Last week, I wrote ‘the gloves are off’. Indeed, I would argue that, with the cancelling of the South Stream gas pipeline project, the conflict Russia has with many of its neighbours - including the EU, entered a new phase. The move shows that the Russian leadership is willing to abandon its strongest leverage towards Europe: gas. Simultaneously, something else happened, which was covered less: a remarkably deep new pact between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Abkhazia – including military cooperation. Although Russia recognized the independence of this Georgian breakaway region in 2008, many see this move as the prelude to a future annexation. In 2008, many would have regarded this exaggerated, but since Ukraine lost Crimea in March, everything seems possible. However, Russia doesn’t need to. With its formidable army, size and status, it is able to project quite some power without annexing anything. Abkhazia is an example, as are Transnistria in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, and South Ossetia in Georgia - and the considerable Russian minorities in Eastern Ukraine, Northern Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia and Belarus furthermore. The case of Mongolia is in that regard an interesting one, and one I wanted to delve into for quite some time.
Some time ago, in that peaceful time long gone when Crimea was simply Ukrainian and Armenia was eager to be the next member of the Eurasian Economic Union, I joked with my friends that Mongolia might be the next republic in the Russian Federation. Russia, as what’s left from the USSR, consists of 22 federal republics (including Crimea since March). Three of them, Kalmykia, Buryatia and Tuva, are inhabited by ethnic Mongols. One more makes little difference, wouldn’t it? Increasingly threatened by an more and more expansionist China to its South, joining its enemy enemy might be the only way to survive. We all know it didn’t happen. However, with the tension around the South China and Black Seas, it seems a miracle that none of the big powers tried to court Mongolia more explicitly. Most probably, it’s still beneficial for both China and Russia to let Mongolia be, and maintain its neutral status squeezed in between the two authoritarian powerhouses.
The Federal Republics in the Russian Federation inhabited by ethnic Mongols: Kalmykia, Tuva and Buryatia.
As we speak, there is talk that Mongolia might join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The SCO is a club of mainly Post-Soviet countries plus China, established in 1996 to settle border disputes in the heart of Asia, but increasingly helping each other out to streamline regime security and the fight against terrorism. Mongolia is an observer state since 2004. The question is though, if the wish to join is cherished more in Beijing than in Ulaanbaatar. Most Mongols, including in government, see the SCO as a China-dominated club of authoritarian regimes. This image is the opposite of Mongolia’s: democratic and carefully manoeuvring in between Russia, China and the USA – the so-called ‘third neighbour’ policy. (There’s few other examples. Nepal and Bhutan are also stuck in between big powers, but they seem to have chosen for India.) Moreover, apart from its SCO observer status, Mongolia has an ‘Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program’ with the NATO, and it delivered troops to the NATO missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Mongolia continuously needs to balance its foreign policy act.
Mongolia and the Mongols: in red the places inhabited by ethnic Mongols, and accentuated the boundaries of the Medieval Mongol Empire.
Outer Mongolia, conscious of Ming China’s policies in Inner Mongolia, looked at the Russian Empire to counter Chinese colonization efforts. Shortly after the Outer part of Mongolia became independent in 1912, it signed a Friendship Treaty with the Russian Empire, and subsequently Russian settlers arrived. China, now a republic as well, continued to meddle in Mongolian affairs. Russian presence in Mongolia continued to grow, however. During the Civil War that followed the October Revolution from 1918 to 1922, many ‘White’ Russian fled to Mongolia, and stayed. However, the Reds won, and two years later, in 1924, Communists took power in Mongolia as well. As the powers in Mongolia got even more cosy with Moscow, a new wave of immigrants followed: Soviet specialists and advisers. The Soviet Union encouraged cross-border contact, especially between areas populated by ethnic Mongols in the Soviet Union. In 1944, the Mongol-inhabited Tuva republic was annexed by the Soviets, but Mongolia kept its independence.
The Soviet Union expansion during and around the Second World War.
During the Second World War, Mongolians fought the Japanese side to side with the Soviets (and even under their formal command). As a result, China recognized Mongolia’s independence finally, in 1945 – but under protest. After its establishment in 1949, the People’s Republic of China directly recognized Mongolia’s independence, but relations neither got that warm. After the Sino-Soviet Split in 1960, Mongolia firmly chose the side of the USSR. In 1986, as a result of Gorbachev’s ‘New Thinking’, the relationship between China and the Soviet Union improved. It was even proposed to withdraw the Soviet troops from Mongolia. Of course, this alarmed the Mongolian leadership. To reassure them, the Soviets explicitly stated the obvious - that ‘no third countries should be harmed.’ In the end, not all Soviet troops were withdrawn from Mongolia. Anyway, the Mongolian leadership established ties with the US in 1987. A ‘third neighbour’ was created.
Mongolia abandoned Communism in 1990, but the re-branded Socialist Party only lost power in 1996. Contrary to many Post-Soviet states, the Russians of Mongolia nowadays speak Mongolian. There’s only 1600 left of the 110.000 that lived there before 1992. Like in Georgia, English replaced Russian as ‘the language of inter-ethnic communication’ – and as the gate to the outside world. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the Mongolian-Russian trade plummeted, and the business contact with China rose simultaneously. However, even though the relationship between the three neighbours is more balanced than before, the Russian continue to maintain their strong ties with Mongolia.