The past 100 years of cooperation between Mongolia, Russia, and China in creativity, efficiency and productivity in the sphere of the economy, education, healthcare, research, culture, etc. have surpassed hundreds of years of interaction in the past millennium. Therefore, in the next 100 years the results will surpass everything we have achieved so far, believes Tsogtbaatar Damdin, Member of the Parliament of Mongolia, Head of the Mongolian delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Mongolia and Russia. In today’s world, where only matters of gigantic proportions with global players and a global reach get attention, the century-old history of our cooperation, due to the fact that one of the parties is a small state, may seem like one of many protocol anniversaries of a purely bilateral nature, only that it is still a centennial. Often, when looking at such cooperation and speaking about mutual assistance in times of trials, involuntarily and due to the difference in size, emphasis is given to the larger actor in light of the fact that the latter's support was fateful for the smaller partner. At least this is the nature of the most common line of reasoning, which limits the discussion of our relations to two-way interaction, leaving out their impact and the boost they provide to the vast bi-regional space from Central Asia to Northeast Asia and further to Eurasia as a whole. However, admittedly, the processes that were triggered by bilateral cooperation initiated a chain reaction that led to a change in the political and ideological map of the world, at least in Asia-Pacific Eurasia. This point of view will be discussed below.
The early 20th century was marked by unrest and changes of a global scale, and these processes left their mark on the Asia-Pacific region. The Xinhai Revolution of 1911 rocked the Celestial Empire for decades to come, as the tsarist diplomat in Beijing Ivan Korostovets projected. Amid these fundamental changes, the Mongolian elite put forward, in 1911, an idea of independence and sovereignty, thus taking advantage of the then effort to overthrow the Manchu dynasty. The monarchical Mongolian government, which was created in the wake of independence proclaimed in the country, operated as a sovereign entity until 1915. During its time in office, the Bogd Khan government was making futile attempts to gain recognition and support from a number of countries. Having failed to secure international support, and under the pressure of the Chinese government, which Tsarist Russia quickly decided not to oppose, Mongolia acquiesced to autonomy within China during trilateral talks in Kyakhta in 1915. In 1919, the Chinese troops occupied Mongolia completely.
However, the light of historical memory of freedom and independence, which has been shining since the days of Genghis Khan’s Great Mongol Empire, plus, albeit a brief, but very real taste of sovereign rule from 1911 to 1915, gave a boost to the unstoppable drive towards reinstating freedom. For an unsophisticated nomadic cattle breeder of those days, sovereignty and autonomy meant, apparently, being “outside the framework” of China. That concept or opinio juris, which was then ingrained to some extent in mass psychology, led to an explosive popular response during the military intervention of 1919. Combined, these factors invigorated the national liberation movement, which inevitably brought about the historical need to form a better organised political institution for fighting for independence. The Mongolian People's Party (MPP), which was created in March 1921, perfectly filled the void that resulted from that historical necessity. If the turn of events at that time in a small and rather isolated country like Mongolia had led to the emergence of serious political forces like a political party, one can imagine what this had led to in large countries like China with its numerous contacts with the outside world. The appearance in our bi-region of such a political party in a small and poorly developed country was a reaction to deep-running social processes of a stormy nature and to the opportunities offered by such tectonics. Most importantly, few people could imagine back then that this party would not only be a result of fundamental events, but also an active participant and conductor of game-changing developments in the region. The MPP is one of the oldest political parties in Asia. Predated only by a couple of Japanese parties and the Kuomintang, it was nevertheless established before the Chinese Communist Party. In other words, when the era of political parties as the main power players was just dawning in Asian Eurasia, Mongolia already had a party at this early stage, thus reinforcing the region-wide trend and adding its own hue to the gamut of the parties in the countries of that region. The party was spearheaded by the Mongols themselves, without any participation or allusions on the part of big outside players. This means that the political consciousness and understanding of the Mongolian leaders, despite the country’s low level of development, were at a level that was comparable to the political thought of the largest countries in the region.
Taking the national liberation movement baton from the patriotic aristocratic elite, the MPP enlisted the support of Soviet Russia, which was a well-thought-out, pragmatic move. The MPP founders were not supporters of the communist ideology early on, as they were later portrayed, and as rival parties are now trying to present them to voters. They just were not in a position to support it. To be successful, first of all, it had to be popular with the people. And the people were nomadic and deeply religious, believing in the Bogd Khan as a saint endowed with the legitimate right to political power and religious supremacy. Therefore, their primary goal was to win independence and reinstate the Bogd Khan on the throne. These party goals were supported by the Bogd Khan and, with his blessing, they turned to Russia. The Bogd Khan was well aware that the Soviet regime was atheistic and anti-monarchist, but, apparently, he also knew well that he would never get a perfect chance to gain independence without risk for the monarchy, and independence, even if he was running a risk for his power in the process, was the ultimate goal of the nation. The pragmatism of this approach bore fruit. Indeed, unlike during the first unsuccessful run to gain independence in 1915, during the second attempt, Mongolia had the unconditional support of its northern neighbour rather than half-hearted support, a “half-remote” effort on the part of the tsarist government. This time, Soviet Russia’s support, albeit for ideological reasons and with occasional trade-offs with the Kuomintang government, such as in 1924, was the key factor in the fight for independence, which drastically changed the entire game’s effectiveness.
