Flooding the Gobi Desert: Mongolian Archival Update

Jan 20, 2005

Mongolian Archival Update: Flooding the Gobi Desert
By Sergey S. Radchenko

Several months have passed since my last update on the Mongolian archives for the CWIHP Bulletin No 14/15 (available on the CWIHP website). In the meantime, a harsh winter fell on Ulaanbaatar, the Tuul River froze solid, and the smog of the ger district thickened the air. Parliamentary elections in the summer brought the democratic coalition into a power-sharing arrangement with the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, promising greater government transparency. I returned to Ulaanbaatar in the fall, anticipating that with new people in power archives could be finally opened up to the public. That prospect still has not materialized.

In Mongolia, personal connections mean more than laws. Laws exist only for selective application by notoriously corrupt courts; when you need something done, you do not look up legal provisions, but call up your wife's younger brother's friend. Last year, in preparation for a conference on Mongolia and the Cold War (March 2004) I used many unofficial channels to obtain exceptionally interesting documents on Mongolia's foreign policy. This year, though, I opted for a head-on clash with the authorities and public advocacy for archival openness.

The offensive started with reconnaissance by fire – a letter to the Mongolian Prime Minister, stating in no uncertain terms that the government better open up the archives or else. The letter, circulated to many Cold War scholars, collected about 40 signatures. It was published in the main Mongolian English-language weekly, Ulaanbaatar Post, on 2 December 2004. At the same time, the letter was translated into Mongolian and delivered to the Prime Minister through his foreign policy adviser Baabar (incidentally, the author of a well known book on 20th century Mongolia).

The letter produced no immediate outcome (as expected) – it was a drop of rain in the Gobi desert, but well targeted at this, since it brought the foreign donors' attention to the problems with freedom of information in Mongolia. The Mongolian government has claimed over the years unprecedented achievements in democratic governance and even qualified, recently, for a US-administered Millennium grant (millions of dollars), given out only to successfully democratizing countries. By raising the archival issue in the foreign community I expected the donors to put more pressure on the government to live up to its stated principles of transparency and accountability.

One of the reasons for archival restrictions in Mongolia is that archivists are afraid of releasing state secrets and, as happened in the past, going to jail for this. Therefore, it was important to address the legislative framework for access to information. I began in December with the Law on State Secrets, conducting a comparative study of that law with similar legislation in other countries across Central Asia. The study concluded that the Mongolian Law on State Secrets, with its draconian provisions (just about anything can be classified indefinitely), features in the ranks of most restrictive laws in the region.

A Cold War historian turned amateur lawyer, I prepared recommendations for scrapping parts of the Mongolian Law on State Secrets, translated these recommendations into Mongolian and circulated them among policy-makers and in the diplomatic community. This effort produced no immediate outcome (as expected) – it was another drop of rain in the Gobi desert.

In the meantime, in late December I met with the Foreign Minister of Mongolia Ts. Munkh-Orgil and pointed out that Mongolia was lagging behind the important process of declassification of historical records. The Foreign Minister agreed, for three reasons.

Firstly, he said that as many historical records had been declassified in other countries (I provided Munkh-Orgil many examples of archival stories, including the latest CWIHP exploits in the Albanian archives) it was pointless to keep these records secret in Mongolia. Secondly, Mongolian history cannot be written without access to documents. Thirdly, opening archives would square well with the government's commitment to transparency.

This was a good beginning. I therefore suggested to the Foreign Minister to take a concrete first step – open up his ministry's archive in order to keep up with other democratic countries. Munkh-Orgil cut me short, saying that what happened in other countries did not matter for Mongolia; first conditions had to be created for researcher access to archives. Documents were in bad shape and could not be given out to researchers.

This was a good point, I told Munkh-Orgil, suggesting in turn to digitalize the entire archive. The Minister agreed and entrusted me to consider this project in detail. The conversation ended at this. As a note-taker was present at the conversation, it is sad to state that I already contributed more documents to the Foreign Ministry archive than I had actually seen from that archive.

On the following day Foreign Minister Ts. Munkh-Orgil made a public statement, promising to open his Ministry's archives.

With the New Year's holidays approaching, I became temporarily disinterested in further archival pursuits, but not before staging a small coup.

In the last week of December the archival issue was brought to the media's attention. First, I had an interview with the Mongolian National Television, complaining at length about archival restrictions. At the same time, I prepared an article for the Ulaanbaatar Post on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Lookhuuz-Nyambuu-Surmaajav plot to oust Tsedenbal. The article linked discussion of this historical issue with the resistance of the current MPRP leadership to opening up archival records. This 40-year old affair "serves as a useful reminder of the persistence of efforts by the power-brokers to silence history," the article concluded.

Finally, I arranged for an interview with the central Mongolian newspaper Unuudur, striking this time against the head of the Central Archives Directorate with an argument to the effect that archival documents are decaying in dust, and their continuing secrecy is a crime against history, and so on.

The immediate effect of this campaign was that my hitherto partial access to archives completely dried up. The head of the archives D. Ulzibaatar responded with an interview in Unuudur, dismissing the "rumors" of secrecy and poor conditions of archival documents. The article featured a photo of the archival vault with buckets full of water standing here and there (an effort, I was told, to make the air more humid and thereby preserve documents).

One Mongolian researcher asked me if I had "declared a war" on the archives. Let's not make things too dramatic, I said. In any case, it was time for a holiday, and the only war to be fought was for the share of the Mongolian buuz (mutton dumplings) on the New Year's table.

After New Year, I arranged for another interview, this time with Odriin Sonin, this time focusing criticism of the top leadership for classifying Mongolian history.

The discussions with the Foreign Ministry in the meantime, ran into a game theory-type dilemma. I have had primary discussions with potential contributors to the digitalization project, but my approach has been: first documents, then money. The archive's director suggested instead a different approach: first money, then documents…

To summarize: after several months of a head-on confrontation, I am still to see a single archival document. Movement towards openness is unlikely in the near future. However, public advocacy brought the archival issue to the attention of scholars and policy-makers in Mongolia.

Where do we go from here? First, the public campaign through the press and the television must continue. For now I have abandoned Don Quixote's pursuits in favor of greater coordination with local NGOs, in particular, the Soros-funded Open Society Forum. In February, the OSF is planning to host a roundtable discussion on the State Secrets Law with participation of policy-makers.

On the other hand, one should not abandon efforts to involve the donor community in the debate. The US Government, in particular, should raise the freedom of information issue in discussions with the Mongolian officials (for example, during the forthcoming bilateral talks in Washington D.C.).

The Mongolian government indicated a number of times that FOI legislation is a great idea, but it would cost too much to implement. Even if these reservations are founded, lack of transparency and accountability will be much more costly in the long run.

Opening the Mongolian archives is like flooding the Gobi desert – it will take more than a few drops of rain. But that's not a good reason to stop trying.

Sergey Radchenko is currently a CEP fellow in Ulaan Baatar. His publications include "The Soviets' Best Friend in Asia," CWIHP Working Paper No 43. His website http://www.radchenko.net features some of the articles mentioned above.

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