Night Wolves: Spectacular tools of Russia’s “Sharp Power” in Slovakia
Grigorij Mesežnikov

Introduction: Russian influence in Central Europe

In pursuing its influence in the countries of Central Europe which have embarked on the path of democratic reforms and pro-Western foreign-political and security orientation (The European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership) after 1990, the current Russian government is using a variety of tools. Their forms and character reflect a strategic goal – to weaken the EU as a community of liberal-democratic states and to weaken Central and East European countries’ ties with the EU and NATO to the lowest level possible. And, if situation would allow, to achieve their withdrawal from both Western groupings. Efforts in this direction embrace variety of practical measures: support for local political forces and personalities presenting anti-EU and anti-NATO views in order to create favorable conditions for holders of anti-Western stances in foreign policy, forming the public discourse corresponding to propaganda templates that provoke public disagreement or even resistance against European integration and transatlantic partnership.

To achieve these aims the Kremlin creates pro-Russian groups (lobbies) in CEE countries’ political, intellectual and media circles which would act as pro-active players in promotion and justification of Russia’s policies. These players include selected politicians, experts, academicians, journalists, public intellectuals, bloggers, activists, etc.  In the former socialist countries, including Slovakia, Russia‘s „sharp power” finds its recipients and advocates primarily among people who positively perceive the former Communist regime and social forms that existed that time. These people are characterized by nostalgia for old regime, they  are dissatisfied with the liberal reforms and affiliation to the West, they combine resistance to the West with pan-Slavism and Russophilia, promote  idea of solidarity between Slavic nations and deepening cooperation between Russia and Central Europe countries with dominant Slavic population.

“Sharp power”: aims, actors, advocates

The ultimate objectives of Russian influence while weakening liberal democracies are fivefold:

  • increasing the overall level of distrust among people
  • relativizing differences between democratic and non-democratic forms of society’s order
  • wiping out the differences between facts and fictions, truth and lie, credible knowledge and “alternative interpretations”
  • creating an atmosphere where the recipient is unable to orient in the stream of rolling information and as a result resigns to seek answers to questions on the base of professional, scientific knowledge.

Russia’s “sharp power” system tries to succeed the ideological indoctrination, aimed at declining population support for universal liberal values, norms and principles of democracy, modern concept of human rights and democratic institutions. As a result, the Kremlin advocates for the “traditional values”, “religious spirituality”, ethno-nationalist principles, Slavic solidarity and collectivist ethic which should replace the individualist and “multicultural” Western approach.

Who acts as tools of Russia’s “sharp power”?

There are plenty of specialized state organizations and quasi-state actors such as state-sponsored media (Russia Today, Sputnik) whose objective is reaching a wider local audience for delivering the main propaganda messages. However, other players include different institutes, funds, foundations, associations, etc.  For example, in the cultural sphere Russian centers of culture located in capital cities of Central European states have a major role. They organize cultural events combining arts with deliverance of socio-political messages and dissemination of Russian state narratives separately or in cooperation with other institutions (local agencies, associations of Russian expats, representatives of self-governments, business groups).

In Slovakia it is a Russian Center of Science and Culture (part of the Russian embassy) that in the recent years have organized number of events with clear ideological messages such as exhibitions dedicated to anniversaries of liberation of Slovakia and Bratislava from Nazi Germany, Victory Day in WWII, concerts of Alexandrov’s military orchestra and choir with local pop-singers, memorial event called “Immortal regiment”, exhibition of Soviet posters dedicated to WWII, celebration of anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight to space, international festival “Day of Slavs”, but also festivals of Russian culture, concerts of Russian bands, performances of Russian dramatic actors and musicians, movies projection, etc.

However, the most famous attempts to enforce Russian ideological influence in Slovakia comes from the very specific organization – motor-biker gang Night Wolves. The wide media coverage of the scandalous circumstances that accompanied the performance of the group members is why otherwise unknown group about which the ordinary Slovak citizens knew nothing before 2015 became famous. Three years later, in the summer of 2018, however, the case of Night Wolves and their local branch were brought up at the highest political level in Slovakia.

