By Lila Seidman

New York-born, Ulaanbaatar-based freelance reporter Terrence Edwards arrived late, flustered and apologetic to our interview. It was totally understandable, given that elections were two days away and Edwards juggles deadlines tied to its processes and outcome via multiple positions, including co-hosting of VTV’s weekly English-language program DeFacto Review, serving as editor-in-chief of Business Council Mongolia’s NewsWire and covering Mongolia for Reuters and other publications. He’s been “very busy,” he understates.

Edwards was politically oblivious for his first two years in the country. He arrived in 2009 as a Peace Corps volunteer with a journalism background when the country “was still dark.” There were no houses or buildings flanking the airport, just empty fields. He didn’t stop in the city once on his way to the small, rural soum where he taught English, lived with a local family and learned Mongolian.

“So I had no expectations [of UB]. I knew it was a city, but I didn’t really know how developed it was,” Edwards says. He visited UB only months after arriving.

At the end of his volunteer service, in 2011, he began exploring reporting opportunities in Mongolia. BCM was, coincidentally, looking to hire someone with his exact resume: a Peace Corps alum with experience in journalism.

“It was kind of just perfect timing,” he explains.

Edwards has been living in Ulaanbaatar ever since, going home for vacation just for one month every year.

“I quite like living in Mongolia because I do feel it’s a free country,” he says. “It’s not a police state like its neighbors. It’s not a one-party state. Sometimes things aren’t perfect or fair, but I don’t know any democracy that’s perfect or fair.”

The UB Post sat down with Edwards to discuss his views on politics, the economy and more.

How have the election years you’ve witnessed differed? Is there anything that is significantly different about this election?

I feel like every election has a theme. Here it’s easy to classify what the elections are about.

In 2008, which I was not around for… it was all about politicians trying to trump one another [with] who could offer more cash to the voters. It wasn’t like they were trying to buy votes directly, but they were saying, “If you vote for us, we’ll have these social welfare payments that you can depend on.”

In 2012, it was more about taking back the resources and improving people’s lives that way. Foreign investors had gotten too much control, and they were somehow getting in the way of the people and the benefits from the mining industry.

This year, it seems to be about who can best fix the economy at this point.

The Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) will tell you [to] look at their record. They had been overseeing the largest growth this country had ever seen, when it was number one for economic growth in the world – and to look at all the disastrous mistakes the Democratic Party (DP) has made.

The DP would say, not only have they learned from their mistakes, but the MPP had a part in where we are today as well.

What’s your take?

Two weeks before the [2012] election occurred, a very controversial law was passed. It was called the Strategic Entities Foreign Investment Law, and basically, it was a reaction to a Chinese state-owned company trying to buy a Mongolian coal deposit.

Without getting too detailed, there was this resource nationalist backlash. People were not talking about how this deal should go through [or] what it should like. Right off the bat, they were saying, “How do we block his deal?” It was a very knee-jerk reaction.

The MPP was leading the government at the time, so it’s really important to realize that this one law that really set off the downward spiral in foreign investment was passed by the MPP government. That kind of set the tone for what the DP had to work with.

Yes, the [DP] didn’t make things much better when they got into disputes with Rio Tinto over the Oyu Tolgoi mine, when they revoked licenses, when they refused to pay Khan Resources… But it’s still a young democracy. They’re learning from their mistakes. Sometimes, it’s hard to make those difficult decisions when society wants you to act this way [or that way]. How do you make that tough decision and go against their wishes, even though [you] maybe know it’s for the best? I’m not trying to make excuses for them, but there is that as well.

It seems some of the major mining disputes have been or are being resolved and foreign investment is beginning to pick up. For example, you reported in May that Rio Tinto paid 5.3 billion USD to expand Oyu Tolgoi. Does that signal positive change – politically, socially, economically?

Last July, Prime Minister Chimed Saikhanbileg was in London and said, “Pay Khan Resources.” Flat out. Now, the government doesn’t always move as a well-oiled machine. Sometimes that gear goes this way, and that spoke goes that way, to the left and the right. So that was his intention, but other factions within the government tried to renege on that.

The fact that Mongolia did come to an agreement with Khan Resources and did pay about 100 million USD to this Canadian company that the Paris Tribunal ruled in favor of shows that Mongolia does honor international agreements. It does recognize arbitration. Those are very, very good things, and it sets a better example than a lot of Latin American countries, for example.

What role do election oversight committees and independent journalists,  like you, have in the election process? Do they help keep it honest?

If they are truly independent, that is what should happen. Unfortunately, there are people that aren’t independent journalists – they may claim to be – but they’re on the payroll of a politician and they’re basically writing promotional material. They might be ghostwriting for the politician, and that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, but to dress it up as news is something different.

Have you ever experienced any pushback for the work you’ve written?

No, but I don’t think I’m on the same vulnerability level as local journalists. At the end of the day, they can kick me out of the country, but I can still live my life. Whereas Mongolians, it’s either owing a lot of money from a huge fine or it’s spending time in prison, which has happened.

According to a recent UN Human Development Report, youth voting and political engagement has decreased. Why do you think that is?

It’s not different than the States, where young people feel like their vote doesn’t matter, doesn’t count, doesn’t change anything. It’s a similar sentiment, but also, put on top of that, that there is this advantage in this country of being born to the right family. You could say that about a lot of societies, but it’s a little bit more classist here because disparity is so wide between the classes.

…If there’s someone pulling the strings in government, it’s not so much a secret. People know who the oligarchs are, and often, they’ve met them or they know someone related to them. [You can] look across the street and maybe you live in a ger and they live in a condo.

How do you hope this election plays out?

I have no stake in which party wins. I want to see a fair election and I want to see results that, [confirmed by] the observers, there was not any abuse of powers, that there wasn’t any fraud. And I don’t expect that. I think that Mongolia will have a fair election.

I want to see a quiet election day. I don’t want to hear people shouting on Chinggis Square. I don’t want to see protests because in 2008 that led to violence. That’s the worst-case scenario. So my hopeful outcome is a boring election day.

What do you think could be done to promote more confidence in the election? What can be done to increase youth involvement?

It’s been the same people running the show for so many years that the young people, especially those coming back from studying abroad – learning that there’s new or better ways to manage the country, manage companies – I think they get very frustrated when they see the same people running the country as ten years ago and making the same mistakes, when they feel they could do it better [and] fairer.

So, what that means is that young people want to vote for young people. There is a division between the older and younger generation, and I think young Mongolians are tired of waiting for older folks to retire.