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BELGRADE (Reuters) - When a group of British-based Serbian academics dared to question the doctoral thesis of Serbia's interior minister this month, his PhD mentor was quick to defend him.
The minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic, was a high-flyer in the ruling party, who received his doctorate in 2013 from a private university in two years while serving as speaker of parliament.
The founder of the Megatrend University was Mica Jovanovic, Stefanovic's mentor. Jovanovic was indignant that the "so-called scientists" could, in alleging plagiarism, question his own credibility, "with all that I have behind me as a scientist."
Jovanovic's biography listed among his achievements a PhD from the London School of Economics (LSE) and something called the Socrates Award from the University of Oxford. His brusque dismissal of the accusations, however, spurred one Serbian academic to take a closer look.
Dr. Marko Milanovic, a law lecturer at the University of Nottingham, found Jovanovic had never been registered at the LSE, let alone received a doctorate from the university. The Socrates Award, it turned out, is not bestowed by the University of Oxford, but by a private Oxford company whose website offers to "get your business moving".
"It is incredibly galling, the way he did it," Milanovic said.
Jovanovic resigned his post, becoming the first - but perhaps not the last - head to roll in an affair that has thrown an unflattering light on a corrupt education system used and abused by the political elite.
Critics say he is just the tip of the iceberg. In Serbia, doubts over their academic qualifications have dogged dozens of senior state officials. Obscure private universities count politicians among their staff, and the state university has been exposed more than once selling exam papers to students.
It's a system that has helped drive abroad a generation of talent and empower a political class that, critics argue, includes some who are woefully unfit to govern.
"There are many, many people there, politicians, top figures of various kinds, who want to glorify themselves with titles, doctorates, without actually having done any of these things, essentially faking their academic credentials," Milanovic said.
Neither Jovanovic nor Stefanovic were available to speak to Reuters. Stefanovic, 37, has defended his dissertation and told a Serbian magazine last week he had said his last word on the matter. Jovanovic has complained of a political conspiracy.
In Serbia, connections count for everything - a hangover from socialist Yugoslavia and the rule of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, whose regime rewarded corruption and favored party apparatchiks over professionals.
Jovanovic, 61, founded Megatrend in 1989, when Milosevic was in his ascendancy. His flamboyant lifestyle, much younger wife and close ties to the Socialist Party (SPS) once led by Milosevic made him a tabloid favorite.
Jovanovic made a fortune from Megatrend, the most prominent of the private Serbian universities with reputations for quick, rather than quality, education and links to political parties.
Stefanovic is a senior member of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic's Progressive Party (SNS), in coalition government with the SPS since 2012.
The two parties share roots in the nationalism that tore Yugoslavia apart, when Vucic presided over a draconian law designed to muzzle independent media and the 'brain drain' from Serbia was enormous.
The academics behind the exposé were among the latest generation to leave in search of system that would reward their talents, not their connections.
"There is a feedback loop in effect; the more people leave Serbia, the worse the system becomes, and that in turn causes more people to leave," Milanovic said.
Stefanovic's dissertation was of "incredibly poor quality", Milanovic said. "He was given a PhD precisely because he was a politician."
Vucic, who has rebranded himself as a reformer taking Serbia towards membership of the European Union, said the accusations were "stupid".
The liberal website Pescanik (Hourglass), which published the charges, was brought down by intense denial-of-service attacks. A review ordered by Megatrend found no wrongdoing and was signed off by Jovanovic before he quit over his non-existent LSE doctorate.
Despite being a private university, Megatrend has been the recipient of generous donations from the state and has long counted senior politicians among its teaching staff.
One of Stefanovic's party colleagues, Deputy Prime Minister Zorana Mihajlovic, is an associate professor at the university. The partner of Milosevic's fugitive son, Marko, was made an executive director in 2012.
Among its honorary doctors is Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator deposed and killed in 2011. The alumni includes several Serbian pop stars, fuelling doubts about Megatrend's standards.
The affair has echoes across ex-communist Eastern Europe.
In February this year, the rector of Kosovo's state university resigned over accusations his professors had published works in fake online journals in India to further their careers and salaries.
In Bosnia, the Slobodna Bosna weekly reported that several senior state officials had received diplomas from branches of a little-known private university in neighboring Serbia whose premises were registered to the address of a wedding salon and a hotel. Some graduated in just 12 months.
In 2012, it emerged that the son of an Italian anti-immigration politician had received a degree from a private university in Albania a year after finishing school, without stepping foot in the university. Leaders in Romania and Hungary have been stung by plagiarism affairs.
Education Minister Srdjan Verbic, who did not respond to emailed questions, says he has no jurisdiction to question Stefanovic's doctorate. But over 1,800 Serbian academics at home and abroad have signed a petition calling for an independent review, supported last week by one of Serbia's top state education bodies.
If Stefanovic were to fall, said Belgrade economics professor and newspaper columnist Danica Popovic, other politicians "will live in fear." She performed her own analysis of Stefanovic's paper and concluded it had been plagiarized.
"Our top academics ... are tremendously pissed off," Popovic said. "It cannot be the end. We won't let this die."
Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade, Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo, Benet Koleka in Tirana, Fatos Bytyci in Pristina, Krisztina Than in Budapest, Jan Lopatka in Prague and Radu Marinas in Bucharest; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Larry King