Rich grow richer, poor stay poor in new Mongolia
Mongolia’s mineral wealth is slow in trickling down to the majority of its citizens, with poverty widespread and many people eking out a meagre living from casual labour. Many poorer Mongolians doubt whether they will ever enjoy higher living standards. It is not rare for them to blame their problems on capitalism and to yearn for the return of the socialist state. The future does not look promising for people like Mushtoya, an 18-year-old woman whose hands are covered with scabs after working without gloves for five days at an Ulan Bator vegetable factory washing jars. Her skin suffered an allergic reaction to the cleansing agent, making her unable to continue. And the factory now refuses to pay her for the days she worked.“I worked five days for nothing,” Mushtoya says. She intends to return to the factory once more hoping to get paid. “I am doing everything possible, but it’s so difficult to find work,” says Mushtoya, whose name translates as “radiant smile.” The young woman lives with 14 members of her extended family in three yurts – traditional nomadic dwellings – in a slum on the outskirts of the capital. When Mushtoya or her 20-year-old sister do manage to find casual work, they earn just 7,000 tugriks (around 5 dollars) a day. Yet Mongolia has economic potential thanks to its extensive mineral resources, ranging from copper and gold to fluorspar and coal.
The landlocked Central Asian nation belonged to the Soviet sphere of influence. It has undergone vast changes since the collapse of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s, transforming itself into a democracy with a market economy. Mongolia says it wants to emulate the European social model, but around one-third of its 2.7 million population still lives in poverty, according to official figures.
Critics say the country is now dominated by rampant and unbridled capitalism, with its economic growth mainly benefiting a small elite of oligarchs. Around 50,000 wealthy Mongolians hold 90 per cent of all savings, according to opposition parties. The rich include Prime Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold, who will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Ulan Bator on Thursday.
Batbold, a much-travelled former businessman, describes himself as a Social Democrat. “We have done a lot, but we are still facing challenges,” Batbold told dpa, praising Mongolia’s “strong and lively democracy” and promising to allow citizens to share in the mineral wealth through a social development fund.
Mongolia continues to struggle with bureaucracy, corruption and social disparities, Batbold admitted, saying such problems needed to be addressed. Mushtoya’s mother is sceptical about whether politicians will live up to their promises. She bemoans the close links between business interests and the government.
“I don’t have much hope that we’ll get anything from the wealth generated by our resources,” the 52-year-old Dasanjin says as she holds her granddaughter in her arms. It is only the beginning of October, but night temperatures are already dropping below zero, and the 20-month-old child is suffering from a cold. “Everything is shared out between those up there in the government palace. Virtually nothing finds its way down to us,” Dasanjin complains.
There are three beds for five adults in the yurt, as well as a sofa, a Soviet-era fridge and a coal stove. A cable supplies electricity, but water has to be fetched from the outside. Dasanjin and her husband used to work as railway ticket inspectors, receiving small but secure wages. Now only her husband works, earning between 150,000 and 200,000 tugriks a month as a security guard. The extended family rents out an old green van to earn some extra income from small deliveries.
“Often, we cannot buy enough food,” says Dasanjin, who misses the old socialist ways. “It was good back then. Everyone supported each other,” she sighs. “But in capitalism, everyone has to fend for themselves. The rich get rich and the poor stay poor.” The government may have increased wages, but prices also went up. “The free market economy has made everything more expensive,” Dasanjin complains. “Capitalism has turned our lives upside down.”