue of Stalin was removed, peasant sprinkled milk on it to "prevent his angry evil spirit from returning to haunt them." A statue of Lenin still stands outside the Red Hero Hotel.

In parliament elections in June, 1992, the MPRP, won by a large margin. It won 70 of 76 seats and 57 percent of the popular vote. Voter turnout was 95.6 percent. The opposition did respectably well in the cities but was hammered in the countryside. There were some allegations of vote rigging. The cabinet was formed by the prime minister in August 1992.

Presidential elections were held in the summer of 1993. The harsh transition from Communism caused the ruling party to drop reformist president, Punsalmaagiyn Ochirbat, who joined the opposition and was reelected.

Modernizing Mongolia

Economic reforms in the Soviet Union inspired modernizing efforts in Mongolia under Jambyn Batmonh, premier between 1974 and 1984 and general secretary of the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party after 1984. The acceleration of economic development, greater application of science and technology to production, improved management and planning, greater independence for economic enterprises, and more balance among individual, collective, and societal interests were the target areas of reform in the late 1980s.

Underpinning society and the economy in the Communist ear was the government and party. Mongolia had a highly centralized government run by a cabinet (the Council of Ministers), with a unicameral legislature (People's Great Hural), and an independent judicial branch overseeing the courts and criminal justice system. Provinces and provincial-level cities and counties and town centers comprised local administration. As in all communist-run states, at the pinnacle of control is one-party rule. The Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, with a membership of nearly 90,000, operated with quinquennial party congresses and an elected Central Committee. The party's Political Bureau and Secretariat provided standing leadership and carried out day-to-day business. Local party administration coincided with government offices and production units at each level. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Mongolia in 1990 was a small, economically developing country that had made great strides since it emerged from centuries of Chinese domination. The measure of progress was controlled by a one-party, highly centralized system that had long been influenced by Soviet mentors. With a foreign policy coordinated with that of the Soviet Union and closely integrated with and heavily dependent on Soviet and East European assistance, the degree to which Mongolia was able to conduct its own affairs was questionable.

Modernizing the Mongolian Military

In the 1950s, serious efforts at military modernization took place, but it was the Sino-Soviet rift that brought about the most dramatic changes. Increasingly close ties developed between the Mongolian and Soviet armed forces in accordance with a succession of mutual defense pacts. Open hostilities between Soviet and Chinese forces in the late 1960s further strengthened ties and led to still greater modernization of the ground and air forces. By 1988 the armed forces numbered 24,500 active-duty personnel — most organized into four motorized rifle divisions and a MiG-21 fighter regiment — and some 200,000 reservists and paramilitary personnel. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Military training for able-bodied civilians — both men and women — and universal military conscription are key elements in a country with a tradition in which all men were considered warriors. Additionally, all citizens are obliged to participate in civil defense preparedness activities. Close ties between the military establishment and the civilian economy have existed since the 1930s, with many industries producing both military matériel and civilian-use goods. A demobilized soldier normally has greater technical skills than those who did not serve in the military and thus contributes significantly to the economy upon completion of military service. The military also plays an important economic role through numerous military construction projects for the civilian sector. *

Economic Collapse in Mongolia After the Soviet Era

After Mongolia became a democracy the economy collapsed. Mongolia had been too dependent on assistance from the Soviet Union and failed to adequately develop its own economy. When the Soviets Union left Mongolia was saddled with $3.5 billion in debt. Huge shortages ensued when Soviet subsidies were taken away in 1992.

In the early 1990s the economy contracted by 15 percent, inflation reached 300 percent and living standards plummeted and unemployment to reach over 50 percent. Only emergency food from aid agencies kept a famine from occurring.

Lack of fuel, machinery and, spare parts brought power plants, factories, trucks and machinery to a grinding halt. Lack of medical supplies severely limited health care. Shortages of these things in turn causes people to loose their jobs, store shelves to be empty and pension payments to dry up. People returned to herding as way to get something to eat and camels and yaks were used to transport goods.

