Vladimir Putin’s favourite bike club, the Night Wolves, will ride across 12 countries, aiming to strengthen connections between the Eastern European Orthodox peoples and Russia
Russia’s largest motorcycle club, the Night Wolves, famous for its close ties to President Vladimir Putin, on Thursday launches its “Slavic World 2016” bike tour, which will pass through numerous Balkan countries en route to its destination, the Slovak town of Nitra.
The march, aimed at “strengthening the dialogue between Slavic peoples”, will depart from Russia and divide into five separate columns, which will stop in 12 Eastern European countries.
Among them are five Balkan states – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bulgaria.
Evgeni Strogov, head of Russia’s federation of Motorcycle tourism, explained on June 16 that the initiative has been planned for over six months and will “strengthen Russia’s regional and international connections.
“We are engaged with connecting the Orthodox countries and the Slavic world… in the Balkans we have Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and that is why I can say we feel at home there,” he told Bulgarian National Radio on June 20.
Led by Alexander “The Surgeon” Zaldostanov, the Night Wolves were established as a club of rock music and motorcycle fans back in the 1980s.
Nowadays, they have a strong relationship with Russian leader Putin, who calls them “friends” and often appears at their nationalistic rallies, riding a Harley Davidson.
The “wolves” are even funded by the Kremlin and are also involved with the Russian Orthodox Church.
The group gained notoriety after participating Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region from Ukraine, patrolling the streets of the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Some gang members have also joined pro-Russian militant groups in the east of Ukraine.
News about the wolves’ planned arrival in Bulgaria on June 30 met mixed reactions, although this would not be their first visit to the country.
It has a Bulgarian branch in the southwestern town of Kyustendil, where bikers often hold events under the umbrella of the municipal authorities.
The announcement of the “Slavic March 2016”, however, drew criticism in the media and on social networks, with some fearing a Kremlin provocation behind the initiative.
“The aim is a demonstration of Russia’s self-confidence as guardian of the Orthodox Slavic world and waving the Russian flag above this world, which, according to Kremlin propaganda, must always be dominated by Moscow," Alexander Yordanov, a former president of the Bulgarian parliament and ambassador to Poland and Russia, wrote on Facebook on June 19.
He maintained that “the Night Wolves… do not come to Bulgaria for good,” adding: “The provocation is a fact.”
Some voices favour banning the tour, following the example of Poland in May this year, but no such state reactions have followed or seem likely. Strogov also dismissed such an option, saying that the bikers have a right to come.
“They have the right to treat us they choose, and we will do anything we find necessary,” he noted.
This would not be the first visit of the “wolves” to Montenegro, either. They were in the Adriatic country in May for a pilgrimage to the most important Orthodox Christian site in the country, the monastery at Ostrog.
The “wolves” were in the company of the famous Serbian and Bosnian director, Emir Kusturica, and were welcomed with applause by thousands of believers who traditionally flock to the pilgrimage site near the town of Niksic.
In October 2014, the bikers visited Montenegro on a motorcycle pilgrimage called "Russian Balkan," which was promoted on the official website of the Russian embassy in Podgorica.
They have their own branch in Montenegro, which includes members from several towns across the country, operating under the motto "Pray to God and stick to Russia".
Serbia also has its own section of the “wolves”.
During Putin`s visit to Serbia in 2011, during a football match between Russian Zenit and Serbian Red Star, the leader of the Serbian wolves, Goran Jovanovic Fonza, sat beside the Russian President.
The Night Wolves are known in Serbia for their robust support for the Kosovo Serbs, for the organization of various humanitarian actions and for their strong ties to their “Orthodox brothers”.
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