MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin granted citizenship on Thursday to Gerard Depardieu after the disgruntled French movie star said he was quitting his homeland to avoid paying a new millionaires' tax.
The decision appears to give Depardieu, a frequent guest of the Moscow celebrity circuit who nonetheless never asked for nationality, the right to pay the 13 per cent tax levied in Russia on everyone from tycoons to the poor.
“Vladimir Putin has signed a decree granting Russian citizenship to France's Gerard Depardieu,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Depardieu was being rewarded “for his contribution to Russian culture and cinema.”
But the announcement looked more like a jab at the West by Putin, keen to show off Russia's more business-friendly approach to taxes, than an actual effort to lure one of the world's biggest celebrities to Moscow.
French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said the decision was the “exclusive prerogative of the Russian head of state” and did not merit further comment.
Depardieu said on Sunday that a move by France's Constitutional Council to strike down the proposed 75 per cent tax rate for millionaires changed nothing in his much debated decision to move out of France.
The French Socialist government has vowed to push ahead with the tax, applicable to anyone who makes more than one million euros ($1.3 million) a year, and propose a new measure that would conform with the constitution.
Putin at his end-of-year press conference in December surprised many by saying he was ready to offer the 64-year-old cinema veteran a Russian passport to resolve the row.
“If Gerard really wants to have a residency permit in Russia or a Russian passport, we can consider this issue resolved positively,” Putin said at the time.
Putin added that the French premier's famous remark about Depardieu being “pathetic” for threatening to leave the country had hurt the star's feelings and may eventually force him to move.
“An artist is easy to offend,” Putin remarked.
Depardieu had mentioned moving to Belgium, home of a 50-per cent millionaires' tax, and has purchased a new home there near the French border for the specific purpose of avoiding the higher French rate.
A senior Belgian official said Thursday that if the star pursued his stated intention to obtain Belgian nationality, that bid could be affected by him taking Russian nationality.
“He would have to tell us clearly what his projects are, if he intends residing and developing his activities in our country,” said Georges Dallemagne, head of the Belgian committee that oversees naturalisations.
'Glory to Chechnya!'
The hulking actor has been a huge star in Russia since the Soviet era and still enjoys cult status among many movie buffs.
France was seen by the USSR as one of Europe's friendlier countries with natural socialist leanings, a status that made its movies a staple of Soviet silver screens.
Depardieu has since grown into a frequent jury member of the glitzy Moscow and Sochi film festivals.
His straw hair and rugged features have even featured in local television advertisements ranging from kitchen furniture from the central city of Saratov to a brand of ketchup called Baltimore.
And a picture of a smiling Depardieu giving the thumbs up sign still graces the home page of a small Russian bank called Sovetsky (The Soviet).
The charismatic Frenchman was most recently granted the honour of being personally asked to emigrate to Russia by the iron-fisted leader of Chechnya, the scene of two post-Soviet wars that killed tens of thousands.
“I can say for sure that we are ready to welcome the great artist,” Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said a day before Putin's first remarks on the subject.
Depardieu this year made a peculiar visit to Chechnya to attend the birthday of Kadyrov, a ruler accused of torture and other violent crimes by international rights groups.
A video of that celebration showed Depardieu at one stage shouting in Russian: “Glory to Grozny! Glory to Chechnya! Glory to Kadyrov!” Depardieu will qualify for the 13-per cent tax rate if he spends at least six months out of the year in Russia.
The annual tax rate will go up to 30 per cent on all income made locally and in other countries if he spends more than half the year abroad.
“People in the West do not know the details of our tax system,” senior cabinet member Dmitry Rogozin tweeted on Thursday.
“But when they find out, we should expect a mass migration of rich European to Russia,” Rogozin said.