China was ruled by the Mongols and the Manchus

The rise of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty, which had such profound effects on the fate of Mongolia, began long before 1644, the year a Manchu emperor was first seated on the throne in Beijing. In the late 16th century it was becoming clear that a new barbarian conquest of China was again possible. In competition with the various Mongol princes and tribes already mentioned, the Manchu had the advantage that in the southern part of northeastern China (Manchuria), but outside the Great Wall, there was a large Chinese population with a number of urban centres and a flourishing trade that, instead of passing by land through the Great Wall, went largely by sea to the Shandong Peninsula—to the rear, that is, of the rulers in Beijing. These Chinese were somewhat alienated from other Chinese. They had for centuries been accustomed to trading with the barbarians and to farming under the patronage of barbarian princes, and they did not like Beijing’s periodic attempts to maintain a “closed frontier” along the Great Wall.

The Manchu not only subjugated these Chinese but also cultivated their loyalty and were soon heavily dependent on them, not only economically but for military manpower. To balance this dependence, they built up a network of alliances with their other neighbours, the easternmost Mongols, and Mongol troops took part in the Manchu conquest of China. Before the Manchu occupied Beijing, they established control of the southern fringe of Mongolia, which they organized as part of their military reserve for the domination of China. This organization is the origin of the institutional and administrative concept of “Inner” Mongolia. It took the Manchu about a century to add northern, or “Outer,” Mongolia to their empire, resulting in two Mongolias markedly different from each other, Inner Mongolia being much more closely integrated with China.

Meanwhile, the Oirat (Jungar) made a belated effort to unite all the Mongols in rivalry with the Manchu. The Oirat were strengthened by their control of a number of the East Turkistan oases but weakened by rivalries among their chiefs, by the diversion of much of their strength to adventures in Tibet, and by the reluctance of the Khalkh princes to accept the overlordship of princes not descended from Genghis Khan. Led by such warriors as Galdan (Dga’-ldan), the Oirat made sweeping campaigns far to the east in Mongolia but were never quite able to consolidate their gains.

Unwilling to accept submission to the Oirat as the price of unification, the Khalkh princes rallied more and more to the Manchu, who guaranteed their aristocratic privileges and titles in a great convention at Dolon Nor (Duolun), Inner Mongolia, in 1691. With the added resources of Khalkh, the Manchu were then able to mount a long series of military campaigns in which they annihilated the Oirat power with tremendous slaughter.

This conquest was not completed until 1759, however, and it was complicated by many events, particularly a major revolt against Manchu rule in western Khalkh in the 1750s led by a noble named Chingünjav. He was a coconspirator with an Oirat leader named Amursanaa, who in turn had first submitted to the Manchu and then rebelled against them. This was the last period of general warfare involving the Mongols, and it ended with a considerable redistribution of the tribes; several Khalkh groups that had fled from the Oirat into Inner Mongolia never returned; a few Chahar from Inner Mongolia were settled in East Turkistan as garrisons; numbers of the Oirat group were included in the western part of Khalkha geographically but not within the tribal organization; some ended their migrations at the Alxa Plateau (Ala Shan Desert), at the western end of Inner Mongolia, but not within the Inner Mongolian organization; and some ended theirs far away in the Koko Nor–Qaidam Basin region of Tibet. The most distant Oirat wanderers (mostly Torguud and Dörvöd) had migrated in the early 17th century from the Altai Mountains to the Volga River, where they took service under the tsars and participated in the Russian conquest of the Caucasus region. In 1771 about 70,000 families migrated all the way back to East Turkistan—which by then had been renamed Xinjiang (“New Frontier”) by the Manchu—where they were accepted under Manchu rule and allotted pastures for grazing. The descendants of those who remained on the Volga were known as the Kalmyk (Kalmuck).

The ensuing period of peace degenerated into stagnation and economic decline. Chinese camp followers had accompanied the Manchu conquest, and from this grew Chinese control of the caravan trade and of a barter trade exploiting usurious terms of credit. Because Mongol troops were of decreasing use for the control of China, there was no incentive for the Manchu to protect, economically, this source of manpower, and the Manchu authorities relied increasingly on the potentates of Tibetan Buddhism, who were themselves increasingly corrupt, for the control of Mongolia. Chinese colonization began to encroach on the pasturelands of Inner Mongolia, and at the end of the 19th century an attempt was made to plant a screen of Chinese colonists along the frontier between Siberia and Outer Mongolia.

