12/19/2022, 09.50
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Ulan Bator: Anti-corruption protests continue

by Vladimir Rozanskij

They target politicians who enriched themselves by selling coal to China. Thirty-five people are under investigation, including former president Khaltmaagiyn Battulga.  Coal mining accounts for 25% of the national GDP. The Mongols want to free themselves from the cloak of isolation and lawlessness.


Moscow (AsiaNews) -  In Mongolia, street protests have entered their tenth day, not only challenging the obscure export of raw materials, but expressing a strong dissent against the corruption of the country's ruling class. According to the Avilgatay Temtsekh (the independent anti-corruption service) in Ulan-Bator, there are 35 people under investigation, including former president Khaltmaagiyn Battulga, for 'coal mining, transportation and purchase of products and services at state expense', as stated by the agency's deputy director M. Davaatogtokh.

The authorities have opened 22 files to verify 47 targets; 15 people are under arrest and 10 are already in solitary confinement, as Davaatogtokh explained. A special working group has been set up to speed up the procedures. It is checking all deals concluded by the state-owned companies, such as the Erdenes-Tavan-Tolgoy and the Tavan-Tolgoy railway, totalling 633 files between 1 December 2018 and 1 December 2022. Most of the charges relate to bribes and favours that allowed several people to enrich themselves through the construction of coal transport railway routes.

The Mongolian Council of Ministers took the decision to take direct control of the incriminated railway line, and put all companies involved under a 'special regime' for a period of six months. In the meantime, the street protests in the centre of the capital Ulan Bator have not subsided, despite the several degrees below zero frost. The demonstrators accuse the corrupt of bringing the entire country to a general degradation of the standard of living.

As journalist Žargalsaykhan Dambadaržaa, creator of the popular website Jargaldefacto, explains to Azattyk, 'one of the main causes of the protest is the sudden spike in inflation in the country, and it's not just coal. Politicians and those close to them have appropriated many sources of raw materials, dividing up the land around Ulan Bator. They have resorted to all kinds of machinations and dirty deals with the 'cinghiz bonds', the international bonds on which the reporter has conducted many exposé campaigns, whereby 'half of the credits of the Development Bank of Mongolia have turned out to be toxic'.

Also according to Dambadaržaa, 'four presidents have appointed judges according to the principle of loyalty to their interests', effectively weakening the entire Mongolian judiciary. Judges are appointed by parliament, and some nominations are reserved for the president. 'People saw that there was no justice, no equality anymore, anger built up for several years,' the reporter explains. Against the backdrop of post-Covid inflation, and the weakening of the tugrik, the local currency, the ongoing scandals have been the trigger for the protest, bringing thousands of people and young people to the streets, in a total population of 3.4 million.

Coal mining has attracted the main attention, as it accounts for 25% of the entire country's GDP, and 40% of export earnings. Another 40% is copper concentrates, and it all goes to China, favoured by officials who manipulate the state budget by pocketing large percentages without paying taxes. The Great Khural, the Parliament of Ulan Bator, consists of 76 MPs, and investigative journalists accuse at least half of them of involvement in this corrupt scheme, including the theft of coal. Between 20 and 30 thousand trucks a year are registered as empty, when in fact they are transporting coal, and this cannot be the result of randomness, but the work of an entire system.

Investigations are trying to establish the scale of the entire trade, comparing Chinese statistics with Mongolian ones, and one fact is the collapse of the tugrik against the dollar in one year, which is almost 20%, with inflation at over 15%, and average salaries dropping to less than 0.

The public and the press are calling on the new government to come clean, while the suspects are seeking every avenue to escape conviction. The Mongols want to free themselves from the cloak of isolation and lawlessness, perhaps by seeking help from other Central Asian countries.

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