Poland’s prime minister on Wednesday criticised a fiercely nationalistic Russian biker gang’s plans to ride through Europe to celebrate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
The two-week 6,000-kilometre (3,750-mile) rally by Russian bikers including the Night Wolves, a motorcycle club backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, comes as tensions run high between Russia and the West over the crisis in Ukraine.
Night Wolves’ leader Alexander Zaldostanov is under US and Canadian sanctions for his support of Moscow’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine last year.
“I consider the announcement of this rally a provocation,” Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz told the private TOK FM radio station.
The bikers will pass through Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and end their journey in Berlin on May 9, the 70th anniversary of the war’s end.
“To Berlin!” says a page on the biker gang’s website dedicated to the rally, an allusion to the Red Army’s famous WWII battle cry.
“If this is to undermine our security, cause Poles trouble, then the law is there for us to use it,” Kopacz said, adding that Polish customs officials have the final say on who can cross Poland’s border.
Russian bikers will need visas to enter the Schengen passport-free area, to which all rally countries except Belarus belong.
But the foreign ministry of Germany, the destination country, said Wednesday it knew of no such visa request from the bikers.
The rally has sparked controversy in Poland, a strong supporter of Ukraine’s pro-Western government and in other Central European countries which, like Poland, were under Moscow’s thumb during the Soviet era.
A Polish Facebook page calls on authorities to ban the Russians from the EU. But one Czech supporter urged Central European bikers to “accompany our friends” during the rally, set to begin on April 25.
The Russian bikers insist their journey is not politically motivated.
“The main goal is to pay respects to those killed on WWII battlefields in the struggle against Hitler’s Nazis,” rally organiser Andrei Bobrovsky told AFP.
The bikers said they will visit the former Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, which Nazi Germany installed in occupied Poland and the Red Army liberated at war’s end.
A spokesman for the museum at the site told AFP a group of Russian bikers has reserved tickets for April 29.