ULAANBAATAR -- Located just steps from downtown London landmarks like Harrods department store and Hyde Park, The Knightsbridge Apartments, a luxury residential building in the eponymous upscale central London neighborhood, advertises itself as "private homes enjoying levels of service and facilities to rival any five-star hotel."
Boasting white limestone floors, hardwood timber features, a pool, spa and a feng shui garden, two-bedroom flats sell for between $4 million and $8 million, according to London estate agents. Residents, meanwhile, like their privacy. Many of the residences are owned by corporations aimed at camouflaging the ultimate owner.
Keeping such secrets is getting harder, however, and earlier in October the Pandora Papers, a massive data leak on offshore finance published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, revealed the existence of two flats purchased in 2006 by a company operating on behalf of Batbold Sukhbaatar, a former prime minister of Mongolia.
They appear to be the same flats in The Knightsbridge Apartments that were the subject of an injunction in November 2020 by a U.K. high court pending legal proceedings in Mongolia against Batbold. One flat was sold in an apparent arms-length transaction in 2017, while in 2018 the remaining flat was transferred to a corporation controlled by individuals. In granting the freezing injunction, the U.K. high court judge said he was "satisfied" that the evidence established that these individuals were "proxies for Mr. Batbold."
A lawyer for Batbold, however, said the former prime minister bought the flats legally when he was a private businessman, before holding high office, and has since sold them. "Now he doesn't own the property in question or, indeed, any assets in the U.K.," he said. The legal proceedings in Mongolia, referenced by the U.K. high court ruling, were opened in October 2020 by the Metropolitan Prosecutor's Office accusing Batbold of using proxies to siphon hundreds of millions of dollars from local mining companies.
Batbold's lawyer said that there is no truth to the accusations and the cases against him are inspired by political enemies in Mongolia. Furthermore, he said, Mongolia's prosecutor does not have the authority to bring the case on behalf of the government agencies and entities named in the suit. "Mr. Batbold was an object of coordinated media and legal attacks orchestrated by his political opponent through shady figures," he said.
While Mongolian politicians agree that the accusations against Batbold may be politically motivated, they also agree that the case raises questions about what has become of billions of dollars in mineral wealth generated over the past decade and a half by a mining boom, as Australian, Canadian and Chinese companies have moved in to develop lucrative deposits of coal, silver, gold and copper.
The Pandora Papers made headlines throughout Mongolia, with the revelations going viral on social media. The country's two major political parties, the ruling Mongolian People's Party and the opposing Democratic Party, however, have thus far remained silent on the issue.
According to a report by the World Bank, Mongolia has produced $28 billion worth of mineral outputs since 2004. Of this, taxes and royalties amounted to nearly $9 billion in the past 15 years, while the government has borrowed $8.7 billion, mostly by leveraging its mineral revenue. Of that amount, as of 2019, $200 million remained saved as deposits in the Stabilization Fund and the Future Heritage Fund.
"Mongolia has not only consumed almost all its mineral outputs, but has also borrowed heavily against them, bequeathing negative wealth to the next generation," the report says. "Mongolia risks resembling a 'resource curse' economy in a few years."
The term "resource curse" was first used by economist Richard Auty to describe how an abundance of natural resources can lead to underdevelopment. It is an all-too- familiar story: A country strikes it rich, but the new avalanche of wealth poisons the political process, corrupts its institutions, distorts the economy and even creates pressures for secession.
For every Botswana, which after the discovery of diamonds has one of Africa's highest per capita incomes, or Qatar, where the discovery of gas in 1995 has helped to boost gross domestic product to $175 billion from $8 billion, there is a Nigeria or a Sierra Leone, where mineral reserves have been directly linked to dysfunction and even conflict.
Mongolia's mining boom was the lucky -- or unlucky -- result of events far beyond its borders. In 2010, Australia's coal mines suffered their worst floods in decades, halting coal exports to China. Chinese iron ore smelters began to increase coal imports from their northern neighbor. In 2011, Mongolia's GDP surged 17% in 12 months, primarily due to a coal deposit at Tavan Tolgoi, located 240 km from the Chinese border, and a nearby copper deposit at Oyu Tolgoi.
