Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists

By Humphrey, Caroline | The China Journal, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists


Humphrey, Caroline, The China Journal


Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists, by Morris Rossabi. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. xxii + 397 pp. US$60.00/£38.95 (hardcover), US$24.95/£15.95 (paperback).

Modern Mongolia is a significant contribution to the literature on post-socialist Mongolia. It is the first book to attempt an overall survey of the state of the country after the democratic revolution of 1990 and the move to a market economy, and also the first to address in detail the politics of the period and the effect of international agencies and donors on the economy. Perhaps inevitably, its conclusions are controversial.

Rossabi provides a brief account of pre-socialist Mongolia and a somewhat more extended description of the socialist political economy, and then launches into his main theme. He argues that international agencies such as the IMF, the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank mistakenly pressurized the Mongols into economic "shock therapy", the adoption of a radical free-market and free-trade program. Young and inexperienced Mongolian politicians leapt to accomplish this policy and even the return to power of more cautious leaders did not make much difference, as they were forced to comply with the international agencies as the price for foreign assistance. Privatization of state assets was rushed ahead in waves through the 1990s. The result, according to Rossabi, was desperate poverty, corruption, unemployment, environmental degradation, loss of social security, absence of trust in the political system and, in the end, economic dependence on China.

Many of these problems do characterize Mongolia today, but the issue is how they should be explained and whether there are not also positive features of the present scene to balance the picture. The book provides a great deal of information, which is well documented. It describes the political events of the peaceful transition in 1990, the shift from Soviet Russian to Western influence, the pressure for a market economy in the 1990s, the political parties and leaders who emerged in that period, the transformation of the rural economy, the growth of poverty, alcoholism and other social problems (for example, in housing, education and medicine), the state of culture and religion, the changing role of Mongolia in international relations, and finally the growing influence of China. Useful lists are given of the international agencies operating in the country and of the various political parties, and many readers will find the list of politicians, with their posts, helpful. Rossabi was able to interview many Mongolian leaders, as well as a few of the directors of international agencies. He also uses unpublished reports from charities and NGOs, especially those critical of the free-market policy. He discusses topics on which it is otherwise difficult to find information: taxation policy, the spending priorities of the various governments to 2004, pensions reform, the faltering stock market, and the out-migration of tens of thousands of Mongolians to find work. Various scandals of the 1990s, such as the loss of huge state funds in international money markets, are described in vivid detail.

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