The following is an interview with Ulaanbaatar Mayor S.Batbold about a wide range of topics related to the capital city’s development and future.
The scale of projects mayors and the prime minister carry out may be different, but their essential roles and responsibilities are the same. As the Mayor of the Capital, what do you consider as your first priority?
I have to be involved in everything that goes on in the city, but my highest priority is to change Ulaanbaatar’s status. I consider the city legal reform to be more important than other matters. Various issues and problems are piled up, but they will not be resolved unless the government views the capital as a special zone. The capital and government must cooperate on finding solutions to these issues. Ulaanbaatar is Mongolia’s economic locomotive and population center.
The Ulaanbaatar Mayor’s Action Plan hopes to develop the capital into a tourism hotspot. Just as Paris has the Eiffel Tower and Moscow has the Red Square, what is Ulaanbaatar’s signature? Do you hope to create a representative facility or place for the capital?
Within the first season of this year, we will cooperate with foreign consultants and local companies and produce Ulaanbaatar’s brand in consistency with modern city standards. At the very least, we hope to find something that will help people pronounce and read Ulaanbaatar correctly, just like the I amsterdam sign. It doesn’t contain political content at all.
From the statue of General D.Sukhbaatar, statue of Chinggis Khaan and Blue Sky Tower, I’m not sure which is Ulaanbaatar’s symbolic structure. We need a tower where the whole city can be seen. Right now, we only have Zaisan Memorial. Ulaanbaatar isn’t like other cities across the world with skyscrapers and glass buildings. I want something unique that portrays Mongolia’s individualism to be the city’s icon. This will not be established by the government but by the Mayor’s Office and the private sector.
Besides building something new, the capital should make existing facilities stand out to develop tourism. Have you planned anything for museums?
Museums play an important role in promoting cities and cultures around the world. We have the Ulaanbaatar Chamber of Commerce, which includes every large company in the capital. Members of the chamber initiated to work together to renovate the Fine Arts Zanabazar Museum and showcase amazing exhibits which we were unable to display in the past.
Soon, we will assign responsibilities and discuss what to build and how. Secondly, private collectors possess extremely valuable collections. Ulaanbaatar must have its own pavilion, which can be used to exhibit their collections.
Private collectors have sufficient number of valuables to launch exhibitions. If the private sector initiates something along this line, the capital is ready to cooperate and resolve land issues. It’s important to centralize all museums in Ulaanbaatar and develop a very large shopping street and a complex along with a sufficient parking space.
Every development plan seems to inevitably bring forth financial problems. How does the capital raise funds? Is the city tax initiated by the previous government showing results?
I’m one of the advocates for city tax. The current city tax only has a good name. For a fact, it’s good that something like this was initiated and launched. However, Parliament slightly changed the method the tax is to be collected before passing the bill. The implementation of this law is quite poor.
According to the City Tax Law, it was estimated that 10 billion MNT would be collected but only half of this amount was collected. I believe the revenue from tax collection will increase once businesses develop and the economic situation improves. A city is actually supposed to be financed through various taxes such as real estate, land and service taxes.
Your action plan states that Ulaanbaatar will release bonds to raise funds. Can you tell us about this?
Personally, I believe that Ulaanbaatar needs to become financially independent from the government. The capital needs to raise its own funds and financing, get loan from international financial organizations without government collateral, and resolve long-term investment. I proposed releasing a bond to the government, but unfortunately, it was rejected as the government feared additional bonds would heighten the debt ceiling when the nation is facing financial difficulties. I expect bond restrictions to be lifted by 2018 at the nearest.
Every year, more and more people are moving to Ulaanbaatar. Do you plan to set limits to this?
As the Mayor, I do want to limit the number of people moving to the city. At this rate, if we don’t set a limit, problems related to the rights and interests of residents living in Ulaanbaatar will be raised. Though everyone has the right to move to the capital, both the people living in the city and those moving here are suffering due to overload.
