Britain’s version of the Oscars is the BAFTAS. But the organizers, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, are now the villains in a drama of their own making, featuring murderous Russians, heroic investigative journalists, pusillanimous royalty, and dithering politicians. 

The winner in the best documentary category at the annual awards ceremony on February 19 was a film about the Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny. It stars Christo Grozev, the lead investigator for the Bellingcat open-source research group, who helped uncover the Russian hit squad that botched Navalny’s murder in August 2020. The Kremlin in December put Grozev on Russia’s most-wanted list for the crime of spreading “fake news” about the army; in recent weeks, he has had to flee his home city, Vienna, because the Austrian authorities are unable to protect him from assassins. 

Last week BAFTA, citing London’s Metropolitan Police, told Grozev that he and his children were a “public security risk” and must stay away. BAFTA also disinvited the Russian opposition activist Roman Dobrokhotov. The spineless rudeness provoked a furor. Alicia Kearns, the formidable chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said the police should be rooting out Russian assassins, not forcing journalists into hiding. 

Then the veteran human rights activist Peter Tatchell dropped a bombshell: the ban actually stemmed from Prince William’s security team. The heir to the British throne was the star guest at the ceremony. But no royals would come if the controversial visitors attended.

The episode is a farce, a tragedy, and a mystery. It is ridiculous that the royal bodyguards should be able to wield such a sweeping veto. They have their job to do — but surely some extra security would have alleviated their concerns? It is miserable that the British authorities cannot protect someone as brave and effective as Grozev. And it is baffling that the government did not intervene to fix the problem, instead of looking cowardly and disorganized. If the threat was real, the right response would be to invite Grozev and his family to come to Britain as official guests, and to expel some more diplomats from the Russian embassy.

And that’s not all. 

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The London-based Iran International television station said this week that “after a significant escalation in state-backed threats from Iran and advice from the Metropolitan Police,” it is relocating to Washington, DC. This follows the arrest of an Austrian national of Chechen extraction who was caught engaging in what looked like surveillance of the opposition channel’s headquarters in Chiswick, west London. The move is thought to be temporary; the British authorities are trying to find another site that would be easier to protect. They deployed armored vehicles and armed police outside the studios in November in response to a previous threat. The police also say that they last year foiled 15 plots to intimidate and silence dissident Iranians.

Britain however failed to protect Alexander Litvinenko (murdered with polonium by Kremlin goons in 2006) and Sergei Skripal (victim of a nerve-agent poisoning in 2018). A troubling number of other Kremlin critics have met mysterious deaths, too, amid official indifference and incompetence. Our reputation is at stake. So is my peace of mind. I am number five on a list of “top russophobes” published by RT, a Russian state broadcaster, in 2017. I laughed this off then. Now it seems less amusing. 

Grozev, now in North America, says that when western society ostracises people like him, it helps Russian attempts to depict critics as irrelevant. British politicians enjoy talking bravely about backing Ukraine. They find it harder to deal with threats closer to home.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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