In Need of Investors, Mongolia Stretches Out a Friendly Hand

Foreign Minister Luvsan Erdenechuluun seeks modernization for a country caught between two giants, Russia and China.

"With friends, you are as broad as the steppe," says a Mongolian proverb, "without them you are a narrow as the palm of your hand."

"We are sandwiched between two countries," says Mongolia's foreign minister, Luvsan Erdenechuluun who is currently on an official visit to Israel," between Russia [to the north] and China [to the south, east and west], with no outlet to the sea, so we are looking for friends so that we can increase Mongolia's importance in the eyes of her giant neighbors. Although she has friendly relations with them, she is still looking for ways to increase her value and uniqueness, in order to prevent the possibility that one day she will be swallowed up by one of [her neighbors].

"Mongolia's population is small, just 2.7 million people, and the country is huge, 1,565 million square kilometers - 75 times the size of the State of Israel, three times the size of France, about half the size of India."

Erdenechuluun came to Israel after deciding to take up a standing invitation, but also after Mongolia's new ambassador to Israel - who is a non-resident and lives in Turkey - decided to refresh and vitalize relations between Mongolia and Israel. Mongolia wants help from Israel, mainly in the fields of agriculture and irrigation technology, but also in the fields of military training for missions involving the guarding of the country's extensive borders - 3,485 kilometers with Russia and 4,677 kilometers with China, together some 8,000 kilometers.

Erdenechuluun speaks very cautiously, making it clear that Mongolia is not planning, heaven forbid, to equip its small army with sophisticated weapons or to train it for aggressive purposes.

"We have to compete with the economies of those two giant countries [Russia and China]. We are not trying to compete with them from a military point of view. But we want to compete with them in peaceful ways. Even though we can call our borders with them `friendly borders,' we have to ensure that these borders continue to be peaceful, especially during the times in which we live.

"Today, for example, there are problems with international terrorism, narcobusiness, trade in women and children. Even though we have a very small army, we need to protect our borders and we need good, trained people."

"We are privatizing all our assets," says Erdenechuluun. "We are privatizing big companies. Israeli investors can take part in the privatization process. They can bring investments for mineral mining. Americans, Canadians and Australians are already there."

Mongolia is rich in oil, coal, gold, silver, copper (Mongolia is one of the largest producers of copper in the world), iron and other natural resources. The problem is the harsh weather - very hot summers and very cold winters, when temperatures in the capital city (Ulaanbaatar) drop to -26 Celsius, and a lack of infrastructure. These two main factors make production very expensive or almost impossible.

Mongolia would like to increase its minimal trade with Israel. Today there is only export to Mongolia, which in 2002 amounted to $99,000, and grew to $279,000 during the first nine months of 2003. Erdenechuluun says that Israel can import cashmere, camel hair, leather and furs from Mongolia.

Mongolia would also like young Mongolians to come study at Israeli universities, and for more Israelis to visit Mongolia as tourists. Today Israeli visitors to Mongolia are mainly backpackers, who trickle in at the rate of about 100 a year.

Mongolia would also like something else: for Israel to agree to accept foreign workers from Mongolia, if possible via the setting of a consensual quota. Israel and Mongolia have a mutual agreement for visa exemptions, something that allows Israeli tourists to enter Mongolia without any difficulties, and Mongolians try to reach Israel in order to work illegally.

It turns out, however, that when they reach Israel, the are sent back straight from the airport because they cannot prove that they have come for purely tourist purposes - they have no money and no hotel reservation. The Foreign Ministry is having quite a headache trying to figure out how to solve this problem, and now Erdenechuluun has come along with his proposal, which may be hard to digest.

Erdenechuluun says that there are currently between 500 and 2,000 Mongolian illegal workers here. He evades the question of an appropriate ceiling for the number of foreign workers who should be legalized, but says, "We must try to solve the issue in an amicable manner that will satisfy the Israeli government," and is planning to raise the issue during his meeting with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.

An Israeli who was in Mongolia's capital, Ulaanbaatar, in September 2003 for a United Nations conference on new and rehabilitating democracies was amazed at the democratic spirit that is palpable in Mongolia and the wave of construction in the capital. The "Lonely Planet" guide says Mongolia is one of the only remaining large destinations for adventure in Asia. Once outside Ulaanbaatar, writes the guide, "one begins to wonder if one has not been transported back 100 years."