Mongolia from 1900 to 1990

At the turn of the 20th century, Japan and Russia were competing to expand their empires into northeastern Asia at the expense of the Qing (Manchu) rulers in China. Russia had encroached southward into northern Manchuria. Meanwhile, Japan had fought and won the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 and had demanded that China cede the Liaodong Peninsula and its strategically important harbours of Dalian (Dairen) and Port Arthur (Lüshun; now part of Dalian) on the Chinese coast. However, the Western powers intervened, and in 1898 Russia negotiated a 25-year lease of the peninsula with China, much to the anger of Japan. In the ensuing Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), Japan prevailed, and Russia ceded to Japan all its interests in northeastern China. In addition, by secret treaties concluded after the war, Inner Mongolia east of the meridian of Beijing was recognized by Russia as a Japanese sphere of interest.

Meanwhile, the British, concerned about a possible Russian threat to India through Tibet, which the Manchu could not control, sent an expeditionary force under Francis Younghusband to Lhasa. In 1904 the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa and took refuge in Urga (now Ulaanbaatar) with the Javzandamba khutagt (Mongolia’s spiritual leader) for nearly two years. The agreement signed between Britain and Tibet in 1904 presented Tibet as an independent state and made no reference to Qing rule, although the Manchu amban (governor) was present at the signing. However, in 1907 the Qing negotiated their own treaty with the British that recognized Chinese suzerainty in Tibet. In 1910 Chinese troops entered Lhasa, and the Dalai Lama again fled, though this time to India, returning in 1912. In a treaty signed at Niislel Khüree (now Ulaanbaatar) in January 1913, Tibet and Mongolia declared themselves both to be free from Manchu rule and separate from China, and they pledged to cooperate as sovereign states.

Counterrevolution and Japan

On the Bogd Khan’s death, the limited monarchy lapsed, but the new MPR government obstructed the search for a reincarnation of the Javzandamba. By 1929 the government had instituted an official ban on recognizing any reincarnations. The 1920s were marked by violent swings in the MPRP’s policies. In 1924–28 the party leadership pursued “Get rich!” policies that later were described as “right opportunism,” which were countered after a change in leadership by a period of “left deviation.” The leftists soon began setting up herding communes on property expropriated from landlords and monasteries. These actions precipitated a series of insurrections that were finally suppressed by April 1932. Shortly thereafter, however, the Comintern decided that the Mongolian revolution had been progressing too rapidly and was not yet at the socialist stage of development, and the MPRP adopted more moderate policies—a trend that became known as the “new turn.”

The MPRP congress held in October 1934 drew attention to a new threat to Mongolia: that from Japan. In 1927 Tanaka Giichi, then the Japanese prime minister, had called for a policy of Japanese expansion in East Asia. Japan already had established a strong presence in Manchuria, on Mongolia’s eastern border, when on Sept. 18, 1931, the Japanese Kwantung Army staged the Mukden Incident as a pretext for occupying the city of Mukden (now Shenyang). Japanese troops soon occupied all of Manchuria, and in 1932 Japan established the puppet state of Manchukuo there. In 1933 Japan annexed Jehol province—situated on the border of Inner Mongolia and now divided between Hebei and Liaoning provinces—outright and claimed Outer Mongolia (i.e., the MPR) as part of Manchukuo. Mongolian and Kwantung Army troops clashed at Lake Buir on Mongolia’s eastern border in 1935, prompting the Soviet and Mongolian governments to sign a mutual aid protocol in March 1936, in which they agreed to support one another in the event of attack. The Nationalist government in China protested this pact as being contrary to Chinese claims of suzerainty over Mongolia. In 1937 Japan annexed Chahar province (now in Inner Mongolia), on Mongolia’s southeastern border, and then, following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident near Beijing (July 7), went to war with China.

The uncertainty, both internal and external, posed by the Japanese threat engendered political hysteria that developed into wholesale arrests and executions on charges of counterrevolutionary activity and spying for the Japanese. Khorloogiin Choibalsan, minister of internal affairs, with the help of the Soviet NKVD (secret police), had tens of thousands of innocent victims rounded up, who were forced to admit their “guilt” and then were executed. After Soviet leader Joseph Stalin pointed out that there were many more Buddhists than MPRP members in Mongolia, most of the country’s monasteries and temples were destroyed, their treasures stolen, and their lamas shot or put to forced labour. Prominent Mongolians eliminated during the period of purges included two prime ministers, Peljidiin Genden (served 1932–36) and Anandyn Amar (1936–39), who after their arrest in Mongolia were tried in Moscow and executed (in 1937 and 1941, respectively) for “counterrevolutionary crimes”; Marshal Gelegdorjiin Demid, commander in chief of the army, who died of food poisoning while traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway in August 1937; and Darizavyn Losol and Dansrangiin Dogsom, two veteran revolutionaries arrested in 1939 and sent to the Soviet Union, where Losol died in 1940 awaiting trial and Dogsom was executed in 1941.

