SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AFP) - Sergiy Aksyonov, Crimea's new prime minister, is a shadowy businessman who prospered in the chaos of the post-Soviet era and now looks set to lead his region back into Russia's orbit.
Nicknamed "The Goblin", the 41-year-old strongly denies allegations he was involved in a criminal gang in 1990s post-Soviet Crimea.
He was sworn in as prime minister in an emergency session of Crimea's local assembly last month after armed men seized the building and Russian flags were run up its flagpoles.
While his allegiance to President Vladimir Putin's government in Moscow is clear, details of his past remain sketchy.
Aksyonov's thickset build, boxer's nose and team of thuggish-looking bodyguards belie an eloquent speaking style which was on show at a pro-Russian rally in Simferopol Sunday.
"We will overcome all adversity, all obstacles and we will restore historic justice," Aksyonov told a crowd of some 10,000 people, many waving Russian flags.
"Together with Russia we will build our future!" he added, prompting shouts of "Hurrah! Hurrah!"
Aksyonov is leading the campaign for closer Crimean ties with Russia in a March 16 referendum backed by many in Crimea, an autonomous part of Ukraine which was historically part of Russia until 1954 and with a majority of ethnic Russians.
He has been named commander-in-chief of Crimea's armed forces - nearly 200 former pro-Russian militia were sworn in as soldiers Monday - and says they will join Russia's armed forces if Crimea votes to join Russia in the referendum.
Crimea would switch currency from the Ukrainian hryvnia to the Russian ruble and to the Russian legal system if the vote goes as expected, Aksyonov told Russian news agency RIA Novosti Monday.
But little is known of him personally.
"I only know that he was a lawmaker before," said Volodymyr, an engineer, in the Crimean capital Simferopol.
"Although I don't know about him, I support what he is doing because he is a determined man. If he had not pulled us back, they (Ukrainian leaders) would have devoured us."
Born in 1972 in Soviet-run Moldova, Aksyonov was a businessman in Simferopol with interests in the food sector and letting retail space in the 1990s as a fledgling form of capitalism emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He took his first political steps in 2009 when he became an activist for three pro-Russian organisations, according to the Centre for Journalistic Investigations in Simferopol, which receives funding from bodies such as USAID and the International Development Fund.
One of these pro-Russian groups, of which he was head, became the Russian Unity party in 2010.
He now leads Russian Unity, which received only four per cent of the votes in Crimea's last elections held that year.
Gennadiy Moskal, a senior Ukrainian lawmaker, said it was "perfectly clear" when Aksyonov was appointed that there would be a scenario "like in Transdniestria or Kosovo".
Moskal said Aksyonov's father is a leader of the ethnic-Russian community in Transdniestria, a separatist and Moscow-backed territory of Moldova.
Aksyonov sued fellow Crimean politician Mykhailo Bakharev in 2010 for defamation over allegations he was part of a criminal gang in Simferopol named Salem, the Centre for Journalistic Investigations said.
He won the lawsuit but Bakharev appealed that result and in turn won again, the centre added.
Aksyonov, head of Crimea's Greco-Roman wrestling federation who often wears a flak jacket at public events, faces claims from the Ukrainian authorities in Kiev that his position is unconstitutional.
His likely status following the referendum is unclear.
But groups in Crimea who oppose closer ties with Russia, such as ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars, are fearful of a future with or without Aksyonov in the wake of the plebiscite.
"We don't believe in the new government of Crimea, which took power all on its own. We won't take part in the referendum," said Elvina, a woman at a pro-Ukrainian demonstration in Simferopol.