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Freedom in the World 2004 - Mongolia

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 18 December 2003
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2004 - Mongolia, 18 December 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/473c54ab23.html [accessed 20 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political Rights: 2
Civil Liberties: 2
Status: Free
Population: 2,500,000
GNI/Capita: $400
Life Expectancy: 65
Religious Groups: Tibetan Buddhist Lamaist (96 percent), other [including Muslim (4 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Mongol (85 percent), Kazakh (7 percent), other (8 percent)
Capital: Ulaanbaatar


Overview

Mongolians in 2003 grappled with acute poverty, high unemployment, and rising violent crime as their landlocked, sparsely populated nation, nestled between China and Russia, continued its rocky transition to a market economy. Prime Minister Nambariin Enkhbayar's former Communist ruling party faces elections in 2004 that will offer Mongolians a choice between his government's incremental approach to economic reform and the opposition's shock therapy agenda.

Once the center of Ghengis Khan's sprawling empire, Mongolia was dominated for much of the past three centuries by its neighbors. China controlled Mongolia for two centuries until 1921. A Soviet-backed, Marxist revolt that year led to the creation in 1924 of a single-party Communist state, the world's second ever, under the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP).

Mongolia's transition from Soviet satellite to democratic republic began in 1990, when the MPRP responded to anti-government protests by legalizing opposition parties and holding the country's first multiparty elections. Facing an unprepared and underfunded opposition, the MPRP easily won parliamentary elections that year and again in 1992.

The key political issue in post-Communist Mongolia has been the pace and extent of economic reform. Market reforms have helped create a fledgling private sector, but also have contributed to soaring unemployment and other social miseries. MPRP governments in the early 1990s privatized small businesses and ended collectivized herding, but had difficulty retooling the economy to survive the loss of Soviet subsidies. Many large firms went bankrupt, and thousands of Mongolians were thrown out of work.

With hardship mounting, the MPRP was swept out of parliamentary power, after 72 years, in the 1996 elections. The coalition of reformist parties that took office, however, also had difficulty stabilizing the economy. Prescribing shock therapy to speed Mongolia's transition to a market system, the Democratic Union Coalition (DUC) cut spending, pensions, and tariffs and freed prices.

This tough economic medicine, however, coincided with steep drops in world prices for two of Mongolia's biggest foreign exchange earners, copper and cashmere. The resulting fall in export revenues gave Prime Minister Mendsaihan Enksaikhan's government little room to boost social spending at a time when its radical policies were helping to send inflation and unemployment soaring.

The MPRP regained power with victories in the 1997 election for the largely ceremonial presidency and the more important 2000 parliamentary vote. The ex-Communists' victories suggested that many Mongolians hoped that the MPRP would rebuild the country's shattered social safety net.

In the 1997 presidential contest, the MPRP's Natsagiin Bagabandi, a former parliamentary chairman, defeated incumbent Punsalmaagiyn Orchirbat of the DUC. The MPRP's parliamentary election victory three years later saw the party gain an overwhelming majority in the legislature, taking 72 of 76 seats. New prime minister Enkhbayar, the MPRP chairman, pledged to stake out a "third way" between his party's still-powerful Marxist wing and the DUC's rapid-liberalization policies.

The 44-year-old Enkhbayar's cash-strapped government has found it tough to deliver on its campaign pledges to create more jobs and boost social services. Observers believe that Mongolia's real jobless rate is around 17 percent rather than the official 4.6 percent. Nature has added to the hardship. Between 1999 and 2002, rural Mongolia was devastated by three straight winters with a brutal ice-and-snow phenomenon, known locally as zud, that killed off around one-third of the nation's livestock. This wiped out the livelihoods of many nomadic herding families and sent thousands of them to Ulaanbaatar. Many former herders who once roamed the steppe now live in shantytowns that ring the capital. Mongolia is likely to depend on donor aid for years to come, although recent foreign investment in gold and copper deposits could eventually help stabilize the government's finances.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Mongolians can change their government through elections, and they enjoy most basic rights. The 1992 constitution created a hybrid presidential-parliamentary system. Most executive powers are vested in a prime minister, who is chosen by the party or coalition with the most seats in parliament. The president, however, must approve parliament's choice of prime minister and can veto legislation, subject to a two-thirds parliamentary override. Both the president and 76-seat parliament, known as the Great Hural, are directly elected for four-year terms. President Natsagiin Bagabandi easily won reelection in 2001.

Mongolia's press is largely free but faces some government pressure. Newspapers and magazines carry a wide range of party and independent views that often criticize the government. The government, however, has at times filed libel suits and launched tax audits against publications in the wake of critical articles. Libel charges are hard to defend against because Mongolian law places the burden on the defendant to prove the truth of the statement at issue. A court in 2002 sentenced the editor in chief of Word newspaper to one year in jail for libel, drawing widespread criticism from journalists. In a still-controversial move, the government shut down two papers in 2000 for failing to comply with tax laws, as well as for their coverage of violence and allegedly pornographic content. In this environment, many journalists practice some self-censorship.

While newspapers are popular in cities, the main source of news in the vast countryside is the state-owned Radio Mongolia. Both Radio Mongolia and state television generally are free of political control. The government, however, has been slow to comply with a 1999 law requiring state broadcast media to be transformed into public corporations. Besides the state broadcast services, Mongolians have access to local private television, English-language broadcasts of the BBC and VOA on private FM stations and, in Ulaanbaatar, foreign television on cable and commercial satellite systems. Political reporting by both print and broadcast journalists is hampered by limited access to official information and a lack of transparency in government.

Mongolians of all faiths worship freely in this mainly Buddhist nation. Some religious groups seeking to fulfill mandatory registration requirements, however, have faced demands for bribes by local officials, according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report for 2002, released in March 2003. Mongolian professors and other teachers generally can write and lecture freely.

The country has many active environmental, human rights, and social welfare groups, though most depend on foreign donors. Mongolian trade unions are independent and active, though the government's slimming down or sale of many state factories has contributed to a sharp drop in union membership, to less than half the workforce. Many laid-off state employees now work in small, non-unionized firms or are self-employed. Collective bargaining is legal, but with Mongolia's poor economy employers enjoy considerable leverage and often set wages unilaterally. The government prohibits strikes in sectors that it considers essential, including utilities, transportation, and law enforcement. Laws on child labor and workplace health and safety are poorly enforced. Private land ownership is not permitted, although the law allows land to be leased for up to 100 years.

Mongolia's judiciary is independent, but corruption among judges persists, according to the U.S. State Department report. In a holdover from the country's Communist past, defendants are not presumed innocent.

Post-Communist reforms have created a more disciplined police force, though anecdotal evidence suggests that officers in rural Mongolia occasionally beat suspects and prisoners. Despite recent reforms, conditions in jails and pretrial detention centers continue to be life threatening because of insufficient food, heat, and health care. Tuberculosis has killed dozens of inmates in recent years, though the percentage of prisoners who die each year from tuberculosis continues to drop. Inmates often come to prison already suffering from illnesses because of the long periods that many spend in pre-trial police detention, where conditions are even worse.

Women make up the majority of university graduates, doctors, and lawyers and have helped set up and manage many of Mongolia's new trading and manufacturing firms. They also are at the forefront of Mongolian civil society, running several influential nongovernmental groups that educate voters, lobby government officials, and promote women's rights and child welfare. Women, however, hold relatively few senior judicial and governmental posts. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many Mongolian women continue to be victimized by domestic violence, which often is linked to alcohol abuse.

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