Archive for May, 2009

mandate for change

In 2006, Daniel Ortega won the presidential election, ushering in the rebirth of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  Of course, time changes everything, so the radical leftist agenda they had formerly embraced was tempered with a newfound appreciation of capitalism, and oddly, the embrace of the Catholic Church.   Still, Chavez was on board, and Nicaragua turns sharply left again after years of American-dominated politics.

I was in Nicaragua the following January and was able to watch the inauguration. It was a solemn affair that lasted several hours, with a number of speeches made by a number of Latin America’s most influential leaders.  The US presence was noticeably lacking, even more so when the ill-placed flag of Puerto Rico was abruptly whisked off stage once it became visible.

Ten years earlier, Mongolia was transitioning from a Soviet-style system of governance to democracy, a process that did not go nearly as smoothly as everyone had hoped.  In 1996, US NGOs supported the creation of a Democratic coalition, combining the liberal and social democrats under a single banner.  One organization in particular, the International Republican Institute, for whom I interned, provided expertise in coalition-forming and platform-building.

The Democrats won the majority in Parliament that year, and Ts. Elbegdorj was appointed head of Parliament. Two years later, the coalition fell apart, and in the next parliamentary election, the People’s Revolutionary Party regained the majority, which they have kept ever since (as well as holding the presidential office), with one exception (during which Elbegdorj served as PM).

In 2008, Americans pushed their own desire for change forward, electing our first non-white President, in what I would consider a bit of a landslide (Ohio, PA, Florida, CO?).  I was again lucky to attend an historic inauguration.

And now, in 2009, change once again reappears.  After last year’s riots following allegations of election fraud during parliamentary elections (which the former communists swept), Mongolians were more circumspect about this year’s presidential elections.  Still, a number of events have led to a growing dissatisfaction with the state of Mongolian politics as well as its economy.  Accusations of fraud and corruption abound, and in many areas, from governance to economic policy to land transfer and commercial development.

The incumbent, Enkbayar, was generally assumed to have this election all tied up.  The MPRP holds Parliament and they have held the presidential seat since Mongolia declared independence from China.  With the fall of the Soviet Union, Mongolia moved towards democracy, but there are still many Soviet holdovers, both political and cultural.  And besides, how often does an incumbent lose?

Just often enough, it seems.  While election results are not officially in, both major parties have agreed on one thing – that Elbegdorj is this election’s winner, even if by a slim margin.  Mongolia has once again presented a mandate for change, defeating a sitting president with its first ever democratic-leaning candidate.

I have no idea if this means anything – I am not sure it meant anything in 1996, despites high hopes for democracy and transparency in Mongolia.  But more than 10 years out, and in the midst of a global financial crisis, I think Mongolians are not willing to let opaque governance be their limiting factor anymore (I might be biased though – I do work at the Open Society Institute).  I am just cynical enough to consider that Elbegdorj doesn’t have entirely clean hands, but just optimistic enough to think that they are probably cleaner than his predecessor’s. And I think the signs point to positive change, both in terms of governance and sound economic policy. And maybe even more importantly, in terms of Mongolia’s engagement with the rest of the world.


bicycle built for two

After a few weeks in the city again, and with the weather getting warmer, there is an inescapable need to get out of town.  Even if we only go 50 km or so outside of the city, it’s enough.

Last weekend, a bunch of us took a brief trip to a ger camp just an hour or so out of town.  It was someone’s birthday, and also an opportunity to check out a new horseback riding club.   So, we rode horseys for a bit, hung out for a bit, and generally just tooled around in sunshine and fresh air.

Of course, as this is Mongolia, the weekend was marred by high winds, which made the day a bit cold on occasion.  Luckily, the dining ger had a stove, so we were able to warm up as the sun came down.

Of course, there’s not a whole lot to do when it’s cold and you have no electricity in the middle of nowhere.  So out came the vodka, cranium, birthday cake, and cowdung fire.  Which then of course made the next day one of complete laziness on the grass.

I was of course, awake for the sunrise, which was beautiful.

After a morning of doing not much of anything, our hosts served up a horhog, which involved a goat (though not the one they had originally tied up behind the kitchen ger) and some really hot stones.  Basically. Then we piled into the van and headed back to town on Sunday evening.

The weekend didn’t end there though – as a rare event, all of the Fulbrighters were in town for the weekend, so we managed to meet up for dinner – yummy Japanese (except one, who couldn’t make it).  And because no weekend is complete without it, we then rode tandem bikes around Sukhbaatar Square.

Good times. More pictures.


At any given moment, we never know how the weather will be. Today, it topped 30 celsius.  Saturday, we had snow in the morning and tomorrow we will again.  The wind will often pick up suddenly, whirling dust through the air, before abruptly stilling, leaving the dust to settle around me, in my hair, and eyes, and mouth.

The snow comes and goes, but it is dry, never sticking for too long (except, perhaps universally, on the tops of cars). There is freezing rain too, but it’s like nothing I grew up with, in Ohio or DC. Here, the rain falls through dryness, and itself almost feels cold and desiccated when it lands on your hands and face.

My Mongolian colleagues can smell the moisture in the air before, during, and after rain.  I can smell the lack of moisture when it doesn’t rain.  And when it does, I smell smoke and pollution being washed away. But I don’t smell wetness. I think maybe, being used to an abundance of moisture, I only notice it when it is not there.

I love the unpredictable weather though. This is spring in Mongolia, ever changing like a woman’s moods.  Some days, the air is calm, and altitude makes the sun beat down on your face in a pseudo-tropical warmth.   And then suddenly, wind or rain or snow or some other unpredictable element sweeps through and sends you scurrying for a scarf or gloves or raincoat or perhaps just the safe indoors.

But the green is peeking through, and where spring is flighty and uncertain, I hope summer is strong and sure. I want to see flowers and and smell grass, even if I have to leave the city to do so.  And perhaps most importantly, I want to witness rivers and mountains, and yes, even the desert (my secret love). Amazingly, Mongolia has all of this, and all of it wonderful.

It doesn’t always seem like it, but nature smiles here.

the vital importance of being earnest

Things are a bit quiet now, with trying to settle into a flow.  Last weekend, the UB Players performed their spring play – the Importance of Being Earnest. It was a wonderful production, with some very talented actors.  I helped with stage crew duties during the shows, and in true production style, we did throw in a few pranks on the last night – mainly replacing the tea with vodka and Mongolian sweet wine.  It was fun.  The play was of course in English – Oscar Wilde’s greatest talent (his wit and way with words) is also his downfall when it comes to translation.

Other than that, not much else is happening.  It is getting warmer, but not much in the way of rain.  There is some greenery emerging, but very slowly.   I’ve started my language classes and trying to be good about studying.  While I am not interested in becoming proficient in Mongolian, I do need to be able to get around better.

Generally, things going on – teaching yoga weekly and trying to practice on my own as I can; working on a research methodology manual and some training classes; wrote this week’s quiz (as quiz master); trying to find a good niche for my research, potentially focusing on the commercialization of agriculture; catching up on my American TV shows; developing a podcast format for OSF; learning Mongolian; figuring out travel plans for my parents; and planning out the next four years or so of my life. 🙂