Will ‘Goblin’ Make Crimea a “Free Crime Zone”?

by Mark Galeotti March 07, 2014

Sergei Aksenov supporters. Photo by Michail333

The claims that Crimean premier Sergei Aksenov was once a gangster with the underworld nickname of ‘Goblin,’ has at once been a gift to headline-writers and also a potentially alarming portent for the peninsula’s future.

Aksenov, head of the Russian Unity party, was installed as Crimea’s new premier despite his being elected to the regional parliament in 2010 with only 4% of the vote. His role appears to be the face of Russian interests in the peninsula, but he faces claims that he is also the front man for regional organized crime.

He has faced such allegations before. Back in 2009, Mikhail Bakharev, first deputy chair of the Russian Society of Crimea, produced police files ostensibly naming “Sergey V. Aksyonov as an active member of organized crime group Salem, with the nickname ‘Goblin.’” Bakharev resigned from the society in protest at Aksenov’s role. In response, Aksenov denied any criminal background and launched a defamation case against his accuser, but the Appeals Court of Crime then dismissed his suit against Bakharev, claiming it had no grounds.

Now, with Aksenev’s sudden rise, the allegations have again surfaced, this time in an interview with Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Senchenko, a Crimean member of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party. He has alleged that Aksenov and his ally, Crimean Parliamentary Speaker Vladimir Konstantinov, were involved in criminal activities including real estate fraud. He said that “Aksenov in the mid ’90s was a brigadier [middle-ranking gangster ‘captain’] in an organized criminal gang, known in Crimea in criminal and police circles under the pseudonym Goblin” but that a combination of the political turmoil in the region and endemic corruption had allowed records to be destroyed and cases dropped.

Aksenov's role appears to be the face of Russian interests in the peninsula, but he faces claims that he is also the front man for regional organized crime.

To Aksenov’s supporters, this is a convenient excuse for the lack of hard evidence to back up these claims and it is surprising that Kyiv has yet to find and present any such material from the central Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVS) files.

Nonetheless, it is certainly true that Simferopol, where Aksenov has been based since the early 1990s, was the site of extensive organized crime activity after the collapse of the USSR. In the early 1990s, it was torn between two rival gangs, the Bashmaki (“Shoes”) and the Salem (named after the Salem Café, in turn named after Simferopol’s sister city). Their conflict reached a peak in 1996, after which both gangs seemed to have been destroyed. However, the truth was more complex. Many of their members drifted into business, politics or, as was the post-Soviet way, a fusion of the two, with the admixture of continued criminal activity. According to Viktor Shemchuk, former chief prosecutor of the region, “Every government level of Crimea was criminalized. It was far from unusual that a parliamentary session in Crimea would start with a minute of silence honoring one of their murdered ‘brothers.’”

Certainly Crimea, which was sometimes described as “Ukraine’s Sicily,” remained infamous for activities ranging from poaching to human trafficking, with periodic turf wars and score-settling. The Bashmaki—which stand accused of involvement in more than 50 murders—cropped up again amidst allegations they were trying to control Tavriya, the peninsula’s main football club (which also owned lucrative properties). Increased pressure on land in the region, especially thanks to the return of displaced Tatars, has also led to increased efforts by criminals and corrupt officials to exploit the rising prices for illegal profit.

Crimea was sometimes described as “Ukraine’s Sicily.”

On one level, whether or not Aksenov and “Goblin” are one and the same may seem irrelevant. It is not unknown for civic figures to sometimes emerge from dubious backgrounds and in the 1990s, many engaged in some forms of illegal activity. There has not, for example, been any suggestion, at least yet, that he was a murderer or the like. (Though in fairness, to be a gangster in the 1990s was to live in a lawless, violent milieu.) Besides which, the number of criminals or ex-criminals in Crimean politics is well known: in 2006, a leaked US diplomatic cable noted that “dozens of figures with known criminal backgrounds were elected to local office in the March 26 elections.” Indeed, local Party of Regions deputy Oleksandr Melnyk was reportedly once the head of Salem, although murder charges against him were dropped.

On the other, though, given the illegality of the occupation of the Crimea and its potential secession from Ukraine, accounts of his alleged gangster past do give additional resonance to the fears that the peninsula might become another Transdnestria, a criminalized pseudo-state that has become a haven and turntable for illegal trades and transfers of every kind. After all, the US embassy suggested that there had been a resurgence of powerful criminal figures since the mid-2000s, although it reported that “such Crimean criminals were fundamentally different than in the 1990s: then, they were sportsuit-wearing, pistol-wielding ‘bandits’ who gave Crimea a reputation as the ‘Ukrainian Sicily and ended up in jail, shot, or going to ground; now they had moved into mainly above-board businesses, as well as local government.”

The Transdnestrian Moldovan Republic—which even Russia, its protector, does not formally recognize as a sovereign state—has an area of under 4,200 square kilometers and a population of a little over 500,000. By contrast, the Crimea is some 26,000 sq. km. in size, with a population of around 1.9 million. It has a narrow land bridge to Ukraine and a short ferry connection to Russia, as well as a major port.

The southern Ukrainian port of Odessa has become infamous—as it has so often in its life—as a smuggling waystation, but the scope for Simferopol to rival it should not be underestimated. Crimea is a relatively poor region, dependent on agriculture and often-dated industry. While Moscow may be willing to take over the billions in dollars of subsidies which keeps it afloat, there will be pressure for new revenue streams, and also opportunities created by being in a hazy grey zone between Russia and Ukraine. Even if Russia annexes the region formally, it will presumably have to work through the local elites and law-enforcement structures, agents who have too often proven self-interested, under-controlled and over-acquisitive in the past. The scope for a new “free crime zone”—regardless of Aksenov’s backstory—is depressingly extensive.