SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE—Strip away the propaganda from the chaos in Crimea, and this much is certain: last Thursday morning a political farce played out here in the regional capital.
It started with anonymous gunmen storming parliament house in a bloodless pre-dawn raid. By sunrise, the Russian flag was flying high above an occupied government house.
Lawmakers were summoned, stripped of their cellphones as they entered the chamber. The Crimean media was banished. Then, behind closed doors, Crimea’s government was dismissed and a new one formed, with Sergey Akysonov, head of the Russian Unity party, installed as Crimea’s new premier.
It if was a crime, it was just the beginning. Akysonov’s ascent to power at the point of a gun presaged all that has happened since — the announcement of a referendum on Crimean independence and the slow, methodical fanning out of Russian forces throughout the peninsula, ostensibly to protect Russians here from a threat no one can seem to find.
But here’s the most interesting bit: Aksyonov’s sudden rise as Moscow’s crucial point man in Crimea has revived simmering allegations of an underworld past going back to the lawless 1990s, when Akysonov is said to have gone by the street name “Goblin,” a lieutenant in the Crimean crime syndicate Salem.
Details of “Goblin” spilled out this week in a broadcast interview with Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Senchenko, a Crimean who has known Akysonov’s political sponsor, Crimean Parliamentary Speaker Vladimir Konstantinov, for 25 years.
Both Akysonov and Konstantinov, according to Senchenko, sought political clout as a means of laundering their shady pasts, insulating themselves from potential prosecution. Upon taking power, the two fell under the sway of Moscow, he told Svoboda Radio.
“Mr. Aksyonov in the mid ’90s was a foreman in an organized criminal gang, known in Crimea in criminal and police circles under the pseudonym Goblin,” said Senchenko. But multiple changes of power and chronic corruption in the territory enabled the shredding and burning of much evidence, he added.
“If we have the will and the law . . . I think the place for Aksyonov is in prison,” he said.
One might easily dismiss Senchenko’s allegations as wartime propaganda, giving the tensions now gripping the Ukraine.
But it’s not the first time Aksyonov has been linked to “Goblin.” The last time it happened, 2009, there was no invasion in sight. And there were documents to confirm it.
The whistle was blown then by Mikhail Bakharev, first deputy chairman of the Russian Society of Crimea, who presented as evidence 1990s Crimean police files naming “Sergey V. Aksyonov as an active member of organized crime group Salem, with the nickname ‘Goblin.’ ”
“Today I am announcing the suspension of my membership in the Russian Society of Crimea until it is cleared of criminal elements and random people who got here with tactical considerations in order to obtain political dividends in the future,” Bakharev said in a statement of protest.
Aksyonov denied the allegation, claiming he was simply a businessman with an interest in politics. He then launched a defamation suit against Bakharev. But the suit was dismissed with the Appeals Court of Crimea finding “no reason to satisfy the claim.”
Oleg Shirokov, a writer based in Simferopol, wrote an amusing article in 2009 for the Salem News in Salem, Ore. — a sister city to Simferopol — noting the irony that the American town’s name matches up with one of the Crimean city’s bloodiest chapters.
He made no mention of “Goblin” but instead spoke of others in the Salem gang — “Giraffe” and “Cherry” among them — and the brutal encounters than ensued with rival gang Bashmaki.
“The prolonged fight between competitors led to 30 persons being killed in just one month of 1991,” Shirokov wrote. Explosions later rocked Simferopol as the gang battles intensified.
By the mid-1990s, Salem’s membership had soared to 1,200 fighters. Eventually, many of the gangsters, tired of the fighting, decided instead to shift their gaze toward political office. More than 40 were elected as local deputies in 1995. “They wanted to get deputy inviolability,” Shirokov wrote.
Fast forward to the present, and there is little question Akysonov, 42, has ascended with a strongman’s momentum that would do Tony Soprano proud. Though he was first elected to the Crimean parliament in 2010 with less than 4 per cent of the vote, he now projects 100 per cent control.
He is using it quickly to consolidate power — and, it would seem, to hasten the severance of Crimea from Ukraine.
Initially, Akysonov’s new government announced a referendum on greater autonomy for Crimea for May 25, matching up with Ukraine’s new elections. On Monday, the date was moved forward to March 30. And Tuesday, Aksyonov went further still, announcing he, not Kyiv, was in control of all military in Crimea and that the referendum might come sooner still.
The date remains TBA, but, barring sudden developments, it is likely to come in the context of a strong Russian military presence in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in remarks Tuesday aimed at rebutting the notion of a threat against Russians in Crimea, made reference to the power of Aksyonov but made it abundantly clear America’s views on who controls it.
“They’d have you believe that ethnic Russians and Russian bases are threatened,” said Kerry.
“And, as everybody knows, the soldiers in Crimea, at the instruction of their government (in Kyiv), have stood their ground but never fired a shot, never issued one provocation, have been surrounded by an invading group of troops and have seen an individual who got 3 per cent of the vote installed as so-called leader by the Russians,” he said.
“They would have you believe that Kyiv is trying to destabilize Crimea, or that somehow Russian leaders invited intervention. Not a single piece of credible evidence supports any one of these claims — none.”