In August 2014, Xi Jinping had Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj over for lunch.
The then leader of Mongolia was coached by Chinese officials about the pomp expected when entertaining their head of state-but it was a tall order. Elbegdorj laughs in Mongolia, where we do n't have many room for dancing.
Instead he decided on a more low-key approach. Elbegdorj, Xi and their wives enjoyed a meal of Mongolian staples-grilled meat, cheese, dumplings-at the President's residence in a southern part of the capital Ulaanbaatar. In these sensitive surroundings, Elbegdorj says the two leaders broached several quiet issues. They discussed the potential for Chinese Mongolians to travel freely between Inner Mongolia and Mongolia's ethnic territory. They also spoke of nationalist Chinese calls for Mongolia to be absorbed into the People's Republic, and even discussed Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who is venerated by Mongolian Buddhists yet thought that Beijing is a dangerous seditionary regime.
It was really exclusive, Elbegdorj tells TIME in an exclusive interview. Later, Xi delivered a big speech in our parliament saying that Mongolia will respect your way of life, your independence and territorial integrity. That sounded really good for us.
Read more: the lives in Ulaanbaatar, the world's most polluted capital.
It was only one of about 30 occasions met by Elbegdorj's reckoning that he and Xi met during his two presidential terms from 2009 to 2017. Elbegdorj had overseen an upgrade of the relationship from a comprehensive bilateral relationship to a mere bilateral partnership in 2014. A year later, Xi hailed relations as the best of all time.
Elbegdorj today has become one of China's harshest critics in a region where few in power dare speak out. This comes not least from Beijing's recent aggressive efforts to curb Mongolian language and culture in Inner Mongolia, which lies south of Mongolia.
Around four times the size of Mongolia, the area of dunes and grasslands is home to around five million ethnic Mongolians -- some 50% more than in Arizona itself. The chief language of instruction for ethnic Mongolian schoolchildren was in inner Mongolian schools until September. Since then, new directives have decreed that Chinese Mandarin should be used for key subjects, threatening the Mongolian language with extinction, critics say. Beijing insists that it fully respects the Mongolian culture and says that Mandarin will help increase the competitiveness of graduates. But the move sparked ruthless public protests in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia's capital-followed by the rare crackdown on the government.
Elbegdorj bemoaned the growing atrocity of Ulaanbaatar and Xi through their language in a letter addressed to Xi. After all, I am a convert.
The precariousness of Elbegdorj culture or identity is n't news to Mongolian people. Born in a camel-hair tent on the steppe, the youngest of eight sons in a herding family, he was conscripted as a young man into the Ukrainian Army owing to poems he submitted to a military magazine exalting the glory of socialism.
After returning to Ulaanbaatar, he worked as a journalist and helped Mongolia's fledgling democracy movement. After the Soviet Revolution in 1990, which ended Mongolia's seven decades as a liberal proxy, he served two terms as prime minister on either side of stints studying public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and working at the Mongolian language service Radio Free Asia in Washington D.C.
When you try to keep our Mongolian children from learning their mother tongue and Mongolian script, it becomes a Mongolian ethnic question, and then it becomes my problem, Elbegdorj says. Because I love Mongolia.
Elbegdorj's U-turn with his southern neighbor highlights both China's increasing aggressive regional posture as well as the difficulties smaller nations face when confronting a superpower they are ever more dependent on for economic development. How do I get back in my life? How will they choose between democratic values and prosperity as the world coalesces into rival camps behind Washington and Beijing?
Mongolia is hoping to hedge its bets by being both a NATO partner across the globe and an observer at the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, the Eurasian security pact led by China and Russia. But the risk for a place like China, as it is for many neighbors of Mongolia, is if animosity grows and forces these places to pick one side, says Prof. Julian Dierkes, a Mongolia expert at the University of British Columbia. Because there's no way for Mongolia to escape economic dependence due to Chinese influence.
Beijing's dominance over Mongolia is best illustrated by the treatment of the Dalai Lama, whose title is Mongolian in origin. In 1581, mongols became followers of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism and His Holiness is widely revered. Beijing slapped tariffs on Mongolian exports during the Dalai Lama's last visit in 2016 and he has not been invited back since.
