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Mongolia’s president, a former martial-arts champion, wrestles with some major problems

UPDATED: Sun., June 17, 2018

Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga lifts weights at a gym in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar on May 26, 2018. (Giulia Marchi / Washington Post)
Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga lifts weights at a gym in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar on May 26, 2018. (Giulia Marchi / Washington Post)
By Simon Denyer Washington Post

ARVAIKHEER, Mongolia – On the vast Mongolian steppe, birthplace of Genghis Khan, a strong man has arisen. Literally. Mongolia’s President Khaltmaa Battulga is a former world martial arts champion who still trains regularly, a friend of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and a business tycoon with a tough-guy image.

He is also a nationalist and something of a populist. Battulga swept into office last year by casting himself as a Trump-like outsider, a champion of the poor taking on a corrupt and self-serving political elite.

Like the U.S. president, this is a man who says he always wins, whose campaign motto was “Mongolia will win.” But he is now wrestling with the challenge of his life.

Mongolians overthrew an authoritarian communist regime in 1990 in a peaceful democratic revolution. Nearly three decades of democracy have fostered progress but also glaring inequality, leaving nearly 30 percent of the population in poverty. Corruption is rampant, the dark side of the country’s huge reserves of copper, coal and gold.

“I asked before the election and I am still asking,” the gruff-voiced Battulga told a town hall meeting in Arvaikheer in central Mongolia last month. “Why are the people of a country so rich in resources still so poor?”

Battulga, 55, rose from poverty to the country’s highest post, leapfrogging from a sambo wrestling world championship to a successful business career, but his power as president is limited – parliament and the prime minister’s job are in the hands of a rival political party. Battulga has an important role in setting foreign policy, but his ambitions are much grander.

For the past three months, he has been touring Mongolia, holding town hall meetings in every one of the nation’s 21 provinces, asking for popular support in his battle to improve the way his country is governed.

“Do you get the feeling the president we chose is on his own?” he asked hundreds of people packed into a theater here. “It is time to start talking about president plus who? President plus the people, working together.”

Luvsandendev Sumati, director of the independent Sant Maral polling organization, underscores the parallels between the most recent Mongolian and U.S. presidential elections.

After the dirtiest presidential contest in Mongolia’s history, he said, many people stayed away or cast blank ballots in protest. In the end, though, Battulga’s anti-establishment status outweighed questions about his business record and past corruption allegations.

“The poor decided he is their president, and once people decide that, they forgive you everything,” Sumati said. “Anti-establishment politicians are taking over the globe. Why should Mongolia be any different?”

This is the most sparsely populated country in the world, the size of Texas, California and Montana combined but home to just 3 million people, living in the giant shadows of Russia to the north and China to the south. Culturally, it remains closer to its northern neighbor, but economically it is dependent on its booming southern neighbor, with more than 80 percent of its exports flowing there.

Distrust of China runs high here, however, and Battulga exploited that to portray himself as a pro-Moscow, anti-Beijing candidate during the campaign. As president, though, he takes a more pragmatic approach, saying that Mongolia should be friends with both countries while “re-balancing” to reduce China’s trade dominance.

A former president of Mongolia’s judo association, he shares a love of wrestling, and a friendship, with Putin.

“Because we both practiced judo, it is easier for us to communicate,” he said in an interview, noting that Putin is also “president of a country that has been our neighbor for thousands of years.”

But Battulga wants American support, too. In 1990, then-Secretary of States James Baker III pledged that the United States would be the “third neighbor” to the newly democratic Mongolia, a pledge repeated when President George W. Bush visited in 2005. More recently, another secretary of state, John Kerry, praised Mongolia as an “oasis of democracy” between Russia and China.

Yet U.S. defense and security ties with Mongolia are much stronger than economic ties, which account for less than 2 percent of Mongolian trade.

“The praises of the United States that Mongolia is ‘an oasis of democracy’ or ‘model of democracy’ have not brought any substantial contribution to the economy,” Battulga wrote in a letter to President Donald Trump in December. “Discouraged by this fact, ordinary citizens of Mongolia are losing confidence in democracy and doubting the choice of democratic path.”

Battulga asked for improved access for Mongolian textile exports to the United States. Trump replied that he would be delighted to explore ways to boost trade in a “fair and equitable manner,” according to the Mongolian presidential office.

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