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As Ukraine readies itself for Presidential Elections, time to read the dissertations of the candidates

What the Ukrainian political class lacks is certainly not academic titles.

January 11, 2019 - Ararat L. Osipian - Articles and CommentaryUkraine elections 2019

The University of Chernivtsi. Photo: Yakudza (cc) wikimedia.org

Ukraine’s former dictator, Victor Yanukovych, has become famous for his numerous academic titles, including an advanced doctorate in economics, professorship, chairing the department, and being a member of the National Academy of Sciences. All of these were considered undeserved. The scandal became loud when Yanukovych’s misspelling of his professorial title with an extra “f” was made public by his political opponents. But the ousted “professor” is not the only scandal in Ukraine’s academia, when it comes to political elites.

Different candidates, same story

The “new” faces of Ukrainian politics are not much better. In 2017, the then US Vice President Joe Biden described Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk as “smart—a Ph.D. economist—but no cloistered academic.” In that same year, Yatsenyuk was alleged in plagiarising about half of his dissertation. Seventy pages of his dissertation were found containing materials plagiarised from different sources. Obviously, Joe Biden would not know about this detail. Ukraine’s pro-European choice is obvious and indeed, very loud in all political circles, as is the rhetoric about the war with Russia. Even the so-called wall erected between Russia and Ukraine, was dubbed Yatsenyuk’s Wall. Surprisingly, when it came to the dissertation and blatant plagiarism, Ukraine’s Yatsenyuk have chosen the option of Russian President Vladimir Putin—he has yet to respond to publicly aired allegations in dissertation plagiarism.

Another Joe Biden’s Ukrainian friend and the Mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, also known as “Dr. Ironfist,” needs no introduction. The heavyweight boxing world champion and one of the greatest boxers of all times, Klitschko has a doctorate under his champion belt buckle. He defended a dissertation entitled “Method of determining the qualities of boxers in the system of multi-stage sports selection” at Kyiv National University of Physical Culture and Sports in February 2000, sometime between his victory over Obed Sullivan “The Fighting Marine” in Hamburg and loss to Chris Byrd “Rapid Fire” in Berlin. Being the first professional boxing world champion to hold a doctorate, Dr. Ironfist is also an Honorary Professor of Dragomanov Kyiv National Pedagogical University. Although a few would have a doubt in Klitschko’s ability to write a dissertation about boxing, the topic itself does not fit well in political agenda focused on democracy and economic development. Even fistfights and brawls that happen occasionally in Kyiv City Council and the nation’s Parliament, Verkhovna Rada, would hardly justify the matching between the boxing dissertation and the presidential armchair.

Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, defended a dissertation entitled “Legal control over the administration of state corporate rights in Ukraine.” The English language outline of the dissertation states, among other things, that “Given dissertation analyses the legal personality of bodies that on behalf of the state execute functions and authorities on securing public interests expressed by corporate rights in the stock company structure.” It is hard to label this writing style as good English. The dissertation was defended in 2001 in Odessa Law Academy, headed since 1998 by Ukraine’s top politician, Sergei Kivalov. According to Kivalov, there were issues with the documents that usually accompany dissertations, a bureaucratic paperwork. “By the way, it was precisely because of Poroshenko’s dissertation that I had my first reprimand. I do not exactly remember the situation, but there was something about the paperwork. I, probably, overlooked something and got a reprimand. After the defense, the documents were brought into conformity,” says Kivalov. There were no allegations regarding any possible plagiarism in Poroshenko’s dissertation, although there is no public access to the text either.

Ukrainian Princess, although retired recently by age, is not going to retire from big politics. Yulia Tymoshenko is making her third bid for the presidential office. Her previous two bids of 2010 and 2014, although unsuccessful, make her the toughest and most persistent figure in Ukrainian political establishment. As Leonid Kuchma put it, “The only man in Ukrainian politics.” Gender aside, Tymoshenko holds a doctorate in economics with dissertation entitled “State regulation of the tax system,” defended at Kyiv National Economic University. Her colleague, Alexander Turchinov, who chairs the National Security Council, also specialises in taxation. His dissertation in economics is entitled “Methodical support and mechanism of reforming and optimisation of taxation in the current economic conditions.” Just two years later, he defended another dissertation for advanced doctorate in economics, entitled “Shadow economy (research methodology and functioning mechanisms).”

