Why you should care
Because this debt-ridden East Asian country needs to step up its game.
A horse breeder, a martial arts expert and a feng shui master walk into a Mongolian bar for a cup of yak milk tea. Not really. But the three did run for president in a resource-rich but economically stalled, debt-ridden country. And, in July 2017, following a runoff vote in the close political match, Khaltmaagiin Battulga emerged victorious, as he had years earlier at the 1983 World Sambo Championships (a Soviet-invented sport that’s a mashup of wresting and martial arts).
Battulga campaigned on a now familiar platform: “Mongolia First.” Paired as it was with a friendlier tone toward Russia, a harder line against China and an emphasis on domestic economic policy — tell me if this sounds familiar. But while commentators have been quick to draw easy parallels between Mongolia’s new president and U.S. President Donald Trump, along with other populist leaders gaining ground around the globe, Mongolia is a unique and complicated case, calling into question just how much Battulga will be able to achieve as his country’s new leader.
Thirty miles east of the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, on the bank of the Tuul River, sits a 130-foot stainless steel statue of Genghis Khan astride a horse — the largest, most ostentatious tribute to Khan in a country filled with his image and name. The site is where the Mongol emperor allegedly found a golden whip that convinced him to initiate a campaign of world domination. Genco, Battulga’s company — and the president’s nickname (taken from the ruthless consigliere in The Godfather) — reportedly funded the $4.1 million structure.
If Battulga has his way, mad judo skills won’t be the only thing he shares with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It’s a fitting gesture by Battulga, whose murky background is also the stuff of legend in his country. He’s said to have grown up on the streets of Soviet-era Ulaanbaatar, where he sold his paintings to tourists until he found wrestling — one of the “three manly sports,” according to Khan. As a member of the Mongolian national wrestling team from 1979-1990, Battulga traveled the world at a time when average Mongolians were not allowed to leave the country. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he participated in the capitalist frenzy taking hold in recently liberalized states. He began with an import-export business and eventually became one of the richest men in the country; in the 1990s, Genco started one of Mongolia’s first taxi companies, as well as a lottery business and restaurant and nightclub operations. Battulga became a member of parliament in 2004, and he was re-elected twice.
A member of the center-right Democratic Party, the brash businessman is described as a populist and a nationalist — which is likely true but also not saying much, says Marissa Smith, an anthropologist and Mongolia expert at De Anza College. Sure, he attributed his win to the “power of the people” and knows the No. 1 priority is juicing a national economy hobbled by a 50 percent drop in the price of copper, its main export, over the past five years. And in a country where half the population is under 30, his “Mongolia First” message hit home. That, and his version of “drain the swamp”: Battulga is not part of Mongolia’s technocratic intelligentsia, Smith explains, and while he’s a wealthy businessman, he’s not part of the traditional oligarchies. He’s entirely self-made, which, combined with his Sambo wins, has earned him a measure of respect.
Still, most Mongolians are pessimistic when it comes to the economy. After hitting GDP growth rates of over 15 percent in 2011, according to the World Bank, Mongolia has seen a considerable slowdown, dipping below 5 percent by the end of 2017. “The widespread sense in Mongolia is that something is deeply wrong with the transitional economy” from the Soviet days, notes Chris Atwood, a professor of Mongolian history at the University of Pennsylvania. Battulga campaigned on steering the economy toward domestic manufacturing and away from export industries, says Atwood, with infrastructure projects like modernizing a railway jointly owned with Russia — just one aspect of his pro-Russian stance.
The new president has a rough voice and the stocky build of someone who should head the Mongolian Judo Association (which he does). And, if Battulga has his way, mad judo skills won’t be the only thing he shares with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since the early ’90s, Mongolia’s largest trading partner by far has been China, accounting for more than 80 percent of its exports and consisting mostly of raw resources like copper and coal. “The resources will finish in 40 to 50 years, and there will definitely be conflict between the Mongolians and the Chinese,” Battulga said in a 2014 interview. That outsize dependence on China puts Mongolia in a vulnerable position and is something Battulga has stated he wants to change — and to fill the trade gap with his country’s northern neighbor.
So far, however, he has pushed forward on very little policy, Julian Dierkes of the University of British Columbia points out, and it’s unclear how much he can accomplish. Although the president sets foreign policy and holds veto powers, Mongolia’s prime minister has the authority to shape domestic policy. As Dierkes explains, Battulga’s election was partly the result of voters getting nervous after his party’s rival, the Mongolian People’s Party, won a supermajority in Parliament in 2016. Such a “swing back,” according to Dierkes, is the norm in Mongolian politics.
Battulga’s rebalancing act — between his country’s political parties and two massive geopolitical powers — will require a deft touch, and it remains to be seen whether his martial arts prowess will serve him well or whether he’ll end up on his back.