Pro-Putin Russian bikers, known for their politically incorrect expeditions, have now caused concern in Azerbaijan, after they announced plans to descend on Nagorno Karabakh on July 31, in breach of an Azerbaijan-imposed travel ban on the breakaway territory.
This is not the first time that the infamous, Kremlin-funded motorcycle club, the Night Wolves, has sparked controversy. Earlier this year, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blessing, this Russian nationalism-on-wheels tried to retrace the Soviet Army’s route to Berlin to commemorate the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany. Several European countries like Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic refused to offer passage to this new red army, both because of their controversial trajectory and for their support for pro-Russia fighters in Ukraine. Only a small group of club members made it to Germany; most of them in a rental car.
A pack of Night Wolves then headed to Georgia, much to the outrage of many Georgians angry over the continued Russian occupation of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After all, the country’s biggest bête noire, Putin, is an honorary member of the gang.
In Georgia, the group’s leader, Alexander Zaldastanov, aka Surgeon, added fuel to the fire by expressing regret that he had to use an international passport to cross from Russia to Georgia.
“What is this? I even have to fill out forms in Sevastopol, Ukraine, where I spent my childhood,” he complained to Georgian media. “It is a tragedy that we all don’t live in one country anymore.”
Leaving Georgian commentators sputtering, the Wolves next headed further south to Armenia and plan to swing by Nagorno Karabakh, the breakaway majority ethnic Armenian territory claimed by Azerbaijan. No confirmation has arrived yet that the gang made it to Karabakh, but Azerbaijani officials already have launched an investigation.
Baku, which sees the travel ban as a way to pressure Karabakh back into Azerbaijan’s fold, said that the motorists’ trip to the disputed territory amounts to a border violation, and is a “symptom of disrespect for Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and Azerbaijani refugees” from Karabakh.
But the Putin bikers are not the only strange Russian visitors to put Baku on edge.
Earlier this month, eccentric Russian tycoon-turned-farmer German Sterligov moved to Karabakh with his wife and children for a villager’s life there. An ultranationalist and ardent Orthodox Christian, Sterligov said he chose remote, mountainous Karabakh as the best place to live a simple life and be close to God.
Azerbaijan issued an arrest warrant for Sterligov and accused him of an illegal border crossing and violation of Azerbaijani law. It is unclear if such measures will stop the streak of strange visitors to Karabakh from Russia.