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Mongolia's civil liberties rating improved from 3 to 2 due to continued improvement in conditions in the country's prisons, including a decline in the abuse of prisoners.
Mongolia's ruling former Communist party struggled to meet the high expectations created when it ousted a reformist government in 2000 behind promises to ease social hardships. The cash-strapped government found it tough to deliver on pledges to create more jobs and provide better services to Mongolians hard hit by the country's rocky transition to a market economy.
Once the center of Ghengis Khan's sprawling empire, Mongolia was dominated for much of the past three centuries by China and Russia. China controlled Mongolia for two centuries until 1921. A Soviet-backed Marxist revolt led to the creation, in 1924, of a single-party Communist state, the world's second ever, under the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP).
Mongolia's transition from Soviet satellite to democratic republic began in 1990, when the MPRP responded to pro-democracy protests by legalizing opposition parties and holding the country's first multiparty elections. Facing an unprepared and underfunded opposition, the MPRP easily won parliamentary elections that year and again in 1992.
The dominant political issue in post-Communist Mongolia has been the pace and extent of economic reform. Market reforms have helped create a fledgling private sector, but have also contributed to soaring unemployment and other social miseries. MPRP governments in the early 1990s privatized small businesses and ended collectivized herding, but had difficulty retooling the economy to survive the loss of Soviet subsidies. Many large firms went bankrupt, throwing thousands out of work.
The MPRP was swept out of parliamentary power after 72 years in the 1996 elections. The coalition of reformist parties that took office, however, also had difficulty stabilizing the economy. Prescribing shock therapy to speed Mongolia's transition to a market system, the incoming Democratic Union Coalition (DUC) cut spending, freed prices, slashed pensions, and cut tariffs.
The changes, however, coincided with sharp falls in world prices for two of Mongolia's biggest foreign exchange earners, copper and cashmere. The resulting drop in export revenues gave the government little room to boost social spending at a time when Prime Minister Mendsaihan Enksaikhan's radical policies were helping to send inflation and unemployment soaring.
The MPRP regained power with back-to-back victories in the 1997 election for the mainly ceremonial presidency and the more important 2000 parliamentary vote. Promising to ease social hardships, the MPRP's Natsagiin Bagabandi, a former parliamentary chairman, defeated incumbent Punsalmaagiyn Orchirbat of the DUC in the 1997 presidential election.
Three years later, the MPRP regained control of the government by winning 72 out of 76 seats in the 2000 parliamentary elections. New prime minister Nambariin Enkhbayar, the MPRP chairman, pledged to seek a "third way" between his party's still-powerful Marxist wing and the DUC's rapid-liberalization policies. Many blamed these policies for the doubling of the poverty rate since 1991 and the state welfare system's virtual collapse, though the loss of Soviet subsidies also contributed.
President Bagabandi easily won reelection in 2001. Though he pledged to speed up some reforms, his victory suggested that many Mongolians continue to believe that the former Communists will be more likely than the DUC to rebuild the country's tattered social safety net. Voters told journalists that they were disillusioned with the dismal state of the country's welfare and educational systems, as well as with crime, corruption, and high unemployment.
Additional hardships resulted from the combination of drought and a brutal ice-and-snow phenomenon, known locally as zud, that hit Mongolia between summer 1999 and early 2002. This double blow killed off some seven million livestock, wiping out the lifeblood of many herding families. Some 40 percent of Mongolians rely for their livelihoods on the country's 27 million livestock.
As tough economic times continued in 2002, Prime Minister Enkhbayar, 43, faced street protests demanding a more forceful response to poverty and an increase in union members' salaries.
Mongolians can change their government through elections and enjoy most basic rights. The 1992 constitution vested most executive powers in a prime minister and created the 76-seat parliament, known as the Great Hural, which is directly elected for a four-year term. The constitution also vested some governmental powers in a directly elected president, who also serves a four-year term. The president must approve candidates for prime minister and can veto legislation, subject to a two-thirds parliamentary override.
Mongolia's judiciary is independent, but corruption among judges is "a problem," according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002. In a holdover from the country's Communist past, defendants do not enjoy a presumption of innocence.
Despite recent reforms, conditions in jails and pretrial detention centers continue to be life threatening because of insufficient food, heat, and health care, the U.S. State Department said. Tuberculosis has killed dozens of inmates in recent years. The percentage of prisoners who die each year from tuberculosis continues to drop, however, decreasing by 50 percent to fewer than 50 deaths in 2001, according to the report. Inmates often come to prison already suffering from illnesses because of the long periods many spend in police detention, where conditions are worse.
Police abuse appears to be on the decline, though anecdotal evidence suggests that rural officials occasionally beat suspects and prisoners, according to the U.S. State Department report. Officials have never identified any suspects in the 1998 killing of Sanjaasuren Zorig, the leader of the pro-democracy movement that ended single-party rule. Four years after Zorig's death, this failure continues to raise questions about law enforcement in Mongolia.
Mongolian newspapers and magazines carry a wide range of party and independent views that often are critical of the government, though some outlets practice self-censorship. The press claims that the government pressures news outlets indirectly by frequently filing libel lawsuits and launching tax audits in the wake of critical articles. In a still-controversial move, the government shut down two papers in 2000 for failing to comply with laws on taxes and for their coverage of violence and pornography.
Moreover, the law places the burden of proof on defendants in slander and libel cases, possibly creating a chilling effect on the media. In addition, "lack of access to information and of transparency in government continues to inhibit political dialogue in the media," according to the U.S. State Department report.
The state-owned Radio Mongolia, the major source of news in the vast countryside, is free from political control. It faces competition from at least one private radio station that can reach most of the country and from several small local FM stations. Mongolia also has at least two private television stations, but they have limited reach.
Women make up the majority of university graduates, doctors, and lawyers and have helped set up and manage many of Mongolia's new trading and manufacturing firms. They also run many of Mongolia's most effective nongovernmental organizations, including some that lobby government officials, organize voter-education programs, and promote women's rights and child welfare. However, women hold relatively few senior governmental and judicial posts. Domestic violence continued to be a serious problem, the U.S. State Department report said, although there are no accurate figures on the number of victims each year.
Mongolia's dire economic situation has undermined child welfare. The government lacks the resources to meet many basic health care, social, and educational needs of children. Poverty and alcoholism among parents have led to higher school dropout rates and forced an estimated 3,000 children into the streets and another 58,000 to work regularly, according to NGO estimates.
Mongolians of all faiths worship freely in this mainly Buddhist country. Some religious groups seeking to fulfill mandatory registration requirements, however, have faced demands for bribes and other harassment by local officials, according to the U.S. State Department report.
Mongolian trade unions are independent and active, though the government's slimming down or sale of many state factories has contributed to a sharp drop in union membership, to less than half the workforce. Many laid off state employees now work in small, nonunionized firms or are self-employed. Collective bargaining is legal, but under current economic conditions employers enjoy considerable leverage and often unilaterally set wages and working conditions. The government prohibits strikes in areas it considers essential, including utilities, transportation, and law enforcement. Private landownership is not permitted, although the law allows land to be leased for up to 100 years.