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You couldn’t have picked a more ideal character for the role if you had help from central casting.
The appearance in Russia this past week of the cheerfully rotund French actor Gerard Depardieu, internationally regarded for films such as Green Card and Cyrano de Bergerac, was like a gift for Vladimir Putin during a particularly tough month.
French observers were aghast to see one of their prominent celebrities traveling to Sochi where he embraced Vladimir Putin with a bear hug and accepted a Russian passport. The publicity stunt represented the culmination of a weeks-long public spat between Depardieu and the government of Francois Hollande, who had proposed a 75% income tax on France’s richest citizens (the tax was later struck down by the Constitutional Court).
With astute timing, Putin intervened in the Depardieu drama to pitch Russia as a tax haven for wealthy Europeans with a flat rate of 13%, offering him immediate citizenship. Thumbing his nose toward France, Depardieu hopped on a plane to pick up his new passport, opening up a boisterous debate not only over taxes but also the complex question of Russia’s place in the international community.
The financial motivation for Depardieu to give up his citizenship is self-evident, and the spectacle of embarrassing his antagonist was likely quite satisfying. But according to the fine print, he would have to spend at least 182 days a year in residence to qualify for 13%, and besides, he has already publicly stated that he is still French.
The real beneficiary of Depardieuskygate has been Putin, who has enjoyed a full week of international headlines that had nothing to do with his recent ill-considered decision to ban the adoption of Russian orphans by U.S. parents as a reaction to the Magnitsky Act, a new visa sanctions law that seeks to punish select Russian officials accused of human rights abuses.
In the days following Depardieu’s visit, many critics has condemned him for endorsing Putin’s regime as a “great democracy” when there are political prisoners like Mikhail Khodorkovsky suffering behind bars. Writing on his Twitter, Socialist party leader Harlem Desir complained, “It’s enough, France doesn’t have any lesson to take from Russia! One cannot forget Pussy Riot, Politkovskaya, Chechnya and Syria.”
Others played down the controversy, arguing instead that Mr. Depardieu is perfectly free to emigrate to another country for tax benefits much in the same way a corporation may take advantage of the lower costs in an authoritarian country, such as Apple in China.
Of course this isn’t the first time that Putin has imported a celebrity endorsement to shore up his credibility as a “normal president.” Just a couple years ago, he crooned a rendition of “Blueberry Hill” at a charity event attended by Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn and Mickey Rourke, while regularly enjoying mixed martial arts events with B-class action stars like Jean Claude Van Damme.
Whatever the interpretation, Depardieu’s Russia saga has raised more challenging questions about what kind of country Russia seeking to become while illustrating the antagonistic aspects of its foreign policy.
The visit of a foreign celebrity – especially one that wants to move to beautiful Russia – is a rare gesture of soft power for Putin, providing him with an opportunity to exhibit some level of influence, appeal, and, if not integrity, than at least the normality of a constitutional democracy under the rule of law. On the other hand, the publicity stunt was also an insult – an insouciant statement of superiority to the West in general.
So what does Russia want? To be a comfortable tax haven for wealthy Europeans, or to become an isolated Eurasian oil exporter that won’t put up with any paternalistic lecturing on democracy and human rights? The answer: both and neither.
Writing in the New Republic, journalist Julia Ioffe commented on this mutually antagonistic set of values ingrained in Russia’s embrace of the West: “It is a strange psychological dance—with roots in the holy foolery of Byzantine culture—and it is at play here: Russia welcomes and pampers the Westerner, it shields him from its cruder realities and lavishes on him its choicest sweetmeats and maidens. And, all the while, it mocks him as inferior in spirit, and holds up his rare defection as an example of all that is wrong with the craven, godless West.”
From a foreign policy standpoint, the pursuit of economic integration and rapprochement have been coupled with a drift toward isolation and, even worse, geopolitical irrelevance. Just recently Russia completed its ascension to the World Trade Organization. In September this year, they will host the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg. In 2014, they will host the Winter Olympic Games. At the same time, Russia has armed Bashar Assad in Syria, protected Iran from pressure on its nuclear program, and let relations with the U.S. reach a new low point with the adoptions ban, while failed diplomacy with even their closest neighbors has revealed a considerable deficit of trust.
Reconciling these opposed foreign policy objectives takes constant negotiation, as Russia clearly sees the necessity of growing its economy by attracting capital and deepening integration with the West but at the same time is constantly at pains to preserve sovereignty and maintain control of its illiberal political system.
With so few friends and even fewer allies, the arrival of a jovial celebrity was a welcome sight indeed.