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Crimea's new leader, a man with a murky past now working to tie his region to Russia

Crimean Premier Sergei Aksyonov

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) - Two weeks ago, 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 government 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."

Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
JOHN LYNN TERRY March 09 2014 at 6:46 PM

The problem here is that Putin is right. The duly elected leader of the Ukraine was in fact ousted by an illegal coup which was instigated by the West/Washington, the European Union and Obama's friend and supporter, George Soros who by the way has invested heavily in this region.

The ousted President of the Ukraine asked him (Putin) for intervention and he is still the only legally elected leader. Further, George Soros, a friend of the President was also involved and his monetary interest is quite significant as regards his investments in the Ukraine. One very special reason for our interests in that region of the world.

Putin was on Time Magazine all over the world as Person of the Year, everywhere except the USA of course for some strange reason.

Putin saved his country when it was on the verge of collapse and kept intact all those nuclear weapons which might have otherwise fallen into the hands of terrorists and used against us. Everyone forgets this.

Hate to say this, but Putin's accomplishments seem to be far greater than Obama's and his Democratic Party.

When Washington tried to take control of the Ukraine by sponsoring this coup they did not realize that Putin was going to take action to protect his interests. Just as we would if a hostile takeover of one of the countries which we had an interest in were to happen in our back yard.

This was about money and energy for the European Union and the heavy investments that George Soros had made. The west took a gamble, helped to oust a duly elected leader and it back fired on this administration.

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1 reply
onlitradehh JOHN LYNN TERRY March 09 2014 at 8:18 PM

your an example of stupidity. What saved Russia was their finance minister Alexander Kurdin and the economic policies he introduced. During his stay he was recognized as finance minister of the year by Euromoney magazine in 2010. He was ousted from his position by Medvedev in 2010 due to defense spending issues with Putin and his **********. Since then the growth of the Russian economy has significantly slowed and is one of the worst economies for resurging markets. In comparison during Obama's administration the U.S. is recognized as one of the most prosperous economies in the world.
It has recovered from eight years of republican control of the economy which led this country to the edge of collapse. Today I looked for the definition of moron in the Webster dictionary and lo and behold the first definition was John Lynn Terry., a man uncapable from determining fact from fiction. A person so stupid he can be easily duped just like those with the same mindset.

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1 reply
fran.deluca onlitradehh March 10 2014 at 10:24 AM

Is the name john Lynn Terry U? Obama is the worst thing that ever happened to our country! This is not a prosperous economy far from it. U must be one of those libs that takes every hand out u can get at the tax payers' expense. OMG save us from UUUU!

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fabiolenoir March 09 2014 at 10:28 AM

I hope they dont bring their problems in the US and to other EU countries. We already have enough of immigrants and polictal assylum seekers...

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Strdanes1 March 09 2014 at 11:42 AM

One question. Since when did we become the worlds police officer? We have thrown our brave soldiers into one stupid war after another ( that we have not been able to leave afterwards) We give billions BILLIONS to countries who clearly hate the U.S and all Americans and we some how now think we have the right to tell Russia or any other country how to act? It's no wonder the rest of the world views us as conceited,war mongering, gun toting, wild west buckeroos. America needs to grow up! We have the same "polital spin " and propaganda as all the rest of the countrys. Why do our politicians think it is their business to tell everyone in the world how they should live? Russia is not Vietnam or Irac... I am a proud mother of a soldier who fought in Irac and I am tired of seeing our beautiful children,husbands, brothers, wives, mothers and sisters dying for someone elses war. I agree with the whole 9/11 retaliation etc but to think we have the right to tell any one how to live where to live and what kind of government to have is hubris. Do we now want a war with Russia? We can't get out of Irac and Afganastan!

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2 replies
Brian Hope Strdanes1 March 09 2014 at 12:32 PM

First, we are already out of Iraq, and will be out of Alfghanistan by the end of 2014, thanks to Karzai. Second, your sentiments demonstrate how Dubya's misbegotten wars have soured American attitudes on any aggressive utilize of our military forces, leaving Obama (and any other future President) in the position of playing poker against Czar Vladimir while holding nothing better than a pair of dueces. And Czar Vladimir's policy of Russian-style "Anschluss" is perfectly geared to take advantage of our geopolitical paralysis.

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onlitradehh Strdanes1 March 09 2014 at 8:56 PM

You are also a stupid mother that can't spell. U.S. fighting troops are out of Iraq and the fighting troops in Afghanistan will be home by the end of 2014. The only reason you exist is you were lucky enough to be born in the USA. Travel abroad and see the lifestye of the common man in other countries. You will come home and kiss the ground you walk on. You should also return to school, perhaps then you will get a job not cleaning toilets

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fernandezarthr March 09 2014 at 9:49 AM

....All of sudden many Russian think that Putin is doing is the same thing America does,.........That is a bad comparison,........America, Liberates the Oppress, Empowers people...................Russia is the opposite...........Russia, subjugates, takes away Freedoms, enslaves...............so don't go around your spreading you stupid messages of ......."Liberation"........we Know what Communist are all about!!,........

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1 reply
ankichavez fernandezarthr March 09 2014 at 10:01 AM

it seem that you have been indoctrinated by the education system and the media in this country like most of the people. My advise: do lots of research, do not trust the corrupt US media, FOX news included. At the end of the tunnel you'll see the light.

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bluefishholland March 09 2014 at 11:31 AM

I believe a huge part of this problem lays within the combination of the CIA and the FBI departments. The department is too huge and filled with red tape, hence not being able to keep the ear on the ground to stay in touch with little tremors that occur. For example, over a month and a half ago, Russia Federation notified the International Community that it was going to pursue a military base at the North Pole. This was overlooked by our agency, after all this time since the fall of the Soviet Union, why at that time, were they preparing this strategic move of this new base. THIS GOVERNMENT NEEDS TO WAKE UP - BEFORE THE ALARM NOT AFTER.

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txdmerc73 March 10 2014 at 2:58 PM

Russia is acting as tyranny and opression to the people of Ukraine, US should intervene cuz Russia doesnt have the firepower to outmann the US on Sea , Air or Land. Russia should give Ukraine back to the people, they been under communism rule since the cold war.

If I was President i would send everything over there and ask them to leave if not suffer consequences! biggest problem US dont wanna risk is killing the innocent people that get in the way thats the only thing thats stopping the US from kicking Russias ass!

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alamaden March 09 2014 at 9:24 AM

One more in an extremely long list of demagods that are created by AOL/HP in its search for stories that are based on ___________ you fill in the blank hp... sad but all the public now wants after these last 6 years of charades is the truth and nothing but the truth.... and you ( no offense btw) tell the public stories that are light years from the truth.... Grow up !

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punnster March 09 2014 at 9:54 AM

I'm inclined to think that most are agreeing to side with Russia out of fear. They know what Putin is capable of.

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1 reply
JERI punnster March 09 2014 at 10:29 AM

Your right! And they know what we aren't capable of.....Right now.

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wfathertime March 09 2014 at 9:27 AM

Mob law never worked before what makes them think it will now.

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Gerrie March 09 2014 at 9:51 AM

if you are one of the former Eastern Bloc countries you are watching this very carefully and making plans with Europe not to let this happen to them! this might be the best thing to happen to open they eyes of Europe going into the future....

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