Mongolia Sheds Communism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Despite its isolation, the political changes of 1989 in other Soviet bloc countries quickly reverberated in Mongolia. Following the pattern set in several Eastern European nations, street protests were followed by democratic elections in July, 1990, leading up to the proclamation of a revamped constitution in the following year.

Summary of Event

When Jambyn Batmönkh came to power in Mongolia in 1984, he was seen as somewhat of a breath of fresh air after the stagnant and monolithic rule of Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal Tsedenbal, Yumjaagiin as leader of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), the Communist party of Mongolia. Tsedenbal’s notoriety stemmed from his nearly absolute subservience to the Soviet Union and the way he flaunted his wealth in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. Batmönkh, a former academic, was a comparative reformer, but he proceeded very slowly, and Mongolia remained a regressive, one-party Communist state throughout the 1980’s, although, it is important to note, the nation established diplomatic relations with the United States in 1987. Mongolia, government Democracy;Mongolia [kw]Mongolia Sheds Communism (Feb. 12, 1991) [kw]Communism, Mongolia Sheds (Feb. 12, 1991) Mongolia, government Democracy;Mongolia [g]Central Asia;Feb. 12, 1991: Mongolia Sheds Communism[08020] [g]Mongolia;Feb. 12, 1991: Mongolia Sheds Communism[08020] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 12, 1991: Mongolia Sheds Communism[08020] Batmönkh, Jambyn Ochirbat, Punsalmaagiyn Gorbachev, Mikhail Byambasüren, Dashiyn Dashyondon, Büdragchaagiyn Ganbold, Davaadorjiyn Erdeniyn Bat-Üül

Although an underground Mongolian democratic movement had existed for years, it took until late 1989, with the combination of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization within the Soviet Union itself and the upheaval in Eastern Europe, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, to occasion widespread demonstrations in Mongolia. On December 10, 1989, the Mongolian Democratic Union (MDU) was formed, largely by intellectuals in Ulaanbaatar. In January, Batmönkh stated that he would negotiate with the opposition. A scientist and academic with strong MPRP connections, Erdeniyn Bat-Üül, was sent to meet with some of the opposition leaders about possible negotiations. Talk ensued, accelerated by huge demonstrations on March 4. These prompted Batmönkh to announce, on March 12, that he was resigning. That day, Punsalmaagiyn Ochirbat, a man of a younger generation, was selected as chair of the Mongolian parliament, the Great People’s Hural. On May 14, it was announced that free elections for the Hural would be held on July 25.

These elections saw the MPRP win 86 percent of the seats. Although the MDU claimed that the process was biased against opposition parties, Mongolians in general reveled in their country’s first-ever free election. The newly elected Great People’s Hural constituted the Baga Hural (small Hural) as a provisional government. Ochirbat was named president, and Dashiyn Byambasüren was appointed as prime minister. Büdragchaagiyn Dashyondon, an experienced Communist who was yet not seen as a Batmönkh loyalist, became head of the MPRP. Byambasüren visited Moscow that same month, obtaining a new friendship treaty that affirmed a relationship of equals and disposed of the old patron-satellite relationship. Meanwhile, a young economic minister, Davaadorjiyn Ganbold, began to preside over a process of privatization, though exceptions were made for natural resources and central financial and transportation holdings, which remained under government control. Ganbold was praised for the decisiveness of his privatization policies. However, because of the severe shock administered to the Mongolian economy by the collapse of its major Soviet trading partner, economic conditions in Mongolia were unstable throughout the transition period.

Bat-Üül, Byambasüren, and Ganbold all possessed some non-Mongolian ancestry, whether Russian, Chinese, or Buryat. Their ethnicities were comparatively uncontroversial at the time of the transition, but accusations of their being insufficiently pure in ethnicity were to undermine any future leadership role for these men in the Mongolian polity, although Bat-Üül still harbored national ambitions as of 2006.

