Mongolia - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Mongolia: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Mongolia (country), country in East Asia, landlocked between Russia and China. The country’s capital and largest city is Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator), located in the heartland of Mongol civilization. For thousands of years Mongolia has been the homeland of ethnic Mongols, who make up 90 percent of the country’s people today. Mongols are traditionally nomadic animal herders, with complete freedom of movement, and many continue this way of life on the steppe, a swath of rolling grasslands extending across the country. Mongolia is a sparsely populated country, and domesticated animals outnumber people. Wild horses and many other animals also roam free on the steppe.

In the 13th century the Mongols were first united under Genghis Khan, who founded the largest land empire in history, the Mongol Empire. After the empire fell apart, Mongolia became a province of China known as Outer Mongolia. In 1924 a communist-led revolution won the independence of Outer Mongolia as the Mongolian People’s Republic. It maintained close ties with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Its name officially changed to Mongolia in 1992, after one-party communist rule was abolished.


Mongolia is bounded on the north by Russia and on the east, south, and west by China. The country has a total area of 1,564,100 sq km (603,902 sq mi), or about three times the size of France. Most of the country is a high plateau ranging from 900 to 1,500 m (3,000 to 5,000 ft) in elevation. Rocky desert and grassy semiarid steppe cover most of the land. Forests, which are limited to the mountainous areas, cover about 7 percent of the land.

The mountainous northern and western areas are seismically active zones, with frequent strong earthquakes and many hot springs. The country’s highest peak, Tavan Bogd Uul (4,373 m/14,347 ft), rises in the west where the borders of Mongolia, Russia, and China meet. It is one of many permanently snow-capped peaks in the Altay Mountains, which extend across western Mongolia in two spurs, the Mongolian Altay and the Gobi Altay. In the southwest, the Gobi Altay taper off into the Gobi desert, which occupies the southern third of the country. The Gobi forms the coldest and farthest north of the world’s deserts. Ancient fossils show that it was once part of a large inland sea basin. The Gobi’s northern half lies in Mongolia, while its southern half lies in China. The desert includes rocky low-lying mountains, basalt-column formations, rolling sand dunes, and barren flat expanses.

Central and northern Mongolia is a land of forested mountains and fertile river valleys. Dominating the central area are the Hangayn (Khangai) Mountains, with peaks rising to more than 3,700 m (more than 12,000 ft). To the northeast are the Hentiyn (Khentei) Mountains, with peaks generally between 1,850 and 2,400 m (between 6,000 and 8,000 ft). These ranges are geologically older and more eroded than the higher Altay ranges. They surround the fertile agricultural area of the Selenge River basin, the cradle of Mongol civilization. Ulaanbaatar, the capital, lies on the Tuul River at the southwestern foot of the Hentiyn Mountains. Eastern Mongolia is a high plateau with steppes extending to the frontier with China, where the plateau meets the enormous faulted scarps of the Greater Khingan Range.

Rivers and Lakes in Mongolia

Large rivers originate in the country’s mountainous northern and western areas, while very few surface streams are found in the south. The rivers of Mongolia generally flow in three directions: north toward the Arctic Ocean, east toward the Pacific Ocean, or south into the Gobi desert. In the north, the Selenge River and its main tributary, the Orhon River, form the country’s major river system. These rivers join near the country’s northern border with Russia, where they empty into Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake in water volume.

Another important river is the Kerulen (Hereleng), which flows across northeastern Mongolia and into China, where it empties into Hulun Lake. The few streams of southern and southwestern Mongolia run into salt lakes or disappear in the arid, rocky soils of the Gobi. Water runs underground in the Gobi and can be obtained from wells.

In the northwest, a great basin east of the Altay Mountains contains more than 300 lakes. Here lies the saltwater Lake Uvs, which ranks as the country’s largest lake in surface area (about 3,300 sq km/1,300 sq mi). It is a strictly protected conservation area, with many rare animal and plant species.

