Biker gang and Crimea visit put focus on Slovakia’s ties to Russia

President calls Kremlin-backed Night Wolves a security risk and restates stance on Crimea

Riders attend a rally for Russia’s motorcycle club Night Wolves in front of Russia’s embassy in Bratislava on July 27th, 2018. The pro-Kremlin motorcycle club opened its European base in Dolna Krupa, Slovakia. Photograph: Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty

Riders attend a rally for Russia’s motorcycle club Night Wolves in front of Russia’s embassy in Bratislava on July 27th, 2018. The pro-Kremlin motorcycle club opened its European base in Dolna Krupa, Slovakia. Photograph: Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty

 

Slovakia’s relations with Moscow and Kiev are under scrutiny after one of its deputies led a delegation to occupied Crimea and a notorious Russian nationalist biker gang opened a base in the EU and Nato member state.

Independent deputy Peter Marcek told Slovak media that he was travelling to Crimea with former national intelligence chief Igor Cibula and several businessmen, after a number of fellow deputies reportedly pulled out of the trip to the Black Sea peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The planned three-day visit, during which Mr Marcek has lavished praise on Russia’s rule in Crimea and criticised Ukraine’s pro-western government, prompted Slovakia to restate its position on the region’s status.

“The annexation of the peninsula by the Russian Federation has violated the basic principles of international law . . . The Slovak Republic still considers Crimea to be Ukrainian territory within its internationally recognised borders,” its foreign ministry said in a statement.

Ukraine routinely places an entry ban on people who enter Crimea directly from Russia. “All Mr Marcek’s statements about Crimea allegedly ‘belonging to Russia’ . . . are insignificant from a legal viewpoint,” Mariana Betsa, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry in Kiev, said on Friday.

Politicians from a number of EU states have visited Crimea and areas of eastern Ukraine run by Russian-led separatists, mostly as part of Moscow’s efforts to strengthen ties with European far-right and far-left parties.

Aggression against Ukraine

Several of Europe’s leaders have criticised EU sanctions imposed on Russia for its aggression against Ukraine, including Slovak premier Peter Pellegrini, his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban and Czech president Milos Zeman.

More than 200 Slovak public figures recently sent a petition to Mr Pellegrini and other top national officials to take action against the establishment in the country of the “European headquarters” of Russia’s Night Wolves biker gang.

Footage from a drone that was flown over the compound in the town of Dolna Krupa, about 65km northeast of the Slovak capital, Bratislava, showed ex-army tanks, other armoured vehicles and anti-aircraft guns parked on the site.

Jozef Hambalek, who owns the former pig farm and founded the Slovak chapter of the Night Wolves, denies having sinister intentions. This week, however, Slovakian president Andrej Kiska said the bikers were “no harmless motorcycle enthusiasts”.

Russian operations

The gang is under US sanctions for its role in Russian operations in Ukraine, Mr Kiska noted, calling it “an instrument that has been employed in the occupation of a neighbouring country’s territory”.

The group “represents a security risk for the country . . . [and] makes a mockery of the Slovak government’s official position on the annexation of Crimea and its policy toward Russia,” he added.

“I urge the government to provide the security forces with all the necessary conditions for effective action against dubious organisations spreading throughout our country.”