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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

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