Meet the paramilitary leader who claims to be running Crimea

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Crimea is living a multiple choice reality it seems. Ukraine still considers the region a part of its territory but today the Crimean parliament declared Crimea a republic independent of the rest of Ukraine. On Sunday, Crimean residents will get to vote in a referendum on whether to join Russia or not. Time's Simon Shuster is in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea. He says the region's pro-Moscow leaders have a clear goal in all of this. Simon Shuster: The declaration today was pretty much a repetition of what amounts to a foregone conclusion. They've already voted to split off from Ukraine and to ask for Russia to annex the region. The referendum is essentially getting the people to approve their decision but again, the leadership here assumes that they will get their way and Crimea will become part of Russia. Werman: We want to speak with you, Simon, about a man you profiled for Time, the de facto pro-Russian leader of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov. Where does he stand on either independence or joining Russia? Shuster: He is a wholehearted supporter of joining Russia, even though he wouldn't mind so much of being a semi-independent as well, as long as it's under Russia's protection, which at this point is pretty much guaranteed. He took power on February 27th after a seizure by armed men of the parliament in the government building and he has been holding court as the de facto leader ever since. Werman: Aside from a de facto leader, does he have an official title? Shuster: The Prime Minister of Crimea. Werman: A month ago he was this obscure figure and now he's Vladimir Putin's go-to guy in the Crimea. Who is Sergei Aksyonov? Shuster: He has a fascinating biography. His father was actually a separatist pro-Russian leader in the country of Moldova, which in the early 1990's had a very similar situation play out, which resulted in a war. Russia also intervened in that war on the side of the pro-Russian separatists and it resulted in a breakaway republic declaring independence and splitting off from the Moldovan government. That region is called Transnistria and it is still an unrecognized quasi-independent state. Werman: You met Aksyonov, you interviewed him for this profile. When you met him, what's the first impression that you get of Aksyonov? Shuster: He is a bit of a thuggish guy. He's tall, bulky. He's also the head of the Crimean greco roman wrestling federation, so that tells you something about his physique. He does come off as a guy with street smarts. One of the people I interviewed for the profile is sort of a well known businessman from the 1990's who told me he's known Aksyonov for many years since the 1990's and described him as having been an enforcer for the local mafia. Werman: And Aksyonov denies that and says that the gentleman you spoke to is basically full of it? Shuster: That's right. He says that all those allegations are part of a slander campaign launched by his political opponents. Werman: It does seem to be fairly accurate though that Aksyonov established himself as an umbrella salesman? Shuster: That's right. His father also owned a factory in Moldova which produced umbrellas. In his early days, he said he imported umbrellas from Moldova to Crimea and they would sell them in the bazaars. Typical business in the chaotic days of the 1990's. Werman: Does Aksyonov control the army in Crimea today? Shuster: Absolutely. As soon as the revolution in Ukraine began really gaining momentum last month, Aksyonov immediately began forming a paramilitary force in Crimea. Yesterday he presided over the ceremony in which the first batch of Crimean military troops pledged allegiance to the new separatist government of Crimea. So now, at least in the eyes of Russia, he is also the commander-in-chief of a military force. Werman: Simon Shuster has been speaking with us from Simferopol in Crimea where he's been covering the crisis there for Time magazine. Simon, thanks as always. Shuster: Thank you.