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Cheating Nation

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Nov. 19, 2009, 10:59 p.m. | Ukraine — by Alina Pastukhova, Iryna Prymachyk

Ukraine’s culture of lawlessness and impunity is deeply embedded. Fake university diplomas can be easily purchased, bestowing legitimacy on politicians and anyone else for a fee. But the fraud doesn’t end there. Fake drivers licenses, fake marriage certif

Alina Pastukhova

Fake university diplomas, drivers licenses and health certificates are becoming common in Ukraine. Getting caught is still the exception, not the rule.

Everything is for sale in Ukraine, or so it seems, even privileges that are supposed to be earned: University diplomas, health certificates, drivers licenses.

The dishonor roll of people who have claimed bogus degrees or false credentials is gaining nationwide attention as more high-level officials get caught. The scandals have prompted the Interior Ministry to announce it will conduct a broader review of the backgrounds of top-ranking officials, although such a probe has not been started yet.

So far, the list of those caught with phony credentials or bogus resumes includes: Andriy Kyslynsky, former presidential aide and deputy head of the State Security Service; Volodymyr Dodatok, a Simferopol city official; and Roman Zvarych, former justice minister. Questions were also raised about the authenticity of presidential candidate Victor Yanukovych’s educational credentials, although one of his allies called the accusation “stupid.”

However, to some, all of the revelations are merely symptomatic of the nation’s endemic corruption and penchant for cutting corners. Aside from the obvious moral shortcomings of a person claiming qualifications that he or she doesn’t possess, the proliferation of fake educational credentials can be life-threatening and dangerous to the economy and government.

“How will [a doctor with a fake degree] be able to do it? No one would want to be cured by a doctor like that,” said Mykola Fomenko, chief of higher education monitoring at the Education Ministry. “How can a fake-certified prosecutor make legal decisions?”

Myroslav Popovych, director of the Hryhoriy Skovoroda Institute of Philosophy, said: “If one can buy a degree certificate, it means everything here can be bought, be it one’s good name, moral values or even biological mother.”

While public and high-profile officials have been exposed as frauds, many fake degree holders are believed to be holding down jobs and flying under the public radar – hoping, perhaps, that their bosses or clients don’t expose them as cheats.

Oleksandr, a 32-year-old resident of Shostka in Sumy Oblast, is one of them. And he doesn’t want to be identified because publication of his surname would expose him publicly as a fraud. He bought his diploma four years ago and now works as head of the economics department at one of Ukraine’s leading trading companies.

“I have never been asked about the legitimacy of my diploma, neither at an interview, nor while on the job,” Oleksandr said. “The employer liked my work during the trial period. He only cared about my diploma as paper itself. However, I would have never got this job without the paper.”

However, officials in the public eye seem to be more vulnerable to getting caught, although exposing frauds isn't easy, since many documents such as university degrees are not widely accessible public documents.

On Nov. 4, the main investigation department of the Interior Ministry launched a criminal case against Kyslynsky on suspicion that his educational degree was forged. In October, Kyslynsky’s non-existent degree in history from Taras Shevchenko National University was unmasked by the Ministry of Education, at the request of Hennadiy Moskal, Crimea’s Interior Minister. Kyslynsky was dismissed as deputy head of the SBU and is now fighting the charges.

Earlier in October, the Ministry of Education also verified – again at Moskal’s request – that Dodatok’s degree is from a non-existent university.

Four years ago, Zvarych was accused of misleading Ukrainians by suggesting in his biography that he had previously worked as a professor – and had completed a higher level of education, a master’s degree, at Columbia University, New York. In an interview that year with the Ukrainian Weekly, he admitted that he did not, in fact, complete the master’s degree. And officials at Columbia University, said he was a part-time lecturer, not a professor.

According to Focus Magazine, after Moskal exposed Kyslynsky’s diploma from Taras Shevchenko University as fake, he expressed doubts over the authenticity of Yanukovych’s master’s degree in international law from the Ukrainian Academy of External Trade. The Kyiv Post sent a formal request for verification to the Education Ministry. “There is no request about him [Yanukovych],” said Olena Khaliman, a spokesperson at the Education Ministry.

When asked by the Kyiv Post whether the degree was honestly earned by Yanukovych, his close confidant, lawmaker Anna Herman, said: “I’m not going to answer stupid questions like that.”

