A ger on top of a skyscraper: How Mongolians enter the 21st century

A ger on top of a skyscraper: How Mongolians enter the 21st century

By Giorgiy Goglidze

«In days of peace, should we ignore your counsel, then exile us from our men and servants, from our wives and children, and cast us out into the wilderness.»

 The Secret History of Mongols

is located in Central Asia and borders Russia and China. Throughout centuries Mongolians have gained an image of a nomadic folk that once conquered the whole world. Mongolia is a growing democracy with a long-standing tradition of struggle for its independence historically being situated amongst two former empires.

I first met Mongolians in Moscow at one of the weddings I was kindly invited to. My first acquaintance left me frankly impressed: these were patient, thought-careful, yet straightforward and honest people. In their judgement one traced deep rationality and a glimpse of humor often wrongly perceived as irony by people around me. Some of the Mongolian ethnologists often connect Mongolian character to their partly former nomadic lifestyle, seasonal and balanced, carefully thought through and planned.

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Despite the calm aspects of Mongolian personality, its geographic location has granted the country with far less stable prospects. It might be of a little surprise, that Mongolia, located between two communist states took a socialist outlook at the beginning of the 20th century. The truth is, the country adopted communism in 1921 as a means of establishing protectorate of its northern neighbor against Chinese influence under Damdiin Sukhbaatar, who allied Mongolia with Russia and later the USSR. The dire consequences of Soviet communism were felt later in the second half of 1930’s when Mongolian Buddhist clergy was mass-purged and often exterminated.

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Mongolia opened its New Jerusalem in 1990’s with democratic outlook of Sanjaasürengiin Zorig. Unlike former Soviet republics in Caucasus or satellites in Eastern Europe, Mongolian revolution was peaceful and democratic. Sanjaasurgeniin is warmly remembered amongst Mongolians. Movement to a free-market was adopted in a rush; sudden and unorganized privatization led to loots and bribery, albeit a typical scenario for a post-Soviet country. What really was different about Mongolian transition is that its underindustrialized primary sector, namely livestock led the country’s growth. Often repeated by Russian sources, Mongolia’s traditional herding sector played a principal role even in WW2 supplying the allies with horses and meat. Towards the 2000s tertiary media boom and mining sector have started to contribute for the majority of country’s GDP.

Mongolia Today and that ger on the Skyscraper

Since my last meeting with Mongolians in Moscow, my second acquaintance was in London…in fact more than an acquaintance at the Fifth Mongolia London Business Forum organized by the British Mongolian Chamber of Commerce. The plenary meeting and forum were far from a futile talk on GDP numbers and empty suggestions on sustainability: Mongolians clearly didn’t arrive for selfies with Big Ben or a Byron burger in Oxford Circus. The striking extent of honesty about current state of country and economy has shocked me, almost a golden mine for a foreign spy. Jokes aside, a considerable attention has been given to diversification of country’s economy. Mongolians realize potential threats of over-relying on copper mines especially today given the relatively low bargaining power of Mongolian government against international corporations in the volatile global economy.

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Apart from mining resources or potential renewables like wind, Mongolia has its traditional herding sector. The country is the biggest producer of cashmere in the world (28%) after China. The industry provided Mongolians about 16% of work places during its boom in 1993-2001 according to World Bank. Cashmere still remains an important export, yet Mongolians long have realized that goat herding destroys their pastures and leaves no grass for cattle. This is exacerbated by «dzuds» or harsh winters which kill hundreds of thousands of animals each year (in 2008-10 it was 8.8 million according to the New Internationalist).

One might think the choices present to the country are worst versions of the Russian roulette: either it is a volatile mining sector or the traditional livestock herding, in parts self-destructive and in parts threatened by nature. Possibly the Mongolian calm-mindedness and patience would be most appropriate in this case if there really were no other choices. However choices do exist – another speaker at the Mongolian Business Forum gave important insights:

Claudia Bickford-Smith, a director of Cambridge Examinations, present in Mongolia, underlined that a reform in educational sector could bring unseen benefits to the country. Cambridge Examinations have been assisting the Mongolian educational ministry in developing the bilingual education and development in rural areas. Ms Bickford-Smith was a pleasant and encouraging lady: in a conversation with me she underlined, that rather than sweep the previous educational knowledge, they build upon Mongolian experience and facilitate the introduction of bilingual British model. Certainly most important investment would happen into the youth: especially given that 27% of the population are children up to 15 years according the the World Bank.

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Hence one might be wrong in assuming that Mongolia’s main potential is in mining, herding or cashmere. Nations which found themselves surrounded by bigger superpowers tend to be more bilingual, outgoing and talented. The idea of devotion and care for their home and surroundings is reinforced from family traditions which are taught in Mongolian families from childhood. The Mongolian youth I met in Edinburgh and London conferences were clearly much more than individuals striving for personal benefit. Indeed, the real resource Mongolia holds today and held nine centuries ago has always been its human potential. In an evolving 21st century which increasingly moves away from primary sectors, mines, metals, bulldozers and excavations, education is the most important investment Mongolia is making today.

«The sons of the patient noble mother, were reared on elm seeds and became wise men and lawgivers.… They said among themselves, let us support our mother.»

 The Secret History of Mongols

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