Hövsgöl Lake, a deep alpine lake nestled in the northern mountains, is the country’s largest in terms of water volume. It ranks as the second largest freshwater lake in Asia, after Lake Baikal, and contains 2 percent of the world’s fresh water. Its surface area is about 2,760 sq km (about 1,070 sq mi). Dozens of rivers feed the lake, but only one flows from it, the Egiyn Gol, a tributary of the Selenge. Through these rivers, Hövsgöl Lake is connected to Lake Baikal.

Plant and Animal Life in Mongolia

Mongolia possesses a great diversity of plant and animal life. Ecologically, Mongolia occupies an important transition zone in Asia. Siberian taiga forest, glacier-covered mountains, Central Asian steppe, and windswept desert all meet in Mongolia. Largely undisturbed by humans, these ecological areas provide habitat for wild plants and animals that are increasingly rare in other parts of Asia. Mongolia is internationally recognized as an important habitat for many threatened or endangered species, including the wild horse, saiga (horned antelope), argali (wild mountain sheep), wild camel, Gobi bear, wild ass, snow leopard, and white-naped crane.

Mongolia has five main vegetation zones: taiga forest, mountain forest steppe, steppe, desert steppe (semidesert), and desert. These zones generally follow the climatic pattern, forming belts of vegetation by altitude (from mountains to plains) and latitude (from north to south).

Forest to Steppe

The taiga forest zone is located in northern Mongolia, covering about 5 percent of the country. Here, the southern edge of Siberia’s vast taiga forest—the world’s largest continuous forest system—extends into Mongolia. The Siberian larch is the most widespread tree in the taiga forest, but many other species also grow here, including cedar, pine, spruce, and white birch. These dense, damp forests are home to mammals such as reindeer, moose, brown bear, wolf, lynx, and sable.

The mountain forest-steppe zone covers about 25 percent of the land area, including lower mountain elevations and the north-central Selenge-Orhon river basin. Here, the taiga meets the steppe: The cooler, wetter northern mountain slopes contain taiga species, while the warmer, drier southern slopes contain steppe species. This transition zone has the greatest diversity of plant and animal life. It is also the most populated and developed area of the country.

The steppe zone is a swath of rolling grasslands covering more than 20 percent of the country’s land area, including most of its eastern portion. Mongolia’s steppe is part of a vast plain that stretches from Eastern Europe, across Central Asia, and to the Manchurian Plain in northeastern China. In central Mongolia, the steppe provides important grazing lands for domesticated livestock. The drier southeastern steppe is largely uninhabited and is one of the world’s largest remaining examples of an undisturbed steppe ecosystem. Teeming with wildlife, it is home to hundreds of thousands of gazelles and a diverse array of migratory birds, including golden eagles and white-naped cranes.

Steppe to Desert

The desert steppe zone is located in the great lake basin east of the Altay Mountains and in the eastern part of the Gobi. Extending between steppe and desert, it is a transitional zone of semidesert that covers about 20 percent of the country. Although not part of the Gobi desert proper, Mongolians call this land gobi, which in the Mongol language generally refers to an area of arid rangeland. Some Mongolian herders graze livestock in this zone. Its low grasses and shrubs also provide grazing land for an impressive variety of wild mammals. These include Mongolia’s wild horses, called takhi or Przewalski’s horse, famous for their role in the empire-building conquests of Genghis Khan. By the 1960s decades of hunting and livestock overgrazing had rendered the wild horses extinct in Mongolia, but they were reintroduced in the early 1990s and are now protected in the Khustain Nuruu Nature Reserve, established in 1993. The protected steppe environment of the reserve also supports populations of other endangered species, including the wild ass and saiga antelope.

These animals also inhabit Mongolia’s southern desert zone, in the Gobi. Other endangered animals in this zone include Gobi bears, wild camels, gazelles, and argali sheep. These mammals feed on the Gobi’s sparse growth of grass and scrub and find water in the desert’s tree-fringed oases. The Gobi is also home to many reptile species (including geckos, racerunners, and Tatar sand boas) and hundreds of bird species (including vultures, houbara bustards, desert finches, and desert warblers). Fossilized dinosaur eggs and skeletons have been uncovered in the Gobi. The Gurvansaikhan Nature Reserve and other reserves protect large areas of the Gobi in Mongolia.

