Yanukovych claims a master’s degree in international law and a doctorate of science in economics – all achieved while he was serving as governor of Donetsk Oblast, the nation’s most populous region, between 1997 and 2002.

But there are strange aspects to the educational credentials of the man who five years ago had his presidential victory overturned by the Ukrainian Supreme Court, which found evidence of election fraud on behalf of the man who served almost three years in prison in his youth for assault and theft.

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For starters, in documentation submitted to Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, Yanukovych doesn’t indicate where he got his Ph.D. in economics.

His press secretary, Denis Ivanesko, wasn’t helpful in pinpointing from which university the degree came. Ivanesko said Yanukovych got it somewhere in Donetsk, although he couldn’t name the university. “He even headed a department there and gave lectures,” Ivanesko said.

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Serhiy Lyovochkin, considered Yanukovych’s right-hand man, said that Yanukovych defended his doctoral dissertation at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in 2000. But he also couldn’t say where Yanukovych actually studied to prepare his dissertation.

Nor is that information available on Yanukovych’s official website.

When asked how Yanukovych was able to work full-time and do two dissertations simultaneously, Lyovochkin said both dissertations related to regional economic development, a top that the then-governor knew lots about.

“It was practically what he did every day,” Lyovochkin said. “The Soviet system was known for its emphasis on application of knowledge, and for better or worse, this emphasis remained while Mr. Yanukovych was studying.”

But Yanukovych has acquired a reputation as a politician for being a lazy thinker and comically inarticulate, seemingly at odds with the mental discipline required for attaining graduate degrees in law and economics.

Aside from those two degrees, Yanukovych’s higher education consists solely of a certificate qualifying him as a mechanic in 1980 from a Donetsk polytechnic institute, formerly a technical school.

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Enough questions have been raised about Yanukovych’s educational credentials to launch inquiries by the Ministry of Education.

One investigation, into the Ph.D. in economics, is ongoing. The other, into the master’s in international law, concluded that Yanukovych’s degree is authentic. The investigations were launched following an official request by Volodymyr Yavorivsky, a lawmaker in Tymoshenkos’ parliamentary faction.

Taras Berezovets, a political consultant for Tymoshenko, said that if Yanukovych is proven to have misrepresented or fabricated his academic qualifications, he could suffer at the polls.

“It would have an effect on undecided voters, who tend to be better-educated, more cultured, and thus more sensitive to such issues,” Berezovets said.

Deputy Education and Science Minister Maksym Strikha, who headed the investigation into the master’s in international law, said that all the documents submitted for verification were authentic. However, that is not the same as saying the degree was earned. “My task was to study the documents … Everything was based on the documents,” Strikha said.

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The documents presented to the investigation included little more than basic records showing that Yanukovych had entered and been issued the M.A. from the Kyiv-based Academy of Foreign Trade, which has since changed its name to the Ukrainian State University of Finance and International Trade.

The reputation of the Kyiv-based academy itself, however, is questionable.

Oleksandr Zakharov, a logistics specialist who studied international law at the academy at the same time as Yanukovych, said individual study programs such as the one that Yanukovych took part in were commonly viewed as a diploma factory for state officials.

“I personally knew two or three people who just showed up for exams and then got their diplomas [without studying].” And many such students were from the presidential administration or economics ministry, he said.

Hanna Herman, another top Yanukovych confidant, however, insisted that the candidate’s post-graduate degrees are legitimate beyond question. Besides, Herman – also a member of parliament – said higher education degrees are not the most important part of a person’s qualifications. They are, nonetheless, required to qualify for a presidential bid under Ukrainian law.

“When I hire people, I don’t look at their diplomas. The same is true in the West. It’s more important what someone can do. Victor Fedorovich [Yanukovych] knows how to manage an economy and a country – that’s what counts,” Herman said.

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While diplomas are well-known to be easily purchased in Ukraine, Herman said such cheating was not possible when Yanukoyvch obtained his degrees. “In 2001, diplomas couldn’t be bought. It’s only now that they’re bought.”

There’s no point in going back and checking Yanukovych’s coursework at the academy where he got his master’s in international law. His thesis has been destroyed, another seemingly odd circumstance. But the Education Ministry’s Strikha said there is nothing strange about it. He said destruction of coursework is routine five years after the degree was completed, in accordance with ministry guidelines.

Strikha said he was convinced of the validity of Yanukovych’s master’s degree by a single document examined by the investigation that indicates Yanukovych had, at one point, been forced to make up late coursework. “If his diploma had just been an administrative order, this wouldn’t have been the case,” Strikha said. “His marks were not the best, but the documents really were OK and he really passed the exams.”

The questions about Yanukovych’s educational credentials come amid a flaring national scandal over the sale of diplomas to everyone from top government officials to ordinary students. If degrees are not bought outright and all at once, Ukraine’s higher educational institutions – at least many of them – are notorious for accepting payments from students in exchange for passing grades on coursework not legitimately completed.

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Several top government officials have been caught lying about their academic credentials.

The deputy chairman of Ukraine’s Security Service, Andriy Kislinsky, was recently found to have a fake degree. And, as early as 2005, former Justice Minister Roman Zvarych falsely claimed to be a U.S. professor.

These are not isolated examples.

Tymofiy Motrenko, head of Ukraine’s civil service, which provides administrative support, oversees and conducts background checks of state employees, recently told Zerkalo Nedeli newspaper that “we check about 300 people per year and 10-15 of them have fake diplomas. And this takes place at the level where the president and the Cabinet carry out appointments.”

Does anybody remember studying with Yanukovych at the Kyiv-based academy where he got his master’s in international law? Some do, some don’t. Herold Antselevich, a former seaman and still head of the academy’s international law department, said Yanukovych’s individual study program meant he had to show up only to take exams.

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Zinaida Smitenko, who heads the department of civil and criminal law, said Yanukovych dutifully took on a curriculum including dozens of courses: “You have to believe me, I am a former colonel in the militia. He passed his exams honestly for over 60 subjects.”

Mykola Fomenko, chief of the Education and Science’s Ministry’s monitoring department, declined to comment on Yanukovych’s individual case. But Fomenko said that receiving an education by just showing up and taking an exam is “not normal. It’s cheating the state and cheating yourself.”

Mykhailo Wynnyckyj, a graduate of Cambridge University and director of the doctoral school at Kyiv Mohyla-Academy, called private study programs such as the one completed by Yanukovych for his master’s degree little more than a sham. “It’s not just a recipe for corruption,” he said. “That sort of arrangement can only come by corrupt means.”

Kyiv Post staff writer John Marone can be reached at [email protected].

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