Today, mining accounts for nearly one-quarter of GDP, and mineral exports represent 26% of fiscal revenue, up from 10% in the early 2000s. Surveys have revealed deposits of coal, copper, gold, rare-earth minerals and uranium worth an estimated $2.75 trillion. For a country with a population of 3.3 million, that is enough to make everyone a near millionaire.
But due to unequal access to opportunities, the boom-bust cycle, and corruption, most Mongolians have been unable to benefit. The country's poverty rate of 28% and wealth gap remain unchanged from early 2012.
Paul Collier, who studies resource economics at Oxford University's Blavatnik School of Government, says that governance is the key to avoiding the "resource curse." Countries that already have strong governance in place when they strike it rich tend to use any windfall wisely, such as what happened with Norway after the discovery of offshore oil. But an influx of resource wealth can be particularly toxic for countries without strong established governance, like Nigeria.
"The real tragedy, however, is countries where the government looks to be strong but can't handle the stress of all the money," Collier said. "This is a real tragedy because it can bring an otherwise healthy country down."
Mongolians are acutely aware that their resource patrimony is in the process of being squandered. What to do about it remains elusive, and the anger has been manipulated into an effective political instrument by some of the most egregious offenders.
The country's new president, Khurelsukh Ukhnaa, was elected in June after he ran on the slogan, "Mongolia is the owner of its resources," and showered pensioners with cash from the state budget that he insisted was not an attempt to buy votes.
Beginning last year, when he was prime minister, Khurelsukh paid off 695 billion tugrik ($244 million) worth of pensioners' debts by selling bonds backed by state-owned silver deposits. Then, a month before the election, the cabinet, under the control of Khurelsukh's party, transferred 216 billion tugrik to debt-free pensioners. Again the money came from bonds backed by state silver deposits.
Patronage politics have become routine in Mongolia, where elections have turned into cash giveaways and the country has very little to show for the fire hose of wealth that has been largely consumed by political handouts and corruption.
Pensioners, as aptly demonstrated by the 2021 election, are the key to political power. Of Mongolia's retirees, 75% vote, compared to 50% of 18- to 25-year-olds. In June, Khurelsukh won 68% of the vote.
"The political parties don't need smart voters who are equipped with critical thinking," said Gerelt-Od Erdenebileg, a political scientist at Mongolian National University of Education. "They need poor voters that are easily manipulated [with cash] when they need to be."
Andrei Mikhnev, country manager at the World Bank, cites the bank's estimate that for every dollar of mineral wealth that has been generated during the past 20 years, Mongolia has consumed 99 cents and saved a mere 1 cent.
Buying elections wholesale began in 2008, when the MPP made a campaign promise to pay $700 to each citizen from mining revenues. The following day, its opponents, the Democratic Party, pledged $1,000. The amount would have totaled 60% of the country's entire GDP at the time.
The MPP won and as a result in 2011 the government borrowed $350 million from the Aluminum Corp. of China, better known as Chalco, with the aim of fulfilling its election promise, and repaying the loan with coal. But when the world price of coal subsequently fell by nearly 50%, Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi, a state-owned enterprise that owns the coal deposit, struggled to repay the loan, taking six years to make good on it.
"Mongolia didn't spend mining revenue that was already gained," said Dorjdari Namkhaijantsan, country coordinator of the advocacy group Natural Resource Governance Institute. "The country borrowed money based on the belief that it would gain that revenue from mining in the future."
The spending got so outrageous that in 2012, parliament amended the election law, prohibiting political parties from directly paying voters and promising cash. But there was a loophole: The law only prohibited promising cash, it did not prohibit promises to repay loans or offer dividends from mining companies. In 2017, presidential election winner Battulga Khaltmaa, whose term expired in June 2021, vowed to pay off all citizens' debts with revenues from the Tavan Tolgoi coal mine.
This was followed three years later by Khurelsukh's bid to pay pensioners' debts when he was prime minister. In addition to winning the presidency this year, the pledge aided Khurelsukh and his Mongolian People's Party to a landslide parliamentary victory in 2020, winning 62 of the body's 76 seats.
