As The Asia Foundation recently marked its 20th anniversary in Mongolia, Country Representative Meloney Lindberg sat down with Tsagaan Puntsag, chief of staff of the President of Mongolia and former Asia Foundation grantee in the Government Palace to discuss the country’s growing economy and democratic transition.
You have had a long and distinguished career in a wide variety of professions. You started at the Confederation of Mongolian Trade Unions, you have been deputy labor minister, minister of finance, minister of education, culture and science, and you are currently heading the president’s office. What has been the most remarkable moment in your career?
First, I have some doubts whether I’m considered a distinguished leader. I consider myself a very lucky citizen of Mongolia, because I’ve seen the remarkable, historical transition from a planned economy to a market economy, and from a totalitarian society to a democracy, through votes, through elections. I’m proud that I was a very small part of this process. The adoption of the new constitution was really a remarkable event, in which The Asia Foundation played a significant, positive role. It was a legal guarantee of the irreversibility of democratic changes in Mongolia, irrespective of election results, irrespective of leaders.
What are the biggest opportunities and challenges that Mongolia’s mineral wealth holds for the country?
Mongolia is a very rich country in potential mineral wealth, but this wealth holds both opportunities and threats for Mongolia. If we manage it well, then Mongolia will become a wealthy nation. If we manage it poorly, Mongolia may be doomed to corruption and chaos.
As one of the world’s fastest growing economies, with a lively, new democracy, how do you see Mongolia’s role in the region now and in the future?
I think we face challenges, and we also have ambition. Mongolia became an example of democracy in this part of the world. We changed the old stereotype that democracy, human rights, and market economies are difficult to apply in Asian countries. But our ambition is not only to become a vibrant, mature democracy but also to manage our mineral wealth in the interests of the nation, to secure sustainable development. In the last 23 years, we became an electoral democracy, but the journey of democracy has not ended. The people have to be in power, and key decisions such as minerals development have to be decided by citizens, not by politicians, not by Members of Parliament. Twenty-three years ago, key decisions were made by and in the Kremlin. Thanks to the democratic revolution, decision-making moved to this building, where it is kind of stuck, and we want to shift this power to the people.
As the legal assistant to the Secretary General of the State Baga Khural of Mongolia, you played an instrumental role in shaping Mongolia’s constitution. Can you describe what it was like when Mongolia became a democracy?
I had a very modest but important role in shaping the constitution, because my boss, the secretary general, is considered a founding father of the constitution. He had only one little assistant, however, who was Tsagaan. And of course he knew Russian, Mongolian, and our whole history quite well, but I knew a little bit more about international law and the constitutional law of so-called “bourgeois” countries, so we were kind of complementary. As his assistant, I think I read the draft constitution more than any other person in the country, because there wasn’t a single computer in this building – only a typewriter – so when something was edited, I had to read and ask. So I made some intelligent contributions. During the drafting of the constitution, The Asia Foundation brought many distinguished, outstanding scholars from the U.S. and other places for organized seminars and conferences on constitutional issues, from which I learned a lot that I tried to apply to the constitution.
As one of the early grantees of The Asia Foundation, what are your recollections of working with us then? What has changed since those early days?
I’m honored to have been selected by The Asia Foundation to go to the West, and those were memorable days – The Asia Foundation office in San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Tower, the Bank of America building. It was an eye-opening trip. I also learned a lot at the George Washington University Law School, where I had Professor Thomas Buergenthal, a member of the International Court of Justice for 10 years, representing the U.S. until two years ago as my mentor. So I learned many things, and the knowledge, the information, the contacts have been useful throughout my lifetime. It was a very crucial moment in my life. So thank you, Asia Foundation.
Prior to joining the president’s office, you were working for the private sector, and your company, Steppe Solar, opened the first ever Eco Model House, with solar energy and geothermal heating. How do you see Mongolia’s future development from an environmental perspective?
It was the first such project, and it was both a success and a failure. We proved that it can be done, but we failed because the contractor failed to build a proper building. It was kind of a costly experience, but the second project and other projects were successful. It is very interesting that nomadic Mongolians get a lot of benefits from renewable energy. In 1999, a group of my friends were sitting together, and we said let’s try to create renewable energy for Mongolian nomads. Now, when you go to the countryside, you’ll see a caravan of camels carrying solar panels and a TV dish. My ancestors in rural areas, including me when I was a child, used to study by candlelight. Now this has changed thanks to renewable energy. And this has just happened in the past 15 years, so it is amazing. Mongolia not only has abundant coal but also abundant renewable energy sources – wind, solar – so Mongolia should be, not a brown economy, but a renewable and green, which is why the current government has the Ministry for Green Development. So it is a matter of time.
In your view, what has been The Asia Foundation’s main contribution towards improving lives and opportunities in Mongolia?
In my view, not only The Foundation but leaders of the government of any nation have to create opportunities for people to improve their lives. The government’s role is to create equal opportunities for all citizens, and to improve the working environment, health, and education. The Asia Foundation has organized many study opportunities for our leaders, both young and old, in the U.S. and other Asian countries. Many Mongolians, including me, have had a chance to study in the U.S. and other places. Now our needs are changing. Now changing power through elections is easy, but managing the country, improving living standards, improving the business environment, and strengthening the rule of law are much more difficult. So accordingly, the activities of The Asia Foundation also have been evolving. So let’s continue our work and journey together.