This huge territory is landlocked between Russia and China and it is unusual for demonstrations, but suspicions of corruption in the coal industry have sparked real anger.

A demonstration to protest corruption in the coal industry and inflation, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 2022. (AFP)

The mercury gives an idea of the motivation of the demonstrators, it is currently −20°C during the day and −30°C at night in Ulan Bator, the country’s capital. Even for Mongolia, it’s cold. And that did not stop the protest, Sunday December 4 in the evening, then Monday December 5 during the day. Thousands of people, mostly young people, braved the cold.

This country as large as two and a half times the size of France has only three million inhabitants, it is the lowest population density in the world. One out of two inhabitants lives in Ulan Bator. And Mongolia, a former satellite country of the Soviet Union until 1992, is not used to demonstrations. But the tension mounts over the months. The first demonstrations took place in April 2022. And so it’s off again for a ride. In the rare images reaching us via social media, we can clearly see the crowd trying to gain access to the official parliament and government buildings and unsealing one of the gates that surround the residences of the president and the prime minister. These scenes recall similar events in recent months in other Central Asian countries, such as Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.

A coal mafia

Eventually, law enforcement broke up the protest in Ulan Bator. The parliament then considered establishing a state of emergency but finally gave it up. The challenge therefore aims first and foremost to denounce corruption. Political score-settling between the two main parties certainly plays a role, as does inflation, which is over 15% due in large part to the war in Ukraine. But the main explanation is the fed up with corruption, a powerful engine of protest all over the world.

In this case, it is the revelation of an investigation for embezzlement against 30 leaders, including the CEO of the main public coal mining company, Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi. Coal, along with oil, is the country’s main resource. Mongolia exports it massively to China, and the CEO of this company is suspected of having made illegal profits on fuel transportation commissions to neighboring China. Some in Mongolia denounce a quasi-coal mafia, and the population hardly benefits from the profits of this industry.

The challenge of the energy transition

The challenge for the country is precisely to eventually find other sources of income. Mongolia persists in building its entire budget balance on coal and its export. And it is not economically viable in the medium term: commitments on climate and energy transition condemn coal. Except that Mongolia has not really decided to initiate this energy transition. Yet it has the right climate to develop solar, wind, hydroelectric energy. China, given its decisive commercial ties with Mongolia, therefore also bears a significant responsibility in this situation. And Beijing is certainly monitoring these demonstrations in Ulan Bator, like milk on the fire.