Economic Reforms in Mongolia After the Soviet Era

Under the advise of the World Bank and other international organization, state industries were dismantled, trade barriers were lowered, and livestock was distributed to nomads. People were given the right to own property and land. Development funds were funneled into roads and power plants rather than high-tech manufacturing.

Laws were passed to make it easier for foreign investors to invest. Some foreign investment was funneled into tourism. State-owned hotels were privatized and numerous new hotels, nightclubs, bars, restaurants and small stores sprung up. Mongolia’s first stab at privatization involved giving away vouchers with Genghis Khan’s picture on them. They were given away because no one had money to buy them. The scheme was poorly thought out and executed and many of the enterprises simply collapsed.

The economic reforms in Mongolia brought social and economic hardship and were politically unpopular. The reforms and the painful transition to the market system initially resulted in declining production, severe shortages, inflation, record drops in real income and unemployment rates over 50 percent. International aid was necessary to keep the economy afloat. Foreign aid accounted for 20 percent of the economy in some years in the 1990s. See Development.

Mongolia stuck with a painful International Monetary Fund that cut inflation and increased efficiency When price controls were eliminated, the cost of living soared. Imports fell off, manufactured goods were scarce and basic foodstuffs like sugar, flour, rice, butter and meat were temporarily rationed. The economy was also hurt by falling prices of cashmere and copper.

Nomads in the Post Soviet Era

The collectives were privatized in 1996. Many people were given livestock and the rights to use some grazing land. Herders could buy and sell their animals. Some people took up herding who had never herded before.

Some collectives became shareholding companies. Herders used government vouchers to buy animals that belonged to cooperatives and state farms. Many families took ownership of more than a hundred animals. Some nomads set up systems called “horshoo”, in which individual families took care of their own animals but joined together to transport them to market. By this time much of the herding was done on motorcycle rather than on horseback.

In the early 1990s many herders didn’t want to sell their meat products because the prices were too low. This resulted in food shortages in the cities. One nomad told National Geographic. "Unless the price is right, we don't want to sell animals. So meat and milk in the cities are getting scarcer and more expensive."

Some herders did very well financially. In the early 1990s a family with 600 animals was considered rich. By the mid 1990s, many families had 400 animals and families with 1,300 animals were not uncommon. The cashmere trade was particularly lucrative.

Impact of the Soviet Era on Mongolia

Glenn Hodges wrote in National Geographic: “Cultural change is a tricky phenomenon, bringing with it a bundle of trade-offs that aren't necessarily obvious at first glance. Consider the impact of the Soviet era. Until 1990 the Soviet Union had Mongolia in a tight lock for more than six decades. Under direction from Moscow, Mongolia's socialist government obliterated the country's Buddhist establishment, killing lamas by the thousands and destroying the temples and monasteries that were the strongest institutions that most villages had. The government pressured herders to relinquish their animals to collectives and imposed bureaucratic strictures on a people who had rarely lived by clock or ledger. [Source: Glenn Hodges, National Geographic, October 2003 /=/]

“Then again, most of those people had never learned to read either, and with Soviet aid Mongolia built schools across the country and brought virtually 100 percent literacy. Pensions, free health care, and regular salaries made the lives of herders less harsh and unpredictable. Perhaps most significantly, the Soviets kept the Chinese out. China had long regarded Outer Mongolia as part of China, and it wasn't until 1921, when Russians helped oust Chinese troops, that Mongolia shook free of the Chinese yoke. One look at China's Inner Mongolia, where ethnic Mongolians have been forced to settle on smaller and smaller pastures as Chinese farmers have poured in to take the best land, and it's hard not to see the Soviets as somewhat of a salvation. For nearly 70 years Mongolia fielded socialism's mixed bag of costs and benefits. Now that socialism is out of the picture, Mongolia faces a whole new set of trade-offs.” /=/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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