The epoch of Zelenskyy’s presidency and his single majority in the Parliament has been marked by turbulence in national policy and appointments. Government officials were scapegoated and replaced every 6-12 months in an attempt to save presidential ratings. The side effect of this policy was that few professionals now aspire to work in the current Ukrainian Government. In the major Cabinet reshuffle of March 2020, Zelenskyy struggled to appoint specialists in critical positions, particularly for the role of Education and Science Minister which had remained vacant for half-a-year.
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Only on 17 November 2020 did the Parliament appoint Serhiy Shkarlet, a former professor of economics at Chernihiv State Technological University, who barely gathered the exact number of minimally required votes of MPs — 226 out of 450 to be elected into office.
The appointment, however, was slammed by opposition MPs and leading universities for a number of reasons: it recently emerged that Shkarlet’s research publications were plagiarized from other authors, and, furthermore, he was loyal to exiled Ukrainian ex-president Viktor Yanukovych. Finally, opposition MPs claim the appointment was conducted with violations of the procedure. Subsequently, student protests started.
Radical conformist and plagiarist: the facts discrediting Shkarlet
In 2010, Shkarlet won local elections as a representative to the local council in Chernivtsi Oblast, campaigning in favor of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Ousted during the Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity (2013-2014) and having fled to Russia, ex-president Viktor Yanukovych and his political allies are now widely considered traitors of Ukraine. Many deem a past collaboration with the Party of Regions shameful.
From the legal point of view, Yanukovych’s top officials are now banned from any public offices due to the policy of lustration. Yet, Shkarlet was not a top official during Yanukovych’s presidency, and is formally acquitted, although his good relations with former authorities are well known. The above photo of Shkarlet receiving a medal from Yanukovuch’s Minister of Education Dmytro Tabachnyk at the time when all pro-Ukrainian political forces rallied against him serves as the best illustration for this.
“I fully share the views and principles of the [Yanukovych’s] Party of Regions. I am confident that together with the President we’ll build a strong vertical of power that will do the job and achieve significant results,” said Shkarlet in 2010 when elected representative to the regional council.
Yet, Shkarlet seems to be a radical conformist: his campaigning in favor of Yanukovych did not impede Shkarlet’s bid for office in 2015 during local elections as a part of Poroshenko’s local party office. In 2019, Shkarlet joined Zelenskyy’s team, later becoming a candidate for the Ministry of Education, personally presented to the public by the president.
Disturbing facts from Shkarlet’s biography have emerged, such as accusations of plagiarism, proven by the False-science volunteer project as well as the Ethics Committee of the National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance.
Shkarlet was also accused of corruption while using the funds of the university where he was a rector to buy himself a $50,000 car.
A number of Ukrainian public educational organizations have sent an open letter to Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, stating that Shkarlet cannot head the Ministry of Education, and called for the appointment of a person with an impeccable reputation, clear vision and a deep understanding of reforms. The prime minister, however, ignored the letter.
Why Zelenskyy and Shmyhal need Shkarlet
Why are President Zelenskyy and Shmyhal’s government intentionally appointing a person with such a dirty reputation? The explanation might be connected to business interests, as well as unwillingness to continue modern educational reforms started by the previous governments.
Mykhailo Vynnytskyi, Head of the Secretariat of the National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance, explained the motives behind Shkarlet’s appointment in a phone call with Euromaidan Press:
“There are two problematic things with this appointment. The first goal is [to privatize] property available in the Ukrainian education system. Shkarlet’s first decision was to stocktake the available property. In order to increase revenues from the privatization of property, a person of appropriate values was appointed. It’s not even the quality of education at stake, but the banal issue of ownership or a sellout…
We see this, for example, in the work of the National Aviation University. The university owns a stadium in the center of Kyiv. If you eliminate the stadium, several skyscrapers can be built there. This is golden land that can be sold. The rector and the management of the university have already been changed. I suppose, there are probably many such examples…
As for the education itself, here we can speak about a banal incompetence. Shkarlet’s values remained in the Soviet period. He is convinced that school education was of good quality then. Consequently, the goal is to prepare pupils for an industrial Soviet-like system, not for modern life with other competences… Serhiy Shkarlet proposes to start school education at the age of five, to finish it earlier, and it all comes down to banalities. Instead of understanding the essence of the right school system that the previous ministers started building.”
Serhiy Shkarlet also received an official warning from the EU Delegation to Ukraine about the danger of changes in the ministry that could destroy previous reforms. In particular, Shkarlet proposed to change the structure of the ministry, liquidating several prestigious departments where highly-skilled workers were receiving higher salaries as part of proposed government reforms sponsored by the EU. Drawbacks in this reform could lead to the termination of EU macro financial support for Ukraine. Shkarlet has not yet implemented this decision.
Especially telling is the fact that Shkarlet denies plagiarism despite available evidence of copy-pasted sections in his dissertation. He not only refused to apologize for the intellectual theft, but even appealed to the court against the National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance that detected the plagiarism.
The agency should have power to put sanctions on plagiarists like Shkarlet, according to the law. However, the agency needs a decision by the Cabinet to unleash its work, Vynnytskyi explains. The decision has already been stuck in the Cabinet for two years, not allowing the agency to utilize judicial power, but merely the power to detect plagiarism and showcase it to the public.
MPs from the opposition Holos and European Solidarity parties claim that Shkarlet was appointed illegally. In particular, several MPs who voted for his appointment were not present in the Parliament at the time of voting but their cards were “voted.” In fact, other MPs used cards of colleagues to provide additional votes.
Therefore, MPs from Holos and European Solidarity have registered a draft resolution on the dismissal of Shkarlet that is now to be considered by Parliament.
“As it turned out, Shkarlet not only stole the dissertation, but also stole the post of minister because of the button-pressing of the Oppositional Platform (eight opposition MPs were not in the hall, but their colleagues voted by their cards). The Holos party will challenge this vote and appointment in all instances,” said MP Yulia Klymenko.
Shkarlet was taking an oath in the Parliament under exclamations of “shame!” The Speaker of the Parliament Dmytro Razumkov said that after the incidents of button-pressing, he would install surveillance cameras in remote corners of the session hall to record non-personal voting.
On 21 December, students of Kyiv universities came to the presidential office, appealing to President Zelenskyy to influence this decision of the Parliament. However, no one came out to address the students’ concerns. They were not even allowed in front of the main entrance of the President’s Office, allegedly because of a New Year’s installation there.
Students also came to protest in many other Ukrainian cities, in particular Sumy, Dnipro, Lviv, Kropyvnytskyi, Stryi, Vinnytsia, Kharkiv, Chernivtsi, Zelenskyy’s hometown Kryvyi Rih, and many others. Protesters named Shkarlet a political weathercock.
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