Mongolia’s slow collision with Japan escalated into a series of battles after the Japanese and Manchukuo troops invaded the northeastern corner of Mongolia in 1939. The fighting reached its climax in August, when Mongolian and Soviet troops under the command of Soviet Gen. Georgy Zhukov annihilated a large Japanese force near the Khalkhyn (Halhïn) River on the Mongolia-Manchukuo border. Japan subsequently abandoned any plans to invade the Soviet Union and shifted the focus of its expansionist efforts to the Pacific and Southeast Asia during World War II (1939–45).

Choibalsan, who in addition to serving as minister of internal affairs had become minister of war in 1937, was appointed the country’s prime minister in March 1939. The MPRP congress held in March 1940 declared the beginning of the socialist stage of Mongolia’s political development and named Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal general secretary of the party. Mongolia remained isolated from the outside world, recognized only by the Soviet Union, its political mentor and economic prop. Although Mongolia’s health and education services had been greatly improved with Soviet help during the previous decade, industrial development was still in its infancy. The only major economic projects of the 1930s were a wool-washing factory set up at Lake Khövsgöl, a narrow-gauge railway line constructed between Ulaanbaatar and the nearby Nalaikh coal mine, and a complex of factories established at Ulaanbaatar that processed agricultural produce and made building materials.

In a major cultural change, it was agreed at a conference in Moscow in 1931 to create Latin scripts for the Mongol, Buryat, and Kalmyk languages. The plan was quickly implemented, with rules devised, publishing organized, teaching scheduled, and regulations issued. Official use began in 1933. However, Stalin later changed his mind; the Latin script was abandoned; and modified Cyrillic alphabets were ordered. The Cyrillic alphabet for Mongol was introduced in 1945, and the traditional Mongolian vertical script was abandoned.

As World War II engulfed Europe, Japan signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union (April 1941). Two months later Nazi leader Adolf Hitler launched the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and Mongolia gave its Soviet ally moral support, material assistance (foodstuffs, livestock, and winter clothing), and later money to finance a tank regiment and a fighter squadron. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, it was agreed that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan in exchange for recovering territory in the Far East previously lost to Japan and the understanding that the status quo in Mongolia’s “independent” status (i.e., Soviet control) would be preserved. The Soviet Union and Mongolia declared war on Japan in early August and entered Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. By the time Japanese resistance had collapsed on August 22, Mongolian units had advanced southward beyond the Great Wall.

Between Russia and China

As part of the Yalta Conference agreements, a plebiscite was held in Mongolia in October 1945 under United Nations (UN) auspices, with the vote overwhelmingly in favour of independence over autonomy. The Republic of China recognized Mongolia in January 1946, and the two countries signed a friendship treaty in February. In June 1946 Mongolia made the first of several unsuccessful applications to join the UN. Meanwhile, Mongolia recognized the People’s Republic of China on the latter’s proclamation in 1949 and established diplomatic relations with North Korea (1948), the Soviet satellite countries of eastern and central Europe (1950), and India (1955). Mongolia gained admission to the UN in 1961, and in 1963 the United Kingdom became the first Western country to establish relations with Mongolia.

The 1950s were a time of political transition and economic advancement. Choibalsan died in 1952 in a Moscow hospital, and Tsedenbal was appointed chairman (i.e., the equivalent of prime minister) of the Council of Ministers, (the highest organ of executive power. In 1954 MPRP General Secretary Tsedenbal was ousted by Dashiin Damba, who was designated MPRP first secretary, but in 1958 Tsedenbal retook control of the party—also as first secretary—and had Damba dismissed on ideological grounds. The collectivization of livestock herding was completed in the 1950s, as the herders were obliged to hand over all but a few of their animals to the large cooperative farms (negdel). The Trans-Mongolian Railway—jointly built by the Mongolians and Soviets and completed in 1955—spanned Mongolia from north to south and served as a symbol of Soviet-Chinese solidarity, but it was built using the Soviet broad rail gauge rather than the standard gauge used in China. In 1958 Mongolia began attending Comecon meetings, joining that organization in 1962.

