24.03.2023 Author: Boris Kushhov

2014 and 2022 – Discrediting Russia’s image in Mongolia?


There are numerous evaluations of the development of Mongolian attitudes towards significant global players by the international media.

According to a number of international experts, the Russian Federation’s foreign policy actions since 2014 have allegedly pushed the Mongolian public away from Russia, forcing them to look increasingly hopeful toward their “democratic partners”. They use statements made by journalists, historians, and public personalities in Mongolia that are overtly anti-Russian and pro-Western to support their argument, omitting the reality that some “notable” and “prominent” individuals have the power to shape public opinion but they do not reflect it. In light of this, it would seem prudent to examine a thirteen-year historical cross-section of Mongolian public opinion surveys to comprehend the actual situation of events.

What has changed in Mongolia’s view of Russia over the past few years, and how do these changes stack up against those of other political and economic powerhouses?

It appears appropriate to use data from the Political Barometer, a comprehensive social survey conducted by Sant Maral, a nonprofit non-governmental research organization that has been operating in Mongolia since 1994, for this analysis. It is difficult to accuse this organization of being pro-Russian: it is far more interested in domestic socioeconomic and political issues of Mongolian citizens than in their foreign policy orientations. Moreover, all of its advisers and consultants come from the United States and Germany. Consequently, their assessments of the perception of Russia and other countries by Mongolians are clearly not adjusted in favor of the Russian Federation.

Polls show that the number of pro-Russian Mongolian citizens has increased significantly, and events in Russia-West relations in 2014 and 2022 have not only not harmed Mongolians’ perception of Russia and Russians, but have increased Mongolians’ awareness of the critical role of Mongolian-Russian cooperation in this small country’s foreign policy. Despite massive anti-Russian propaganda conducted in Mongolia by Western “democratic” and “religious” NGOs, as well as some national democrats and nationalists, the image of Russia as Mongolia’s main foreign policy partner and Russians as the most convenient and profitable partners for Mongolians has only strengthened over the last 12 years. Over that period, citizens who consider Russia to be Mongolia’s best partner have increased by 13%, while the number of those who consider Russia to be one of them has grown by 10%.

In reality, the events of 2014 only strengthened the Russian Federation’s image in Mongolia, while the image of Western states was somewhat tarnished as a result of these events. Survey data from 2013 and 2014 support this view. Thus, following the events of the Maidan in Ukraine, the reunification of Crimea with Russia, and the first wave of anti-Russian sanctions in 2014, the number of Mongolians who listed Russia as one of the country’s best partners increased by 5%, from 72 to 77%. At the same time, the majority of Mongolia’s “democratic” partners saw this indicator fall by 2%: the US, from 26 to 24 percent; the EU, from 11 to 9 percent; and Japan, from 22 to 20 percent. The perception of the Russians as the most advantageous and practical partners for the Mongolians has also grown, from 43% to 47%, while it has declined significantly for other Western partners, with the exception of South Korea.

In 2022, the Mongolians didn’t develop a dislike for Russia either. Russia was identified as one of Mongolia’s finest partners by 4% more people that year, going from 80 to 84%, while Russians were listed as the best partners for Mongolian citizens by 5% more people, going from 59 to 64% over the course of the year. 2% more respondents (42% as opposed to 40%) identified the Russians as the best partners. It turns out that Russia has maintained and strengthened its absolute leadership in these two key parameters, even at such a difficult juncture as 2021-2022.

The pattern for Mongolia’s democratic partners in 2021–2022, however, is slightly different from that of the 2013–2014 data. Their statistics improved as well, and more quickly than Russia’s. In particular, the number of Mongolians who consider European Union countries to be Mongolia’s best partners has doubled. Comparable increases were also seen in relation to the United States, Kazakhstan, and Japan, though not to the same extent. Additionally, a growing number of Mongolians now view Western partners as useful and profitable. For example, the formerly tiny figure for EU citizens was multiplied by a factor of four during the year. Only the United States did not see an increase in this indicator among the other “third neighbors”.

There is no doubt that the situation in 2022 is less clear-cut than it was in 2014 due to the size of the events taking place on the global stage, the presence of different states in civil society, the countless ways in which these events can be interpreted, as well as the significantly increased pressure from Western nations on Russia. Yet, there are still a great deal more pro-Russian Mongolians, and their numbers are increasing, albeit more slowly. And indeed, it cannot be denied that the number of “pro-Western” Mongolians has started to grow more quickly than it did ten years ago, albeit still being significantly less than the number of pro-Russian local citizens.

But, this emergence of “Western powers” is not without its own inequalities. Several states are, in fact, progressing in the minds of Mongolians at various rates. This causes former important partners to leave their ranks and results in former minor players rising to the top positions.

Notably, during the past 12 years, we have observed a gradual but very clear fall in Mongolians’ interest in the United States. The percentage of Mongolians who believe that the United States is their best or one of their finest partners has practically halved between 2010 and 2022, falling from 30 and 9 percent on both measures in 2010 to 18 and 5 percent in 2022. The perception of Americans as convenient and helpful partners for Mongolian nationals has declined to a similar extent.

This is most likely a result of unmet high ambitions for bilateral collaboration, which have been extremely popular since the early 1990s. Mongolia started looking for such foreign policy allies after giving up the socialist development path who might assist it “ideologically” and “materially” on the new democratic path of development. The United States of America, which had the largest economy in the world and was at the time almost the sole global superpower, was considered the key partner. Even the Mongolian expression for a democratic partner that does not share a border with it, “third neighbor” was originally used to refer to the United States.

The United States, however, really made a much less contribution to the economic and social growth of Mongolia, and it swiftly lost its position as the primary “democratic benefactor” and “liberal market partner” to nations such as Japan and the Republic of Korea. In contrast to the United States, these countries’ figures have significantly increased. From 8 to 25 percent, the proportion of respondents who think South Koreans make the ideal partners for Mongolian citizens has more than tripled in the past 12 years.

Additional studies done among younger Mongolians reveal an even bigger rise in the two nations’ impact in the public, particularly the Republic of Korea. The export of the “Korean wave” to Mongolia and Japanese humanitarian activities both had positive results in this situation. By the way, the strategy of humanitarian partnerships hasn’t been as successful as the export of national mass culture. For instance, very few Mongolians are aware of Japanese humanitarian efforts in their country, whereas almost all of them are familiar with Korean films, TV shows, cuisine, and pop music (which they listened or continue regularly listening to).

The historical “2010-2022” cross-section thus reveals the preservation and strengthening of Russia as a key partner of Mongolia in the minds of the average Mongolian citizen, as well as the serious disappointment of Mongolians in the United States, accompanied by the gradual emergence of South Korea and Japan as Mongolia’s main partners among the “democratic states.”

Boris Kushkhov, the Department for Korea and Mongolia at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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