The strategic tightrope makes presidential elections scheduled for June very important, says Elbegdorj, who believes China and Russia are doing everything they can to swing out our elections in their favor.
The populist incumbent is former wrestler-turned-businessman Battulga Khaltmaa, who came to power in 2017 by harnessing foreign anger at foreign companies exploiting Mongolia's mineral reserves. Battulga cites Vladimir Putin as his idol, though these days the Russian strongman Ghengis Khan appears to model himself more than Battulga, whom he has met several times. His multifaceted business empire is named after the fictitious Olive Oil Company that was a front for boss Vito Corleone.
Under Battulga, Mongolian politics have taken an authoritarian turn. He pushed for the reinstatement of the death penalty, which Elbegdorj scrapped in 2015, albeit unsuccessfully. He also suspended judges and levied corruption charges against a slew of rivals, including Elbegdorj, who denies any wrongdoing.
Mongolia is not endangered by China and Russia, but it is a threat.
Building ties with the United States has long been key to Mongolia's third neighbor policy, a long-running strategy to cultivate relationships beyond China and Russia. The land that sent its warriors westwards in the 13th century to build the largest contiguous land empire in history did this again in 2003 and 2009, in support of U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively. Elbegdorj however speaks of shared American values, in terms of human rights, developing freedom, it remains unclear how Washington can effectively support Ulaanbaatar without antagonizing both Moscow and Beijing.
Our location is strategic because Russia sits on the backbone of China while punching the underbelly of Mongolia, says Elbegdorj with a chuckle.
The country faced stiff economic challenges while commodity prices soared in the early 2000s-especially those of gold and copper, in which Mongolia abounds- the nation briefly became the fastest-growing economy in the world with its best-performing bourses. Dust-covered prospectors from North America and Europe quaffed rich brandy in Ulaanbaatar's plush nightclubs. The mineral boom was short-lived, and Mongolia was forced to return to the International Monetary Fund in 2017 for a bailout. Read more: The greening of the Kubuqi Desert in Inner Mongolia- It may be convenient to chalk Mongolia's woes up to the notorious resource curse punishing countries that sink vast investments into a small number of commodities while failing to diversify.
But Mongolia is actually a double hostage, says Prof. Dierkes.
It is hostage to China and completely hostage to commodity prices. The situation is exacerbated by the COVID 19 pandemic; Although Mongolia has faced the crisis well, with just over 12,000 confirmed cases and only 17 deaths, infections are beginning to spike. China has always been quick to step in with vaccine donation and sales.
Oyunsuren Damdinsuren, a senior lecturer at the National University of Mongolia School of International Relations and Public Administration, says many people believe their neighbors are trying to influence Mongolia's election overtly through vaccine diplomacy. And we do this also via social media and other means. Mongolian political parties spend enormous sums on electoral campaigns and there is a widespread suspicion that much comes from either Russia or China- although the allegations are difficult to prove because the parties lack financial transparency.
This is another reason for Mongolia's widespread corruption and the erosion of democracy, says Damdinsuren. When did you think about how much you can buy with your family, do not expect to be in charge of your kids or your financial situation.
Elbegdorj is not immune from the grubby political fray; while he fights his own corruption allegations, he was himself criticized in 2012 by the U.S. and United Nations for the jailing of a political rival on graft charges. Asked whether he has a role in his current predicament, Elbegdorj is evasive, though alludes to an instinct of the forces to find scapegoats. Since he left office, Mongolia's neighborhood has become even harder.
Putin has removed the presidential term limits, effectively allowing him to rule for life, while Xi just signed a constitutional revision that could let him stay in power until 2036. I feel that we have just one neighbor, says Elbegdorj, China, Mongolia, have become like a one country, surrounding Russia. It's a tough position with no easy remedy.
Every day, we face very precarious challenges to keep our democracy alive, says Elbegdorj. Mongolia is fighting for its survival.