The business of diplomas

  • The Viennese conservatory offers academy degrees in cooperation with foreign educational institutions. When asked, one declined such any collaboration.
  • The founder of one of the proclaimed partner universities is currently under investigation for malpractice, his involvement with organized crime and bribery.
  • The trace leads to the highest circle of power in Armenia; to Armen Smbaytan, cultural adviser to the Armenian president.

In cooperation with Hetq

In Austria, conservatories can award artistic diplomas, but not academic degrees. However, since many students find the idea of a bachelor’s or a master’s degree more attractive, conservatories often enter partnerships, mostly with foreign universities. The Richard Wagner Conservatory has done this with the Komitas State Conservatory in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, and with the Slobomir P private university in Doboj, Bosnia.

Tracing these links unveils a web of contradictions and dubious business transactions: the trail leads to the highest circles of the Armenian government, to Armen Smbatyan, the Armenian president’s cultural advisor. Smbatyan is by no means an empty canvas: he and other members of his family have repeatedly been linked to incidents of corruption and nepotism.

Armen Smbatyan, Cultural Advisor of the Armenian President (Credit: Hetq)

In turn, the Vienna music school’s Bosnian connection leads to a business man who is being investigated by the Bosnian public prosecutor’s office. Slobodan Pavlovic, the founder of Slobomir P private university, was allegedly involved in a money laundering scandal. Since November 2015, he and four other suspects, including the current president of Bosnia Srpska Milorad Dodik, have been under investigation. Among other things, they are suspected of abuse of office, organized crime, and bribery.

Vienna’s Municipal Education Authority is unaware of these ties, even though it is responsible for controlling all Vienna schools. However, conservatories and their foreign cooperation partners are not subject to these controls. This has created an enormous gap that school directors like Mirza K. can cleverly exploit to serve their own interests.

Screenshot: website of the Richard-Wagner-Conservatory

Fake diplomas?

“There is no cooperation, neither with the institution in Armenia nor with the school in Bosnia,” K. says. He now claims to know nothing about students at his conservatory being awarded joint degrees in June. He also asserts he never said anything of the sort, and denies that the information was readily accessible on his website, or that he said anything about the matter in his November 2016 interview, of which there is a recording. “There are no academic titles. We are not a university,” he repeats.

Despite several requests for comment, K. has yet to say why his conservatory and Komitas continue to advertise the degrees despite the Armenian ministry’s assertion that there is no cooperation between the two institutions.  Suddenly, the Richard Wagner Conservatory “only passes information on” to students, but has nothing to do with the dubious joint degrees.

The Richard Wagner Conservatory’s website continues to offer an application form – a Ministry form, no less – for bachelor’s or master’s degrees in cooperation with Komitas. K. declined to comment on the cooperation with the institute in Bosnia and the ongoing investigation of its owner Slobodan Pavlovic.

Screenshot: website of the Richard-Wagner-Conservatory

While he no longer wishes to be contacted, after several requests for information he provided the name of an important actor in the dubious network surrounding the school: Igor Petrushevski.

Igor Petrushevski (Screenshot: official Fabeook Page)

Petrushevski, master teacher

According to the website, the violinist and solo artist Petrushevski teaches at the Richard Wagner Conservatory. He is the link between Vienna and Armenia. Elsewhere, he is even referred to as a partner of the Richard Wagner Conservatory. “When students from Armenia want to attend our school, they always go to him, to Petrushevski, the master teacher,” said K. in an interview with DOSSIER. “All options are open here”.

Petrushevski is clearly well connected. At the Komitas State Conservatory in Armenia, he was honorary violin professor before switching to London’s renowned Royal Academy of Music in 2000. In 2013, his contract wasn’t extended for “personal and confidential reasons,” as the London music school wrote following a request for comment. It was at this point that Petrushevski came to Vienna, complete with contacts to the most influential people in Armenia.

“I understand that you are trying to contact me with some questions”, Petrushevski replies to an inquiry. “Can you please let me know your questions by e-mail and I will get back to you as soon as I can?” However, he declined to answer any of the questions DOSSIER sent him. His only response: “I have no comment to make on any of the questions posed. Do not contact me again.”

The prominent family

There are two trails that lead from Petrushevski to the Smbatyans, one of Armenia’s most prominent families. Armen Smbatyan is currently the president’s cultural advisor and the former minister of culture. Between 1995 and 2002, he was rector of the Komitas State Conservatory. His son Sergey, in turn, graduated with a music degree from the Royal Academy of London in 2012. At the time, Petrushevski was still a member of the Academy’s faculty.

Armen Smbatyan has been accused of channeling a portion of Armenia’s cultural budget to members of his family. His son Sergey is thought to be one of the major beneficiaries: in 2016, the young conductor received USD 212,000 from the government for his “Support Classical Music” NGO. At the time, Armenia’s Hetq investigative team reported on this and other incidents of corruption.

Between 2002 and 2010, Armen Smbatyan was Armenia’s ambassador to Russia. According to a Transparency International report, he lost the job because he apparently accepted money to help Russians get Armenian passports. Sergey Smbatyan also has ties to Russia: he not only studied at Komitas, but also at the State Conservatory in Moscow. He is the director of the Armenian youth orchestra, and also directs the orchestra of the controversial Aram Khachaturian music competition, which his influential father initiated in 2003.

The invisible school 

When Igor Petrushevski arrived in Vienna in 2013, he founded the “International Academy of Vienna” with the help of the Russian Cultural Institute, which is headquartered in the city. The academy shared the Cultural Institute’s address and contact information. The similarities to the Richard Wagner Conservatory are striking. 

In a Russian-language flyer, the text was identical to that of subsequent Richard Wagner Conservatory brochures. The academy offered the same possibilities for musical training, with the same teachers, and the same cooperation partners. And yet today, less than three years later, no one seems to remember that the academy ever existed. Neither Petrushevski nor the Russian Culture Institute are willing to answer questions about it.

Brochure of the International Academy of Vienna in Russian

Only school director K.has a vague recollection of it. The story is “a hundred years old”, he says, and has “long since been cleared up with the Municipal Education Authority”. According to the offices of the Municipal Education Authority, the school authorities apparently called K.’s attention to the “way in which school-related and extracurricular offers with regard to bachelor’s and master’s degrees were not kept sufficiently separate,” and he was told to make changes. One day later, the information was removed from the Richard Wagner Conservatory’s website, and the “problem was solved”, writes Mattias Meissner, the Municipal Education Authority’s spokesperson.

However, the Richard Wagner Conservatory appears to have kept up the academy’s shady business activities. These appear to extend to Switzerland and Liechtenstein as well, where there is a mysterious Stradivarius dealer and an agency that claims to represent renowned artists. Oddly, the artists aren’t aware of this, except for Sergey Smbatyan, the son of the cultural adviser to the Armenian president. He has an official contract there.