By Samantha Brletich
Russia signed an inter-governmental agreement in early late January 2016 that would resettle Mongolia’s debt to Russia which totaled $172 million, 97 per cent of Mongolia’s total debt. The debt forgiveness signals Moscow is moving closer to Ulan Bataar as it slowly losses grip on other Former Soviet Union Republics economically. Mongolia also presents an increased market opportunity for Russia and its petrol products. The use of financial instruments and debts to bring countries closer to Russia and to gain political concessions are a mainstay in Russia’s diplomatic toolkit.
The crashing oil market impacted Russia’s economy by shrinking Russia’s GDP and the regional economy causing many former Soviet Republics to rethink their economic policies and alliances. Countries heavily interconnected with Russia, politically and economically, suffered because of the crash of the commodities market and Western sanctions on Russia. Remittances dropped among four Central Asia states affecting their GDP. The slowed Russian economy has forced Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—two of Russia’s closest allies out of the Former Soviet Union—to seek economic opportunities elsewhere.
Kazakhstan’s currency, the tenge, plunged 100 per cent in the last five months and the current exchange rate 352.08 tenge to one US dollar on 18 February. According to reporting on 23 February 2016 from Reuters, Kazakhstan’s economy will grow only 0.5 per cent, as opposed to the originally forecasted 2.1 per cent. Kazakhstan will also cut its oil output to 74 million tonnes. Kazakhstan’s is looking to Middle Eastern investors such as the United Arab Emirates. Kazakhstan’s diversifying economic partners is also reflected in Kazakhstan’s desire to be a bridge between Europe and Eurasia and to expand its bilateral economic partnerships.
The squeeze prompted discussion of raising rent rates for Russia who leases four of Kazakhstan’s military and space sites including the Sary Shagan and Emba missile testing sites. Russia, for all four sites, pays $24 million which is not enough according to Kazakhstan MPs. Russia is currently leasing Baikonur Cosmodrome from Kazakhstan for $115 million a year until 2050.
Kyrgyzstan also cancelled plans for a hydroelectric power plant (HPP) as the two companies, Inter RAO and RusHydro, responsible for the project were unable to finance the completion of the Kambar-Ata-1 HPP. Vladimir Putin signed the agreement to construct the HPP in 2012 and costs projected at $3 billion. RusHydro was to build four smaller hydropower plants (HPP) costing $727 million. Citing information from EurasiaNet, Kyrgyz authorities are trying to find a way to avoid paying Russia a $40 million debt for a HPP in the Upper Naryn region.
Results for Kyrgyzstan in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) are mixed. Kyrgyzstan joined the EEU because of a large population of migrant workers in Russia, to strengthen bilateral ties, and access to traditional and regional markets. Kyrgyzstan’s inclusion in the EEU generated more migrant workers, about 544,000 Kyrgyz work in Russia today, according to Minister of Economy Kylychbek Dzhakypov. For the migrant workers, remittances dropped 28.3 per cent by the end of 2015; Tajikistan’s and Uzbekistan’s remittances dropped by half.
Internally, the resettlement of the debt favors Mongolia’s government. Mongolia’s Prime Minister survived a no confidence vote in January 2016 facilitated by Mongolia’s poor economic performance. Mongolia’s economy grew only 2.3 per cent in 2015, the slowest in seven years and since the 2009 global economic downturn. A drop in commodity prices, dwindling foreign investment, and a slowdown in Chinese trade contribute. One indicator of increased foreign direct investment is the end of negotiations over the Gatsuurt gold mine deposit permitting mining operations and the end of the dispute over Tavan Tolgoi.
“Clearly, the post-Soviet Russia avoids any strategic global competition with the US…Is it possible to (re-)gain a universal respect without any ideological appeal?” – famously asked prof. Anis Bajrektarevic. Well, here might come an answer: Revived Oil-gas Russian diplomacy.
Debt forgiveness may be way to lure Mongolia to import more energy from Russia. Mongolia in 2014, imported 91 per cent of its petroleum products from Russia including: gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel. As of 2013, Mongolia imported $1.03 billion worth of refined petroleum products accounting for 67% of imports from Russia. In 2011, Mongolia imported 90 per cent of its petrol products from Russia. Trade volume between Russia and Mongolia decreased by 2.8% (May 2015).
Mongolia’s energy dependence makes it vulnerable to supply shocks and Russian politics as Russia terminated gas supply (Ukraine) during strained relations and spikes in anti-Russia sentiment. During April 2011, Russia cut its diesel supply to Mongolia because of shortages in its domestic supply which drove up costs of mining operations and logistics.
Energy dependence affects mining operations and infrastructure which Mongolia lacks. Improved infrastructure in the country would mainly be used to export mining goods. Concerns of sovereignty and control also drive Mongolia’s “Third Neighbor Policy.” Many fear that Chinese and Russian construction projects would make movement of Mongolia’s mining tonnage more dependent on the two countries. Another argument is that “such [railway] links would make Mongolia a natural resource backyard for China and even facilitate a Chinese demographic influx” into Mongolia.
Mongolia, to avoid energy dependence, needs to expand the “third neighbor policy” to avoid over-dependence. Mongolia’s should use its status as a democracy for increased cooperation and funding from the European Union and other Asian nations such as Japan and South Korea. Mongolia’s other “third neighbors” are all democracies. Mongolia also needs to diversify its economy from only exporting mineral resources. Russia will most likely take advantages of opportunities to advance the Mongolia-Russia bilateral relationship and to enhance Russia’s position in the region.
Samantha Brletich specializes in Central Asia Affairs with a focus on regional security, terrorism, economics, and culture. She possesses a Masters Degree in Peace Operations Policy from George Mason University in the United States. She can be reached at email@example.com