Night Wolves on the scene

The fact that Night Wolves became true messengers of the Russian “sharp power“ in Slovakia had its logic. It is a grouping that contains many elements of the ideological arsenal used by Russian propaganda – cult of rude physical force, militarism, historical revisionism, hatred of the West, rejection of the EU and the NATO, imperial nationalism, resistance to liberal democracy, superpower aspirations, Stalinism, homophobia, emphasis on “traditional values“, manifested “social conservatism“, ideas of „Russian World“ and Slavic brotherhood, adoration of the Soviet Union and Russian monarchy – everything in one package.

For the first time this Russian “patriotic“ gang attracted attention of wider Slovak public was in the spring of 2015, when Wolves’ chief Alexandr Zaldostanov announced that on the occasion of the 70th  anniversary of victory over Nazism he was going to organize a ride through Central Europe to Berlin, with one of the tracks passing  Slovakia. The Night Wolves’ repertoire was known: to arrive with the escort of local motorcyclists, to organize public event attended by local audience in coordination with the pro-Russian groups at some memorial place, with the red and Russian flags, under the slogans of the greatness of USSR and Russia, with speeches about Russian World (mostly in the former republics of the USSR) or about Slavic brotherhood (in the countries of the Central Europe). This would be done with the presence of Russian state television channels, so that viewers in Russia see how the local population welcomes Russian and Slavic brothers, descendants and successors of the former liberators. In Slovakia Night Wolves planned to organize a meeting in Bratislava on the Slavín Hill, where the fallen Soviet soldiers are buried, who liberated Czechoslovakia, place of the traditional commemorative events.

Since the members of Night Wolves, including Zaldostanov, took active part in the Russian occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea while fighting on the side of Russian troops and pro-Russian separatists, they were banned from entering the EU Member States. Poland has immediately announced that it would not let any Night Wolf into its territory. Night Wolves would not be brave enough to move towards the Central and Western Europe via Ukraine. No other possibility existed for entering Slovakia from the East other than via Poland, Ukraine or Hungary which, similarly as Slovakia is separated geographically from Russia by Ukraine (therefore, this option was also excluded).

Nevertheless, the pro-Western-oriented public (media, experts, civil activists, politicians) demanded that the state authorities explicitly ban the gang members from entering Slovakia. In particular, they pointed out that under the mantle of celebrating the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazism, the event was being prepared to divert attention from Russian aggression against Ukraine. Instead, with support from the local pro-Russian groups Night Wolves were planning to spread the Kremlin’s narratives about the World War II which conceal the Stalin’s USSR’s share of responsibility in unleashing the World War II and ignore the negative consequences of communist regimes installed by the Soviet Union. Slovak police, however, did not issue such restriction and informed the public that it would continue monitoring the situation and would intervene in case of the breach of the law.

Eventually, the “wolf men” managed to hold their action, not surprisingly – by using the fraud. The real Night Wolves failed to get to Slovakia  but the ones that did manage to enter the country were “temporary contractors“ – few “wolves“, the Russian-speaking Latvian citizens instructed by leadership of the gang in Moscow, who used the EU citizenship, travelled through Lithuania and Poland in civilian clothes. After crossing the Czech-Polish border they used their traditional dresses – leather jackets and helmets with Christian Orthodox, Russian and Soviet state insignia. In Bratislava, on Slavín Hill, local pro-Russian activists organized a public event with the support of Russian embassy which was attended by two thousand people. Members of Russian diaspora from Slovakia and neighboring countries, Russian diplomats, activists of pro-Russian lobby groups and politicians from the far right and the far left, and sympathizers of Putin’s regime were present at the gathering. Latvian passport-holder members of the Night Wolves continued their “victorious” ride to Austria and Germany after the event in Bratislava.

2018: Night Wolves and Slovak Conscripts against authorities and civil society

Another case that occurred during the summer 2018, widely resonating in the Slovak media and politics, confirmed that intentions of Night Wolves and their local allies in Slovakia went far beyond holding purely propaganda-oriented events.

In June 2018, Night Wolves announced the opening of their branch in Slovakia that would serve as their “European Headquarters“. In the small village Dolná Krupa, near the regional city Trnava, local businessman, fireman and biker named Jozef Hambálek opened an estate that was supposed to be a museum of historical military technics. Hambálek said this estate will be a seat of the Night Wolves’ “European Headquarters”.

