A MONGOLIAN neo-Nazi group has rebranded itself as an environmentalist organisation fighting pollution by foreign-owned mines, seeking legitimacy as it sends swastika-wearing members to check mining permits.
Tsagaan Khass – “White Swastika” – has only 100-plus members but it is one of several groups expanding a wave of nationalism as foreign firms seek to exploit the mineral wealth of the vast country.
From an office behind a lingerie store in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, the shaven-headed, jackbooted Tsagaan Khass members launch raids on mining projects, demanding paperwork or soil samples to be studied for contaminants.
“Before we used to work in a harsh way, like breaking down doors, but now we have changed and we use other approaches, like demonstrations,” the group’s leader, Ariunbold Altankhuum, 40, said this week.
On a patrol to a quarry two hours’ drive from the capital, members wore black SS-style Nazi uniforms complete with replica iron crosses. They questioned a mine employee about paperwork, opting to come back when the owner had returned.
Mr Altankhuum said: “Today our main goal is to save nature. We are doing things to protect the environment. The development of mining is growing and has become an issue.”
The group, founded in the 1990s, says it wants to halt pollution in the landlocked former Soviet satellite state as foreign companies dig for gold, copper, coal and iron ore using cheap labour from neighbouring China. But a lot of the pollution is caused by local, illegal miners working individually.
“Our purpose changed from fighting foreigners in the streets to fighting the mining companies,” Mr Altankhuum said.
Mongolians fear that foreign workers are taking up scarce jobs in an economy where nearly 30 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the Asia Development Bank.
“Mining is important because it’s 90 per cent of our economy,” said political commentator Dambadarjaa Jargalsaikhan. “But the unequal channelling of this revenue, the inequality in this country, that’s the major issue.”
However, for mainstream observers, Tsagaan Khass’ environmental credentials are not helped by either the group’s uniforms or Mr Altankhuum’s reverence for Adolf Hitler.
Mr Altankhuum said: “We chose this way because what is happening here in Mongolia is like 1939, and Hitler’s movement transformed his country into a powerful country.”
But such comments lead some observers to dismiss the group as self-serving and irrelevant.
“Mongolia’s neo-Nazis have been receiving too much attention from global media, and they’ve obviously been enjoying it,” said Tal Liron, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago who specialises in national identity. “Mongolians are cosmopolitan, savvy and capable of adapting many foreign ideologies and fashions to their context.”
This “resource nationalism” is a major issue in Mongolia, where the largest foreign investment is the Oyu Tolgoi project, 66 per cent owned by global miner Rio Tinto and the rest by the government. Oyu Tolgoi is expected to boost Mongolia’s economy by about a third by 2020.
Incumbent president Tsakhia Elbegdorj, who wants more controls on foreign mining investment, won a second term last week, riding concerns over the faltering economy and the growing role of foreign firms.
Colonel Tumenjargal Sainjargal of the National Police Department said the right-wing phenomenon began 15 years ago when young people grew angry at the appearance of foreign languages on signs and made threats against business owners.
Col Sainjargal said: “There are complaints that some foreign-invested companies hire Mongolian employees and cheat them, use violence, overwork them, or refuse to pay money owed to them.
“Afterwards, some of these Mongolians call the nationalist groups. There have been a few incidents with nationalists coming to companies for violent reasons to resolve the conflicts in their own way.”
It seems unlikely Tsagaan Khass’s new green thinking will be enough to repair its reputation after accusations of violence – including shaving the heads of women it claimed were prostitutes serving foreign customers.
“We didn’t shave the heads of the women, we just cut their hair,” said Mr Altankhuum. “But today we are changing. That was crude. That time has passed.”