Science and politics

Another very public and yet not-so-clear figure on Ukraine’s political arena is Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. Vakarchuk graduated from Ivan Franko Lviv National University with a degree in physics. He went on with his graduate courses and defended a dissertation entitled “Supersymmetry of electrons in a magnetic field.” Quantum physics may be interesting, but too complicated to read. What is more interesting is that Svyatoslav’s farther, Ivan Vakarchuk, also graduated from Ivan Franko Lviv National University with a degree in physics and served as professor, chair of the department, and rector. From 2007 to 2010, Vakarchuk senior served as the Minister of Education and Science of Ukraine, and has become most known for the implementation of independent standardised testing, which some called a success, and others a disaster. It appears as Vakarchuk junior inherited his academic regalia from his father. Not surprisingly, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk never worked as a physicist. Instead, he built a quite remarkable career as a musician, being the front man of one of the country’s most popular rock groups, Okean El’zy.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister and former Chair of the Parliament, Volodymyr Groysman, claims four diplomas from two different higher education institutions, all obtained as student by correspondence, but no doctoral degree. The reason might be his hard childhood. Prime Minister Groysman started working at the early age of 14 as a producer of decorative grates, and at 16 he had to combine his high school studies with the job of commercial director of a local market in Vinnitsa, where his farther served as the director. Recently, an investigation was launched into Groysman’s allegedly fake or unearned diplomas. However, the investigation dissipated as unexpectedly as it was launched. His academic credentials from a “world-class university” were proven real by the Prosecutor General.

In any case, Groysman does not have a doctorate, and he is not alone in this regard. Quite a few other top politicians ready to run for presidency find themselves in a similar situation. The mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi, does not have a doctorate. Nor does Oleh Lyashko, the leader of the Radical Party, who came third in 2014 presidential elections. Finally, the former head of Odessa region, Mikhailo Saakashvili, unjustly deprived of Ukrainian citizenship, is out of Ukraine and thus, out of presidential race.

The Nalivaichenko plan

Another rising star that might become a hopeful in the coming presidential race is Valentin Nalivaichenko. He helped Saakashvili to take Ukrainian border by storming in 2017. Nalivaichenko was also present when Saakashvili was freed from a state security services car in Kyiv later that year. Some media sources try to paint Nalivaichenko in negative colors, connecting him to the Kremlin due to his earlier studies at the Andropov KGB School in Moscow. The only issue here might be the absence of a doctorate. But that may not be a big obstacle. Instead of holding a locally awarded doctorate that means little on the world stage, knowledge of English becomes critical. To their advantage, Klitschko, Yatsenyuk, Poroshenko and Nalivaichenko all speak broken English.

In one of the most promising political tandems, Nalivaichenko-Tymoshenko, only the latter has a doctorate. Both Nalivaichenko and Tymoshenko publicly stated their presidential ambitions. Nalivaichenko as the president and Tymoshenko as prime minister is one of the most likely scenarios for 2019. This will be a clear-cut deja vu of Yushchenko-Tymoshenko in 2004. Nalivaichenko’s chances of being approved for Ukrainian presidency are good, but this would require Moreover, this would also require breaking Ukraine’s tradition that the president has to hold a doctorate, no matter real or fake one. On the one hand, there are always doctorates available for sale. On the other hand, this very availability diminishes the trustworthiness of a candidate. After all, the legacy of the proFFessor is such that any top politician brandishing a doctorate looks suspicious.

Can the 2019 presidential elections bring real and meaningful change? Can Ukraine be blessed with a truly educated leadership team with real dissertations, fluency in English and no fake degrees? Unfortunately for the country, this question remains rhetorical.

Ararat Osipian is the Alexander Mirtchev Visiting Professor at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC), Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, Fellow of the Institute of International Education, United Nations Plaza, New York, and Honorary Fellow at the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia (CREECA), University of Wisconsin-Madison, and holds a PhD in Education and Human Development from Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, where he came as a fellow of the US Department of State.

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