Climate in Mongolia

Mongolia has a dry continental climate, with long cold winters and short warm summers. Winter temperatures range from a high of -21°C (-5°F) to a low of -30°C (-22°F). Some lakes in the north remain frozen until June. Summers are generally moderate, with temperatures ranging between 10° and 27°C (50° and 80°F). Nights are always cool due to the high elevation of the country. The capital, Ulaanbaatar, located approximately midway between the northern mountains and the Gobi desert, has an average January temperature of -23°C (-9°F) and an average July temperature of 17°C (63°F).

Due to its high elevation and inland location, the country is usually at the center of a region of high atmospheric pressure. In addition, high mountain ranges shield the country from humid air masses from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. As a consequence, Mongolia averages 257 cloudless days each year and is known as the Land of Blue Sky. The winters are predominantly dry, although snow is heavy in the mountains and blizzards sweep over the eastern steppe. Most precipitation comes during the summer’s short rainy season, when sudden torrential thunderstorms and more prolonged gentle showers occur. Rainfall seldom exceeds 380 mm (15 in) in the northern mountains and 125 mm (5 in) in the southern areas. In most years, some areas of the Gobi receive no precipitation at all. There, violent dust storms kick up in spring and fall, with wind speeds up to 140 km/h (90 mph).

Natural Resources of Mongolia

Mongolia contains forests of larch, pine, and cedar in the mountains, but these are of little economic importance. Furbearing animals, especially marmot and squirrel, are abundant, and the country has a well-developed fur industry. Rich prairie land in the northeast and northwest supports large herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. Mineral resources such as coal, iron, copper, fluorspar, gold, uranium, and silver have not been fully exploited.

Environmental Issues in Mongolia

Deforestation and livestock overgrazing have made some areas of Mongolia prone to soil erosion in wind and rain storms. Overgrazing in pasturelands adjacent to the Gobi has led to desertification, a process whereby soils become degraded by vegetation loss. Some rivers and lakes receive pollutants such as agricultural runoff, industrial wastes, and untreated sewage. Only 90 percent of urban residents and 48 percent of rural inhabitants have access to safe drinking water (2006). The burning of soft coal and the concentration of factories in Ulaanbaatar cause severe air pollution in the valley of the Tuul River when the air is stagnant, especially in winter.

Awareness of these problems led the government of Mongolia to create the Ministry of Environmental Protection in 1987. Protecting Hövsgöl Lake from industrial and shipping pollution were among its highest priorities. Since the early 1990s the government has created numerous nature reserves, and 13.9 percent (2007) of the country’s land area is officially protected. The government also has ratified international environmental agreements on biodiversity, desertification, ozone layer protection, endangered species, and other issues.


Mongolia is a sparsely inhabited country. The population is 3,041,142 (2009 estimate), yielding an overall population density of 1.9 persons per sq km (4.9 per sq mi). Traditionally a land of nomads, Mongolia had little urban settlement until the second half of the 20th century. The development of industries after World War II led to increasing urbanization. Today 57 percent of the population lives in urban areas. The country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, is the only large city, with a population of 869,900 (2004 estimate). Initially, most industrialization occurred in Ulaanbaatar, and its population grew rapidly after 1950. Other industrial centers were created in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s with Soviet assistance, including Darhan, Erdenetsogt, and Choybalsan.

Ethnic Groups and Languages in Mongolia

People of Mongol ethnicity make up 90 percent of the population. Khalkha (Halh) Mongols constitute the great majority, while other ethnic Mongols exist in smaller numbers. Kazakhs constitute the country’s largest ethnic minority. They speak a Turkic language and reside almost entirely in the western provinces of Mongolia. Other groups include Chinese and Russians.

The country’s official language is Mongolian, which is one of the Altaic languages. The traditional Mongol script is written vertically and from left to right. It was officially replaced in the 1940s by the Russian alphabet, Cyrillic, with several symbols added specifically for Mongolian. In 1990 the Mongolian government reinstated the traditional script as part of its efforts to promote Mongol culture, and the script began to be taught in schools. However, for everyday purposes the Cyrillic script is still widely used.