But Yanukovych exposed himself as one with questionable literacy when he made 12 mistakes in his official presidential candidate form in 2004. For instance, he described his academic status as “proffessor.”

Another sign of widespread problems: Businesses that issue fake diplomas and certificates report a booming trade. Operators openly talk about their line of work, but draw the line at being identified publicly because of the fraudulent nature of their businesses.

Iryna is one of them. She claims to have been issuing fake degrees for more than 20 years. “Today, any Ukrainian, from commoners to parliamentarians, get degrees instantly, thanks to the corrupt nature of Ukraine’s education system, and non-existent universities that employers are not used to checking,” Iryna said. “You simply have to fill in the online form to get the degree that will make your career move!”

Three parliamentary deputies are among her clients, she said, adding that prices vary. For a person just trying to make his or her parents proud, Iryna charges $450 for a basic university degree. A law degree costs $900. A degree qualifying you to be a police officer, or to work in the courts or a prosecutor’s office, will cost $12,000. Setting up top-notch paperwork for an aspiring politician will cost more.

There are plenty of easy-to-use online services offering degrees of various qualities. Some are forgeries. Others are genuine documents that are illegally issued for the right price. Prices start at about $1,000.

University diplomas are not the only items in demand. Driver’s licenses are commonly sold. Their price starts at a modest $300. One can also purchase various medical papers, including an official doctor’s certificate that the holder is disease-free and, for example, safe to enter public swimming pools or a sauna.

Unlike in much of Europe and the United States, it has not yet become a common practice in Ukraine to check the authenticity of diplomas during interviews. “Our people are used to trusting each other. The same goes for diplomas. The paper is important, of course, but we emphasize work experience, professional skills and do not check legibility of all the diplomas,” said Nataliya Lukyanenko, a senior recruitment consultant at Brain Source International.

Sifting through old Soviet records and databases from universities can be time-intensive and unproductive, as they are often incomplete and in shambles. Since 2000, there is an official website, www.osvita.net, where the authenticity of a university degree obtained recently can be checked if you know the degree holder’s name and the number of the diploma. But it’s unclear how complete their database is and “unfortunately, very few employers know about the website,” said Mykola Fomenko, chief of higher education monitoring at Ukraine’s Education Ministry.

Law enforcement isn’t doing much to curb the issue of fake diplomas so far, let alone the common practice of paying for grades in educational institutions. Few perpetrators are punished or face serious penalties for selling fake diplomas, or buying them. In 2008, the General Prosecutor's Office opened some 300 criminal cases against those who issue fake diplomas, but only 17 resulted in prosecution.

“We have been asking law enforcement to react upon such violations more effectively. We said: ‘Look, such [fake-diploma] companies are offering their services openly’ via the Internet and e-mails. But our appeals have not been heard,” Fomenko added.

Volodymyr Polishchuk, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry in Kyiv, said that legal penalties are light for those falsifying documents. As for commercial dealers of fake documents, Polishchuk said many have foreign addresses and are beyond the reach of Ukraine’s law enforcement.

Maksym Kopeychykov, a partner at Ilyashev & Partners, agreed that there is little risk of fraudsters facing punishment in the legal system. “Nobody is really being punished for buying fake degrees,” Kopeychykov said. “By law, the legal punishment can range from Hr 850, six months arrest or prison for up to two years. But I have never heard anyone being punished.”

Some believe that universities are actually in on the fraud. If it is true that genuine diplomas are being sold illegally by insiders themselves, the problem will be much more difficult to eradicate. Some say employees of universities are often offered large sums, $20,000 or so, to get diplomas officially recorded into the institution’s database.

“To register diplomas, they must have insiders among people responsible for handling and approving input into the databases,” said Oleksiy Bushakov, a private detective who does background checks on employees.

Volodymyr Bugrov, vice rector at Taras Shevchenko National University – one of the most prestigious in Ukraine – said it would be very difficult to bribe officials of his university. Apart from the diploma, university databases also include entries on “admission, scholarships and many other documents of a student’s activities,” Bugrov said, adding that more than “10 people are involved in signing off” on key documents.

“Each week, we receive some 500 requests from the Education Ministry to check if certain students genuinely attended our university. If people at these firms think it is easy to bribe us, they should ask Kyslynsky, [the former deputy head of the State Security Service,] how to do it. He was not successful.”

