Elbegdorj Tsakhia is a giant in Mongolia’s democratic history. He helped lead the 1990 democratic revolution and co-drafted the resulting constitution that made Mongolia a democracy. A leader of the Democratic Party, he also served as Mongolia’s prime minster from 2004 to 2006 and president from 2009 to 2017.
While he no longer holds office, Elbegdorj has been active over the last five years, most recently making headlines for denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And in October 2022 he became the latest member of The Elders, a group of global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela to advance peace, justice, and human rights.
In a written interview, The Diplomat’s Bolor Lkhaajav asked Elbegdorj for his thoughts on the current direction of Mongolia’s democracy and the uneasy security situation in Northeast Asia.
Mongolia’s political sphere has changed since you left office in 2017, particularly in party politics. In your view as one of the recognized democratic leaders from the 1990s, what is the current status of the Democratic Party? Is Mongolia heading toward one-party government?
I hope not. Plurality of opinion is one of the values of our society. Democracy is deeply rooted in Mongolia. Yet, our people’s choice is under constant assault. I would say, primarily from the north.
Today, Ukraine is fighting an overt war, while Mongolia is fighting a covert war, to protect our freedom. The main target of this “cold” war is the democratic aspirations and achievements of the Mongolians. Of course, the Democratic Party of Mongolia is their obvious target. The Mongolian democracy is going through a tough time; it is fatally wounded. But I hope it will recover thanks to the freedom-loving will and spirit of the people of Mongolia.
Many see Mongolia as a democratic anchor in the East. I call it a “fragile flame of freedom” between Russia and China. Although fragile, this flame has an enormous power to light up, I would even say, to enlighten our region with the democratic achievements, experiences, lessons we learned on our uneasy path of democracy. The world’s democratic community looks up to us for inspiration, for perseverance and for utmost triumph of justice and freedom.
Therefore, we have no right to lose. We just cannot afford to fail this confidence.
What is your view on the recent constitutional amendments in Mongolia? How could these changes influence Mongolia’s democracy at large, both positively and negatively?
One of the remarkable achievements of the democratic movement in Mongolia has been our constitution. Since 1992, three major changes were made in our constitution. Two of them were a total failure, and the third one was a disaster. It was an assault against our constitution by the Constitutional Court itself! Such acts must never happen again.
I apologize for a short answer: these changes were devastating. A stable, democratic constitution must be the legal grandeur of democratic development in Mongolia. It must be the supreme guardian of Mongolia’s democracy. No one has a right to encroach upon its immunity.
From a geopolitical standpoint, Mongolia is positioned in a very challenging environment. Analysts continue to question how Mongolia can maintain its democratic institution and values considering many destabilizing factors in the region. This includes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea’s missile tests, and the general increase of military spending in the region. What is your view on the general outlook for the security of the Northeast Asia in the near to medium term?
Mongolia contributes to security and cooperation in our region if it remains a vigorous democracy, with sound institutions, open and plural society, and a healthy economy. Of course, with no doubt, we face many challenges. However, in Mongolia’s case, the will, the desire, and aspirations of the people for democracy and democratic values will prevail. Mongolia’s resilient democracy plays an important role in the security of our region.
The second point I wish to highlight is that Mongolia pursues a multi-pillar, open foreign policy. Despite geopolitical and security issues, Mongolia’s foreign policy philosophy remains the same – friendly and open relations with all countries of our region. Indeed, Mongolia does maintain and foster friendly relations with all countries not only in the region, but also with rest of the world.
It is true that the world is turbulent today. And although not many issues in the region depend on Mongolia, I strongly believe that Mongolia’s democracy and the freedom-loving spirit of our people is a game-changer, especially in the longer run.
Do you agree that multilateral dialogues such as the Six Party Talks and the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue have so for been unsuccessful in altering North Korea’s motive in pursuing nuclear weapons?
I do not totally agree that these mechanisms have been unsuccessful. One must understand that ensuring and consolidating regional security is a process. In my view, the fact that until today, there has not been a major confrontation in the region is already a success.
The Six-Party Talks and Ulaanbaatar Dialogue have played a significant role in understanding each country’s positions. In the past, there has been no other mechanism as such. These multilateral approaches cannot be replaced. Mongolia was able to establish a platform that allows face-to-face, in-person meetings – a platform where leaders and representatives can see each other and not only “hear” but also “listen” to the other parties. Therefore, in my opinion, these dialogues were not futile, and they should be continued as we move ahead.
How is the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue different than any other multilateral platforms, and what new mechanism can it bring it to the table?
The Ulaanbaatar Dialogue has no ambition to alter the Six-Party Talks. Any dialogue has its own features, its own color. What is special about the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue is that it aims to bring all parties together, including representatives from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPKR). This is very important.
In the past, there were meetings where the DRPK has participated, and there were ones it missed. Moreover, the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, while it is open to official channels, but it is also open to academia and scholars in the field. That already means that the UB talks is a multifaceted and confidence-building process, which opens both political and academic discussions, coupled with many resources. These aspects render this mechanism a strategic weight.
Building trust and consolidating peace with democratic Mongolia as an honest mediator is what Mongolia offers to regional security, cooperation, and prosperity. And Mongolia remains committed to this noble cause.
You have recently been selected as a member by The Elders. Please tell us how you first got involved with the NGO, and what do you hope to accomplish?
I am honored to be part of the Elders. It is an honorable duty to advance the legacies of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Kofi Annan for the good of the humanity.
The Elders has a unique set of experiences and insightful vision for the challenges the humanity faces today. I am confident the Elders can change the world for better. By collectively addressing the challenges to human rights and liberties, to justice and peace, put very simply, the Elders strives to build a decent life for the people, so that people live in dignity, wholeheartedly enjoying all the rights we are entitled to from our birth.