ARVAIKHEER, Mongolia — On the vast Mongolian steppe, birthplace of Genghis Khan, a strong man has arisen. Literally. Mongolia’s President Khaltmaa Battulga is a former world martial arts champion who still trains regularly, a friend of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and a business tycoon with a tough-guy image.
Like the U.S. president, this is a man who says he always wins, whose campaign motto was “Mongolia will win.” But he is now wrestling with the challenge of his life.
Mongolians overthrew an authoritarian communist regime in 1990 in a peaceful democratic revolution. Nearly three decades of democracy have fostered progress but also glaring inequality, leaving nearly 30 percent of the population in poverty. Corruption is rampant, the dark side of the country’s huge reserves of copper, coal and gold.
“I asked before the election and I am still asking,” the gruff-voiced Battulga told a town hall meeting in Arvaikheer in central Mongolia last month. “Why are the people of a country so rich in resources still so poor?”
Battulga, 55, rose from poverty to the country’s highest post, leapfrogging from a sambo wrestling world championship to a successful business career, but his power as president is limited — parliament and the prime minister’s job are in the hands of a rival political party. Battulga has an important role in setting foreign policy, but his ambitions are much grander.
For the past three months, he has been touring Mongolia, holding town hall meetings in every one of the nation’s 21 provinces, asking for popular support in his battle to improve the way his country is governed.
“Do you get the feeling the president we chose is on his own?” he asked hundreds of people packed into a theater here. “It is time to start talking about president plus who? President plus the people, working together.”
Luvsandendev Sumati, director of the independent Sant Maral polling organization, underscores the parallels between the most recent Mongolian and U.S. presidential elections.
After the dirtiest presidential contest in Mongolia’s history, he said, many people stayed away or cast blank ballots in protest. In the end, though, Battulga’s anti-establishment status outweighed questions about his business record and past corruption allegations.
“The poor decided he is their president, and once people decide that, they forgive you everything,” Sumati said. “Anti-establishment politicians are taking over the globe. Why should Mongolia be any different?”
This is the most sparsely populated country in the world, the size of Texas, California and Montana combined but home to just 3 million people, living in the giant shadows of Russia to the north and China to the south. Culturally, it remains closer to its northern neighbor, but economically it is dependent on its booming southern neighbor, with more than 80 percent of its exports flowing there.
Distrust of China runs high here, however, and Battulga exploited that to portray himself as a pro-Moscow, anti-Beijing candidate during the campaign. As president, though, he takes a more pragmatic approach, saying that Mongolia should be friends with both countries while “rebalancing” to reduce China’s trade dominance.
A former president of Mongolia’s judo association, he shares a love of wrestling, and a friendship, with Putin.
“Because we both practiced judo, it is easier for us to communicate,” he said in an interview, noting that Putin is also “president of a country that has been our neighbor for thousands of years.”
But Battulga wants American support, too. In 1990, then-Secretary of States James A. Baker III pledged that the United States would be the “third neighbor” to the newly democratic Mongolia, a pledge repeated when President George W. Bush visited in 2005. More recently, another secretary of state, John F. Kerry, praised Mongolia as an “oasis of democracy” between Russia and China.
Yet U.S. defense and security ties with Mongolia are much stronger than economic ties, which account for less than 2 percent of Mongolian trade.
“The praises of the United States that Mongolia is ‘an oasis of democracy’ or ‘model of democracy’ have not brought any substantial contribution to the economy,” Battulga wrote in a letter to President Trump in December. “Discouraged by this fact, ordinary citizens of Mongolia are losing confidence in democracy and doubting the choice of democratic path.”
Battulga asked for improved access for Mongolian textile exports to the United States. Trump replied that he would be delighted to explore ways to boost trade in a “fair and equitable manner,” according to the Mongolian presidential office.
Battulga began his business life in modest fashion. After graduating from art school, he sold paintings to tourists in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, before sewing and selling jeans and then trading electronics across borders. He used the prize money and international connections gleaned from his sambo tournaments to get his start.
A taxi service, television station and nightclub followed, as well as a lottery business. During the privatization of state-owned assets, he acquired controlling interests in a hotel and a meat-processing factory. But he was also forced to flee the country for six months after he was falsely accused of illegally importing alcohol, according to his friend and biographer Dorjkhand Turmunkh. Another investigation into alleged corruption followed a more recent stint as roads and transport minister, but no charges were brought.
Battulga underlined his nationalist credentials more than a decade ago by erecting a giant statue of Genghis Khan on horseback in an amusement park outside the capital. He burnished his populist credentials by pledging to use proceeds from mining to pay off personal debts held by ordinary Mongolians.
Today, Battulga is Mongolia’s most popular politician, Sant Maral polls show. Yet questions remain for many people: Is the president, with his vast business empire, part of the solution or part of the problem?
As president, he is supposed to renounce party affiliation and unite the nation, but is his nationwide tour a genuine attempt to raise and address problems — or an attempt to grab personal power and campaign for his party ahead of parliamentary elections in 2020? Is he a genuine man of the people or a wannabe strongman?
At the town hall meeting, complaints were manifold. They included requests to repatriate offshore funds held by the political elite and exposed in the Panama Papers, as well as pleas for better conditions for health workers. Some railed against Chinese workers in Mongolia, others about overcrowding in schools.
The president listened patiently for more than an hour before blaming voters for giving the rival Mongolian People’s Party a dominant position in 2016 parliamentary elections.
“One party got 65 out of 76 seats,” he said. “They have all the seats, but unfortunately these past two years they didn’t do anything.”
But at least one listener pushed back, accusing him of being no better than his rivals.
“You are blaming voters, saying this is our fault for electing thieves,” he said. “Look at our lives, look at the condition our kids live in. The Chinese are the owners of Mongolia now. The country is on the brink of disaster. I elected you. I voted for you. But Mongolia will only ‘win’ when we get rid of both these two parties.”