Sergei Aksyonov is Vladimir Putin’s kind of politician. The man leading Crimea toward union with Russia bristles with that same kind of controlled anger that Mr. Putin has when he meets the media, the contempt for his questioners that bubbles just underneath the surface.
Mr. Aksyonov also has the same ability to smile through an obvious lie.
There is no gun to the head of Crimeans ahead of Sunday’s referendum, he told reporters here on Friday, less than 48 hours before voting begins in a controversial referendum on joining the Russian Federation. Crimeans – not Moscow – will decide the region’s fate. And no, those are not Russian soldiers and military vehicles you’re seeing all over the peninsula.
“There are no guns pointed at people’s heads. Those are just self-defence units guarding certain locations,” Mr. Aksyonov said of the various militias with undefined powers that occupy most squares and public buildings in Crimea.
“There are always Russian forces in Crimea. The Russian navy never left Sevastopol. But they are not doing any abnormal activities,” he told a press conference full of people who had seen Russian military – often in vehicles with Russian license plates on them – for the past two weeks. “What you see in the streets are just voluntary self-defence units.”
If the forces deployed throughout Crimea are indeed a self-organized and self-financed army, this peninsula has mobilized and equipped itself faster than any breakaway region in history.
On Friday, Reuters reported one of its reporters witnessed a Russian warship unloading troops trucks and at least one armoured personnel carrier at a port near Sevastopol.
The Globe and Mail spotted a long column of supply vehicles – including a mobile radar unit and fuel and ammunition trucks – moving through Simferopol to a point further north on the peninsula. The Ukrainian government says there are at least 18,800 Russian soldiers now in Crimea, a presence Kiev calls an “invasion.”
None of that is relevant to Mr. Aksyonov’s narrative. A 41-year-old Greco-Roman wrestler and alleged gangster, he won just 4 per cent of the vote in 2010 local elections, but came to power on Feb. 27 in a vote held by the Crimean parliament after pro-Russian gunmen seized control of the building.
What matters to Mr. Aksyonov is trying to convince the world that what he and the Kremlin are doing in Crimea is no different than what Kosovo did with Western support when it broke away from Serbia in 2008.
“We are not enemies,” he said of governments in Europe and North America that have called Sunday’s referendum illegitimate, and vowed not to recognize. “They have the right to say whatever they want, but they shouldn’t tell us what to do in our land. Moreover, what we are doing in Crimea now is what has been done in Kosovo some time ago.”
That, unsurprisingly, is the same argument the Russian Foreign Ministry has been making for weeks. Mr. Aksyonov says he doesn’t get directives from Moscow – he has yet to speak directly with Mr. Putin – though he acknowledges there are now Russian government representatives embedded as “consultants” at all of the Crimean government ministries.
Mr. Aksyonov was confident of Sunday’s referendum result, noting that no one was really bothering to campaign against the idea of union with Russia. He said he expected turnout to be in the range of 80 per cent, despite a promise from the region’s Crimean Tatars, who make up about 13 per cent of the region’s two million people, to boycott the vote.
“Whether we vote or not, we already know what the result will be. It has already been fixed,” said Azize Ablyaeva, a 19-year-old engineering student who was among several hundred Crimean Tatars protesting against the referendum along the side of a highway on Friday. She wore a small Ukrainian flag on her lapel, which is an act of dissent in today’s Crimea.
In his press conference, Mr. Aksyonov made no allowances for the possibility of a “no” vote on joining Russia. He said the integration process would take up to a year.
Monday, the day after the referendum, might be a flashpoint, however. Mr. Aksyonov said Ukrainian forces based in Crimea would quickly have to decide whether they would join the army of the newly independent Crimea, or make a humbling march to another base in Ukraine.
“We are holding negotiations with them. They should either swear an oath to Crimea, or retire, or return to Ukraine. We will secure a path to Ukraine for them if they choose to do so.”
Asked by The Globe and Mail how he hoped history would view him, Mr. Aksyonov responded with assumed modesty. “It doesn’t matter how history remembers me. What matters is how Crimeans see me now. What’s important is that I’m fulfilling their expectations.”
Follow me on Twitter @markmackinnon