Three weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the ex-mayor of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, Volodymyr Saldo, wrote on his Facebook page claiming he tried to stop “idiots” seeking to declare independence from Kyiv.
“I did not betray my soul,” Saldo, 66, wrote in a post punctuated with an icon of the Ukrainian flag. “Kherson is my soul, and Kherson is Ukraine.”
While it’s impossible to see into Saldo’s soul, his passport has certainly changed.
Now the Kremlin-backed leader of the self-declared authorities in the Kherson region, Saldo over the weekend became the first in the region to receive a fast-tracked Russian passport as Russian and Ukrainian troops continue to fight over control of the Ukrainian region.
“For me this is truly a historical moment,” Saldo, who served as Kherson’s mayor from 2002 to 2012, was quoted by separatist authorities as saying on June 11. “I have always thought that we are one country and one people.”
Saldo is among a handful of separatist leaders that were plucked from Ukraine’s political margins as Moscow began occupying parts of the country following the February 24 invasion.
Ukrainian officials and opponents of Russia’s invasion regularly denounce these separatist officials as “collaborators” or “Gauleiters.”
“They couldn’t find anyone with social capital or authority in a single township, district, or city in the Kherson region,” Kyiv-based political scientist Serhiy Danilov told Current Time, the Russian-language television network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with RFE/RL.
“Not a single person with a clean reputation could be found in the entire region.”
Few Russian-backed officials have backstories as unusual as Saldo’s, who in 2015 — a year after Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula — invested in a yoga-drum business in the Czech Republic, and the following year became enmeshed in a bizarre kidnapping case in the Dominican Republic.
‘I Would Break His Face’
Saldo served in the Ukrainian parliament in 2012-14 with the Party of Regions led by Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled Ukraine to Russia in February 2014 amid the mass street protests that precipitated Russia’s land grab in Ukraine.
The following year, he took a 15 percent stake in a Czech firm called Agriatis, headquartered in the small town of Neveklovice, about 85 kilometers north of Prague, Czech corporate records show. Among the company’s products are meditation drums.
Saldo on June 3 was hit with EU sanctions, meaning his assets in the bloc — such as his stake in the Czech company — could be targeted.
The Czech daily Denik spoke with Saldo’s business partner, Czech-based Ukrainian businessman Volodymyr Erekhynskyi, who said he hadn’t spoken with Saldo in years and denounced him as a “collaborator.”
“If I met him, I would break his face,’ Denik quoted Erekhynskyi as saying.
In August 2016, meanwhile, Saldo was arrested in the Dominican Republic after a fellow Ukrainian accused him of kidnapping him. The following month, a court in the Caribbean nation ordered Saldo to be held for three months.
Saldo, however, returned to Ukraine in December of that year, and his representative and relatives claimed that he, in fact, had been kidnapped by the Ukrainian man, Denys Pashchenko, who had accused the former Kherson mayor of abducting him.
‘Ticket To Flee’
According to the statement by Saldo’s own separatist administration, he was among 23 Kherson region residents who received Russian passports on June 11.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose government called Moscow’s fast-tracked passport initiative “a flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” framed the meager turnout as evidence that Ukrainians don’t want to join Russia.
“I had a look at who was shown on the news as Kherson and Melitopol residents that allegedly wanted Russian passports,” Zelenskiy said. “A few collaborators and people close to them…. Well, it looks less like a line for passports and more like an attempt to get a ticket to flee.”
While Saldo is now a Russian citizen, his Facebook page still reflects other loyalties: His main profile picture expresses his love for Kherson with a heart icon in Ukrainian blue and yellow.