On February 12, 1991, a new constitution heralded an irreversible change in Mongolian politics. On one level, a total revolution had not occurred in Mongolia; the Communist Party simply reformed itself from within. On another level, the consultative and deliberative nature of the process augured well for an opposition party coming to power, as indeed occurred in 1996. The gradual quality of the Mongolian transition was also seen in the names given to cities and the society’s treatment of its own historical tradition. Though new attention was paid to old, pre-Communist heroes such as Genghis Khan, the capital, Ulaanbaatar, kept its name (in honor of the 1920’s Communist hero Damdin Sükhbaatar). The Mongolian People’s Republic had been consigned to history, but the new Mongolia retained substantial continuity with it.

Significance

Mongolia was one of the world’s least-known nations in 1990. Some, confusing the “Outer Mongolia” that is Mongolia outside of China with the “Inner Mongolia” within China, thought the country was part of China. Others, conscious of the Soviet Union’s strong political control over Communist Mongolia, assumed the country was an integral part of the Soviet Union in the manner of Central Asian nations such as the Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republics. Mongolia’s methodical and orderly democratic transition brought the country to wider international notice and respect than had occurred within recent memory.

Although the world’s eyes were focused on other aspects of the Soviet implosion in 1990-1991, most notably the impending reunification of Germany and its effect on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European integration, Mongolia’s democratic transition was not without its own geopolitical implications. Possessing a long border with China, Mongolia had traditionally served as a buffer state between Russian and Chinese aspirations in inner Asia. Given that China had recently experienced the upheaval of the Tiananmen Square student protests and their harsh repression in 1989, any spasms in Mongolia could well have reverberated across the border. This did not happen; nor was Mongolian democracy driven off course by the implosion of its northern neighbor, the Soviet Union. Mongolia neither affected these outside developments nor was particularly affected by them.

Mongolian democracy acquired another significance by the late 1990’s. Taking note of the economic successes of mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia with social systems that were imperfect or undemocratic, some analysts spoke of an Asian model where free markets were not necessarily accompanied by freedom of speech. In 1998, Mongolian prime minister Tsakhiagiyn Elbegdorj cited his own country’s experience as a refutation of the assertion that Asian culture and electoral democracy did not mix. Once a virtually unknown adjunct to Soviet power, Mongolia had become a regional exemplar.

At the end of the Cold War, Mongolia was seen as one of the most pliant and obscure Soviet satellites. In the 1990’s, Mongolia surprised most outside observers by quickly shifting to a stable, multiparty democracy in which two major parties peaceably competed, occupying office when the people elected them to do so. Mongolia made a smoother and more effective transition to democracy than many nations formerly part of the Soviet Union and by the end of the 1990’s was touted as an example of how democracy could flourish in an Asian country with an authoritarian past. Mongolia, government Democracy;Mongolia

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fish, M. Steven. “Mongolia: Democracy Without Prerequisites.” Journal of Democracy 9, no. 3 (1998): 127-141. Scholarly essay provides a lucid overview of the striking rapidity of Mongolia’s democratic evolution. Gives concrete details of the growth of political pluralism, multiparty cooperation, and a strong civil society. Attributes the unusually tranquil progress of Mongolia toward democracy less to cultural factors than to Mongolian politicians’ avoiding concentrating too much power in the hands of one leader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaplonski, Christopher. Mongolia: Democracy on the Steppe. New York: Routledge, 2004. One of the leading historians of post-Communist Mongolia mounts a comprehensive survey of the country’s recent history, examining both the mechanics of the transition itself and some of the nonstate actors (such as nongovernmental organizations) who played as pivotal a role as did the politicians in government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Truth, History, and Politics in Mongolia: Memory of Heroes. New York: Routledge, 2004. Examines the struggles of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party to dissociate itself from the people’s memory of repressive Communist persecutions of the predemocracy period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rossabi, Morris. Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Famous for his biography of Genghis Khan and his work on earlier Mongolian history, Rossabi here turns to a survey of recent Mongolian history. Focuses more on economic issues than on political issues, but provides a sense of overall background that makes the relatively seamless nature of the transition more explicable to the casual observer. Excellent overview is ideal for the beginning student of the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanders, Alan. Historical Dictionary of Mongolia. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1996. This handy reference, part of an invaluable and much-consulted series, was published well in time to take account of the democratic transition. Provides crucial basic data about prominent Mongolian political personalities of the era as well as a thumbnail sketch of twentieth century Mongolian history.

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Dissolution of the Soviet Union

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