Poland denied entry to members of the Russian Night Wolves motorcycle club, obstructing a planned tour to celebrate the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany that some European officials have denounced.
The Night Wolves are led by Aleksandr Zaldostanov, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. in connection with Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014. Poland is among the most vocal of the European Union’s ex-Communist states that have accused Russia of violating their mutual neighbor’s sovereignty and supplying rebels with weapons, cash and fighters to fuel a separatist war there. Russia denies involvement.
“This is not a political decision, but one that’s based on formal ground,” Marcin Wojciechowski, a spokesman for Poland’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters on Friday. “The reason for the decision was a lack of necessary and precise information in the itinerary of the group’s stay in Poland, a detailed route of its passage and the place of lodging of its members.”
Politicians and activists in the eastern EU expressed outrage this week over the plan by the Night Wolves to retrace the Red Army’s path to Berlin. At least 20 riders planned to cruise Saturday from Moscow through Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany before arriving in Berlin on May 9, the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat, according to the Night Wolves’ website.
The bikers won’t cancel the trip, Zaldostanov said.
“Hysteria will be on the rise, and I am not surprised at all,” he told Rossiya 24 TV after Poland’s announcement. “But we are not abandoning our plans. We kick off tomorrow, on the 25th, and we will be guided by the principle ‘do what you must, and come what may.’”
The information provided about the ride was “imprecise” and the Russian side failed to submit more details despite “numerous requests,” Wojciechowski said.
Poland consulted officials in the Czech Republic and Germany on the decision. Three other Russian groups traveling to celebrate the end of World War II were allowed passage after they provided sufficient documents, he said.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it’s “outraged” about Poland’s decision, calling it “political” and saying all the necessary information had been provided in time, according to a statement on its website.
More than 1,200 Czechs signed a petition organized by the organization Open Doors to bar the Wolves’ entry, according to a copy of the document on the website petice24.com. In Poland, more than 12,000 people signed a similar appeal against the bikers, according to the Open Dialog Foundation.
“The gang has had problems with the law in the past. We consider it to be militant and dangerous,” Open Doors said in the petition. “The ride through significant World War II battle sites is supposed to resemble the advance of the Russian army through Europe, which brought, besides liberation, also many years of oppression.”
The Czech Foreign Ministry received a request from Russia to help the Night Wolves traverse the country, but because of the private nature of the planned tour, the bikers must first apply for permission, according to a statement on the ministry’s website. The ministry can’t grant permission for the event because it’s not authorized to do so, and because of the ride’s timing, it will be very difficult to process the requests if they’re made, it said.
Jacek Rostowski, chief political adviser to Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, and Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek have called the planned ride “a provocation.”
Opposition to the group’s planned tour centers around its support of the separatists in Ukraine and its portrayal of the government in Kiev as a “Fascist junta.” The bikers’ leader, Ukrainian-born Zaldostanov, counts Russian President Vladimir Putin as a friend, and he helped found the pro-Russian “Anti-Maidan” movement to oppose the pro-EU protests in Kiev that toppled Ukraine’s government last year.
Sparring between the EU and Russia 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.