The last time a large group of Russian vehicles, revving their engines, rolled into Georgia it was 2008 and a full-fledged invasion. This time, it’s Harley Davidsons, not BMP-2s, but, with hostility toward Russia still running strong, the Georgian government has opted to keep the bikers at bay.
On May 3, it denied entry to the Night Wolves, a motorcycle gang of leather-limbed and long-haired Russian nationalists bent on holding a motorcycle show in Tbilisi on May 9, World War II Victory Day.
Deputy Foreign Minister Shalva Khutsishvili said that the group’s presence in Georgia during the country’s Victory Day celebrations was undesirable, and that the Georgian border services reserve the right to choose whom they let into the country.
Led by former dentist Alexander Zaldastanov, nicknamed “The Surgeon,” the Night Wolves celebrate Russian power through motorcycle shows and rock concerts, and also run tattoo parlors and a clothing line. But for many in Georgia and other ex-Soviet republics wary of Moscow’s propaganda, they amount to nothing more than a biker brigade for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian leader has ridden around with the Night Wolves and calls them his buddies. In Chechnya, Putin’s mini-me, the North Caucasus region’s controversial strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov, is the honorary leader of the gang’s local chapter.
The Wolves’ latest chapter opened in the Moscow-backed, so-called Donetsk People’s Republic in war-torn eastern Ukraine. The aim, according to Zaldastanov, is to help the “integration process” with Russia.
That’s just what concerns many Georgians, mindful of Moscow’s ever-tighter hold on their own breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. “Putin uses these Wolves to mark his territories,” warned one popular Georgian blogger, Cyxymu (Giorgi Jakhaia), an IDP from Abkhazia.
A cavalcade of 50 Night Wolves was sent back from the Georgian border on May 1. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. The gang subsequently proposed via Facebook that its members pose as tourists and tell Georgian border officers that they have no association with the Night Wolves – a tactic apparently used in the past to sneak into Germany to mark the Red Army’s 1945 capture of Berlin.
“To strengthen the effect you can take with you the American flag, or the European Union flag and tie a rainbow ribbon to it. Success will certainly be guaranteed,” the instructions for the Georgia operation advise.
The trick may have worked, as one purported group member was sighted in Tbilisi and his photos spread across social media. The Georgian interior ministry confirmed the infiltration, saying that the person did not have anything showing affiliation with the Night Wolves when he crossed into Georgia in April.
“Tens of bikers cross the Georgian border daily for peaceful, tourist or transit reasons, and at that specific moment, the interior ministry had no ground not to allow this person into Georgia,” the ministry told Netgazeti.
The ministry said it is keeping an eye on the unnamed visitor, to make sure no incidents take place. In the past, Night Wolves have visited Georgia in small groups, leading to occasional exchanges with locals. A few years back, one member appeared to hit a Georgian woman who tried to film several Night Wolves riders with her smartphone.
After the riders’ plans to visit and stage a show became known, many Georgians took to social media, the country’s national forum, to prevent the arrival of “Putin’s travelling circus.”
“If they still arrive,” wrote blogger Cyxymu, “we have to give them a welcome that would make them lose any desire to come back.”
Amidst softer Georgian policies toward Moscow, the Night Wolves have made it into Georgia before – in 2015, they roared through en route to Russia-friendly Armenia -- yet Tbilisi's desire to avoid a dust-up over the bikers appears to have prevailed this year.
“Relax, they’re not coming,” Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Mghebrishvili tried to reassure the public.