While the extent of the problem of bogus credentials is unknown, what is certain is that society suffers a loss of trust, and very likely much more. Honest students are cheated. Lives could be imperiled. And the competence of society, in matters small and large, is called into question.

“Judging by decisions Ukrainian courts make and laws that deputies write, it is no doubt that their diplomas are fake,” Bushakov said.

Iryna Prymachyk can be reached at prymachyk@kyivpost.com. Alina Pastukhova can be reached at pastukhova@kyivpost.com

The Kyiv Post is hosting comments to foster lively debate. Criticism is fine, but stick to the issues. Comments that include profanity or personal attacks will be removed from the site. If you think that a posted comment violates these standards, please flag it and alert us. We will take steps to block violators.
Anonymous Nov. 19, 2009, 11:21 p.m.    

All this is just 1 aspect of the situation. The bottom line is: Ukrainian society does not need educated people. The corruption scheme requires everybody to take bribes and share. A six-year-old kid buying grades will be more successful than a 6 y.o. A-student, because he knows the art of bribery at a younger age. You need to buy a degree and buy the position. Then you charge somebody and share. To survive in that society you do not need knowledge of Math, you need a degree, then you go to work at a mortgage department at a bank, for instance. You get bribes and share. Your knowledge of your major does not matter. Select any university, any group of 100 students. A-students either emigrated or are failures. Almost everybody who are successful are the students who knew the art and science of bribery when they were 7 years old and when their Moms were bringing black caviar to the teacher in exchange to grades.

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Anonymous Nov. 19, 2009, 11:23 p.m.    

Of course, there are former A-students who got married to people who know how to get bribes and share. These are the only ones from that category who do well in the country.

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Anonymous Nov. 20, 2009, 1:22 a.m.    

“Judging by decisions Ukrainian courts make and laws that deputies write, it is no doubt that their diplomas are fake” -- this sounds very ironic.

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Anonymous Nov. 20, 2009, 2:34 a.m.    

Almost as bad as the facts are the cynicism of the comments. Ukraine has to compete in the real world with people who did NOT buy their degrees and how can we? We will never ever be competitive but rather hewers of wood and carriers of water. Did this start during the Soviet period or after? Can anyone tell me?

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Anonymous Nov. 20, 2009, 9:16 a.m.    

When teachers or professors in Ukraine do not accept bribes they are named "communists" by the students. This is the truth. Average communists who worked hard and were believers and followers, paying their membership, were people with real values... Now there are no values. People who failed to find a job where they would steal government money and get bribed are considered losers. By community, by neighbors, by spouses and by their own kids. Sick society. Society speaking surzhik which is named Ukrainian. Even teaching Ukrainian was administered by communists much better than by these so-called democrats.

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Anonymous Nov. 20, 2009, 6:58 a.m.    

At the Soviet time people had values. Now all values are destroyed. Everything is allowed. Do you know how teachers who do not accept bribes are named by people around? Communists.

This society names people who do not take bribes/gifts communists. Think about this.

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Anonymous Nov. 20, 2009, 7:53 a.m.    

Before 1917 people had religious values. After 1917 people had communism values and many believed. The only difference between them is that communists did not promise you eternal paradise. Now - no values. Correct. Ukraine has to compete:) It is already very competitive. The best prostitutes and the most criminal authorities.

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Anonymous Nov. 20, 2009, 8:01 a.m.    

Vladimir Lenin was an A-student. He wrote 50+ volumes. He did not hire ghost writers. He did not try to steal in order to support all his decendents or to buy soccer clubs:))) These are just pure facts. Not a judgement. Not propaganda.

Stalin valued education. Girls were prohibited to wear make-up, jewelry and even watches at school. The assignment was to study:) not to waste time on looking at watch. Just the fact.

They were, probably, criminals. They were guilty in many things. But these are the only politicians from that huge country who deserve respect. Do you know at least 1 democrat from that part of the world who did something good and deserves respect??? I don't know.

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Anonymous Nov. 20, 2009, 8:10 a.m.    

