SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine – Two weeks ago, Sergey Aksyonov was a small-time Crimean politician, the leader of a tiny pro-Russia political party that could barely summon 4 percent of the votes in the last regional election. He was a little-known businessman with a murky past and a nickname – “Goblin” – left over from the days when criminal gangs flourished here after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Times have changed.
Today, Aksyonov is the prime minister of Crimea’s regional parliament and the public face of Russia’s seizure of the Black Sea peninsula. He is, by all appearances, a man placed in power by Moscow who is now working hard to make Crimea a part of Russia.
He also leads a brand-new army, 30 men carrying AK-47s who are still learning to march in formation. “Commander!” they greeted him Saturday, when they were sworn into service in a Simferopol park.
Speaking at the ceremony, the former semi-professional boxer said that while Crimea’s March 16 referendum would make the peninsula a part of Russia, he holds no grudge against Ukraine.
“We are not enemies with those soldiers who pledged loyalty to the Ukrainian state,” he said, referring to the soldiers now barricaded into bases across Crimea, unsure what will happen to them. They will be allowed to leave for Ukraine if they wish, he said.
He is, he insisted, a peacemaker.
But the people of Simferopol remember Aksyonov by his 1990s name, “Goblin.”
“He wasn’t a criminal big shot,” said Andriy Senchenko, now a member of Ukraine’s Batkivshchyna party, which was at the forefront of the Kiev protests that led last month to the downfall of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych. Senchenko described Aksyonov as a “brigade leader” in a gang that was often involved in extortion rackets.
While Senchenko is not unbiased – his party opposes Aksyonov’s push for Crimea to become part of Russia – the editor of the region’s main pro-Russian newspaper, Crimean Truth, also accused Aksyonov of being in a criminal gang. Mikhail Bakharev made the allegations five years ago, when Aksyonov first emerged on Crimea’s political scene.
Aksyonov, who denies the allegations, sued Bakharev for defamation and won, but a higher court later dismissed the case against the editor.
Today, with Aksyonov at the center of Crimean politics, and with the Russian soldiers who back him deployed across the peninsula, Bakharev now insists he was mistaken.
The stories about a criminal past “were just his enemies attacking him,” Bakharev said during an interview, shifting nervously and clearly unhappy to be discussing the topic. He said further investigations showed Aksyonov had no ties to criminal gangs.
He now counts himself as an ardent Aksyonov supporter, calling him “a confident and brave person who is not afraid to take responsibility.”
Crimea has been swept into turmoil over the past two weeks, as Moscow, furious over the fall of Yanukovych and the pro-Western outlook of the new government, used hundreds of Russian soldiers to seize political control of the peninsula. The Russian soldiers – who Moscow insists are members of a Crimean self-defense force that Aksyonov created last year – ringed the regional parliament. Then, with armed soldiers inside the chamber, Aksyonov was named prime minister.
His critics say it’s clear that Aksyonov is simply a puppet, someone installed by Moscow to ease what has become, in effect, a Russian takeover of its former territory.
“If six months ago someone would have told me that Aksyonov would become prime minister, I would have laughed,” said Valentina Tsamar, a prominent Simferopol journalist with the TV channel Chernomorskaya.
It was a sudden rise to power for Aksyonov, who didn’t go into politics until 2009 when he united three pro-Russian organizations into the Russian Unity party.
The party reached out to Crimea’s large Russian-speaking population with political advertisements that compared anti-Yanukovych protesters to Nazis and promised a golden age for Crimea replete with vineyards, jobs and well-off tourists.
He also insisted he had no intention of splitting off from Ukraine. Just three weeks ago, he told The Associated Press in an interview that the party “has never wanted Crimea to separate from Ukraine.”
But the advertisements did little good. Russian Unity’s rallies were notable for their paltry turnouts, and it took just 4 percent of the votes in the 2010 elections.
Local journalists say Aksyonov first emerged on the political scene with the backing of Vladimir Konstantinov, the speaker of Crimea’s parliament and a prominent builder now embroiled in scandals over unpaid bank loans and failed construction projects. Konstantinov’s company, Konsul, collected money from Ukrainians to build homes but never finished the projects, according to reporters who have looked into the deals.
“Now these people have no apartment, and no money,” said Sergey Mokrushin, an investigative journalists with Chernomorskaya who spent months examining Konstantinov’s finances.
Official investigations, though, never apparently began. Members of the parliament are immune from prosecution, and Konstantinov’s powerful ties to the now-ousted Ukrainian ruling party meant investigations could be easily stalled.
“He’s untouchable,” Mokrushin said.
He does, however, have supporters.
Gennady Ivanchenkov, a 56-year-old Simferopol economist, said he’s impressed with Aksyonov’s leadership in such a tumultuous time. As for Aksyonov’s past, he isn’t sure the “Goblin” stories are true, and even if they are he isn’t worried.
“Those pages of his life, they are not relevant,” he said. “You know, the ‘90s were such dark times and now I can only judge him by what he’s doing now.”
Maria Danilova in Kiev contributed to this report.
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