For the past 30 years, Mongolia has been called an “oasis of democracy” in Central Asia. Businessman-turned-populist politician President Khaltmaagiin Battulga is threatening to poison that oasis, jailing his opponents and critics to hide his own corrupt and authoritarian activities. Former Prime Minister Chimed Saikhanbileg is among those persecuted by Battulga and his cronies. Our aim is to help protect Saikhenbileg from Battulga’s persecution and expose Battulga’s attacks on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Mongolia.
Khaltmaagiin Battulga is the current president of Mongolia. Battulga is a former Sambo martial arts champion and a wealthy businessman-turned-populist politician who won the 2017 presidential election with just 50.6% of the vote.
Since entering office, Battulga has engaged in a range of activities that have threatened Mongolia’s democratic institutions and drawn international condemnation. Numerous officials as well as journalists and members of civil society have come under attack. Investigations into misconduct from Battulga’s years in business and as Minister of Industry and Agriculture from 2012 to 2014 have been quietly shut down. Though several of Battulga’s associates have been convicted of corruption, Battulga himself has escaped anti-corruption inquiries due to the immunity from persecution he enjoys as president.
Meanwhile, Battulga has arrested numerous political opponents on trumped up charges, many of whom have been convicted on politicized charges while some remain under investigation for years, without any evidence of wrongdoing. In 2019, Battulga pushed through a law that has empowered the President to dismiss members of the judiciary, prosecutors, and the head of the country’s top anti-corruption body – powers that Battulga immediately put to use.
Chimed Saikhanbileg is a former Prime Minister of Mongolia. He began his political career in 1996 as the youngest Member of the Mongolian Parliament at the age of 27. In addition to three terms in parliament, Saikhanbileg has served as Minister of Education, Science Technology and Culture, Chairman of Information and Communication Technology Authority, and leader of the Democratic Party before serving as Prime Minister from 2014 to 2016.
Throughout his political career, Saikhanbileg has focused on youth organizations, information technology, and infrastructure investment. As Prime Minister, Saikhanbileg pursued foreign investment to help drive economic growth. He also worked to balance Mongolia’s budget, reform the VAT registration system to promote cashless transactions, and increase international cooperation.
Saikhanbileg’s father, Chimed Ochir, and mother, Orolmaa Alag, were both engineers. He holds a bachelor’s degree in History and History Education from the Moscow State University for Humanities, a Bachelor of Law degree from the School of Law of the Mongolian National University, and a master’s degree from the George Washington University Law School.
Oyu Tolgoi is a copper and gold mine. In 2009, with Mongolia’s economy in crisis due to the global recession, the government of Prime Minister Sanjaagiin Bayar (2007-2009) signed an investment agreement for Oyu Tolgoi with Australian miner Rio Tinto. The investment played a key role Mongolia becoming the world’s fastest-growing economy by 2011. However, by 2013, disputes between Rio Tinto and the government were so severe that underground expansion of the mine was suspended, leaving 80% of the mine’s mineral wealth out of reach. Mongolia’s economy suffered greatly as a result, and parliament passed a resolution urging a solution to the impasse.
As a result, when Chimed Saikhanbileg entered office, resolving the dispute with Rio Tinto was a clear priority. Governing under a grand coalition which included the opposition Mongolian People’s Party, Saikhanbileg’s government signed an agreement and financing package for the Oyu Tolgoi underground expansion in 2015.
Saikhanbileg, former Prime Minister Bayar (2007-2009), and other members of the two governments that signed the 2009 Oyu Tolgoi investment agreement and 2015 expansion agreement were arrested in early spring 2018. Though Battulga alleges the deals were signed unlawfully, parliament supported both the 2009 agreement and the 2015 expansion. Moreover, Interpol concluded that the charges were not compliant with its rules against abusing the non-political nature of the organization, withdrawing the red notice requested by Mongolia’s government for Saikhanbileg’s arrest.
Numerous irregularities took place in the proceedings and during their imprisonment, including the dismissal of a judge who refused to help implement Battulga’s agenda. Both Saikhanbileg and Bayar developed serious health conditions while they were incarcerated. In June 2018, both Saikhanbileg and Bayar were released. The next year, Saikhanbileg gained the approval of the relevant court to travel to the United States to seek urgent medical attention.
Battulga’s behavior has alarmed the international community. As Central Asia’s only longstanding democracy, threats to the rule of law and democratic institutions in Mongolia could have a destabilizing ripple effect throughout the region.
“The foundation of any democracy is the rule of law and an independent judiciary system. These basic principles are in danger now in Mongolia. I have personally experienced the results of the current democratic backsliding taking place in my country.
“For the sake of those who have faced political persecution and for Mongolia’s democratic future, it is essential that Mongolia – and the world – take notice and work towards bringing Mongolia back towards a more sustainable democratic path.”
– Chimed Saikhanbileg
Your voice matters. Battulga and his cronies have relentlessly pushed the narrative that both the 2009 and 2015 agreements were pursued illegally and without parliament approval, despite clear, publicly available evidence to the contrary. Battulga has also spread false claims that Saikhanbileg left the country illegally, despite the court’s authorization of his travel overseas to seek medical care. Standing up for the truth and refuting these false claims publicly is a key first step in preventing democratic backslide in Mongolia and the broader region.
Saikhanbileg is one of many former officials convicted or awaiting verdicts on baseless charges. Their real crime is daring to oppose an increasingly authoritarian leader who uses Putin-style obfuscation and persecution to silence his critics and strengthen his grip on power. Global policymakers and leaders must defend the rule of law and democratic institutions by condemning Battulga’s abuses on the world stage.