Crimea's new leader Sergey Aksyonov is a man with a murky past

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 6:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 7:24am

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 per cent of the votes in a regional election.

He was a little-known businessman with a murky past and a nickname of the "Goblin" left over from the days when criminal gangs flourished after the collapse of the Soviet Union. How 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 new army, 30 men carrying AK-47s who are still learning to march in formation. "Commander!" they greeted him on Saturday, when they were sworn into service in a Simferopol park.

The '90s were such dark times ... I can only judge him by what he's doing now
Economist Gennady Ivanchenkov

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 held 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 would be allowed to leave for Ukraine if they wished, he said.

He is, he insists, 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 as 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 the region'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.

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.

Critics say it is clear that Aksyonov is simply a puppet.

"If six months ago someone would have told me that Aksyonov would become prime minister, I would have laughed," said Valentina Tsamar, a journalist.

He does, however, have supporters.

Gennady Ivanchenkov, 56, a Simferopol economist, said he was impressed with Aksyonov's leadership at such a tumultuous time. As for the past, he wasn't sure the "Goblin" stories were true, and even if they are he wasn'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."