In the ’70s and ’80s there was a major movement worldwide to gently nudge the Soviet authorities to “Let my people go”. Mass rallies, protests and disruption of Russian cultural events were the order of the day from London to New York to Sydney. With the collapse of Communism, the ’90s saw the influx to Israel of close to a million Soviet Citizens, by no means all of whom were descendants of Pharaoh’s slaves, while oligarchs started popping up in the unlikeliest of places, like the directors’ box of an unimpressive London football club.
I, therefore, found it quite dizzying when former French actor Gérard Depardieu was spotted bear-hugging former KGB officer Vladimir Putin on receipt of his gleaming new Russian Passport. Until last week, the only people who ever thought of moving into Russia had Christian names like Kim, Guy, Adolf and Napoleon.
The story hardly needs retelling. French bête noire most recently remembered for urinating on the floor of a plane awaiting take-off in Paris, is so incensed by Mad Hatter President’s intention to apply a humongous tax rate on the wealthy that he contemplates joining the rest of Peter Pan’s lost (rich) boys in a Belgian town near the French border.
In what initially appears a stroke of tax genius, at the last-minute he diverts his attention eastward and makes a play for Russian citizenship. By moving tax residence to Russia he can swap the 75% (and then some) tax rate for 13%. Although France now has an Exit Tax for those perceived to be betraying the Fifth Republic, the French/Russian Double Taxation Treaty refers in its nondiscrimination clause to nationals rather than residents implying that Exit Tax might not be charged.
Nice theory, but it ignores one critical factor. Depardieu is ethnically, if no longer nationally, French. Too rational.
Not satisfied with the royal welcome that turned this tailless amphibian (use your imagination) into a Russian Prince, Depardieu proceeded to chuck his French citizenship into the Seine while spouting nonsense about Russian democracy. The Russians, for their part, warmly welcomed their new comrade who had recently shown his Motherland credentials by appearing in a movie as Rasputin. Now, I know little about Russian history and, with all that has happened in the last hundred years, I have great difficulty in keeping track of who is currently welcome on the podium in Red Square, but if there is one thing all Russia is agreed on, it is that Rasputin does not get a look-in.
In short, Depardieu just appears to have been on a typically French emotional bender that was planned as well as the Soviet economy.
Had he not been such an exhibitionist, he might have gone for one of the more traditional tax havens. Switzerland, with its lump-sum expense based system, is a particular favourite for sportsmen and actors while the UK, with its non-domiciliary status is excellent for those well planned in deriving income outside the UK. Monaco and Andorra (wherever that is) tend to be more liberal in their residency requirements. The Channel Islands and Isle of Man offer a peculiarly British middle-class environment which would have surely suited our hero – they particularly appreciate Gauls who pee on carpets.
And if all he wanted was a new passport, for a suitable fee he could have picked up citizenship in the Dominican Republic or St Kitts, two countries even the French could have conquered had they managed to find them on the map.
As yet it is impossible to know what the unpredictable Comrade Depardieu will do. Does he really intend to sit out 183 or so days each year in Mother Russia? Has a man who lives by the French language not realised that, whilst in Tolstoy’s St Petersburg Soirées, Pierre and his friends chatted happily in French, it is not only Napoleon who has moved on since then? Or, is he just attempting to become another of the modern world’s “Tax Tourists” who thinks he can swing the residence tie-breaker clause in the double taxation treaty by popping in for an occasional vodka while en route from London to Los Angeles? Fat chance, fat boy.
One can sympathise with Depardieu’s desire to make a break for it from France. Its economy is by all accounts (apart from that of its clownish Government) heading down a bidet’s drain. Rather than attempting to avert the crisis, the Government has adopted a policy of assisted national suicide while offering the wealthy the choice between the guillotine and exile.
However, it really is beginning to look like the Asterix star might live to regret his decision. One of the attributes of a tax haven is that it leaves the tax exile to get on largely unhindered with his or her life. While, as M Depardieu has proudly stated, Russia is undoubtedly a great democracy, it would be interesting to see what would happen if he chose to relieve himself on the floor of an Aeroflot airliner or, for that matter, not to turn up in court to answer a charge of driving under the influence, as was the case this week in France.