Championing democracy in wartime Ukraine: Meet Harald Hartvig Jepsen

1940 E Day First Round, RS

In his spare time, Harald swims every other day at a local swimming pool in Kyiv. At the office, he brings all that energy to bear on the pressing task of promoting democratic reform and free and fair elections in Ukraine.

When armed conflict escalates, institutions of democracy come under threat. But Harald Hartvig Jepsen is no stranger to working under pressure.

Harald is senior advisor with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) in Ukraine, seconded by NIRAS through the Deployment Facility for Peace and Democracy (DFPD) on behalf of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry holds the political responsibility for the DFPD, while NIRAS identifies, trains, contracts and deploys qualified experts to international missions operated by the EU, UN and other institutions.

“At the moment, of course, the war is setting the agenda, and we are engaged in adapting the legal and regulatory framework for post-war elections to the new realities,” Harald says. “It is about using lessons learned from previous conflicts, including in the Balkans, to find solutions on how the many millions of Ukrainians who fled after 24 February 2022 will be able to vote.”

Harald Hartvig Jepsen

Part of a team of 45 employees in IFES Ukraine, Harald works closely with the national electoral authorities, parliament and civil society on advancing Ukraine’s electoral democracy. He is one of several advisers in IFES’s political-legal section, but the only expat in the team. Together with his Ukrainian colleagues he carries out analyses of legislative initiatives with a bearing on elections and organizes and participates in various public events such as thematic roundtables with relevant parliamentary committees advocating for electoral and legal reform.

With over 20 years of experience in electoral observation and democratic processes, Harald has witnessed and studied transitions of power in several fragile states and contexts. This experience has been especially valuable for his work in Ukraine, where the full-scale war with Russia has had critical consequences for the conduct of future elections.

A commitment to democratic process and material change

The efforts of Harald and other democracy advocates have already laid the groundwork to enable Ukraine’s internally and externally displaced people to participate in elections. One of the major milestones in the five years Harald has been deployed to Ukraine includes the possibility for voters to register an election address where they currently live—even if they are listed as resident elsewhere.

Residence registration is not like in Denmark, where the citizen simply announces relocation. In Ukraine, tenants must have their landlord's permission to register, for example, in a rental property. Many owners refuse to issue a lease (among other things to avoid paying taxes) and do not allow the tenant to register their residence. Previously, therefore, such tenants could not be entered on the local electoral roll either.

The millions of internally displaced persons who emerged following the 2014 conflict changed that. They came with an address in Crimea or Donbas stamped in their passports—and would not give them up, partly because the stamp served as a visa that allowed them to cross checkpoints and, for example, visit relatives in the Russian-occupied territories. For Crimean Tatars on the run, it was also of great symbolic and emotional importance that they still had a stamp from their ancestral homeland in their passport.

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At the same time, Harald and IFES must contend with the impending legal showdown with those who support Russia, have collaborated with the Russian occupying power or been members of pro-Russian parties. According to Harald, lawmakers are finding it difficult to understand that the right to vote is universal and that democratic societies should, as a rule, not restrict it but leave it to voters to decide who they deem worthy to represent them.

“In principle, Ukraine should take a similar approach towards those who prior to the Russian invasion were elected to parliament or other public office from now-banned political parties and even to collaborators with Russian occupiers unless they have been sentenced by a court for treason or other serious crimes or human rights violations,” Harald adds.

“It took us and our civil society partners years of lobbying to make the right to vote independent of the registration of residence. Among other things, we fought against stereotypes that IDPs from eastern Ukraine would vote for pro-Russian parties if the practical barriers that would allow them to vote in all elections were removed,” Harald says. “Such political considerations should not play a role and prevent citizens from exercising their constitutional rights.”

Harald Hartvig Jepsen

A quick switch from academia to advocacy

Harald could not have expected his career path would lead him towards electoral and democratic advocacy from his beginnings as an academic. He studied Russian and Czech at Aarhus University and, after his MA degree, was working at the University of Southern Denmark on a potential PhD programme for Ukrainian studies. But then University changed its priorities.

“When Polish was closed down as a subject the following year and the message from the university was that everything was invested in Russian studies, I had to start looking for something else,” Harald says. “A colleague suggested I apply to the International Humanitarian Response, DFPD's forerunner. I was admitted after an interview at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and attended my first course at Hornbækhus in 1997 together with a number of seasoned members who had experience from several deployments, including in the Balkans and Palestine.”