Sounds cool. Don't forget that Lenin was the greatest journalist ever:))) He organized the newspaper Iskra which helped him to do the revolution. He knew how to organize media much better than all those NY Times or Guardian managers. They know only how to lay people off. I hate to say this, but all this sounds logical. How much money media development organizations invested in Georgia? And where is the money???:))) Money melted away. All media are shut up or show Mexican shows. No Iskra. Even half-Iskra. Nothing. Waste. The State Dept. Has much more money to operate in all those New Independent countries than Communists had in 1917. No Iskra. They hire people not with talents but with good resumes written by ghost writers from craigslist. Such is life.

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Anonymous Nov. 20, 2009, 8:04 a.m.    

Unfortunately, as in many cases, this article grossly exaggerates the importance of the problem in Ukraine. I remember it was similar with sex tourism... I can't say for all countries, but I can say for UK and US, two countries, where I studied and worked, apart from Ukraine. I have news for you. Nobody checks out even a paper diploma in these countries, as a rule. There are few jobs, like the one I now hold, in international organization, where they checked my british paper (mind you, just a copy, not original), but not Ukrainian! Lying is very tempting and I'm sure many people lie in these countries too. Sometimes they are found out and fired. In my own life I encountered at least 3 people, who lied (grossly)about their degrees for professional and/or society advancement. The way they were found out was through peer networks and obvious incompetence. These days the professional networks are very wide and connected online and off and someone always knows someone. On the other hand, lots of disreputable american universities (not the ivy leagues, sure, but many nevertheless, Ivy league charges a lot more:) all but sell degrees online. Also british universities, even good ones are often overly lenient to foreigners paying large fees, even if they barely speak english. All this is to say than in Ukraine this "selling" looks very primitive and elites are not fully formed, so the politicians buy diplomas rather than a legacy place in Harvard. So it seems like a big deal. In many places diploma may not be needed in reality. So someone working as a sales manager with a fake diploma doesn't do any harm because he didn't need this diploma in the first place. As to high level specialists and the elites, they have to be found out through their overall level and peer networks. If those checks don't work, there are bigger problems than a fake piece of paper. As Zhvanetskii said very well: how do you tell if the diamonds are real? By the face:)

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Anonymous Nov. 20, 2009, 10:17 a.m.    

The Ukrainian system invites the use of fraudulent diplomas in two ways. First, it is widely believed that many authentic diplomas are earned dishonestly. Students say that professors can be easily bribed, and may demand bribes. Several say that they have had friends take examinations for them.

Secondly, in Ukraine simply doing good work is almost never a sufficient qualification. If you want to teach, it is not sufficient to demonstrate successful experience as a teacher. Whatever the truth, you need a piece of paper saying you can teach. This mania for documents drives the market for fake documents. My sympathies are with the head of trading who has four years of success at work but no diploma. Which is the real indicator of his talent? The work, obviously! Education often has little to do with the real world. Ukraine needs to free itself from the bureaucratic past and learn to evaluate people on their merits.

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Anonymous Nov. 22, 2009, 1:15 a.m.    

Sounds good to me, students pay either way. Love the Ukraine, just like the wild west but more stealing and cheating.

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Anonymous Nov. 22, 2009, 1:03 p.m.    

@ Angelika: what you write is totally nonsense. You will never be able to get a fake diploma from an ivy league college, not from harvard, not from columbia, not from brown. If you have been to a community college, that might be another thing....but your diploma then is worth nothing anyway.

I agree that money and a well-known family can help you get accepted, but you have to enroll and enter university. You can't just buy a diploma.

The phenomena is not overstated in this article.

From what I've heard from students anf lecturers at some ukrainian universities is that except for Taras Shevshenko and one or two others, you have to bribe professors, even if you are a normal student in order to pass exams.

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Yulia Blindyuk Nov. 24, 2009, 10:36 a.m.    

Shevchenko uni is not an exeption

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Anonymous Nov. 24, 2009, 2:30 a.m.    

It's ridiculuos to blame the system of education or teachers. The society does not need educated people. At many jobs you must pay in order to be hired. Your boss often is not interested to have smart people. S/he is interested to get $ US to hire you and then have a dependent employee who is silent and obedient. In many places. In Kyiv there is a shortage of teachers but in small towns a recent graduate must buy a position at the secondary school. At the banks insiders know that sometimes people are hired when they have a high school certificate from a village and nothing else while graduates with honors from the university do not have a chance. What are you talking about? There is no demand for knowledge in Ukraine. That is why we have this result - corrupted system of education.

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