BRATISLAVA: Russia's ultra-nationalist Night Wolves bikers club is expanding its presence in Slovakia, prompting the NATO member to seek to curb its influence amid concerns about the rise of the far-right.
The Night Wolves, under U.S. sanctions for their role in a pro-Russian insurgency in Ukraine, opened a Slovak branch in June and held military-style exercises in the same month with the Slovak Recruits, a 200-strong paramilitary group.
Slovakia is the most pro-Russian of four central European states, according to a 2017 Ipsos poll, and has granted the bikers passage while Poland and Germany banned them.
Deputy Defence Minister Robert Ondrejcsak said he was concerned about the rise of groups opposed to democratic ideals, and the potential threat the Night Wolves posed in terms of pro-Russian propaganda.
"(Slovak Recruits') recent cooperation with the local branch of the Night Wolves - a soft power (tool) of the Russian hybrid strategy and propaganda, who are openly against the democratic system, against the EU and NATO - is even more worrying," he said.
Critics accuse Vladimir Putin's Russia of hybrid warfare - a blend of political subversion, cyberwarfare and irregular warfare - to increase Moscow's influence. It includes allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, something Putin strenuously denies.
Slovakia was a part of the Soviet bloc during the Cold War but moved decisively into the western orbit when it joined the European Union and the NATO military alliance in 2004.
Its centre-left government, however, still seeks strong trade ties with Russia and reluctantly backed EU sanctions against Moscow over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea territory.
UPROAR OVER COMPOUND
At the heart of Ondrejcsak's concerns are the Slovak Recruits, a group founded in 2012 by Peter Svrcek, who acknowledges attending a military camp in Russia as a 16-year-old.
Svrcek denies any illegal activity by his outfit or links to extremist groups but told Reuters at least one former member joined pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
"We have expelled members with radical opinions," he said. "We respect democracy and the state, and want to be able to help in crisis situations as citizen soldiers."
Svrcek's Slovak Recruits confirmed to Reuters that in June they conducted a military-style exercise at the Slovak branch of the Night Wolves compound in western Slovakia, using decommissioned military equipment the Wolves' borrowed from the state Military History Institute to display at their planned World War Two museum.
The exercises, first reported by activist Juraj Smatana, who specialises in debunking stories from Russian websites that make it to Slovak media, prompted an open letter by more than 200 politicians, analysts and rights activists demanding the Recruits and the Wolves be banned.
The Military History Institute has since asked the Night Wolves to return its equipment - including Soviet-made tanks and decommissioned anti-aircraft guns - by the end of August.
The Night Wolves' compound, painted in camouflage and surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, opened in June at a former pig insemination station in western Slovakia, some 70 km (40 miles) from the capital Bratislava.
President Andrej Kiska on Tuesday branded the compound a security threat and criticised police for failing to act against what he called "questionable clubs spreading across the country".
"To wait until a group that serves another state to start to break the law is a poor security strategy," Kiska said.
Police searched the Night Wolves' premises two weeks ago but said they found no evidence of wrongdoing.
The Defence Ministry meanwhile has filed a request with the General Prosecutor's office to probe the activities of the Slovak Recruits.
ON THE RADAR
So far, the furore does not seem to have hurt the group. Svrcek said applications to join spiked in July, a claim Reuters could not independently verify.
Tomas Nociar, an expert in extremist groups, said there was growing support for the far-right among young Slovaks, attracted by its criticism of NATO and the European Union, and its opposition to immigration.
"Their agenda of law, order, authoritarianism, even militarism" appealed to young people said Nociar, of Commenius University in Bratislava.
"The media portraying them as controversial also makes them attractive," he added.
Jozef Hambalek, founder of the Slovak branch of the Night Wolves, said denied any political motivation behind his creation of the Slovak chapter of Russia's Night Wolves.
"I am only interested in motorcycles and military history," he said.
(Reporting By Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Jon Boyle)