A month before that election, Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi paid 70,000 to 100,000 tugrik to each citizen, calling it a "dividend." The payments have left the company unable to make basic investments, and it has had to borrow to complete an unfinished railway line, power plant and coal washing plant.
Off the grid
While Mongolia's GDP has increased at a rapid clip -- averaging a 6.5% increase per year between 2010 and 2020, according to World Bank statistics -- most residents do not feel like they are experiencing an economic boom. Instead, they are struggling to keep up with an endless cycle of price increases.
"In Ulaanbaatar, you can't live unless you have a side income from your full-time job," said Sansartuya Bazarsad, a mother of two and a botanist at a National Park. She and her husband have a monthly salary of 1.3 million tugrik. Thanks to their herder parents, they do not have to worry about meat or wood to burn.
Such rapid economic growth initially led to a sharp decline in poverty from 38.7% in 2010 to 27.4% in 2012, though the rate remains at 28.4%, according to the latest survey by the World Bank, in 2018.
In the past 10 years, lifestyles in the capital have greatly changed. Coffee shops, Pilates studios, shopping malls, high-end international hotels and specialty shops targeting the environmentally conscious and vegans have sprung up.
The Bazarsads moved to Ulaanbaatar nine years ago and bought their house and land for roughly $16,000 in the ger district, where residents live in traditional yurts surrounded by wooden fences, and where homes are not connected to the city's central heating and sewer systems. Residents get water from wells and burn wood and coal to heat their homes. Some 1.5 million people in Mongolia, roughly half the population, still live in these tents.
Her family spends $385 of their monthly earnings repaying loans, leaving $70 for necessities at the end of the month. Saruultuya, their daughter, was born with a cardiac condition, so they receive 190,000 tugrik a month for her treatment. Sansartuya also sells Russian beauty products on the side.
With a total monthly income of 1.6 million tugrik, the family is in the top 25% in terms of household income.
Mongolians characterize their middle class as having a mortgage and a 10-year-old secondhand Prius from Japan but no savings. If a family member is diagnosed with cancer or a similarly serious disease, they say they must sell everything to pay for medical care. According to national statistics from 2018, only 23.7% of the population had a savings account.
"I write down every expense in a notebook to make our finances wise," Sansartuya said. She and her husband bought a 10-year-old Prius a few years back but needed to use the car as collateral for a loan to pay for their daughter's cardiac surgery.
The only thing Sansartuya wishes is that banks could give her lower interest rates. "Almost 40% of my loan payments only cover interest," she said. "It would be such a big support for us if the credit interest rate were to drop."
Jargal Lodoi, 51, is a herder who has moved from the steppes to the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. The resource boom has raised the costs of traditional herding, which used to be the occupation of the majority of Mongolians. He is also a climate-change migrant, saying the pastureland his goats used to flourish on has dried up. He used to have almost 1,000 goats but last fall sold 550 as meat. He now keeps only 300.
Cashmere is Mongolia's third-largest export, after copper and gold. Its 30 million goats in 2020 produced 215 tons of dehaired cashmere, and the country provides 40% of the world's luxury cashmere. The industry employs over 100,000 people, far more than the mining industry.
Jargal moved near the city because there is no more grass for animals to feed on in his native Bayan-Undur, 200 km from Ulaanbaatar. Jargal and his wife, Delgermaa, have two sons, both of whom live in Ulaanbaatar. They bought a two-bedroom apartment in the capital for their sons, using their cashmere revenue.
"Thanks to cashmere, we are able to live a decent life," Jargal said. "However, it is better for us herders to have fewer but more profitable animals. But I have no idea where to find such extremely productive animals. I have no such knowledge in my veterinary livestock in Bayan-Undur."
Chronicle of a bust foretold
What is remarkable is how aware Mongolia's leaders were of the literature on avoiding the resource curse and how anxious they were not to repeat the past mistakes of previous resource-cursed countries.
"Mongolia cannot be Qatar but it will be Niger if we fail to implement vice revenue management," current Prime Minister Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai said in 2015. "At this moment Mongolia seems to be Niger."
In the early 2010s, the government established a revenue management strategy and national development plans, along with a budget stability fund meant to smooth budget volatility due to seesawing commodity prices. In 2011 the government started to save some of the revenue in stabilization and heritage funds.
