Vladimir Putin flourished his pen Thursday morning and signed what must be the oddest decree of his long years in power: an order granting a Russian passport to French actor and tax exile Gerard Depardieu.
A terse announcement posted on the Kremlin website noted that Mr. Putin acted "to satisfy an application for citizenship of the Russian Federation by Gerard Xavier Depardieu, who was born in 1948 in France."
Mr. Depardieu, star of over 170 films and possessing what is often politely referred to as a "colorful" public personality, has been locked in a high profile battle with France's new socialist government over an emergency tax that would levy a 75 percent rate on people earning more than $1.3 million. He recently renounced his French citizenship and took up residence in Belgium, which offers a friendlier tax regime for the super-rich.
France's high court struck down the law last week as "unconstitutional," but the government announced it will soon reintroduce the measure after taking the court's concerns into account.
It's not clear whether Depardieu actually applied for residence in Russia, which has a 13 percent flat income tax for all, but in a far-ranging press conference last month Putin declared "If Gérard really wants to have a residence permit or a Russian passport, you can consider it done, the issue solved positively."
Putin also said that he has long enjoyed "kind, friendly, personal relations" with the French actor.
Come to Chechnya
Depardieu is no stranger to Russia. He has appeared in several ad campaigns and filmed the 2011 movie Rasputin in St. Petersburg. He is also rumored to be close to Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, and was guest of honor at the pro-Kremlin leader's birthday party in Grozny last October.
Mr. Kadyrov has said that he would happily invite Depardieu to come and live permanently in Chechnya if he wanted to. "If the country's leadership decides in favor of granting Depardieu Russian citizenship, we will be glad to create deserved conditions for the great cultural figure in our republic," Kadyrov said last week.
Russia's blogosphere erupted in derision and sarcastic comment Thursday, with some people writing painfully of their own troubles with Russia's notoriously bureaucratic passport department.
One man posted on Facebook his own tale of trying for years to repatriate his own Russian-born elderly mother from next-door Belarus, but he has so far failed to move Russian authorities because her Belarussian documents show a slightly different spelling of her name than appears on her Russian birth certificate.
Part of spat with West?
Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the liberal Moscow daily Kommersant, says the granting of citizenship to Depardieu should be seen in context with the escalating war of words between Russia and the West. Last month President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, which aims to punish corrupt Russian officials, and Moscow responded by enacting the Dima Yakovlev Act, whose main feature is a ban on US citizens adopting Russian orphans.
"Russia is very much on the defensive right now. The vindictive nature of Russia's adoption ban has shocked not only the US, but also many in Europe and here in Russia as well," Mr. Strokan says.
"We seem to be entering into a cold war-like battle of images, in which Russia is trying to show that it offers a better life, has higher ideals, and is more friendly to humanity than the West.... So this may be seen as a calculated PR move, an effort to demonstrate that we understand and care for the beloved French actor more than his own homeland does," he adds.
"I can't imagine that Depardieu would actually want to live here and experience the life of Russians, though. Let's see how it goes the first time he attempts to travel with that new Russian passport."