The government needs to establish a system that encourages people to live in rural settlements and provinces. If people can’t find jobs in the city, they can go to the countryside and run a farm, raise livestock and grow vegetables. The government could start a campaign which supports those willing to move outside of the city by covering moving costs and providing seeds or livestock. It’s impossible to establish order in the capital without reducing the workload.
…I believe that Ulaanbaatar needs to become financially independent from the government. The capital needs to raise its own funds and financing, get loan from international financial organizations without government collateral, and resolve long-term investment…
What measures is Ulaanbaatar taking to eliminate the difference between city center and ger areas?
I don’t want Ulaanbaatar to be surrounded by ger districts and become a cluttered city. It must be a city developed equally in all areas. There are many social problems stopping us from doing this. We must reduce poverty and increase jobs. Within this scope, three projects are being carried out to not just decentralize Ulaanbaatar by establishing a new city center and planting nice flowers, but through city cultures and better infrastructure in suburban areas. Infrastructure networks are being installed in suburbs as well.
Can you talk about the satellite towns mentioned in your action plan?
Nalaikh, Baganuur, Bagakhangai, Zuun Mod, Emeelt, and Khushig Valley’s Aero city are Ulaanbaatar’s satellite towns. Ulaanbaatar needs to be decentralized to develop these towns. Ger districts were expanded under the guise of city development and a new residential area is being built.
All district mayors have now agreed to avoid further expanding ger districts. In the case that they have to expand ger districts, they must build infrastructure at a place relatively remote from the capital. District mayors believe that it’s best to build new residential areas near suburbs.
[This] year, a red line will be marked so that electricity and water aren’t supplied to families living within a certain boundary. There isn’t any space for a new family to build a ger within the city anyway.
In your opinion, how effective were projects carried out by the previous governments? What were their pros and cons?
I commend them for boldly allocating funds to resolve infrastructure issues. However, they spent too much. They also enforced a land eviction schedule to settle issues related to ger areas. I’m thinking of continuing some of their projects after filling in the blanks and lacking areas.
Residents demand city authorities to find solutions for their everyday problems. Do you find this difficult sometimes?
Rather than initiating, discussing and developing large projects, I spend most of my time trying to settle daily problems. Helping to resolve everyday problems, removing snow from streets and roads, and increasing the number of beds at hospitals are the most important things to do for a mayor. Even so, I have to see the bigger picture and come up with plans for the development of the city.
However, I have to admit that I do feel depressed occasionally.
The first thing you did as soon as you took office was turning the car park at Sukhbaatar Square into an ice skating rink. What else do you want to do for the children and young people living in the capital? Can you also share some of your childhood memories?
When I was young, I used to skate practically every day in the winter. I used to grab my skates or sleigh and head to a mountain. The environment was so nice and healthy. We used to have warm winters with clear white snow. Now, the city is covered in smog during the winter. I want children to be able to have the same kind of memories of winter as me.
We plan to operate a cheap skating rink called Ulaanbaatar Resort besides the one at Sukhbaatar Square. We will try to ensure that it meets international standards next winter. More than 10 skating rinks will be established in Ulaanbaatar with assistance from districts and private companies.
There is a requirement to improve the environment so that children and young people can grow happily and healthily, and to establish resorts and recreation centers. New kindergartens and schools will be built at every khoroo so that schools can operate in two shifts instead of three. It’s not right for a child to go to school at 5:00 p.m. and finish at 9:00 p.m.
What kind of a city do you want Mongolian children to grow up in?
I hope that laws and regulations are abided by not only in Ulaanbaatar but nationwide, and that residents are able to properly work and live without depending on the mayor or anyone else. I wish for Ulaanbaatar to become a free and liberal city where everyone can live happily, healthily and safely.
Everyone should strive to make Ulaanbaatar a better place to live in with the thought that their children and grandchildren will live here in the future.