Mongolia and China signed a treaty of friendship and mutual assistance in 1960, and the two countries amicably redemarcated the long frontier between them. However, the ideological dispute that developed between the Soviet Union and China over the unity and leadership of the communist movement soured Mongolia’s relations with China. China sharply criticized the Soviets for their handling of the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis with the United States and two years later conducted its first atomic bomb test—the prevailing winds carrying radioactive fallout northward into Mongolian territory. In January 1966 Mongolia and the Soviet Union signed a new treaty of friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance that included secret protocols allowing the Soviets to station troops, aircraft, and missiles in Mongolia. Sino-Soviet relations degenerated further following clashes between their troops along their border at the Ussuri (Wusuli) River in March 1969. Meanwhile, Chinese leader Mao Zedong had launched the movement that became known as the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), during which the Mongols of Inner Mongolia in particular suffered considerably.

In 1949 the MPRP had condemned how Mongolian history was being taught, claiming that those with “bourgeois nationalist” views were extolling Genghis Khan’s conquests and Mongolia’s “feudal” past at the expense of the achievements of the party and the Mongolian revolution. Nonetheless, as the 800th anniversary of Genghis Khan’s birth approached in 1962, the party decided to organize celebrations honouring it that were to include unveiling a new monument to him, delivering speeches, and issuing a set of commemorative postage stamps. However, following Soviet criticisms that labeled Genghis a “reactionary” whose “Tatar-Mongol yoke” had laid waste to Russia, Mongolia quickly canceled the celebrations and withdrew the stamps. There followed a fresh MPRP evaluation of Genghis Khan, which also deemed him a reactionary and which credited him only for unifying the Mongol tribes. Any deviation from that line was considered unwanted promotion of nationalism and was not tolerated. This policy stifled virtually all discussion of Genghis Khan and Mongol nationalism for the next 40 years.

Tensions between Mongolia and China escalated throughout the 1970s. Mongolia accused China of wanting to annex Mongolia and, as a pretext for its territorial claims on Mongolian territory, of promoting Genghis Khan as a Yuan dynasty emperor. China, during its own 800th anniversary celebrations, countered by criticizing the Soviet Union for “occupying” Mongolia by stationing troops and military equipment there. In April 1978 China called for the Soviet withdrawal from Mongolia, and Premier Tsedenbal promptly visited a Soviet army unit stationed in Mongolia to thank it for protecting the country against the Chinese “threat.” Mongolia began expelling Chinese immigrants in early 1979, accusing them of “expansionist plots,” which further exacerbated distrust between the two countries. Tensions in the region eased considerably in the mid-1980s as Soviet and Mongolian leaders took steps to normalize relations with China. Diplomatic relations were restored between Mongolia and China in 1986.

Reform and the birth of democracy

Mongolia’s third constitution, adopted in 1960, which renamed the national assembly the People’s Great Khural (PGK), marked the beginning of the country’s transition—with Soviet assistance—to a modern industrial-agricultural society. Darkhan, now one of Mongolia’s largest towns, was founded in 1961. Television broadcasting began in September 1967, and satellite communications were inaugurated in January 1971. In November 1973 Mongolia and the Soviet Union agreed to build a copper-mining and ore-concentrating joint venture, which proved to be the key to developing Mongolia’s prosperity on the basis of its mineral wealth. As the new town of Erdenet grew up around it, the plant’s first stage went into operation in 1978. Another milestone for Mongolia was the spaceflight of its first cosmonaut, Jügderdemidiin Gürragchaa, who in March 1981 spent several days in orbit aboard a Soviet spacecraft.

Jamsrangiin Sambuu, who had been Mongolia’s head of state since 1954, died in 1972, and the post remained vacant until mid-1974, when Tsedenbal filled it. Tsedenbal was replaced as chairman of the Council of Ministers by Jambyn Batmönkh. At the MPRP congress in May 1981, Tsedenbal adopted the title of general secretary, and in December he began a series of purges of prominent party members, which he described as “rooting out the weeds.” The party ordered the registration of ownership of all typewriters, duplicators, and photocopiers in an effort to control the dissemination of information. However, in August 1984 Tsedenbal himself was removed from his party posts while on holiday in Moscow. Batmönkh replaced him as general secretary and, in December, as head of state.

Batmönkh called for reform of the system and criticized Tsedenbal, while the MPRP, which for years had condemned national pride as nationalism, began reevaluating the historical role of Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire. However, the attempts at introducing versions of the Soviet policies of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (economic and political restructuring) in Mongolia were halfhearted and ineffective, and the result was economic stagnation and demands for further social reform.

In 1988 members of a group called “New Generation” (or “New Times”) began posting protest handbills at night in Ulaanbaatar. By late 1989 young Mongolians were organizing themselves into “informal” movements like the Mongolian Democratic Association (MDA), whose coordinator was democracy leader Sanjaasürengiin Zorig. In December 1989 the MDA held two big rallies in Ulaanbaatar, and after more demonstrations in February 1990 the MPRP had Stalin’s statue removed from in front of the State Library. Further demonstrations in Ulaanbaatar calling for the MPRP leadership to step down and the start of a hunger strike in the city’s main Sükhbaatar Square finally induced the Politboro to resign on March 9. Batmönkh was replaced as party leader by Gombojavyn Ochirbat and as head of state by Punsalmaagiin Ochirbat.

