The Russian motorcycle club Night Wolves, known for its staunch Russian nationalism and allegiance to President Vladimir Putin, has announced a "Russian Balkans" tour of Bosnia and Serbia in mid-March.
Around two dozen members of the biker group, which is under U.S. sanctions for its role in a Russia-backed separatist war in Ukraine, will tour the Balkan countries to “research on the cultural influence of the Russian Empire in the Balkans,” the group said in an Internet post.
The announced tour was recently criticized by Bosnia's National Security Minister Dragan Mektic for being part of what he said is a campaign to intimidate moderate Bosnian Serbs and non-Serbs in Bosnia ahead of elections in October.
The Night Wolves is "no typical motorcycle club. They carry strong political messages," Mektic said, citing reports that the Night Wolves plan to open an office in Banja Luka -- the administrative center of Republika Srpska, Bosnia's Serb-dominated entity -- and monitor the elections.
Authorities in Republika Srpska "want to give them legitimacy and use them in an election process," Mektic said.
Mektic also denounced other intimidation tactics he said have been used by Serb far-right groups whose leaders were trained in Russia and who recently marched in full combat gear during a parade in Banja Luka.
Wess Mitchell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, also warned on March 12 about Russia playing what he said was "an increasingly destructive role in much of the Balkans."
The Night Wolves said its members will tour Bosnia and Serbia for around nine days covering around 2,000 kilometers, starting on March 19 in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
The group plans to visit Banja Luka on March 21 and meet with Republika Srpska's pro-Russia President Milorad Dodik, according to its itinerary.
The biker group said its "Russian Balkans" pilgrimage aims to study the historical heritage of the "Russian Empire" and the Russian Orthodox Church.
The group is known for its allegiance to the Kremlin, and critics say its main aim is not recreational but to promote Putin's brand of Russian nationalism.
In December 2014, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted the Night Wolves because its members served in an armed group in Ukraine.
In contrast to the U.S. sanctions, Dodik gave the Night Wolves an award on January 9 for their “emphasis on the affirmation of human rights, tolerance among people, the rule of law and freedom, and the strengthening of friendly relations between the Russian Federation and [Republika Srpska].”
A few weeks later, Aleksandr Zaldastanov, the president of the biker club, sent a letter to Dodik, inviting him to visit the bikers' annual party in Sevastopol, Crimea, the region that Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
In the letter, Zaldastanov called Dodik a “son of the true, deep Serbia” whose goal was to “establish the unity of peoples, after which, finally, will be the long-awaited revival.”
With reporting by Reuters and Balkan Insight