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Inflation, youth, and protests in Mongolia

Youth protests at Sükhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar, April 8, 2022. Screenshot from the Mongolian National Broadcaster YouTube channel

Following the massive violent January protests in Kazakhstan, there were attempts to analyze the potential of protest movements in Mongolia, the country whose peculiar geographic location makes it especially susceptible to political whims of its only two neighbors: Russia and China. Thus, some suggested that, unlike Kazakhstan, where sectoral or professional solidarity often became the instigator of protests in industrial monotowns, Mongolia would witness only occasional demonstrations instigated by political scandals or staged by rivaling political parties. In this regard, the massive peaceful youth protests “with no political affiliation” held April 7-8, 2022, at Sükhbaatar Square, the central square of Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar, seemed a little odd even for the usually emphatic political life in the country, especially given the absence of youth engagement in it. Moreover, the protests triggered an unusually violent response reaction from security forces, as the videos of police violence, beatings and arrests spread across the Mongolian segment of social media, causing bewilderment and outrage.

Unlike traditional political demonstrations, these protestors did not demand the resignation of the government, but urged the government to do their job, and very soon the movement became known as the “Do Your Job!” (Ажлаа хий) protests, while the participants brought in their complaints about corruption, governmental inefficiency, injustice, debt burden and, of course, inflation. Through their representatives, they delivered to the government a list of fifteen demands, including measures to prevent inflation, revise tax law, fairly distribute credit, support industrialization, and restrict governmental rights and spending. On top of the the long-lasting effect of the pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine recently caused inflation, food shortages, and high fuel prices, as Russia's share of Mongolia's total imports far exceeds that for any state in Central Asia and the Caucasus, except Kazakhstan and Armenia. What's more, in terms of energy supplies Mongolia is almost entirely dependent on Russia.

The striking feature of these protests, commonly dubbed “youth demonstrations” (залуусын жагсаал), was the fact that the youth in Mongolia has historically remained the most politically idle demographic segment. In the most recent parliamentary by-election of October 2021, the youth showed the lowest voter turnout of less than 40 percent, while that of citizens aged 60 and older was close to 70 percent. This time the overwhelming majority of the protestors were reported to be between 16 and 24, making it the youngest crowd to ever rally in front of the Government Palace, which houses not only the State Great Khural, the parliament of Mongolia, but also the offices of the president and prime minister. It is worth noting, that back in January 2021, the current President Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh had to resign as prime minister following the protests at the same square against governmental handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, blaming, in the meantime, the then President Khaltmaagiin Battulga from the Democratic Party for orchestrating the protests. The current Prime Minister Luvsannamsrain Oyun-Erdene himself is well aware of the political efficiency of popular protests, as his rise to the top of the political scene was also facilitated by numerous protests and demonstrations he led.

Despite the relative familiarity of both the president and prime minister with political protests, the night of the first day of demonstrations witnessed enormous police presence and the excessive use of violence, leading, according to the police, to the detention of 20 protestors and another 18 taken to the sobering-up stations. Interestingly, their justification for the use of force was very much in the manner common across Central Asia, as they reported the following:

Гэвч шударга ёс, зөв зүйтэй зүйлийн төлөө жагсаж, үзэл бодлоо илэрхийлж байгаа залуусын дунд эмх замбараагүй байдал бий болгохыг санаархсан, өдөөн турхирсан, хэн нэгэн мөнгөтэй этгээдийн гар хөл болсон хүмүүс цөөнгүй нь энэ үеэс эхлэн тод болсон юм.

However, it soon became evident that among the youth at the demonstrations expressing their views on justice and rightfulness there were some eager to create chaos, instigate strife, or serve as henchmen of certain characters with money.

The police also stated, unsurprisingly, that, later in the evening, people under the influence of intoxicating liquor and drugs started clashing with and harassing the youth, who were expressing their justified demands.

Remarkably, the youth protests took place exactly on the same dates and in front of the same venue as the long-awaited Mongolia Economic Forum 2022 with its ambitious New Recovery Policy (Шинэ сэргэлтийн бодлого), a 10-year plan aiming at strengthening economic independence, mitigating the negative effects of COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical instability, as well as eradicating developmental barriers. This New Recovery Policy, itself regarded as a step towards the grandiose long-term development plan Vision 2050 (Алсын хараа-2050), prioritized the recovery in the following six areas: border ports, energy, industrialization, urban and rural areas, green development, and governmental efficiency. The policy, however, seemed to pay little attention to poverty and social welfare, as the recovery in urban and rural areas, for instance, mainly focused on infrastructure development and the structuring of economic zones.

During the pandemic, Mongolia, unlike most countries, pursued an extremely restrictive policy by closing its borders, shutting down businesses, and banning international travel. Households in urban areas, particularly the capital city, were reported to be most affected by COVID-19. In 2020, the economy suffered its worst decline since the 1990s with a contraction of 5.3 percent, due to “closed borders and low demand for fossil fuels” that hit its trade with China, with up to 260,000 more people falling into poverty.

Already, before the pandemic, rural poverty in Mongolia was declining, while urban poverty mainly remained unchanged. This is especially affecting, since, despite the global image of the country, urban residents make up almost 70 percent of Mongolia's population, which is a far greater percentage than any country in Central Asia and 2.5 times that of Tajikistan. Moreover, literally half of the country’s population live in Ulaanbaatar alone, making it an extreme case of disproportionate population distribution in a country with a territory 3.5-time bigger than that of Uzbekistan.

A view of Ulaanbaatar. Photo by Asian Development Bank via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

According to the official statistics, the urban and rural poverty rates for 2020 were 26.5 and 30.5 percent respectively; however, an impressive 64 percent of the poor lived in urban areas, with 43 percent living in the capital. Despite its unimpressive size, in 2016 Ulaanbaatar became the most polluted capital in the world, ahead of New Delhi and Beijing, leading to a 270 percent surge of respiratory infections and a 40 percent reduction in the lung function of children in urban areas. The gradual introduction of the ban on the use of unprocessed coal in households slightly eased the situation, so that New Delhi regained its lead among the most polluted capitals, but the catastrophic level of air pollution in Mongolia's capital remains a vital challenge along with poverty.

Nevertheless, the government seemed to take youth demands seriously, as the prime minister personally appeared at the square and spoke with the protestors, citing, however, that some of their demands like tax law and elections exceed the competence of the cabinet and ought to be discussed in  parliament. The matter was taken further by the president, who pressed parliament and the cabinet to urgently implement the demands of the protestors, citing a list of reforms and policies. However, this hasty embracement of the protestors’ demands was also seen as a trick by the ruling Mongolian People's Party, eager to achieve their own goals over the youth protests.

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