Mongolia since 1990

Constitutional change

In April 1990 the PGK convened ahead of schedule and adopted a series of constitutional amendments. One of the first was to delete mention in the document of the MPRP’s “guiding role” in Mongolia. Other amendments included legalizing new political parties, providing for multiparty elections, setting up a second legislative body (a 50-member State Little Khural), and establishing a presidency, with the president being elected by the PGK. By June the MPRP and several new parties—including the Mongolian Democratic Party (from 1992 the Mongolian National Democratic Party; MNDP), the Mongolian Social Democratic Party (MSDP), and the Mongolian Green Party—had registered for elections to a new 430-seat PGK.

The MPRP won some 85 percent of the seats in the July elections, and in September the PGK appointed Punsalmaagiin Ochirbat president of Mongolia. Social Democrat Radnaasümbereliin Gonchigdorj was elected vice president and chairman of the Little Khural, where the MPRP again had a commanding majority. In December the Little Khural resolved to begin Mongolia’s transition to a market economy.

Tsedenbal died in Moscow in April 1991 and was given a state funeral in Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator). Following a failed coup attempt in the Soviet Union in August 1991 against its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the subsequent banning of the Communist Party there, demonstrators in Ulaanbaatar demanded the banning of the MPRP in Mongolia. As a compromise, top leaders in the administration, the military, and the judiciary were barred from membership in political parties. Late in the year, as the Soviet Union broke apart, Mongolia recognized the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania after they declared their independence.

Following the July 1990 election, Mongolia’s fourth constitution was drafted and then debated in the Little Khural, revised and debated in the PGK in December 1991, adopted in January 1992, and implemented in February. Fundamentally different from Mongolia’s communist constitutions, it gave top priority to national sovereignty and to human rights. The legislature was to consist of a new single-chamber 76-seat Mongolian Great Khural (MGK), whose chairman (speaker) would rank second to the president but ahead of the prime minister, who would be head of government. The president, who was to be head of state, would be directly elected to a four-year term. The constitution also stipulated that members of the MGK could not concurrently “engage in other work or occupy another post not related to their duties.” (An amendment to the constitution, sealed by the president in May 2001, exempted the prime minister and members of the government from this ruling.) In addition, Mongolia ceased to be a “people’s republic,” and the red star was removed from the national flag.

More vestiges of the old system dropped away. In June 1991 the last trainload of Russian military equipment left Mongolia, and the last Russian troops departed in September 1992. The practice of holding a military parade on Sükhbaatar Square in Ulaanbaatar every July 11 lapsed in 1993.

New administrative changes were also implemented with the 1992 constitution. Darkhan and Erdenet, which (along with Ulaanbaatar) previously had been autonomous municipalities under the jurisdiction of the national government, were in July 1994 made the centres of two new small provinces, Darkhan-Uul and Orkhon, respectively. In addition, a third new small province, Govĭ-Sümber, was formed southeast of Ulaanbaatar around the former Soviet garrison town of Choir (Choyr), on the Trans-Mongolian Railway.

In June 1990 the Council of Ministers resolved to restore the official use of the old Mongolian script, which had ceased in the 1940s when the Mongolian Cyrillic script was adopted. However, this effort was abandoned within a few years, as the old script proved unpopular and its reintroduction was considered too costly. The script has continued to be taught in schools. In addition, an attempt was made in the early 21st century to introduce a Latin script for romanizing Mongolian Cyrillic, but that program also proved unworkable and was abandoned.

Since the 1960s, the investigation of the purges of the 1930s and ’40s in Mongolia had proceeded slowly, but with the rise of democracy in the 1990s came a great desire to exonerate those who had been executed or imprisoned on false charges and to compensate the families of the victims. Much evidence from the time was unsatisfactory or had been lost, but the scale of the killings was not in doubt: although estimates vary, it is thought that some 35,000 perished during the purges, more than half of them lamas; the vast majority of victims were buried in unmarked graves. Thousands more had received harsh terms of imprisonment. A large number of victims were exonerated in 1990–93, after which the pace of investigation slowed considerably. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the number cleared was approximately 30,000, and the families of more than half of these victims had received some compensation from the government. Several thousand cases remained to be examined. A memorial museum dedicated to the purge victims was established in the 1990s in what once had been the home of Peljidiin Genden, a former prime minister and victim of the purges.

