Why the Values of “Western Democracy” Are Not Supplanting Pro-Russian Sentiment in Mongolia

Boris Kushhov
Most Western countries consider Mongolia as a state that shares liberal-democratic political and ideological values. Mongolia ranks very high each year in various indices and rankings assessing the “democracy” and “freedom” of political regimes around the world. For example, the international Freedom House rating considers Mongolia a “free country” and ranks it 57th out of 210 in the world. The strengthening and development of Mongolia’s democracy is, in turn, actively supported by a number of the country’s Western partners. In particular, it is home to a number of consultative institutions and offices of international organizations that are involved both in monitoring the electoral process (for example, the OSCE monitoring mission since 2013 and an EU office) and in formulating policy recommendations (the annual EU-Mongolia policy dialogue from 2021 and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Mongolia).   The countries of the “democratic camp” allocate very considerable material resources to the work of such missions.

Due to current trends in global politics, the construction of “Western-style democracy” in Mongolia is increasingly linked to the maintenance of the international identity of the Mongols themselves. More specifically, in parallel with support for democracy in Mongolia, the West actively promotes the image of Mongolia as “an island of democracy among authoritarian neighbors in Russia and China.” Such positioning of the Mongols’ regional identity would seem designed to “mold” Russia and Russian culture into a “threat” to Mongolian political identity, sowing the seeds of mistrust and contempt in society towards its northern neighbor.

Nevertheless, the considerable level of trust in Western countries in Mongolia does not lead to a decline in confidence in Russia. For example, according to social surveys, the number of Mongolian citizens who have a positive attitude towards the US and the Russian Federation is roughly comparable and significant in both cases: for example, 33% of respondents have an “extremely positive” attitude towards the Russian Federation, while 29% have a positive attitude towards the US. In turn, 52% have a “rather positive” view of the Russian Federation and 53% of the US.

With the current escalation of US-Russian antagonism and Mongolian society falling under the influence of Western media and NGOs, the coexistence of such large numbers of support on both sides seems highly unusual.  In the author’s view, this “paradox” of public opinion can be explained by the following unique factors:

Democracy in the service of the nation’s interests

First and foremost, the Mongolian vision of democracy is inextricably linked to the notion of security and development of Mongolia itself. In this case, ideology serves the country and its comprehensive well-being, not the other way around. If the partnership with Russia is in Mongolia’s interests, it will be supported even by those Mongols who consider Russia “authoritarian.” Also, Western ideology does not penetrate deeper into the political preferences of the Mongols: they are still characterized by traditional cultural and family values.

Pragmatic perception of international processes

Mongolia is dominated by a pragmatic perception of the international situation, with the majority of Mongols still regarding Russia both as the closest foreign policy ally (66%) and as the main external guarantor of Mongolia’s national security (46%), able to provide it with far more real security guarantees than the entire “collective West” put together. Russia, beyond any value judgement, is perceived by an overwhelming number of Mongols as a force capable of containing China’s economic and political pressure, which is identified by its citizens as a key threat to national security.

Rich tradition of a holistic perception of history

Like neighboring China, Mongolia maintains a holistic perception of national history, and most citizens, despite criticism of political repression in the 1930s and the “Choibalsan’s cult of personality,” remember the positive aspects of the Mongolian-Soviet partnership: both the struggle for independence and recognition of Mongolia, and the construction of the socio-economic base of the People’s Republic. No less memorable in Mongolia are pre-revolutionary figures from Russian history: in particular Baron Ungern (despite a number of controversial actions), who liberated a significant part of Mongolia from Chinese troops in 1921, and Ivan Korostovets, the “architect” of the first foreign policy treaty of the Mongolian Bogdo Gegeen government – the 1912 agreement with the Russian Empire. For the Mongolian nation, a rich and well-preserved history is part of the “national pride” system, as well as a means of maintaining its uniqueness and identity.

“Traditional” and “Western” coexist with “Soviet”

Unlike even some post-Soviet countries, in Mongolia there is absolutely no need to expose everything Russian and Soviet in order to create or revive its own state ideology. The Mongols have a very long and rich political tradition, dating back to the Hunnu power and Genghis Khan’s empire. In this country there is no need for a critical demolition of the “socialist period” in order to draw public attention to the historical roots of statehood – both historical epochs find their rightful place in public perception.

“Western” as opposed to “Chinese”

Also, the strengthening of anything “Western” comes as a counterbalance to Chinese rather than Russian influence. The strengthening of Western culture and ideology is perceived primarily as a means to counter or contain China’s potential cultural and value-based expansion into Mongolia. Russia has been doing no such thing for the past three decades and the “Western” in Mongolia is thus seen to be opposed not so much to the “Russian” but rather to the “Chinese.”


Thus, any promotion of Western culture and political and social ideology in Mongolia has far less impact on Russia’s image in the public mind than it does in most other parts of the world. A country as unique as Mongolia is able to give its own response to those proposals and challenges to which whole “parts of the world” may respond in the same way. The same, unique answer was given by the Mongols to the question of the compatibility of the West’s values and political reference points with maintaining a positive perception of one of its key opponents in the form of Russia. In this respect, the Mongolian socio-political model is far more “inclusive” and broader than most Central Asian, Transcaucasian and, even more so, Eastern European models.  All those who want to drive a wedge between Russians and Mongols by promoting Western political and ideological values in Mongolia must be clearly aware of this fact.