As they embraced, they looked just like Obelix and Asterix, the two comic book Gallic warriors: the bearlike French movie star Gerard Depardieu and the short and energetic Russian President Vladimir Putin. And indeed, the occasion for their photo opportunity — the granting of Russian citizenship to Depardieu — was a comic plot come true.
Depardieu, who has actually played the role of Obelix in French movies, didn't initially set his sights on Russia. He was reported to be moving to a Belgian village just across the border from France, a location that would allow him to avoid France's new 75 percent income tax rate for people making more than 1 million euros a year. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault publicly called the expatriation "minable," meaning "shabby" or "pitiful," prompting an irate Depardieu to say he would relinquish his French passport.
The film star took things a step further during a farewell party in Paris. At the event, according to a Dec. 18 report in Le Monde, the actor said, facetiously, that "Putin has already sent me a passport."
The Kremlin was immediately nonplussed. Asked about Depardieu's remark on Dec. 19, Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov stuttered: "I cannot comment on this. This is obviously a joke."
The very next day, though, Putin responded with utter seriousness: "If Gerard really wants a Russian residence permit or passport, consider that done." Russian legislation does not allow anyone to gain citizenship in under three months. To be eligible for the fast track, one has to be a national of a former Soviet republic and already holding a Russian residence permit. In the standard scenario, an applicant must spend five years in Russia, never leaving for more than 90 days.
Putin is unhappy with the citizenship procedure. On Dec. 12, just as Depardieu's row with the French government was unfolding, Putin said that Russia needed to cut red tape so it could attract people "spiritually and culturally close to it."
Depardieu has done his best to prove that Putin's definition of a desirable new citizen applies to him. "I adore your country, Russia, your people, your history, your writers," he wrote in a letter to Russian journalists, explaining his application for a Russian passport. "I adore your culture and your way of thinking. My father was a Communist in his time and he listened to Radio Moscow! That, too, is part of my culture."
The official explanation for the gift of Russian citizenship to Depardieu was that he had rendered outstanding services to cinema.
The way Putin bypassed the official citizenship procedure made some commentators wonder whether he was underselling his country. "I think when a person receives a passport, he must get more pleasure out of it than those who are issuing it," journalist Leonid Mlechin told Echo Moskvy radio. "Otherwise one gets the feeling that the passport is not worth much." Mlechin cited the example of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who he said had to wait 15 years for U.S. citizenship.
If Depardieu establishes tax residency in Russia, which means living in the country for more than half of each year, he will be eligible for sharply lower taxes than in France. Russia has a flat 13 percent personal income tax rate, two percentage points lower than Hong Kong — an advantage some Russian officials see as a powerful enticement for future high-profile immigrants.
"Few people in the West are aware of the Russian tax system," Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin wrote on Twitter. "When they find out, we should expect mass migration of wealthy Europeans to Russia." So far, no billionaires have followed the actor's lead. Perhaps they're aware of the other side of Russia's favorable personal tax regime: No one's property or business is safe from an all-seeing, interfering state. It may be that Russia's tax climate is ideal only for someone like Depardieu, who does not run a large-scale business operation in Russia, and who is famous enough to be treated as a demigod by everyone including corrupt police.
Russian citizenship entails at least one other inconvenience: Visas are required to travel to most countries, including EU members.
"I have a Russian passport but I remain French, and of course I will keep dual Belgian nationality," Depardieu told L'Equipe 21 television.
After playing his part in Putin's promotion campaign for Russian citizenship, Depardieu is back on the European star circuit. Putin, meanwhile, is back to the business of convincing his people that they live in a great country that famous French actors would be happy to call home.
In an interview with Echo Moskvy radio, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky called the Depardieu case a reflection of Putin's "provincial complex." "Giving Russian citizenship to an old drunk fleeing taxes in his country is an incredibly wise and effective move," Belkovsky said with biting sarcasm.
Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for Bloomberg World View.
© 2013 Bloomberg