Tibetan Buddhism experienced a resurgence after 1990. A new Javzandamba, the ninth incarnation (khutagt), born in Tibet, had been recognized by the 14th Dalai Lama in 1992 while both were living in India. For several years Mongolian Buddhists requested permission for the “ninth Bogd” to visit Mongolia, and he did so—unexpectedly—in July 1999. Welcomed by great crowds, he was enthroned at Erdenezuu, Mongolia’s oldest monastery, in August, but he returned to India soon after. During a second visit—in October 2009 at the invitation of Gandan monastery, the centre of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia—the ninth Javzandamba enthroned the young incarnations of two other religious leaders, the Donkhor and Jalkhanz khutagts. The Dalai Lama himself has also paid several visits to Mongolia since his first in 1970, most recently in 2006 at the invitation of Gandan. The Chinese authorities usually have indicated their dissatisfaction with these visits, on one occasion closing down China-Mongolia cross-border rail traffic for 36 hours. In addition, Moscow has denied Russian transit visas for the Dalai Lama.

Growing pains

In the first election for the new MGK, in June 1992, the MPRP achieved another large majority, with 60 percent of the vote and 71 seats, while the democratic parties, with 40 percent of the vote, received only 5 seats. One year later the first presidential election was won by Punsalmaagiin Ochirbat, the nominee of the democratic parties.

The new government faced enormous challenges. Until 1991 Mongolia had depended heavily on the Soviet Union for economic support. Without that assistance, short of hard currency, and obliged to carry out foreign trade transactions in U.S. dollars, Mongolia faced a serious economic crisis in the early 1990s. Furthermore, Russia claimed that Mongolia owed it a large sum for the economic aid the Soviet Union had given Mongolia since World War II. A series of annual aid donors’ conferences held in Tokyo helped in the short term by granting Mongolia $150 million per year for support until substantial foreign investment could be obtained. The conferences continued annually until 2003, when it was decided to hold future ones privately. Meanwhile, Mongolia worked to develop its vast mineral reserves through joint ventures with foreign companies and to diversify its trade, notably to China and other East Asian countries.

Prior to the 1996 elections to the MGK, the MNDP and the MSDP joined forces (with the support of several smaller democratic parties) to form the Democratic Alliance (DA). The DA coalition, in a surprise outcome, triumphed in the June polling, winning a combined 50 of the 76 seats—though one short of a quorum, which the MPRP soon used to its advantage by boycotting legislative sessions. In February 1997 the MPRP elected Natsagiin Bagabandi to the post of party chairman (i.e., leader of the party) over the head of Nambaryn Enkhbayar, who had been named to the then top post of secretary-general the previous July. In May, however, Bagabandi won the presidential election by defeating the incumbent Ochirbat and gave up his party job. Leadership of the party passed back to Enkhbayar in July, and in a by-election the next month he also won Bagabandi’s old MGK seat.

In April 1998 the DA made Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj the leader of their parliamentary alliance, and he became prime minister. When Elbegdorj was forced to resign following a vote of no confidence in July, a prolonged struggle ensued between the democrats and President Bagabandi over the appointment of Elbegdorj’s replacement. The dispute dragged on until December, when one of Bagabandi’s candidates, Janlavyn Narantsatsralt, then the mayor of Ulaanbaatar, was approved. Meanwhile, in October, Sanjaasürengiyn Zorig, the leading light of Mongolian democracy, who at the time was serving as acting minister of infrastructure development, was murdered in Ulaanbaatar. He was accorded a state funeral.

Narantsatsralt’s tenure in office was short-lived. When he lost a vote of confidence in the MGK in July 1999, the DA nominated fellow legislator Rinchinnyamyn Amarjargal to the post of prime minister. However, the Constitutional Commission had upheld a motion that MGK members could not serve concurrently as government ministers, and President Bagabandi would not support Amarjargal’s nomination before the latter resigned his MGK seat. It took a week to reach a compromise, by which the MGK held a secret ballot to relieve Amarjargal of his membership and simultaneously nominate him as prime minister, and then the members adopted a resolution appointing him to the post.

Following this string of crises, in December 1999 the parties drafted constitutional amendments to simplify the appointment of prime ministers (intended to prevent future presidential interference in the process) and to modify other procedural matters, notably allowing the prime minister and government ministers to also be MGK members. Bagabandi vetoed the amendments, and the MGK overrode his veto. However, the Constitutional Commission declared the amendments unconstitutional, and the matter remained unresolved.

