Correction to This Article
A photo caption with a Feb. 12 article about Mongolia misstated the purpose of a protest in January. Demonstrators were calling for the resignation of President Nambaryn Enkhbayar, not Natsagyn Bagabandi, a former president.

Feeling the Squeeze Of China and Russia, Mongolia Courts U.S.

Mongolians in traditional dress passed the limo carrying President Bush in November. Bush's trip was the first to Mongolia by a sitting U.S. president.
Mongolians in traditional dress passed the limo carrying President Bush in November. Bush's trip was the first to Mongolia by a sitting U.S. president. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 12, 2006

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia -- When Mongolians look north, they see the Russian colossus that controlled them for most of the 20th century. When they look south, they see 1.3 billion Chinese, hereditary adversaries whose booming growth and insatiable appetite for raw materials touch almost everything that happens in the Mongolian economy.

Squeezed between the two giants, Mongolia increasingly has forged relations with "third neighbors," more distant nations that can offset the influence of Moscow and Beijing. Japan has played the role prominently, becoming Mongolia's largest aid donor, and so have Germany and South Korea.

But foremost among the third neighbors is the United States, the superpower that Mongolians have courted as an aid source and a counterweight to Russia's residual status and China's economic tentacles stretching across the Gobi Desert. For many of Mongolia's 2.7 million inhabitants, therefore, President Bush's stopover here on Nov. 21, though it lasted only several hours, was a welcome symbol that Washington has bought into the relationship.

"It was a truly historical event," Foreign Minister Nyamaa Enkhbold said in an interview.

For the Bush administration, this country's importance as a friend lies in Iraq, where a contingent of 120 to 150 Mongolian soldiers is deployed. The soldiers' main value has been symbolic -- Mongolia has stuck with the U.S.-led coalition since right after President Saddam Hussein was overthrown, even as other contributing nations pulled out of Iraq. Similarly, a squad of Mongolian artillery trainers has gone to Afghanistan as part of the U.S.-led force there.

The decision to dispatch troops to Iraq also was symbolic of Mongolia's third neighbor policy. Russia and China voiced strong objections and exerted pressure on the government to change its mind, diplomatic sources said. But leaders went ahead anyway, despite the acknowledged necessity of getting along with their two big neighbors and trading partners.

A Mongolian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the possibility of increased U.S. financial aid was in the back of leaders' minds. Mongolia receives $7.5 million a year in U.S. development projects, about $3 million in wheat donations and some military training. But the main goal, the official said, was to demonstrate Mongolia's desire to be an ally, in keeping with its third neighbor policy.

Some analysts have suggested that Mongolia's broad, flat expanses, along with an abandoned Russian air base, could also be valuable as the Pentagon seeks to position itself for the eventuality of conflict with China. But U.S. bases here would be impractical, because Russia or China would have to grant overflight permission for any U.S. planes coming or going. Bases or not, Mongolians understand that Washington sees a strategic advantage in having this country as a sure ally in a neighborhood with an uncertain future.

"The United States may want to have some reliable partners in the region," said Sanjaasuren Oyun, a member of parliament and head of the Civil Will Party, explaining what the United States gets out of the relationship.

As Bush noted during his stop here, Mongolia also has been cited as a model for former Soviet satellites. While some remain stuck in autocracy or instability, Mongolia has been transformed over the past 15 years into a working parliamentary democracy. In fact, the country is so eager to dissociate itself from the 1921-90 Communist past that a mausoleum housing icons of the Soviet era in Ulan Bator's Sukhbaatar Square was recently demolished to make way for a new statue of Genghis Khan.

But the democratic system hit a bump late last month, leading some Mongolians to express fears of instability. The former Communists, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, pulled out of an 18-month-old coalition and rounded up enough votes in the Great Hural, or parliament, to form their own government under the leadership of a former Ulan Bator mayor, M. Enkhbold.

The outgoing prime minister, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj of the Democratic Party, said the change was unwarranted and suggested that the MPRP had torpedoed his coalition to avoid a corruption investigation surrounding several senior officials associated with the MPRP.

"This decision not only became a blotch on the efforts of many people," Elbegdorj said in a farewell address, "but it also is an obstacle to the development of the Mongolian people and their advance to full democracy and freedom. . . . Democracy brought us into the 20th century. Corruption has pulled us back to the 1920s."

As Mongolia's economy opens and money begins to flow, particularly from land privatization and coal and copper mining, official corruption has become a major political issue and a constant source of gossip. A foreign adviser related a Mongolian businessman's tale describing how a prominent politician had offered him a prime piece of state-owned real estate overlooking Sukhbaatar Square in exchange for two Mercedes S-Class sedans.

"I'll tell you now that corruption is a Mongolian issue and every Mongolian knows it," Elbegdorj said as his government fell.

Oyun, who was a partner in the coalition, said many Mongolians shared Elbegdorj's outrage not only because of corruption but also because "it's not a good thing to impeach the government for no good reason." She added: "There was no big scandal or anything. They just wanted more power."

Although it is the same party that ran Mongolia in Soviet times, the MPRP has embraced democracy and harbors no ambitions to lead the country backward, according to Mongolian and foreign observers. At the same time, they noted, it may be less eager than the Democratic Party to promote transparency in government finances and a press free of government influence.

Nyamaa Enkhbold, the new foreign minister, who is only distantly related to the prime minister, said the MPRP government plans no change in foreign policy, including the tight relationship with the United States. The new government, in office less than three weeks, has not formally decided to replace the contingent of Mongolian soldiers in Iraq when its six-month rotation ends in March, he said. But training has been underway for designated replacements, he added, and their dispatch will likely be approved sometime this month.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company