However, funds and plans were not enforced, and the budget continued to be used mainly for politically popular spending. The plans have largely failed. "Although it is natural to see some volatility in resource-dependent countries, macroeconomic volatility in Mongolia is higher compared to other commodity exporters," World Bank country manager Mikhnev told Nikkei Asia.
The root of the problem may not be economic but rather political. Difficult decisions come up against opposition from an entrenched political class that has done uniquely well during the boom, and few Mongolian politicians are untouched by some sort of scandal.
The best-known is the case against Batbold. Mongolia's Metropolitan Prosecutor's Office, along with two state companies and a government agency, launched a civil case in October 2020 that accuses the former prime minister of using several offshore shell companies to siphon hundreds of million dollars from mining operations. The Mongolian government, according to a filing in New York State Supreme Court last November, sought "to recover losses suffered as a result of illegal and fraudulent acts in connection with two of Mongolia's most prized natural resources, the Erdenet copper mine and the Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine." The latter is 66% owned by Turquoise Hill Resources (formerly Ivanhoe Mines), whose largest investor currently is Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto.
Using a team of international lawyers, the Mongolian prosecutors have secured injunctions from courts in England, Hong Kong, Jersey and Singapore against Batbold and people named as his proxies in court documents for assets in excess of $70 million, according to the claimant's attorneys. In addition, they sought an injunction in a New York State Supreme Court filing last November, withdrawing it in January after the defendants agreed not to sell or transfer two condominiums without notifying the plaintiffs.
In written comments sent to Nikkei, the lawyer representing Batbold insisted the accusations were "groundless and false," part of an organized operation designed to "damage the reputation of Mongolian People's Party, its leadership, and especially against S.Batbold."
The lawyer said some state companies named as claimants in the original civil suit have denied they gave consent to their involvement in the case, adding that Metropolitan Prosecutor's Office "violated the law and exceeded his authority" in launching the suit. A spokesperson for the prosecutor's office contacted on Oct 12 said the case "is still under investigation" but declined to give further details.
Batbold's representative added that the New York court declined to freeze Batbold's assets in the U.S., implying the case lacked sufficient merit. Lawyers working for the Mongolian prosecutor's office said that the agreement by defendants not to sell or transfer the property pending resolution of the case in Mongolian courts made an injunction unnecessary.
Opposition politicians say the case against Batbold may indeed be politically inspired but that the information the case has brought to light offers a sobering view of Mongolia's political class. Munkhdul Badral, secretary of the National Labor Party, a third force in parliament, asserted that the legal efforts against Batbold were championed by Battulga Khaltmaa, the former president and Batbold's political rival. "I have no doubt that Mongolian politicians use tax havens and proxies to hide their illicit assets abroad," Munkhdul said. "But this might be the first instance where the Mongolian government has used foreign experts and courts to pursue such a case.
"I doubt, though, that the current government and ruling party has the enthusiasm to push through this case" as Battulga is now out of office, he said.
Said Rio Tinto: "We operate in line with local and international laws and regulations, and our values. There is no claim or court case in New York in relation to Oyu Tolgoi's Investment Agreement or Underground Development Plan (UDP). Neither Rio Tinto nor Oyu Tolgoi LLC have been named as parties in the case and these claims do not allege any improper conduct by Rio Tinto or Oyu Tolgoi LLC."
Mongolian lawmakers in 2018 sought to close some loopholes for corruption by establishing a beneficial ownership disclosure law. It requires mining companies to register their beneficial owners with the National Registration Authority and the National Intelligence Authority.
However, the law has been criticized for lacking teeth. "There is no punishment if companies do not register their beneficial owner," Erdenechimeg Dashdorj, extractive sector program manager of Open Society Forum in Ulaanbaatar, told Nikkei. She said that since approval in 2018, only 37% of mining companies have registered their beneficial owners. "The law enforcement still has room for improvement," she added.
Taking action against abuses has met with political pushback from established interests in government. For example, when then-Prime Minister Altankhuyag Norov resolved in 2013 to investigate cost overruns at Oyu Tolgoi, his own party's members in parliament suddenly voted to dismiss him.