The pace of economic reforms had moved slowly, exacerbating the existing poverty and unemployment affecting many Mongolians and disillusioning the populace with the DA’s leadership in the MGK. The DA was weakened and forced to re-form when the MSDP pulled out of the coalition prior to the July 2000 parliamentary elections. The result was a landslide victory for the MPRP, the party’s candidates winning all but four seats. The MPRP nominated party leader and MGK member Enkhbayar to be prime minister, but President Bagabandi insisted that the issue of the constitutional amendments be resolved first. Enkhbayar was appointed in late July only after another compromise. In December the MGK adopted the amendments again unchanged, President Bagabandi vetoed them, and the MGK overrode his veto. However, the Constitutional Court could not meet pending the MGK’s approval of two new members. Finally Bagabandi set his seal on the amendments just before the May 2001 presidential election, which he won.

Old friends, new friends

The issue of Mongolia’s foreign debt—particularly the large sum Russia claimed it was owed—was an important factor in Mongolia’s post-1991 external relations. In 1995 Mongolian Prime Minister Puntsagiin Jasrai went to Russia to discuss this “big debt,” but there was no agreement, and Jasrai’s successors were equally unsuccessful in their negotiations. Then, at the end of 2003, Moscow suddenly announced that the debt had been settled: Russia had waived 98 percent of the balance it had said was due, and Mongolia had paid $250 million to cover the rest. However, some uncertainty about the debt resurfaced when Russian Pres. Dmitry Medvedev, on a visit to Ulaanbaatar in 2009, claimed that part of the debt was still outstanding (based on the Mongolrostsvetmet gold and fluorspar joint mining venture in Mongolia). The debt with Russia was finally settled during Prime Minister Sükhbaataryn Batbold’s state visit to Moscow in November 2010. Russia decided to write off 97.8 percent of what was owed, and Mongolia agreed to pay the balance in a single payment.

Despite these tensions over Mongolia’s outstanding debt, in 2000 Mongolia and Russia had signed a joint declaration, in which each side agreed not to form military or political alliances against the other and which also stipulated that neither party could enter into treaties or agreements with “third countries” that could harm “the other’s sovereignty and independence.” This second provision reflected the “third neighbour” policy that Mongolia had been developing for a number of years with the United States (the two countries established diplomatic relations in January 1987) and several other countries. High-ranking Mongolian officials began visiting the United States in 1991, but the brief visit George W. Bush paid to Ulaanbaatar in November 2005 was the first by any sitting U.S. president (former president Jimmy Carter had visited Mongolia in 2001). Mongolia began contributing troops to international peacekeeping operations in 2003.

For many years Mongolia’s relations with the Soviet Union (and then Russia) and China were conducted only at the national level by the countries’ leaders. However, since 2000 Mongolia has developed extensive direct cultural and economic ties with political subdivisions within the country’s two neighbours: the governments of the republics of Altay, Buryatiya, Kalmykiya, and Tyva in Russia and of the Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang autonomous regions in China—all of whose Mongol inhabitants have historical links with the Mongol empire.

Toward a new society

Political developments

The DA was disbanded following the debacle of the 2000 parliamentary elections, and a new Democratic Party (DP) was formed by the MNDP, MDSP, and several other smaller parties. For the June 2004 MGK elections, the DP formed an alliance with the Motherland Party, but neither the MPRP nor this new alliance won a clear majority. By the end of the year, however, the alliance had nominated the prime minister (Elbegdorj), the MPRP had nominated the MGK chairman (Enkhbayar), and a coalition government had been formed of eight MPRP ministers and six alliance ministers.

Mongolian politics and governance subsequently entered a new stage of volatility. Enkhbayar won the presidential election in May 2005. He was replaced as MPRP chairman by Miyeegombyn Enkhbold, and Tsendiin Nyamdorj was elected MGK chairman. In January 2006, following the resignation of the MPRP ministers from the government, Elbegdorj stepped down as prime minister, and Enkhbold formed the next coalition government. Nyamdorj was forced to resign in June 2007 after the Constitutional Commission ruled that he had unconstitutionally altered the texts of laws after they had been passed by the MGK. In October 2007 Enkhbold was replaced as MPRP chairman and, the following month, as prime minister by Sanjaagiin Bayar, who had served as ambassador to Russia in 2001–05.