Indeed, until the end of World War II, the Soviet Union was the only country to recognise Mongolia’s independence and sovereignty, and, while maintaining its faith in the success of the project, strongly insisted, together with Mongolia, on its recognition by the international community. In 1921, during another proclamation of independence, there were a little more than 50 countries in the world. All but one did not recognise the independence of the nomadic nation. In other words, the country embarked on the path of sovereign independence against the will of 98 percent of the international community at that time. Given these circumstances, what were the chances of success? From a purely statistical point of view, the situation was hopeless. Considering that Soviet Russia itself was the only and young communist state amid an unfriendly environment, and, therefore, needed to survive itself, the chances of success were even slimmer. But despite the difficulties and challenges, Mongolia’s statehood was upheld. At the end of the Second World War, with the emergence of the socialist camp, the number of countries recognising and supporting Mongolia gradually increased. With the accession of Mongolia to the UN in 1961, it can be said that Mongolia’s independence and sovereignty went from de facto to de jure status, thus putting an end to Mongolia’s 40-year-long struggle for final and irreversible recognition by the international community. Today, Mongolia has diplomatic relations with all UN member states except one. This long path of diplomatic presence on the world stage began 100 hundred years ago with one single partner.
For today's youth, which lives super-intense and overly competitive lifestyles of a technologically oversaturated society in a world of fascinating information, the events and aspirations that are 100 years old appear to go back much further into history than they really do. Therefore, the value of that support, against all odds, can be perceived as something commonplace. In fact, organising recognition of independence by other states, especially at the early phases of a new state, is a challenging proposition. In the modern world, there are many countries/regions striving to achieve recognition. At various international forums, one can see that almost each delegate (of any level), even during casual encounters, will raise the issue of recognition because these diplomats know exactly which states have not yet extended recognition, since they are keeping a roster of countries that have not yet done so. For these countries, indeed, literally every day matters, since the international climate can change at any moment, and, as is often the case, not in favour of small countries. On the other hand, a country considering a decision about recognition has to take into account numerous aspects of diplomatic policy, international law, history, religion, culture, the number of states that have already recognised that country, etc. Only after passing these difficult “tests” can the states acquire other countries’ recognition. Consequently, gaining recognition is a highly challenging diplomatic undertaking. It was even harder 100 years ago in the years between the two world wars.
One hundred years of diplomatic cooperation between Mongolia and Russia is also remarkable from another perspective. More than 70 percent of the 193 UN member states came into existence after the Second World War, i.e. the history of Mongolia-Russia diplomatic relations (not to mention the history of the sovereign existence of the states) is longer than the history of existence of the overwhelming majority of modern states. Before establishing diplomatic relations with Mongolia (November 5, 1921), RSFSR had diplomatic relations with 36 other countries. This means that of the 190 countries with which Russia has diplomatic relations today, 80 percent established diplomatic relations with it after Mongolia. Moreover, most of the above 36 countries established diplomatic relations with the Russian Empire. Therefore, the question of whether, by 1921, in addition to formal diplomatic relations, these 36 countries had actual partnerships remains unanswered. For such a vast but young country, diplomatic relations with 36 countries, of course, did not meet national interests. It was necessary to increase the number of partner countries, especially along the nearest perimeter. From this point of view, diplomatic relations between Mongolia and the RSFSR also met the latter’s national interests, not to mention the ideological considerations and plans of the Bolshevik government.
The emergence of young Mongolia in the 1920s in our bi-region from Central Asia to Northeast Asia has changed the geopolitical rules that dominated the region for hundreds of years. Today, this bi-region is home to 11 countries. One hundred years ago, there were only three countries of imperial size – Russia, China and Japan. Prior to Mongolia, these countries, in terms of the number of players in the region, at best adhered to the position of maintaining the status quo, and the rule of the thumb was to keep the number of players down. For Soviet Russia, survival was the main objective, although the idea of a world revolution with an aggressive approach remained a powerful force. Japan's imperial conquest ambitions had already become a reality. The Kuomintang government in China strived not to lose a single inch of the Qing dynasty’s land. In other words, the system of relations in no way provided for the emergence of yet another state. All the more so during a period where military domination was an acceptable rule of the game, and when Japan sought to expand its territory, population and resources, allowing the formation of a fourth state with a territory four times larger than Japan, but with 1/100th of its population (not to mention the economy) and with a population density of 0.3 people per square kilometer, was an inconceivable and unexpected act.