Hambálek is not completely unknown figure in the country. He helped Night Wolves in their previous attempts to enter Slovakia and he even participated in their activities in Russia. In 2017, together with the head of Night Wolves Zaldostanov, he met with President Vladimir Putin in Crimea. He also had contacts with high-ranking Slovak politicians, including former Minister of Interior Robert Kaliňák, with whom he shared his main hobby – driving on the motorcycles. Hambálek managed to borrow several pieces of old military equipment from the State Historical Museum. After this he was successfully spreading the legend about construction of museum in Dolná Krupa.

Night Wolves’ “European Headquarters“  was not accessible to the public and journalists  managed to shoot a video using a drone to show that it was in fact facility designed to carry out the training of armed people (shooting range, track for armored vehicles). It turned out that members of the paramilitary unregistered group Slovak Conscripts, which the Ministry of Interior considered an extremist organization, already conducted their exercises in that estate. Slovak Conscripts is a pro-Russian anti-Western paramilitary unit, tending to radical nationalism in the spirit of “Slavic brotherhood”. It was founded several years ago by young Slovaks who had previously undergone special training in Russia.

The circumstances of establishing Night Wolves’ “European Headquarters“ in Slovakia triggered a strong resonance. The media wrote about the apparent provocation before commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Soviet invasion to Czechoslovakia in 1968, arguing that pro-Putin’s gang, the tool of Russian influence, showed how it understood the independence of the Central European states when it helped local pro-Russian agents to organize trainings with weapons.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Economy quickly reacted. The MFA expressed concerns and stated that members of this gang are spreading harmful narrative aimed at rewriting the history: “These are the views that there was no annexation of Crimea, that the NATO is a criminal organization,  that Stalin is the idol of Russian history, the insurmountable leader of the Russian nation“. The MoD punished the management of military museum for lending Hambálek an old military technique. Hambálek received high financial fine from the Ministry of Economy – being a chief of the local fire brigade he, in contradiction with the law, did not notify the ministry that he had acquired a rented military equipment, including a tank. The Ministry of the Interior reiterated that it has been closely monitoring the situation and would intervene if illegal activities would happen.

The most striking reaction came from President Andrej Kiska. He called on the government to create conditions for effective intervention against “dubious associations that are stretching themselves in our country“. He argued that Russian motorcyclists were engaged in military operations in Crimea, alongside the special forces of the Russian army: “Their founder is on a sanction list and is banned from traveling to the EU. They are not harmless motorbike lovers, but a tool of regime that has contributed to the annexation of the part of Ukraine in contradiction with the international law. Establishment of their so-called “European Headquarters“ in Slovakia is a mockery of official attitude of the Slovak Republic to the annexation of Crimea and to Russia’s policy”. According to Kiska, given these circumstances, Night Wolves represent a serious security risk for the country.

Slovak civil society also manifested its strict opposition to the Night Wolves. Well-known NGO representatives have signed a petition against their presence in the country. A civic initiative was formed to point out the expansiveness of Night Wolves in the context of commemoration of events of August 1968. Civic activists installed billboards near Dolná Krupa that drew attention to this issue. Electronic postcards with historical parallels – USSR 1968/Night Wolves 2018 – became viral on the Internet.

Conclusion

Night Wolves‘ attempts to build their European base in Slovakia failed. Although they had their committed followers and lobbyists, the democratic forces, independent media and civil society actors were able to uncover this attempt and its real intentions, to warn the inefficient state authorities on the risks emerged and to demand them to act urgently. The clear-cut reaction of the head of the state who took the side of democratic forces and pro-Western orientation of the country was extremely important. Solid common response of broader community (experts, journalists, politicians) reached the main goal – no local branch of Night Wolves in Slovakia.  It was a display of how countering Russia’s “sharp power” can bring positive results.

The Article is prepared in the framework of the project “EaP&V4 Countries Countering Disinformation” with the financial support from the International Visegrad Fund. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not in any way represent the views of International Visegrad Fund or the partner organisations.

The project is implemented by the Europe-Georgia Institute and Civil Development and Research Institute. 

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