"Altankhuyag's cabinet was an obstacle for senior officials whose interests were to benefit from several mining deals," said Temuujin Khishigdemberel, a former parliament member who was minister of justice in Altankhuyag's cabinet. "The cabinet didn't make decisions as the officials asked. I can't deny that there was a corrupt and powerful system that emerged from mining money, and that it is powerful enough to change the fate of the entire government," Temuujin said.
The next prime minister, Saikhanbileg Chimed, forgave the cost overrun and signed an additional contract financing the second stage of the project, which is an underground mining construction development for $5.3 billion.
"The Oyu Tolgoi Underground Development and Financing Plan, signed in 2015, contained strict clauses requiring the Mongolian government to accept the excess costs incurred in the initial open-pit mine. The government also had to accept that there were no outstanding issues related to these costs, effectively shutting down any discussions about accountability. Sadly, there was no language in the agreement regarding the prevention of further cost overruns, or how to deal with them if they did occur," said Bayasgalan Enkhbaatar, a member of the board of directors at Oyu Tolgoi since November 2020. Ms. Bayasgalan represents the government's interests in the Oyu Tolgoi project, of which it owns 34%.
That episode was followed by another, ongoing, confrontation with Rio Tinto. Last December, the company notified the government that the underground mine development project will overshoot original cost estimates by $1.5 billion and be delayed by two years.
The cost overruns represent substantial damage to the government's interest in the project. Bayasgalan cited calculations showing that the government cannot expect to start receiving dividends from its 34% ownership of the mine in 2032 as originally expected. Rather, due to the delay and the jump in costs, the government is concerned it may not receive any dividend before the mine's reserves are depleted.
Rio Tinto has solely financed the construction and operation of the mine, and has provided Mongolia with a loan to finance its 34% ownership of the mine. The loan specifies that it needs to be repaid in full before Mongolia can receive any dividend from the Oyu Tolgoi mine. The annual interest rate of the loan is Libor plus 6.5%.
Seven years after Oyu Tolgoi started production, the balance of the outstanding loan payment showed that Mongolia owes $2.2 billion to Rio. Any increase in fixed costs will make it harder for Mongolia to receive any dividends.
Rio argues that the Oyu Tolgoi project pays annually around $300 million in taxes to the Mongolian government from its $1 billion sales income.
In April 2018, Mongolia's Independent Authority Against Corruption arrested two former prime ministers as part of an investigation into suspected misuse of power related to negotiations over the Oyu Tolgoi mine. Bayar Sanj, prime minister when the original 2009 investment deal was signed, and Saikhanbileg Chimed, prime minister when the expansion agreement was inked in 2015, were both detained. Saikhanbileg was later released from detention for medical reasons but flew to the U.S., where he remains. Bayar was sentenced in 2020 to five years in prison.
Said Rio Tinto, "As with all of the Oyu Tolgoi agreements, we negotiated the UDP in good faith and always acted in accordance with Mongolian and international laws and standards."
A new dawn?
The scandals have emboldened a new generation of Mongolian politicians who think the situation can be salvaged by getting rid of the previous generation.
Bulgantuya Khurelbaatar, former vice finance minister before she was elected to parliament in 2020, is the face of this bright young generation that says it is fed up with the patronage politics of previous administrations. With her reputation as a corruption fighter, she says Mongolia needs better regulations and better laws to impose transparency, budget discipline and improve the governance of state-owned companies.
"We must not repeat past mistakes, such as increasing spending instead of being optimistic about the next [commodity] supercycle. We also need much more public accountability. I want to encourage people to at least monitor the policies and budgets of the sector they work in" said Bulgantuya.
"We have learned a lot from the growth and depreciation of the mining sector over the years, but we are also aware of the risks. If we get involved in too many giant mining projects, like Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi, and do not learn lessons from the early days, such as the importance of reducing our dependence on mining, we will face much more hardship than we already have," she added.
Bulgantuya explained that the Future Heritage Fund, established in 2017, was approved to ensure some savings for future generations. The laws surrounding the fund prohibit any withdrawals, apart from management fees, until 2030. For Bulgantuya's generation, the fund acts as a small but significant symbol of hope for the future.