NEW DELHI: Sergey Askyonov, leader of Crimea, the breakaway Ukrainian region annexed into Russia, slipped quietly in and out of Delhi in less than a day. His presence may have been lowkey, but its import certainly did not go unnoticed.
In a five-star hotel in South Delhi on Thursday noon, Aksyonov, a stocky man with the physique of a wrestler, sat in a well-appointed conference room with a group of Indian businessmen across the table, a far cry from the rough-and-tumble of developments back home.
The main deliverable for his visit was a memorandum of understanding signed with a newly-formed group of businessmen under the aegis of “Indo-Crimean partnership” led by a Mumbai-based entrepreneur Gul Kripalani.
“Basically, most of us interested have been exporting to Russia… Now, we would like to do the same with Crimea,” Kripalani told Express.
Askyonov’s arrival here apparently was only confirmed at the last moment. Indian officials claimed to be surprised at his presence as he was not listed in the official delegation which took part in the formal talks. In fact, he did not travel in Putin’s presidential plane as per a senior Russian embassy official, but in other smaller aircraft bearing the extended delegation.
They were emphatic that Askyonov, who was one of the notorious figures in the west during the Ukraine crisis, had a separate programme from Putin, only private businessmen, no government interlocutors. But to many observers his presence in India during a presidential visit was telling, especially as many were saying that India was leaning sharply towards the US.
“We knew about 10 days ago that he was likely to come, but the confirmation came only just a few days before,” Kripalani said. Explaining the nature of the “Indo-Crimean partnership”, he said it was mainly to facilitate a meeting with the Crimean leader “at short notice”. “It is not a friendship society, but only a group for business cooperation,” said Kripalani.
Incidentally, Kripalani and his colleagues are beneficiary of the sanctions and counter-sanctions imposed by West and Russia on each other. “It all began when on August 7, Russia decided to impose sanctions on agricultural items from Europe. As a seafood exporter, I made inquiries and then we started to send business,” he said, adding that the recent decision to allow export of buffalo meat to Russia was also a result of his intense lobbying.
On the other hand, the visiting Crimean leader is one of the individuals targetted by the western sanctions. Sitting in the hotel, he asserted: “Many have tried to humiliate Russia and its people, but they have all failed.”
“The sanctions only mobilised Russian economy and Russian potential including Crimea potential. Now Special Economic Zone will start working in Crimea and will be very advantageous for business.”
Asked about India’s position on Crimea, he indicated both India and Russia are on the same page. “Our President also believes that peaceful resolution is the best way forward,” he said through a translator.
“India has always been a strategic partner of Russia and its stand was always balanced,” he added.
However, for the most part, Askyonov shied away from any overt, controversial remarks.