Erdenechuluun, 55, is a professional diplomat who began his career in 1972 as a clerk in the department of international organizations in the Mongolian Foreign Ministry and rose to become his country's ambassador to the United Nations from 1992-1996. He received his diplomatic training in Moscow during the Soviet period, at the Institute for International Relations and the Diplomatic Academy. Before being appointed foreign minister in August 2000, Erdenechuluun was a political adviser to Mongolia's president. He spent a total of 10 years in various UN posts, but says he has actually been there for 29 years and has attended all the UN General Assemblies during that time.

Modernization needed

Though exposed to Western influences for many years, he declined to relate to the American way of life or to say that he has taken any ideas from it for implementation in his country. In contrast, he speaks freely of plans, research and concepts regarding proper administration and human rights that he studied at the UN and later sent to be applied in Mongolia.

When asked whether Mongolia has changed its orientation toward the West, Erdenechuluun answers that it would be fitting for Mongolia to become a country that can compete with other nations technologically, economically, socially and culturally, in order to "be able to survive in this era of globalization."

"Hence, for example, we cannot live only as nomads, but must change our lifestyle," he says. The nomads, who constitute half the population of Mongolia, wander with their flocks in search of pastureland, just as their forefathers did before them. This is a lifestyle that is very vulnerable to natural disasters, says Erdenechuluun, relating emotionally that in the past three winters, his people lost some 11 million stock. "Can you imagine such a thing?" he asks. "It is a huge amount of loss."

Erdenechuluun feels that the nomads must be settled gradually. "We have to bring in modernization," he says. Mongolia is crying out for manpower, and the nomads are detracting from it. Four million Mongolians live in Inner Mongolia, but they are not an option. Inner Mongolia belongs to the People's Republic of China.

"Mongolia is a small country," says Erdenechuluun, comparing the country's population with that of Israel, "and we believe that small countries must cooperate with one another because many issues unite us. There are so many things that we can learn from Israel, which has become an advanced country in many fields, including trade and security.

"We feel much affection toward Israel and the Jewish people," he says, adding quickly, "We would like to see Israel living in secure boundaries and in peace with the Arab neighbors. We are very opposed to violence and terror attacks, but we also believe that the terror attacks should not serve as the basis for intervention in the internal matters of other countries."

When asked why Mongolia does not vote with Israel very often in the UN, Erdenechuluun replies that this is not the case. In the past, for example, Mongolia supported the General Assembly decision equating Zionism with racism, but in the early 1990s, "We reversed our position completely," and even supported the decision to annul the previous decision. Mongolia also did not support the UN proposal, cosponsored by Egypt and other countries, against Israel's nuclear armament, and abstained during the vote.

"We are not only trying, but also making every effort to show the situation in the Middle East in the most objective manner possible," says Erdenechuluun.

Could a velvet revolution like the one that just took place in Georgia happen in Mongolia?

Erdenechuluun is practically insulted by such a question.

"We have democracy in Mongolia," said Erdenechuluun. "We already had a velvet revolution in 1990, when Mongolia switched to the democratic system." [When it broke away from the former Soviet Union, when it split up - D.S.].

Erdenechuluun feels that his party, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, which grew out of the Communist Party that ruled Mongolia for the 70 years of dependency on the Soviet Union, and has undergone many changes, has good chances of being reelected in the next elections, in July 2004. The ruling party, which advocates a market economy and privatization, won 72 or the 76 seats in Mongolia's parliament in the last elections.

Are you worried that your small opposition will not be heard, but rather suppressed?

"They are not suppressed. Who will suppress them?"

They are a very small minority.

"That is not our mistake. That is what the public said. Yes, we took 72 of the 76 seats. It was an overriding success."

Almost like during the Communist era?

"Excuse me, but then we all knew who to vote for. Today no one knows for whom the public will vote. That is the big difference. Do not overlook that difference."

Still, not everything is good in Mongolia. There is 20 percent unemployment, 36 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, tens of thousands are homeless, many of them are street children, and there is a tremendous gap between the tiny rich class and most of the rest of the people.

"When we became a democratic country," responds Erdenechuluun, "all the assistance we were used to receiving from the Former Soviet Union and from the other Socialist countries disappeared overnight.

"The economic slump was so dramatic that it is taking us years and years to get back. When my party came to power, the situation became much better. You cannot change the whole economic system so dramatically in a fortnight. From a political point of view we are a very stable country."