Religion in Mongolia

The traditional faith in Mongolia is Tibetan Buddhism, also called Lamaism. Tibetan Buddhism gained ascendancy in Mongolia in the 1500s. For centuries the Lamaist hierarchy, headed by a Living Buddha, held great power, both spiritually and in the aristocracy. However, in 1924 the last Living Buddha died and a communist government came to power. The government brutally suppressed the practice of religion and persecuted Buddhist leaders. Few monasteries were spared complete destruction, mainly to function as museums. Restrictions on religious practice were lifted in the late 1980s as part of broad political and social reforms, sparking a revival of Buddhism in Mongolia. Some of the surviving monasteries were subsequently restored and reopened.

Education in Mongolia

Mongolia has a high literacy rate: 97.3 percent in 2007. Education in Mongolia is compulsory between the ages of 7 and 15. In the 2006 school year 91 percent of primary-aged children attended school. The secondary school enrollment rate was 84 percent in 2002–2003. Several institutions of higher education are located in Ulaanbaatar. They include the National University of Mongolia (founded in 1942), the Mongolian University of Science and Technology (1969), and the Mongolian University of Arts and Culture (1990).

Arts and Music in Mongolia

Mongolia has a rich cultural heritage. Some remnants of ancient cultures exist, including Stone Age rock and cave paintings. Ancient rock formations called deer stones are believed to mark gravesites. Techniques in metal casting, leatherwork, and embroidery have been developed by Mongol nomads over thousands of years. The nomadic way of life is evident in portable works of art such as ornate saddles and jewelry, as well as in decorative pieces for the traditional nomad dwellings, called ger in Mongolia. Many Mongols continue to live in these portable round tents, which have a wooden frame covered in thick felt in winter or a lighter canvas in summer. Some Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia share the same basic framework as the ger.

As in other nomadic societies, Mongols developed a strong folklore tradition of myths, proverbs, and epics, all passed down orally through the generations. Many traditional stories are sung rather than spoken. The tatlaga is a genre of instrumental music that evokes melody, rhythm, and timbre (tone quality) to tell a story. In the song form known as urtyn duu (long song), each syllable is extended for a long duration in a guttural style requiring great skill. Most Mongolian songs relate an intimate relationship with nature and are accompanied by traditional musical instruments. The most common instrument is the morin-khuur, a two-stringed lute with a wooden sound box and a neck scroll carved in the form of a horse’s head.

Tibetan Buddhism inspired the religious art of Mongolia beginning in the 16th century. Paintings called tankas, silk appliqué, and gilt bronze sculpture depict the Buddha as well as a huge pantheon of gods and goddesses. The first Living Buddha of Mongolia, Zanabazar, was exceptionally skilled in metal sculpture. Also highly influential as the Mongol religious and political leader, Zanabazar initiated a golden age in Mongol art during his reign from 1639 to 1723. Cultural contacts with Tibet and China flourished.

Religious iconography was strongly discouraged during the communist period, which spanned much of the 20th century. Painters and other artists were expected to uphold the government’s ideals of socialist realism. References to Mongol culture before the communist revolution in 1924 were systematically censored. Some modern artists explore traditional aspects of Mongol culture in their works, including painter Tod Otgonbayar, who has achieved international recognition.

Libraries and Museums in Mongolia

The National Archives of Mongolia and the State Central Library, both located in Ulaanbaatar, contain some 3 million volumes, including many rare and ancient editions. The Gandan Library, founded in 1838 in the Gandantegchinlen Buddhist monastery in Ulaanbaatar, holds a collection on Buddhist theology and philosophy. Major museums are located in the capital. The National Museum of Mongolian History presents exhibits on Mongolian history and culture from ancient times to the present day. The Natural History Museum contains dinosaur eggs and skeletons from the Gobi desert. The Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts contains religious sculptures of Mongolia’s first Living Buddha and other examples of Mongolian Buddhist art.


Animal herding is the main economic activity and is practiced throughout the country. Manufacturing is devoted largely to the processing of agricultural and livestock products. Mining is also important, but most of the country’s mineral deposits remain unexploited. In 2007 the gross domestic product (GDP) was $3.93 billion, or about $1,506.60 per capita.