In the June 2008 MGK election, the preliminary results gave the MPRP a majority of seats, but opponents of this outcome gathered into a mob in Ulaanbaatar and burned down the MPRP headquarters. Five people were killed and hundreds injured during the violence, and the president imposed a state of emergency in central Ulaanbaatar for four days at the beginning of July. Some 700 demonstrators were arrested, and many of them eventually were convicted and sentenced to prison terms, prompting protests that the human rights of the demonstrators had been infringed. Enough election results were certified by mid-July to confirm the MPRP’s majority, but Bayar nonetheless offered to form another coalition government with the DP. The DP accepted, though Elbegdorj resigned from the party leadership. Bayar was reelected prime minister, with the post of chief deputy going to Norovyn Altankhuyag, the DP’s new leader. Election results in several constituencies were delayed pending inquiries into irregularities, the last seat being declared only in September 2009.

Bayar’s particular achievement during this period was to pilot through its final stages a complex production agreement between the Mongolian government and two foreign mining companies regarding the vast Oyuutolgoi gold and copper deposits in the Gobi, which were expected to make an even greater contribution to Mongolia’s socioeconomic development than the mines at Erdenet. In October 2009 Bayar, in ill health, resigned as prime minister and was succeeded by Sukhbaataryn Batbold, then the minister of external relations. The following April, Batbold also succeeded Bayar as chairman of the MPRP. Batbold was confirmed in this post at the party’s congress in November 2010, at which it also was decided to revert to the party’s previous name, the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP). The next year, a breakaway faction of the party, led by Enkhbayar, claimed the name Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP).

Earlier, in June 2009, Elbegdorj had campaigned for and won the presidency, the first democrat to attain this high office. He presided over the celebration of 20 years of Mongolian democracy in December, paying tribute to both Sanjaasürengiyn Zorig and Jambyn Batmönkh and praising democracy as Mongolians’ common accomplishment and a cause for national pride. Elbegdorj was reelected to a second term as president in June 2013.

Elbegdorj was ineligible for a third term, and three candidates contested the June 26, 2017, presidential election: Khaltmaa Battulga, representing the DP; MPP head Enkhbold, whose party had dominated legislative elections the year prior; and Sainkhuu Ganbaatar of the new MPRP. All three men had allegations of corruption clouding their candidacy, which dominated campaign discussions and left many voters unenthused about the choices for the country’s next president. None of the candidates won an outright majority in the election, and, for the first time since Mongolia began holding presidential elections in 1993, a runoff was necessary. Battulga had won the most votes, about 38 percent, and advanced to the runoff election to face Enkhbold, who had narrowly edged out Ganbaatar, 30.3 percent to 30.2 percent. Battulga also won the runoff election, held on July 7, with just over 50 percent of the vote. Enkhbold trailed him with about 40 percent. Notably, some 8 percent of voters submitted blank ballots in protest of what they considered to be a dismal choice of candidates and in an effort to force a new election, with new candidates. Battulga was inaugurated on July 10, 2017. The next round of MGK elections, held in June 2020, netted similar results as in 2016, with the MPP continuing to hold a dominant majority and Battulga’s DP winning slightly more than one-tenth of the legislative body’s seats. A handful of smaller parties or independent candidates each won a seat.

In 2019 the MGK amended the constitution. Among the revisions was a change to the presidential term: instead of serving a four-year term, renewable once, presidents would now be limited to one six-year term. As such, Battulga was not eligible to stand in the 2021 presidential election, and the DP named Sodnomzundui Erdene as its flag bearer. In addition to Erdene, the June 9 presidential election was contested by former prime minister Ukhnaa Khürelsükh of the MPP and Dangaasüren Enkhbat of the National Labor Party, representing the Right Person Electorate Coalition. Khürelsükh won by an overwhelming margin and was sworn in on June 25, 2021.

“Rebirth” of Genghis Khan

In August 2005 the remains of communist revolutionary heroes Sükhbaatar and Choibalsan, which in 1954 had been interred in a mausoleum on Sükhbaatar Square in front of the State Palace in Ulaanbaatar, were removed, cremated, and interred at the city’s main cemetery. The mausoleum was demolished to make way for a new colonnaded facade for the palace that also included a monument to Genghis Khan. The monument was unveiled in July 2006 during the country’s observance of the 800th anniversary of his founding of the Mongol state.

In December 2008, marking another 800th anniversary—that of the birth of Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu—Mongolian historians used the occasion to ridicule Russian claims that the Mongol conquest of Russia had never happened, that Genghis Khan was an “invented” hero, and that Batu really had been the Russian prince Alexander Nevsky. Two decades of democracy had empowered Mongolians to question a whole range of issues, including essentially ideological ones. With the “rebirth” of Genghis Khan, it was now possible to say that the steppe aristocrats had themselves wielded political power, not some hierarchy of “clans” and “tribes” popularized by communist historiographers. Historians abandoned the theories of the “primitive society” and the “class society,” which had bound them for decades, and joined the broader debate about nomadic and sedentary societies.

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