When Russian troops left Czechoslovakia after more than two decades in the mid-1990s, many residents rejoiced and celebrated the end of Soviet military occupation. Czechoslovakia has since split up into two countries — the Czech Republic and Slovakia — but animosity toward Russian military might persists on both sides of the border.
So, when members of the Putin-linked biker club Night Wolves recently showed up in the Slovak village of Dolna Krupa to set up a military-style base with tanks and other army equipment inside a former pig farm, the government was rather puzzled, if not outright alarmed
The Russian government said the base was simply the club’s “European headquarters.”
The club itself described the camouflaged-painted armored vehicles and heavy weapons as part of a harmless World War II museum to honor Soviet troops.
In the nearby Slovak capital Bratislava, officials soon suspected far more sinister motives, calling the isolated base “disturbing” and part of an effort to “rewrite history,” according to the BBC.
During World War II, Slovak forces collaborated with German troops until a resistance movement launched an uprising toward the end of the war, prompting a full Nazi invasion. Slovak forces also fought against Soviet troops, who later occupied Slovak territory as the Germans were pushed out. Whereas Russia frequently emphasizes its role in freeing the country from the Germans, many Slovaks mostly remember the Soviet military occupation after the 1968 Prague Spring uprising.
Today, Slovakia shares more common interests with the United States and Western Europe than with Russia, including the rejection of attempts by Moscow to expand its influence abroad.
The Night Wolves biker gang that is now so worrying the country is under U.S. sanctions for its involvement in past Russian annexations and military operations abroad. In 2014, for instance, the gang paraded through the streets of Crimea after the Ukrainian peninsula’s annexation, led by former physician Alexander Zaldostanov — nicknamed “the Surgeon.”
“Zaldostanov is being designated for being a leader of a group, the Night Wolves, that is engaging in, directly or indirectly, actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the U.S. Department of the Treasury argued in 2014, justifying sanctions against Zaldostanov. According to the U.S. sanctions documents, Zaldostanov was involved in the confiscation of Ukrainian weapons when the Ukrainian Naval Forces headquarters in Crimea were stormed by Russian forces in March 2014.
They’re certainly not just “harmless motorcycle lovers,” Slovak President Andrej Kiska said earlier this week, referring to the 2014 incident. His government is now considering ways to monitor and expel the bikers from the country that is both part of NATO and the European Union.
But any attempt to remove the bikers from Slovak soil would probably provoke a strong reaction from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has associated himself with the group publicly. Since its early days in the 1980s, the group has evolved from a rock concert biker club to a distinctively political and patriotic organization under the firm grip of
When Putin first publicly encountered the bike group in 2009, many assumed it to be yet another public relations stunt of a leader who has produced a remarkable number of stunning photos throughout his career: on horses, near dolphins or at the steering-wheel of a microlight aircraft.
But Putin’s public embrace of the Night Wolves turned out to be different. The club's influence was further elevated after Russia’s interference in Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Today, the group — that still frequently embarks on rally-style trips across Europe — stands for vigorous Russian patriotism with the sort of aggressive undertone that has emerged in recent years.
Since 2009, the Russian leader and the club’s top officials have backed each other up — both on and off the road. Zaldostanov, for example, was a prominent supporter of the “anti-Maidan” protests in Moscow, against the pro-European uprising in Ukraine in 2014.
The club’s deep entanglement with Russian foreign policy has not gone unnoticed in Europe, where Poland denied the bikers access to the country in 2015. While the Night Wolves said they wanted to pass through Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria to imitate the conquest of the Soviet Union that helped free Germany from the Nazis, Polish officials criticized the annual tour as a “provocation.”
Other European nations along the Night Wolves route have struggled to come up with a legally sound justification for banning the group, however. Expelling its members from Slovakia may prove equally difficult.
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