Vladimir Putin’s favorite biker club is hitting the road to Berlin and the rest of eastern Europe isn’t very happy about it.
Politicians and activists in the European Union’s ex- communist east are outraged over a plan by the Night Wolves to commemorate the Soviet victory in World War II by tracing the Red Army’s path to Berlin. On a 15-day tour, they aim to roll through the bloc from Poland to the German capital on May 9, according to the group’s website.
The roadtrip may strain ties between Russia and European countries, whose sparring over Ukraine has triggered the worst standoff on the continent since the Cold War. Poland, among the staunchest backers of Ukraine-linked sanctions against Russia, has also led a call for NATO to boost its presence in response to what they say is the Kremlin’s increasing expansionism.
“We’d be asking for trouble by allowing these Russian terrorists to travel through Poland,” Bartosz Kramek, a leader of the Open Dialog Foundation that has more than 12,000 backers for a petition seeking to deny the bikers entry, said by phone. “It won’t be right for moral reasons due to our solidarity with Ukraine, as well as politically, as this could provoke actions that would then be used by the Putin propaganda machine.”
The Night Wolves, with more than 5,000 members, are led by Aleksandr Zaldostanov, a trained doctor who rides by the name “the Surgeon.” They have no formal link to the U.S.-based biker group, the Hell’s Angels.
Sanctioned by the U.S. for involvement in Russia’s annexation of Crimea last March, the Ukraine-born Zaldostanov also helped found the “Anti-Maidan” group to oppose the pro-EU protests in Kiev that toppled Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych’s government last year.
He counts Putin as a friend. The Russian president donned leather to meet the Night Wolves in Serbia in 2011, and a year later, he stood Yanukovych up for four hours so he could chat with the club’s leader. The Kremlin declined to comment on the planned roadtrip.
At least 20 riders will cruise from Moscow through Belarus, according to the Night Wolves’ website. From Poland, they’ll pass through the capitals of Slovakia to Austria before continuing to Prague and ending in Berlin on May 9, the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s capitulation to the Soviet Union.
The group, which has boasted of members fighting in the rebel ranks in eastern Ukraine, is an example of Russian “soft proxies,” according to Jan Techau, the director for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The ride may feed Putin’s narrative that his country is under threat from the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and that Russia must confront a potentially resurgent fascism, Techau said. Putin denies involvement in Ukraine.
“If this ‘celebration’ is prohibited or banned by German authorities or other authorities on the way to Berlin, then of course it can be used to show how peaceful demonstrations against fascism are being banned in Western Europe, and it all feeds into the fascist narrative,” Techau said Wednesday.
Representatives of the motorcycle club didn’t answer repeated phone calls from Bloomberg.
“We understand that not everyone likes us -- our motivation and our position, but we know what we are trying to achieve,” Zaldostanov told Russian state TV on April 14. “We have our own convictions, our values, and nothing will force us to abandon them.”
The Night Wolves also have supporters. Wiktor Wegrzyn, the 76-year-old head of a Polish biking club, said his group will offer them an escort. They get the same treatment when they honor the memory of 21,000 Polish officers and government officials murdered 75 years ago by Soviet secret police in the Katyn forest near Smolensk, Russia, he said.
“It’s a shame that politicians want to mix this up with hysteria about the Russian threat,” Wegrzyn said by phone on Tuesday.
None of the Night Wolves’ leaders have applied for EU entry visas, Polish government spokeswoman Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska told TVP Info Wednesday. The Berlin state Urban Development Ministry said it received a request for a 60-motorcycle convoy to ride through the capital on May 9. It hasn’t heard back after a request for details, a spokesman said.
Jacek Rostowski, a former finance minister and chief political adviser to Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, told TVN24 that border guards may refuse to admit the bikers.
The Czech Republic, without an external EU border, won’t have any influence on whether or not the bikers are allowed into the bloc’s passport-free zone.
While Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek called the tour a “provocation” on Twitter, Interior Minister Milan Chovanec said on Monday that they would be closely monitored.
“But if they follow Czech laws they will pass through the country like everyone else,” Chovanec said on Czech state TV.
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