The 25th meeting of the Intergovernmental Russian-Mongolian Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation was held on 23 October 2023 in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The meeting was jointly chaired by Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation V. Abramchenko and Vice Prime Minister, Minister of Economic Development of Mongolia Ch. Khurelbaatar.
The main results of the meeting, although not notable for the abundance of new agreements and programmes, were marked by the emergence and return to the field of bilateral negotiations of very promising topics and issues, the development of which can not only bring bilateral relations to an even higher level, but also lead to the harmonization of the positions of the parties on those issues in which Russia and Mongolia still do not have a common understanding.
During the 25th meeting of the intergovernmental commission, the parties returned to the discussion of prospects for the construction of a low-power nuclear plant on the territory of Mongolia. Returning to this discussion can be perceived not only as a search for new areas of cooperation in the industry, but also as a search for new ways to resolve the dispute between the parties in connection with Mongolia’s plans to create a cascade of hydroelectric power stations that can aggravate the ecological situation in the Baikal region due to the intake of part of the runoff into the lake for energy needs.
This issue has been discussed for quite a long time: initially, it was supposed to create a bilateral commission, as well as conduct an environmental risk assessment by a neutral expert organization. Similar plans are still being discussed now, however; the parties still face difficulties in coordinating such events. For many years, a kind of “counter-proposal” to the Mongolian Hydroelectric power station from Russia was to increase the supply of Russian electricity to Mongolia and China – in particular, such an initiative was repeatedly made by the President of Russia V. V. Putin during the meetings of the heads of Russia, Mongolia and China on the sidelines of the SCO summits.
However, for Mongolia, it is not so much about obtaining cheap electricity by any means possible, but about achieving a state of complete self-sufficiency. This is the priority set out in the country’s National Security Concept adopted back in 2011. As a result, Russia’s counter-proposal was not welcomed in Mongolia, and in 2022, during the Russia-Mongolia-China trilateral meeting, Mongolian President U. Khürelsükh suggested that Russia cooperate with Mongolia on the implementation of hydropower projects.
In the context of these contradictions, the prospective creation of a group of low–power nuclear plants in Mongolia potentially satisfies the demands of both sides – Russia can achieve Mongolia’s refusal to build hydroelectric power plants that carry its potential environmental danger, while Mongolia receives a reliable, sufficient, and most importantly “sovereign” source of electricity. A group of low–power reactors seems very promising for Mongolia for other reasons – in the coming years, large-scale development of uranium deposits will begin in the country, produced jointly with the French company Orano Group, which will provide potential nuclear power plants with the fuel of local origin. In addition, a group of small reactors looks like the most effective solution in the field of energy in Mongolia – due to the large distances between electricity consumers in the country, as well as the lack of a unified energy network. Thus, this proposal, raised again at the 25th meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission, has all the prerequisites for further development and final implementation.
It is also interesting that the parties have exchanged proposals for cooperation in the field of tourism. At the end of 2022, the Government of Mongolia declared 2023,2024 and 2025 as the so-called “Visiting Years of Mongolia”, with an ambitious programme designed to increase tourist traffic to the country. The provisional target for 2023 of one million tourists visiting the country is about 80 per cent complete as of the end of October 2023. Mongolia has great hopes for the programme on the flow of tourists from the Russian Federation, as it is the northern neighbour that brings the most tourists to the country.
The Russian side, realising the existence of such an opportunity, hastened to ensure its own interests by intensifying bilateral cooperation in this area. Thus, during the meeting, the parties agreed to prepare a road map for the implementation of the “The Tea Road” – a tourist path running through the territories of Russia, Mongolia and China along the sites of the once large-scale trade route, which in the 18th and 19th centuries accounted for most of the land exports of Chinese tea to Russia and Europe. It is assumed that the implementation of such a project is of interest not only to Mongolia, but also to Russia – in particular, it will help to attract part of the growing tourist flow from China to Mongolia and also to the Russian regions bordering Mongolia.
The second “counter-proposal” of the Russian delegation was to return to the discussion of the possibility of using “Mir” payment cards by Russian tourists in Mongolia. It should be recalled that consideration of this issue was interrupted by the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by Western countries in 2022. The Mongolian side faced pressure from its Western partners and was forced to stop discussing such a project. As the “Mir” issue is now tied as closely as possible to Russia’s assistance to the development of tourism in Mongolia and related large-scale government programmes, the likelihood of the issue being resolved in favour of Russian tourists has increased significantly.
Other important outcomes of the meeting were the discussion of the prospects for increasing the share of national exchanges and currencies of friendly countries in bilateral trade, increasing the share of the authorized capital of the joint venture “Ulaanbaatar Railway” through monetary contributions and the supply of four Russian-made freight locomotives to the enterprise, intensifying the elaboration of a temporary agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union on the creation of a free trade zone capable of optimizing Mongolian exports to Russia, as well as an increase in the quota for Mongolian students to study at Russian universities to 620 budget places (according to this indicator, Russia is absolutely the dominant partner of Mongolia).
The meeting also considered the prospects of commissioning a new gas pipeline that will supply natural gas from Russia to China via Mongolia. According to the Commission’s co-chairmen, the construction of the Mongolian part of “The Power of Siberia 2” could start in 2024.
Thus, the 25th meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission shows that the discussion between the parties has been revitalised – both on those issues on which consensus could not be reached in recent years and on those on which a positive solution was pressured by third countries – in particular, Mongolia’s Western partners.
Boris KUSHKHOV, Department of Korea and Mongolia, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. Especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.