During the communist period from 1924 to 1990, the state controlled all industry and trade, through either direct ownership or cooperatives. The government of Mongolia followed the economic model of the USSR, implementing a series of five-year plans beginning in 1948. Mongolia received large-scale Soviet aid to help it increase industrial and agricultural production. The development focused primarily on the industrial sector, and new cities were built near several new mining centers in northern Mongolia.

In 1990 Mongolia began a process of economic reform to phase out the state-controlled economic system in favor of a market-oriented economy. That year a foreign investment law was enacted, making possible the participation of foreigners in a variety of businesses, ranging from firms wholly owned by foreigners to joint ventures with Mongolian enterprises. Many new laws pertaining to taxation, banking, and debt were passed.

In 1991 a privatization law went into effect, by which state-owned property and enterprises began to be transferred to the citizens of Mongolia. Privatization focused primarily on small-scale enterprises, such as internal trade and services, and livestock herding. The government prohibited privatization of large, state-owned enterprises, including roads and railways, the national airline, oil and gold mines, and large irrigation systems.

Agriculture of Mongolia

Nomadism and animal herding have been central facts in Mongolian life for thousands of years, and herding is still the country’s main economic activity. Mongolia has one of the world’s highest ratios of livestock to people. Animals raised include sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and camels. Agriculture plays a minor role in Mongolian economic life. Less than 1 percent of the land is farmable. Crops are grown in the northern part of the country, some with the help of irrigation, and irrigation has been extended into some parts of the Gobi. Principal crops include wheat, potatoes, barley, and oats. The production of hay and fodder for livestock feed is also important.

In the 1920s the government made a rash attempt to imitate Soviet collectivization, whereby individual herders were forcibly organized into state-controlled groups. The program resulted in a disastrous loss of livestock and was largely abandoned until the late 1950s. At that time, a specifically Mongolian form of collectivization was formed, resembling Chinese communes in that the territory of each herders’ association was also an administrative region, equivalent to a county. Also in the late 1950s the government created large state-owned farms and increased the land area under cultivation. In 1990 the government removed all restrictions on private livestock ownership. Subsequently, the herders’ associations and state farms were broken up into smaller units and privatized.

Mining and Manufacturing in Mongolia

Mining and industrial enterprises are concentrated in the north central part of the country. The mining of copper and molybdenum began with Soviet aid and expertise in the late 1970s near Erdenet. The copper mine became Mongolia’s largest source of foreign exchange in the 1990s. Mongolia’s rich iron ore deposits are located near Darhan. Black coal is mined near Ulaanbaatar and Darhan, providing both cities with their own energy source. A cement and lime complex is located between Darhan and Erdenet. Mongolia is also a major producer of fluorspar, which is used in making steel and industrial acid. Gold mining is also significant, and the exploitation of recently discovered deposits has attracted foreign investment. Petroleum deposits in eastern Mongolia began to be tapped in the late 1990s.

Ulaanbaatar and Darhan are the largest industrial centers. Mongolia produces building materials such as bricks; metal products, including steel sheet and copper concentrate; processed food and beverages, including vodka, beer, and soft drinks; and leather and woolen goods, including carpets and footwear. Many manufacturing enterprises that were not commercially viable went out of business in the 1990s.

Energy in Mongolia

In 2006 Mongolia produced 2.9 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, all generated by thermal power plants burning coal. Major power stations are located at Ulaanbaatar, Darhan, Choybalsan, and Sühbaatar.

Currency and Foreign Trade in Mongolia

The country’s central bank is the Bank of Mongolia. Commercial banks also operate. The currency is the tugrik (tögrög), which consists of 100 möngö (1,171 tugriks equal U.S.$1; 2007 average).

Most of Mongolia’s trade was once with Soviet-bloc countries, but since the early 1990s the country has made efforts to expand its trade. Leading purchasers of exports are China, the United States, Russia, Singapore, and Australia; chief sources of imports are Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and Germany. The principal exports are copper, cashmere, animal hides and furs, textiles, and gold. Imports consist mainly of machinery and transport equipment, mineral products (mostly refined petroleum), consumer goods, and industrial raw materials. In 2007 Mongolian imports were valued at $1,986 million and exports at $1,857 million.

