Atop multicolored motorcycles, nationalist Night Wolves bikers revved their engines outside the Russian embassy in Bratislava before driving 44 miles to establish their newest European base — in Dolna Krupa, a village in Slovakia, the former Eastern bloc nation that in the years since the Berlin Wall fell had mostly escaped Russia’s interference.
Their muffler-marked arrival in late June set off alarms in the capital, with the Slovak foreign minister saying the gang — which has called Stalin a hero and NATO a criminal organization — would be closely watched. More than 200 public figures penned an open letter asking the Slovak government to take action. But the biker gang remains, with officials saying they don’t have evidence to convict them of any crimes. Their stay in Slovakia is just one very visible sign of growing pulls and pressures between the country’s Western allies and an increasingly aggressive Russia trying to reclaim its old sphere of influence.
In July, Peter Marcek, an independent member of the Slovak parliament, led a 10-person delegation of lawmakers and businessmen to Crimea, publicly praising Russia’s presence there and suggesting the Ukrainian government was violating human rights in the region. Slovakia’s foreign ministry distanced the government from Marcek’s comments, saying in a statement that “the Slovak Republic still considers Crimea to be Ukrainian territory.” The Slovak government has also diplomatically protested against Russian misinformation campaigns. And President Andrej Kiska has warned that the base is “a serious security risk.”
But at the same time, Slovakia is a rare European nation that has not expelled any Russian diplomat following the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the U.K. Every other country in the Visegrad regional grouping it belongs to — Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic — sent back Russian diplomats. Andrej Danko, the chair of the nationalist Slovak National Party who is a junior partner in the current government, has insisted that “we need Russia.” Robert Fico, former prime minister and leader of Smer, the party that leads the ruling coalition, has also defended the country’s decision to not expel Russian diplomats.
And there are concerns that Russia is helping fund xenophobic, pro-nationalist forces similar to those emerging in other parts of Europe, including the Kotleba (full name: People’s Party Our Slovakia) and NV Europa, a paramilitary far-right group that now shares the Dolna Krupa compound with the Night Wolves. The Kotleba entered Parliament for the first time in the last national elections, in 2016.
“It is a concern for a lot of folks, particularly on the central right or the civic left,” says Kevin Deegan-Krause, an expert in European democracies at Wayne State University who visited Slovakia this summer. The situation is “murky” and “the subject of rumor,” he says, and yet “the basic supposition is that the Russians are messing around with local elections.”
So far, there is no evidence of direct manipulation — such as hacking voter boxes — by Russia. But the country’s agencies have concluded that Russia is funneling funds to extremist groups and fostering dissent through social media, soft-power strategies that Moscow has also used in its attempts to influence American elections, most notably during the 2016 presidential race. “It’s not that difficult,” Deegan-Krause says, considering the relative cost of entry to play — maybe a few hundred thousand dollars to “mess up a party,” he says — and the fact that pro-nationalist groups have already existed for decades in Slovakia, waiting to be tapped into by foreign forces like Russia. “It’s not like these nationalist parties were created out of nowhere, nor do they depend solely on Russian money,” he adds.
With the Russian biker gang newly at their doorstep, Moscow’s presence appears to be looming larger than ever since the end of the Cold War, especially with the example of the annexation of its northern neighbor Ukraine on the minds of many Slovaks.
However, there are reasons Slovak leaders are confident that they are not about to become the next Ukraine, even as Western and Russian forces seek to influence their people. For one, Slovakia is not as militarily vulnerable as Ukraine was, says William Courtney, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan, nonprofit RAND Corporation. It is a NATO member, and so ostensibly would be protected from attack in a way Ukraine wasn’t. It also has a much more stable democracy: It ranked 54th best in the international Corruptions Perception Index (compared to 103rd for Ukraine) and 45th in the Rule of Law Index (compared to 147th for Ukraine).
Even if individuals have “dalliances” with Russia, few EU and NATO states are willing to risk losing that status to flirt with Russia. “Young people … want to grow up Slovakian, but they also want to grow up European,” Courtney says, particularly inspired by the EU’s promise of visa-free work and travel. “None of them are going to take risks that would put that at jeopardy.”
While Ukraine had a large pro-Russia population in the Crimea region, Slovakia does not have similar indigenous support for Moscow, says Deegan-Krause. “In Slovakia, even the most pro-Russian [locals] are not going to take kindly to a group of foreign radical rightists,” he adds. And Slovakia seems to be more insulated than some of its neighbors, such as Hungary and the Czech Republic. In the former, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is considered by some foreign affairs experts to be deeply sympathetic to Russia. And in the latter, the usually outspoken President Milos Zeman displayed his pro-Russian stripes in August by staying silent during the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring.
What experts are seeing in Slovakia may be “a little bit closer to what’s happening to some of the other Central European countries, where various pro-Eastern or pro-proletarian nationalist, patriotic forces are moving,” Courtney says. In the meantime, the threat of what could happen if Russian influence becomes something more will hardly escape Slovak minds: All they have to do is look at aerial shots of the Night Wolves compound, where tanks, armored vehicles and what appears to be a shooting range have quickly replaced a pig insemination factory in the quiet Bratislava suburb.