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Putin's bikers on the prowl

Poland has announced it would deny the Night Wolves - a Russian motorcycle gang - the right to cross its border. But there are some who support and want to protect the bikers, as Roman Imielski writes from Warsaw.

Poland will not allow the Russian motorcycle gang Night Wolves to enter the country, the Polish Foreign Ministry said on Friday.

"The Foreign Ministry has passed a diplomatic note to the Russian Embassy in Warsaw .. concerning a denial of entry to Poland to an organized group of motorcyclists, which included representatives of the Night Wolves club," the ministry said in a statement.

Throughout Poland, the Night Wolves are not seen as your average motorcycle gang. Led by Alexander Zaldostanov - a.k.a. "Surgeon" as he is a medical doctor by profession - they have been branded as a group of pro-Putin Russian nationalists. Zaldostanov often shows up at events with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, during one demonstration, was conspicuously visible amongst the Wolves in their distinctive leather jackets.

Two men in leatherjackets Photo: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Friends in high places

Last year the gang allegedly actively participated in the Russian annexation of the Crimea, performing various reconnaissance tasks and also abducting one of the naval leaders of the Ukrainian fleet. Members of the Wolves are also said to be fighting in Donbas as pro-Russian separatists - prompting the Obama administration to place Zaldostanov on the list of people prohibited from entry into the United States.

Now the Night Wolves want to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the victory over Adolf Hitler by riding to Berlin. Most EU leaders have refused to attend a parade in Moscow on May 9, prompting the gang to organize a rally to Berlin - starting from the Russian capital on April 25 - taking them through Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, and Austria, and reaching the German capital on May 9.

"No" campaign

News of their plans triggered a fierce backlash in Poland. A document entitled "NO to the ride of the Night Wolves through Poland" immediately appeared on Facebook, garnering 9,000 likes within minutes.

Ahead of the Foreign Ministry's decision to deny the Night Wolves entry to Poland, nearly 3,000 Poles had signed an official Internet petition to the minister of foreign affairs, Grzegorz Schetyna. "If the border guards let the aggressive Russian chauvinists into Poland, they must consider the possibility of potential provocations by Moscow," wrote the author of the petition, Peter Hlebowicz of the Fighting Solidarity Association.

Others on Facebook also did not hide their feelings: "If the Polish authorities do not stop the passage of Putin's rabble, Poles will have to do it on their own. Do not be intimidated! Block their passage through the country! These criminals have no right to cross the Polish border." There are also appeals to refuse to sell them fuel: "Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a simple solution. On the way from the border no gas station should sell fuel to the Night Wolves. When the Russian bikers have no fuel, they will push their bikes back to the border."

group of bikers Photo: VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images

Will they reach their destination?

Others had less radical, but more creative ideas. "Let them come in and we will welcome them with rainbow flags, LGBT symbols," one activist wrote, alluding to a special law passed in Russia banning the "promotion of non-traditional sexual behavior" under the threat of fines and even imprisonment. Russian lesbians and gays are frequent victims of attacks by groups similar to the Night Wolves.

Defiant bikers

Zaldostanov recently added fuel to the fire in an interview with the newspaper "Rossiyskaya Gazeta." "We will not change the route despite the protests of the Poles. It must be remembered that there were Poles who fought, who came with the Red Army to Berlin. But there were Poles who were policemen and supervisors in the ghettos. It is possible that their descendants do not like our idea." And although he later apologized for his words about the "Polish policemen and supervisors in ghettos," he achieved his goal of garnering more publicity for his gang. Zaldostanov himself has no plans to go to Berlin and will stay in Russia.

How many of the Night Wolves will actually be going to Berlin - and how they get there following the Polish decision on Friday - is still unclear. However they had slightly changed their itinerary and plan to stop over in Auschwitz on April 29 to mark the role of the Red Army in the liberation of the Nazi death camp and refute a reference made in a speech by Polish Foreign Minister Schetyna in January. In the speech he claimed that Ukrainian soldiers in the Soviet Red Army opened the gates of the camp. This unfortunate statement, which has little to do with the historical truth, sparked outrage in Moscow. Russian authorities accused Schetyna of rewriting history and detracting from the merits of the Russians in the fight against Hitler.

Four men standing Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty images

Night Wolves members are said to be supporting pro-Russian separatists in Donbas

Schetyna has described the Russian bikers' rally as a "provocation." A similar statement was issued by Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and Polish and German authorities are currently holding talks over how to handle the bikers.

Let them ride

But not all Poles are against the Wolves' ride. Many politicians and journalists have said the best way to deal with them is to ignore them and let them go. Some believe that the attempts by the Polish authorities to stop them are halfhearted, because they do not constitute any threat to Poland.

"It's not only a comedy, it's a disgrace for the Polish state," says Leszek Miller, leader of the leftist opposition party SLD.cians about Night Wolves. Miller says Poland should let the Russian bikers pass through and forget about them.

Some people have created a Facebook page called "YES to the passage of the Night Wolves through Poland." "We will be polite and let them go where they want. Motorcycles are better than tanks," wrote one user.

A group of Polish motorcyclists has announced that they will welcome the Night Wolves at the border crossing in Brest and will protect them in Poland. "I think we should support them, there are graves of their forefathers here. They paid with their blood during World War II and you have to respect that," said Wiktor Wegrzyn, co-organizer of the International Motorcycle Rally Katyn.

The Polish Foreign Ministry said Friday that it's decision not to allow the Night Wolves to ride through Poland came because it did not receive enough information about the planned route.

"The entry was refused due to the lack of required precise information about the schedule of the group's stay in Poland, its exact routes through the country, and accommodation of club members," the ministry's statement said.

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