Transportation in Mongolia

Mongolia is served by the Trans-Mongolian Railway, which connects Ulaanbaatar with Russia and China. Truck services operate throughout the country. Steamer services operate on the Selenge River and a tug and barge service on Hövsgöl Lake. The airport at Ulaanbaatar provides international flights.

Communications in Mongolia

In 2005 Mongolia had 61 telephone mainlines in use for every 1,000 inhabitants. In 1997 there were 142 radio receivers and 58 television sets per 1,000 people.

The formerly state-owned Mongolian Radio and Television was transformed into a public-service broadcaster as a result of a law passed in 2005. The country has several privately owned TV and radio stations, as well as satellite and cable services. The media are often critical of the authorities. All former state-run newspapers have been privatized. Daily newspapers include Ödriin Sonin (Daily News) and Önöödör (Today), both published in Ulaanbaatar.


Under Mongolia’s 1960 constitution, the supreme organ of state power was the People’s Great Hural (Khural), a 430-member assembly that usually met twice a year. The Communist party, called the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), was the sole legal party until 1990, when the constitution was amended to allow opposition parties, institute a presidential system of government, and add a 53-member standing legislature, the Small Hural. In January 1992 a new constitution was adopted. By this constitution, the legislative power of the republic resides in a single-chamber legislature, the 76-member Great Hural, whose members are chosen for four-year terms through direct, free elections. The president is head of state and is also directly elected to a four-year term. Voting is universal beginning at age 18.

Judiciary in Mongolia

The Supreme Court is Mongolia’s highest court. Lower courts include the Ulaanbaatar City Court, provincial courts, and local district courts. Judges are elected by assemblies at each political level.

Local Government of Mongolia

Mongolia is divided into 21 provinces, which are subdivided into districts, and the municipality of Ulaanbaatar. Local governments consist of hurals (assemblies) of representatives who are directly elected to four-year terms.

Defense of Mongolia

Twelve months of military service is compulsory for all men aged 18 to 28. In 2006 the army had about 7,500 soldiers and the air defense forces had about 800 personnel. In addition there were about 5,900 border guards and internal troops, which are separate from the armed forces.


For the early history of what is now Mongolia, see Mongol Empire.

The modern state of Mongolia has its origin in the overthrow of the Qing dynasty of China in 1911, during the Republican Revolution. The Mongols of Outer Mongolia, which at that time was a province of China, declared that they had owed loyalty to the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty but owed none to the new Republic of China. (There were also uprisings in the neighboring province of Inner Mongolia, but they were quelled and the region remained under Chinese control.) Mongol nobles proclaimed Outer Mongolia an independent monarchy and offered the throne to the leader of the Buddhist hierarchy, the Living Buddha of Urga. The government was under the control of powerful clerical and aristocratic interests. Mongolia was soon drawn into the orbit of tsarist Russia, which was only willing to support Outer Mongolia’s autonomy, rather than its independence. In 1915 China, Russia, and Mongolia signed the Treaty of Kyakhta, establishing the autonomy of Outer Mongolia under Chinese suzerainty. In practice, however, the territory was treated as a protectorate of the vast Russian Empire.

That empire collapsed in the Russian Revolution of 1917, when socialist revolutionaries called Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. A revolutionary movement soon emerged in Outer Mongolia. It advocated not only complete independence from China, but also that the Mongolian government be purged of Buddhist clerics and aristocrats. However, the revolution in Russia gave China the opportunity to reassert control over Outer Mongolia. With a large military force, General Xu Shuzeng (Hsu Shucheng) forced the Mongols to surrender to Chinese authority in early 1920. Strong popular resentment led to many uprisings and riots, and Mongol revolutionary leaders united to form the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP).