In the then established system of international relations in our bi-region, the creation of Mongolia, the only country of a non-imperial scale, broke the barrier of the entrenched political thought that there was no place for smaller states, and that they would not be allowed to become full-fledged nations. The process of Mongolia’s creation and coming of age with the support of Russia, which was still economically devastated by the revolution, was orders of magnitude more difficult than, for example, the same process started by the massive emergence of new states after World War II as a result of the decolonisation movement. Yet the creation of an independent and sovereign Mongolia paved the way for the emergence of new states in the monolithic environment of the largest states in the bi-region. After Mongolia gained independence in 1921, more than 20 years later, the DPRK and the Republic of Korea appeared on the map, and 90 years later, as many as five Central Asian states did the same. Also, it can be said that almost until the end of the Cold War, the formula for gaining independence through “partnership” with communism was firmly established. It was used not only within our bi-region, but far beyond it as well, throughout Asia and Africa. But it all started with a single experiment in Mongolia.
The choice of the republican form of government for Mongolia in the 1920s is also an innovation, which played a role in spreading it across the East. After all, the East from the cultural and civilisational point of view as a whole has been traditionally patriarchal for centuries. In Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, respect for authority, elders, fathers and parents is a virtue, and the head of state in the East is also often seen as a father figure, an authority and is revered. In Mongolia, for example, the coat of arms, personifying the state, is still regarded as something divine and sacred. For centuries, the institution of Eastern monarchs was firmly in power precisely because of this worldview. Naturally, in 1911, during the first attempt to achieve independence, the Mongols proclaimed the Bogd Khan on the throne of power as the country’s sovereign. In 1921, when independence was restored, the monarchical form of government headed by the Bogd Khan was again chosen by the young MPP patriots, although this time we are talking about a constitutional monarchy. Taking into account Mongols’ traditional sociopolitical values and concepts of statehood, this choice was natural. Although the MPP, with the help of Soviet Russia, won independence, since its founders at that time did not adhere to communist views, they let the sovereign peacefully occupy the khan’s throne until the end of his days (1924). This also shows the Eastern and Buddhist tolerance of the Mongols. Indeed, both in Russia and in China, the fate of the emperors was different. Another feature of the transformations in Mongolia at that time is that its two large neighbours had to undergo a tough and sacrificial revolution to proclaim a republic, while there was no need for this in Mongolia in 1924. And this specific feature would be replayed in the 1990s with the adoption of a democratic system in Mongolia.
The proclamation of the Mongolian People's Republic in 1924 made it the third republican country in the larger bi-region after China and Russia. Japan was and remains to this day a constitutional monarchy, with an emperor representing the oldest dynastic line in the modern world. Back then, the choice of a system that ensured social mobility for all groups of the population while rejecting the centuries-old institution of power distribution depending on ancestry and aristocratic lines was indeed a new non-Eastern approach. After World War II, both countries of the Korean Peninsula chose a republican form of government, and in the 1990s, republics were formed in Central Asia.
After the end of the Cold War, Mongolia-Russia cooperation continued successfully and acquired the strategic partnership spirit. The severity and shocks of the period of transformation and transitional economy in the 1990s were equally dramatic in Mongolia and in Russia. The democratisation process in the region, the origins of which go back to the Soviet perestroika reforms of 1985 with the introduction of glasnost, gave a boost to irreversible sociopolitical changes. Since Russia and Mongolia started democratic reforms with a market economy in the 1990s, Russia fully understood, supported and respected the reforms in Mongolia. Against this background and as a result of this situation, Mongolia, taking into account the results of the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe, became the first parliamentary (not presidential) democracy in the post-Soviet space in Asia. As mentioned above, the transition to a parliamentary democracy in the 1990s took place without any casualties, just like the transition from a monarchy to a republic in 1924. Even though bilateral relations between Mongolia and Russia moved to a market basis in the 1990s, nevertheless, realising the excessive burden of changes in Mongolia, Russia supported Mongolia by way of restructuring the “big” debt on particularly favorable terms, and cooperating in transport, mining, defence, education and culture. Another mega project is currently underway – a gas pipeline from Russia to China across Mongolia. The Transit Mongolia policy idea of President of Mongolia Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh conveniently links up with initiatives such as promoting cooperation as part of Greater Eurasia and the Belt and Road, which were put forward by the President of the Russian Federation and the President of the People’s Republic of China, respectively. These kinds of georegional projects determine the development of strategic partnerships on a timeless basis between Mongolia and Russia.
Since both Mongolia's neighbours today are strategic partners, the vast Eurasian space is a monolithic region for strategic cooperation. On the basis of such a strong platform in the coming era, mutual relations that arose in the past century, changed the established rules at the geopolitical level and led to changes in the structure of international relations in the region have all the necessary ingredients for expanding growth and development. One can say that the past 100 years of cooperation in creativity, efficiency and productivity in the sphere of the economy, education, healthcare, research, culture, etc. (covering which would take volumes of separate studies) have surpassed hundreds of years of interaction in the past millennium. So, I’m confident that in the next 100 years the results will surpass everything we have achieved so far.