Mongolia in recent years has emerged as a focal point in the struggle between China and Russia for regional influence. In the decade since the Soviet Union's disintegration, China has significantly raised its profile in Mongolia. However, Russian leaders hope that President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Ulaanbaatar will help reestablish Moscow's preeminent position as most favored neighbor.
Among the agreements concluded during Putin's November 13-14 visit was a joint declaration to continue a 1993 cooperation treaty. In addition, Putin and his Mongolian counterpart, President Natsagiyn Bagabandi, pledged to promote the expansion of trade ties. The two leaders also announced that they held similar views on a number of security-related issues, including the need for a strengthened security framework in Asia and the Pacific region. At a news conference following the talks, Putin said bilateral relations required "intensification."
Before the Soviet implosion, Moscow and Ulaanbaatar were close allies. [For historical background see EurasiaNet's Mongolia Resource Page]. However, the collapse of Communism precipitated a drastic decline in bilateral relations. For example, the volume of trade between the two countries contracted by about four-fifths, according to Putin. His visit, the first to Mongolia by a Russian or Soviet leader since Leonid Brezhnev arrived in 1974, provides a strong signal that Moscow wants to reverse the current trend.
"Before, the determining aspect for the Russian-Mongolian relations was the ideology. Now it is a mutual interest. Thus, the basis of cooperation is changing but the mutual interest is remaining," says the Russian Ambassador to Mongolia, O.M. Derkovsky.
The most prominent mutual interest is perhaps the desire to counter Chinese influence in Mongolia. For Russia, the strategic aim is to retain its stature as the major regional political and economic power. For many Mongolians, there is lingering resentment related to history. The Chinese are widely perceived to have been oppressors during the three centuries that China controlled Mongolia, ending in 1911. Those resentments have resurfaced in recent years, as China sought to fill the trade vacuum created by the erosion of Mongolia's special relationship with Russia. Despite concerns, however, economic necessity prompted Mongolian leaders to reorient so that a majority of the country's exports in 1999 went to China. [For additional information see Eurasia Insight archives].
Mongolian officials were clearly pleased with Putin's visit, and are anxious for Russia to once again develop into a trade option. The Mongolian desire is not so much to reduce trade with China, as it is to expand economic cooperation with Russia.
"The set up of the objective and subjective consequences of sweeping political and economic changes in Russia and in Mongolia are reasons for the slow-down of our ties in all spheres. That created an unnatural vacuum in the Mongolian-Russian relations", says Sanj Bayar, the head of the Staff Office of the Mongolian President. "Now with the visit of the Russian President we have a chance to balance our relations with Russia and China."
There is some evidence that suggests Mongolian-Russian economic ties have been gradually improving since the mid-1990's, when trade centers, schools, higher learning institutions, started to open one by one. Russian-language media -- including radio stations, movies and books -- have also begun to reappear in recent years in Mongolian shops. According to official statistics, Russian private investment in Mongolia has approached $50 million USD.
At a Mongolian-Russian Intergovernmental Economic Committee meeting held prior to Putin's visit, participants decided that Russia would revise and possibly lower the prices for oil and energy that it exports to Mongolia. The Kremlin also expressed approval to give more independence concerning trade matters to the Russian regions that border Mongolia, including Buriatia, Kemerovskaya, and Gorno-Altaiskaya.
If the reaction to Putin's visit is any indication, a majority of the population appears to welcome the rekindling of Mongolian-Russian relations. Many Mongolians shrugged off wintry weather to line the streets along which Putin's motorcade traveled. Meanwhile, Mongolian media provided saturation coverage of the visit. The director of one Ulaanbaatar radio station said: "I'm sure at least 50 percent of the Mongols felt happy that this visit is taking place. After all there are so many special things that connect us with Russia."
Nomin Lkhagvasuren is a freelance journalist based in Ulaanbaatar. Previously, Lkhagvasuren served as editor of the Gobi Business News magazine.