Gridlocked: the uneven road to rule-of-law reform in Mongolia

Author: Brent White, University of Arizona

If you want a sense of the outcome of rule-of-law reform efforts in Mongolia over the last two decades, spend a few hours driving in Ulaanbaatar.

Your immediate impression is likely to be one of chaos. This is especially true at any intersection where police are not present to control traffic –and drivers are thus expected to follow traffic rules on their own. At such intersections, vehicles are typically gridlocked as drivers fight inch-by-inch to get to the other side, seemingly oblivious to the traffic signals above them.

Your second reaction is likely to be fear — either because of the cars flying towards you on the wrong side of the road or because of the number of drivers who apparently conflate red with green. As you watch more closely, you may sense that some drivers — typically those in luxury cars with special license plates — are ‘more equal than others.’ These vehicles, usually occupied by politicians, government officials, or other Ulaanbaatar elites, cut others off with impunity and are free to disregard traffic rules even in the presence of police officers (whose directions they are also apparently free to ignore).

While the above description might fit any number of developing countries, it’s also an apt metaphor for ‘rule-of-law’ in Mongolia. First, a ‘rule-of-law culture’ has not taken hold. Laws are routinely flaunted unless enforced by some immediate positive authority.  Second, the higher one’s position or status, the less one is bound by the law.

These messages are conveyed in many other ways as well, including the illegal and disorderly construction of luxury apartment buildings south of the city in Zaisan, part of the Bogd Khan National Park, in open and blatant disregard of a law barring construction of such structures there. Indeed, development in Zaisan stands as a highly visible symbol of corruption and the impotency of the law — a point underscored not only by the fact that many high-ranking government officials now call Zaisan home, but also by the irony of the Constitutional Court itself having moved to a new building there.

But what has happened in Zaisan, or what happens daily on Ulaanbaatar’s roads, is not exceptional. The same open disregard for the law is a defining characteristic of post-transition Mongolia — and corruption seems to permeate every level of Mongolian society.

This is not to say that no one follows the law. To the contrary, most Mongolians do stop at traffic lights and don’t go barreling down the wrong side of the road. Moreover, most Mongolians would prefer a society with less corruption, where the law was applied democratically. But Mongolians must survive in the society in which they live — and this frequently means disregarding the law.

Those in Mongolia who most resist the rule-of-law are those who benefit most from its absence. In this light, the chaos of Ulaanbaatar’s roads seems less a product of a developing society, than a product of design. A chaotic and lawless society facilitates the goals of the corrupt elite by normalizing their behavior. Moreover, because traffic affects the lives of every Mongolian city-dweller on a daily basis, it’s where they learn their primary lessons about the role of the law in society. These lessons don’t bode well if the goal is to develop (or regain) respect for the law.

For this reason, however, beginning by addressing the lawlessness on Ulaanbaatar roads would offer an opportunity to teach different lessons about the rule of law and to develop a rule of law culture. For example, it might offer lessons about the utility of law (reduced traffic accidents, congestion, and commute times) that go beyond positivist rationales for obeying the law. Moreover, it might begin the process of inculcating ‘habits of obedience’ to the law in a society were disregard for the law has become a norm. Finally, were traffic rules enforced evenhandedly, it might also teach the important lesson that no one stands above the law. Indeed, if the Mongolian elite were forced to follow even traffic laws, then perhaps it wouldn’t seem so unreasonable to expect that they follow other laws as well – and that public officials carry out their duties without corruption.

Unfortunately, because lawlessness and chaos benefit the corrupt elite, there is little chance that they will address it (on the roads or elsewhere) — especially not now in the new age of Minegolia. Lest the West point its finger, it bears remembering that the current political, legal, and economic system in Mongolia was put in place with the assistance — and insistence — of the international donor community. Whether one agrees that endemic corruption in post-transition Mongolia is a direct product of these reforms, it’s at least powerful evidence of their failure to effectively advance the rule of law.

Brent White is an Associate Professor of Law and Affiliate Professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona.

This article was originally published in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly on Asia’s Regulatory Awakening.