When Serbian water polo champion turned politician Aleksandar Šapić was accused of plagiarising his PhD thesis, his riposte was intriguing.
In an extended tweet, the 36-year-old president of the New Belgrade municipality – widely regarded as one of the greatest water polo players of all time – speculated that the allegations may have been prompted by his “physical appearance, tattoos or athletic career”.
“Because, of course, all athletes are stupid,” Mr Šapić noted sarcastically on 30 June, adding that he had “honestly and honourably acquired everything [he] owned”.
In fact, the UK-based Serbian scholars who had accused Mr Šapić – the latest high-profile Serbian politician to face academic cheating charges – had done so with a heavy heart.
“It was not easy for us to criticise his PhD because we admired his athletic achievements and he is a national celebrity,” said Uglješa Grušić, lecturer in law at the University of Nottingham and co-author of the detailed report into Mr Šapić’s alleged “shameless plagiarism”.
According to Dr Grušić, a large chunk of Mr Šapić’s dissertation is a word-for-word translation from English into Serbian – complete with the same Chinese proverbs – of Selling and Sales Management, a 1997 book by UK academics David Jobber and Geoffrey Lancaster.
“We felt we had to speak out because Serbian society is suffering from this – people who have worked hard for good degrees can’t find jobs, which have gone to people who’ve obtained their PhD through dubious means,” said Dr Grušić.
The fact that politicians are being accused of passing off copied PhDs is nothing new in the Balkans. As in Germany, where similar scandals have occurred, a doctorate bestows significant prestige on those seeking high office.
Personal and concerted attacks on Dr Grušić and his fellow accusers have since followed.
In June, shortly after they claimed that Nebojša Stefanović, the minister for police, had “heavily plagiarised” his PhD thesis, the Peščanik news website that published the allegations crashed following a cyber attack.
“The story about academic integrity became one about the freedom of the press,” said Dr Grušić.
A further twist occurred after it emerged that the rector and owner of the private Megatrend University in Belgrade, which awarded Mr Stefanović’s PhD, had questions to answer about his own doctorate.
Mića Jovanović, who was also Mr Stefanović’s supervisor, was eventually forced to quit Megatrend after the London School of Economics said it had no record of his gaining a PhD there.
The episode took a stranger turn when Mr Jovanović protested his innocence on Serbian television holding printouts of email exchanges between academics, which he said showed he was the victim of a conspiracy.
One of those academics – Miljana Radivojević, a postdoctoral scholar at University College London – has now launched criminal proceedings claiming Mr Jovanović hacked her emails, an offence he blames on anonymous hackers.
In addition, Belgrade’s mayor Siniša Mali has now been accused of plagiarising his 2010 PhD thesis.
The slew of allegations have further eroded Serbia’s trust in its political class, already very low after the mishandling of devastating floods in the country in May, said Eric Gordy, senior lecturer at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
“There is a general feeling that the political class is irresponsible, parasitic and never leaves, while people with proper degrees are unable to find work,” he said.