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What's Behind The Mongolian Unrest?

Thousands of protesters rampaged through the city before calm was restored

RFE/RL spoke to Mongolia expert Christopher Atwood to understand the root causes of the violence in Mongolia this week, which claimed five lives.

Just a day after the July 1 unrest in Mongolian was quelled, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed Moscow's concern that the government of another former communist neighbor may fall to a popular uprising.

"I hope everybody has learned from the sad experience of the so-called flower revolutions ["colored revolutions"). Here [in the case of Mongolia], they need to abandon revolutionary methods and work on the basis of the rule of law," Lavrov said.

It's not surprising that the recent unrest could be interpreted by Moscow as a replay of the experiences in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, where disputed elections were followed by mass street protests.

Christopher Atwood, an associate professor of Central Eurasian Studies at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, says Mongolia was once closely aligned with Moscow during the Soviet era, and its democratically elected government has been growing closer to Russia in the past few years.

Large Mineral Deposits

But, according to analysts, what motivated the protesters in Ulan Bator was their concern about how their government plans to handle Mongolia's indigenous wealth: its recently discovered mineral deposits of minerals including gold, copper, and coal.

Atwood says the focus of politically active Mongolians is the soaring value of these raw materials on the world market, and a general perception that the government is corrupt or incompetent or both.

Foreign companies already are extracting these resources, and will keep 49 percent of their value. The Mongolian government will determine how the other 51 percent will be distributed.
People are angry because of a perception of corruption, there's a perception of inefficiency, there's a perception of a selfish and incompetent political class

The ruling Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) would distribute it among indigenous companies to develop their own mines and provide much-needed jobs to Mongolians, Atwood says, while the main opposition Democratic Party would use the money to pay royalties to every Mongolian citizen, just as many countries do with their oil profits.

The Mongolian people, meanwhile, don't trust either party to handle the mineral profits honestly or efficiently, Atwood says, and they see the weekend parliamentary vote as just another example of ineffective, corrupt politics that they see as common in their country.

"You have a situation where this government -- regardless of the party -- is going to be handling these millions of dollars that are going to cycle in from these big new investments," Atwood says. "And, as you can imagine, when people don't trust each other already because they all think the other guy's corrupt, the result is that they don't trust each other to divide the swag equitably."

What the Mongols mind, Atwood says, is having their country -- and its valuable resources -- in the hands of politicians they see as unworthy.

"There's a real anger among the people, and I think that anger -- it's directed at politicians of all sorts. I don't think this is going to be very favorable for the Democratic Party at all," Atwood says. "People are angry because of a perception of corruption, there's a perception of inefficiency, there's a perception of a selfish and incompetent political class. And that includes all the parties."

Improved Relations With Russia

For now at least, Atwood says, the biggest buyer of Mongolia's raw materials is China, though Mongolians still look toward China with a leery eye for fear that their neighbor to the south may try to dominate them.

In the meantime, according to Atwood, the Mongolian government has been working to improve its relations with its northern neighbor, Russia, once its protector during the days of the Soviet Union. Russia, he says, is returning the favor.

Atwood says that many Mongolians have no objection to close ties with Moscow.

"Russia is also very active in trying to regain its position in Mongolia. The Russians are coming back into Mongolia. And, interesting enough, recent opinion polls have shown that Russia is back [in favor in Mongolia], and from the point of view of the Mongolian people, Russia being back means that Russia's now again a possible protector, patron, of Mongolia against China," Atwood says.

Atwood says the situation in Mongolia also differs from the "colored revolutions" in that the demonstration is much smaller. He notes that the demonstration was called not by the Democratic Party, but by a smaller "splinter" organization known as the Civic Will Party.

Civic Will opposes both the MPRP and the Democrats, and called the demonstration simply to protest the behavior of the Mongolia's two leading parties. Unfortunately, he says, Civic Will lost control of the protesters, and the event degenerated into violence.