Later in 1920 Outer Mongolia was invaded by the White Russian (anti-Bolshevik) forces of general Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, who ousted the Chinese military regime. Although Ungern was initially hailed as a liberator, his brutalities soon turned the Mongols against him. In March 1921 MPP leaders met at Kyakhta (in Russia near the border with Mongolia) and formed a provisional revolutionary government. With substantial assistance from Bolshevik forces, the Mongol revolutionaries defeated Ungern and on July 1921 set up a new government at Urga under a restored king (the Living Buddha). After the king died in 1924, the MPP ended the monarchy once and for all by proclaiming the formation of the Mongolian People’s Republic. At that time the capital, Urga, was renamed Ulaanbaatar (Mongolian for “Red Hero”) and the MPP was renamed the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP).

The Mongolian People’s Republic

The Mongolian People’s Republic was the world’s second communist state and was modeled on the world’s first, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which the Bolsheviks had founded in 1922. Like the USSR, Mongolia was a one-party state; the communist MPRP was the only legal party. In 1929 the Mongolian government began a campaign to bring livestock under collective ownership, as was being done in the Soviet Union. But economic disorder and political unrest forced the Mongolian government to moderate its policies by 1932. Beginning in 1936 the country was dominated by Horlogiyn Choibalsan, who had been the most pro-Soviet revolutionary leader. Choibalsan became premier in 1939. His regime was in many ways patterned on that of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In the late 1930s most Buddhist temples and monasteries were closed and many Buddhist monks were jailed or executed. Other victims of Choibalsan’s purges included eminent intellectuals and politicians. In 1939, during World War II, a Japanese invasion from Manchuria was repelled with assistance from the Soviet Union.

Relations with China and the USSR

In August 1945 the USSR and China entered into a treaty in which China agreed to recognize Mongolian independence provided that the Mongols themselves indicated that this was their desire. Accordingly, in October 1945 a referendum was held, and the Mongolian people voted overwhelmingly for independence. In January 1946 China officially recognized the Mongolian People’s Republic, and the following month Mongolia concluded friendship treaties with both China and the Soviet Union. However, China’s split with the USSR in the late 1950s curtailed Chinese-Mongolian relations. The two countries concluded a border treaty in 1962, but Mongolia maintained its closest ties with the USSR, which in 1961 had sponsored its membership in the United Nations (UN). Although UN membership helped Mongolia widen its international contacts, it continued to look mainly to the USSR for guidance in its affairs.

In the 1960s ideological differences and political rivalries produced serious tensions between the communist regimes of the USSR and China. Mongolia, landlocked between them, sided with the Soviet Union. In 1966 Mongolia and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of friendship, trade, and mutual assistance (renewed in 1986). With the permission of the Mongolian government, Soviet troops were stationed in the country to serve as part of the Soviet military force on China’s northern frontier.

Mongolia intensified efforts to develop its economy in the decades after World War II. Aid from China ceased in the 1960s, and thereafter the USSR remained Mongolia’s leading trade partner and aid donor. Following Soviet models, Mongolia carried out a series of five-year economic plans from 1948 to 1990. The collectivization of livestock herding was restarted in the late 1940s and was virtually complete by the end of the 1950s. With large-scale funding from the USSR, Mongolia achieved economic expansion through the creation of new industries and the exploitation of its mineral resources, especially beginning in the 1960s.

Choibalsan died in 1952, and Yumzhagiyen Tsedenbal, the general secretary (leader) of the MPRP since 1940, became head of state. When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev repudiated the excesses of the Stalin regime in 1956, Mongolia’s communist MPRP leadership followed suit, but little real liberalization of Mongolian society resulted.

In 1962 Mongolia celebrated the 800th anniversary of the birth of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, and the widespread enthusiasm revealed the strength of Mongol national pride. When the Soviet Union objected, however, the celebration was abruptly cancelled. Although Mongolia was an independent country, it was fully expected to assert the “correct” political line as defined by the Soviet Union. Strong feelings of nationalism were actively discouraged.

Democratic Reforms

Tsedenbal was removed from office in 1984 and succeeded by Jambyn Batmonh as both head of state and general secretary of the MPRP. Following the course of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Batmonh introduced Mongolian versions of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) in the late 1980s. However, his reforms failed to improve economic production and planning, and so demands arose for more radical reforms to deal with the legacy of decades of mismanagement and inefficiency. Dissatisfaction with the slow pace of both economic and political reforms led to large protests in Ulaanbaatar in December 1989. For the first time since 1921 opposition parties were allowed to organize and hold public demonstrations.