He hit the ground running as a long-time observer in Crimea during the parliamentary and local elections in 1998. Crimea was at the boiling point back then. Ukraine had adopted its new constitution a few years earlier and now required Ukrainian citizenship from its citizens to participate in elections. Half of the Crimean Tatars, who in the late 1980s began to return home from years of exile in, among other places, Central Asia, had Uzbek or Kazakh passports and suddenly could not vote, even for Crimea's own parliament. This led to civil disobedience actions and hunger strikes. On election day, 3,000 Ukrainian special forces were deployed to secure the elections and prevent riots.

2010 E Day First Round, RS

“My colleague and I met every week with the leaders of the Crimean Tatars and knew that they had no plans to derail the elections,” Harald says. “This did not happen, partly because the Ukrainian National Party Rukh made a tactically wise choice and included their leader as number five on their party list. It secured the Crimean Tatars a voice in Ukraine's Parliament.”

That same summer, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) mission to Ukraine invited Harald to observe some re-elections in individual constituencies in Crimea. The following year, he joined the core team of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ (ODIHR) election mission for the 1999 presidential election in Ukraine.

“Actually, I was only supposed to be long term observer, but ODIHR asked if I was interested in being an election analyst. It was with trembling heart that I said yes, and I learned so much on that mission,” says Harald.

From there, it could only be described as a whirlwind of activity for Harald. “’We could use you in Uzbekistan,’” he recalls being told after things had wrapped up in Ukraine. “When the election mission was finished there, I was asked to stay in Tashkent and join ODIHR's needs assessment mission to neighboring Tajikistan, which was to take place a few days later.”

Tajikistan was in the grips of civil war after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but at the time peace had been made. As part of the peace agreement, the UN and ODIHR were to manage the first parliamentary elections.

“I just made it home to celebrate Christmas and New Year, was issued a diplomatic passport and entered Tajikistan with $50,000 (more than €46,000) to finance the monitoring mission, as nothing was working in the country—no internet, no ATMs,” Harald says. It was not until three months later that he returned home from an election marked by massive fraud, despite the monitoring mission, in favour of the ruling party, which effectively determined how many seats it would cede to the opposition in parliament and in the government.

Such lengthy excursions are not uncommon for Harald, who has reflected on their ramifications for his personal life. “Throughout the years, I have benefited from an understanding partner,” he says. “The support of the hinterland is important when you are deployed, so you can focus 100% on the task. One must be prepared that plans may change at short notice.” One such change of plans happened in Georgia in 2003, where he had arrived with a six-week contract as an election analyst in ODIHR's election mission. He ended up remaining there for six months instead due to the onset of the Rose Revolution.

Daily life under martial law

Harald had already been deployed to Ukraine when the Russian assault in the east began in February 2022. This escalation of armed conflict saw up to eight million Ukrainians internally displaced, with another eight million fleeing the country. Ukraine entered a state of martial law as a result of the invasion. The tension was palpable in Kyiv for a while, but it has managed to settle a bit in recent months.

“My everyday life in Kyiv under martial law is not that different from everyday life before the war,” Harald says. “Air alarms have recently become less frequent, and work or meetings usually just continue in the shelter without it being perceived as a break. I physically go to work every day, even though we are ‘allowed’ to work from home two days a week.” Wednesdays are a highlight for Harald, as most colleagues (apart from a handful who have remained abroad) are in the office. On those days, the office provides buffet lunch, and they hold employee meetings.

Every other day, Harald goes to the local swimming pool to get his laps in. “It’s always full of people,” he says. “Children for swimming lessons, pensioners for aqua gymnastics, experienced swimmers who get individual lessons, diving courses, etc. Life goes on and you sometimes forget there is war in the country.”

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“Even the traffic queues during rush hour have returned, and the shops have the same fine range of goods as before. Since the curfew in April 2023 was shortened by two hours and now runs from midnight to 5 a.m., it is also no longer felt, and you can plan to eat out or go to the theater as before,” he continues. A few times a month, Harald plays billiards and cards with his Ukrainian colleagues. He also enjoys reading, especially historical literature in Ukrainian.

The work of democratic advocacy in Ukraine has also kept Harald busy. The IFES, together with the OPORA observer network, recently issued a priority action plan for electoral reform, and are now trying to move parliament to resume committee work in this area. He is in constant contact with ODIHR and the Council of Europe’s consultative legal body, the Venice Commission, where IFES is also based and which issues authoritative analyses of new legislation.

Recently, Harald has contributed to writing a number of articles, including an opinion piece denouncing the Russian-backed regional and municipal elections held in the illegally annexed territories as “being stage-managed purely for propaganda purposes.”

In the face of threats against democracy, the work that Harald and his team do is critical. Safeguarding Ukraine’s institutions and ensuring people’s voices continue to be heard even amidst war is no easy feat, but for Harald it’s all in a day’s work.