From these developments, a broadly based movement for democracy arose in Mongolia. Opposition groups pressed in early 1990 for further democratic reforms. The strongest of the new opposition groups, the Democratic Union, was recognized by the government in January 1990 and was renamed the Democratic Party of Mongolia. Negotiations were then undertaken for opposition representation in the legislature. In March 1990, in response to public unrest, the entire leadership of the MPRP resigned, including Batmonh. He was replaced as head of state by Punsalmaagiyn Ochirbat, who carried out a reorganization of the MPRP. Some formerly prominent members, most notably Tsedenbal, were expelled, and many figures from the past were rehabilitated. Soon afterward the MPRP began preparations for the legislative elections scheduled for July. The constitution of 1960 was amended to rescind all references to the MPRP as the sole legal party and guiding force in politics. Although the MPRP won 357 of the 431 seats in the legislature, the opposition parties succeeded in competing in the elections in most areas of the country, thus breaking the MPRP’s monopoly on power.

In 1990 the Soviet Union agreed to begin a total withdrawal of its military forces from Mongolia. The withdrawal continued after the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. Russian influence in Mongolia waned with the departure of Russian troops and technical advisers. However, the two countries agreed to maintain their long history of friendship and cooperation in a 1993 treaty that replaced the outdated Soviet treaty of 1986.

Democratic Republic of Mongolia

In September 1990 the Mongolian legislature elected Ochirbat to the newly created office of president. Ochirbat promoted political and economic liberalization in Mongolia. Privatization of state and collective property was begun in 1991, and a new, democratic constitution was adopted in early 1992. It provided for a unicameral legislature, the Great Hural, and changed the country’s official name from the Mongolian People’s Republic to Mongolia.

The existing legislature adopted a presidential election law in March 1993, and the first direct presidential elections were held in June, along with elections to the new Great Hural. The MPRP swept the legislative elections, while Ochirbat won the presidential election as the candidate backed by leading opposition parties. In Mongolia’s 1996 parliamentary elections, a coalition of opposition parties presented a platform of continued economic reform. The Democratic Alliance, as the coalition was called, won a resounding victory in the elections, taking 50 of the 76 seats in the Great Hural. The victory brought an end to the single-party, communist rule of the MPRP.

However, Mongolia’s transition to a free-market system generated mixed support among the country’s voters. Even with generous loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and individual donor countries, the economic reforms caused increased inflation and unemployment. In presidential elections held in 1997, voters replaced Ochirbat with the MPRP candidate, Natsagiyn Bagabandi, who campaigned on promises of slowing the pace of reform and increasing social services. In the 2000 legislative elections, the MPRP won a landslide victory, securing 72 seats in the Great Hural. Nambaryn Enkhbayar of the MPRP became prime minister. The new MPRP government also indicated it would pursue economic reform at a more cautious pace. In another show of public support for the MPRP, Bagabandi was reelected in the 2001 presidential elections. That year the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved nearly $40 million in low-interest loans to help the Mongolian government tackle poverty and boost economic growth. In 2003 Mongolia contributed 200 troops to the United States-led forces in Iraq (see U.S.-Iraq War).

The legislative election of 2004 produced no clear winner, with a near draw between the MPRP and the opposition Democratic Union Coalition. The ensuing political deadlock was eventually broken with a power-sharing deal, and a member of the opposition coalition, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, was named prime minister.

In 2005 former prime minister Enkhbayar was elected president of Mongolia. In November of that year, U.S. president George W. Bush stopped in Mongolia on a tour of Asia, becoming the first serving American leader to visit the country.

In early 2006 the MPRP withdrew from the coalition government, forcing Elbegdorj’s resignation. The Great Hural chose Miyeegombo Enkhbold of the MPRP as the new prime minister, but the MPRP ousted him as party leader in late 2007, forcing him to resign the premiership. The Great Hural chose the new chairperson of the MPRP, Sanj Bayar, as prime minister. The frequent changes in government enhanced the role of the presidency, a largely ceremonial position.

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