Speedy Delivery

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets French actor Gerard Depardieu during their meeting in Sochi

Gerard Depardieu’s rapid naturalization as a Russian citizen has raised ire inside and outside of Russia. For one of the better comment’s on Depardieugate, I recommend Vadim Nikitin’s op-ed “Depardieu and the New Capitalism” in the New York Times. Nikitin makes the clear headed argument that Depardieu’s run to Russia for a tax haven is nothing more than a symptom of neoliberalism. In a world of fluid capital, outsourcing, global competition, and anything goes profit maximization, isn’t the star of Green Card entitled to do what many multinational corporations do on a regular basis? As Nikitin writes,

It’s odd that people should feel so shocked by Depardieu’s decision. After all, in escaping from a messy, expensive democracy to a cheaper and simpler autocracy, the actor is only doing what thousands of Western multinational corporations do every day by moving their factories to China, and their management to the United Arab Emirates.

For example, when it invests in China, a company like Apple can reap all the benefits of totalitarianism — streamlined governance, low wages and no labor unrest — at the same time as it opts out of the abuses, restrictions and indignities faced by ordinary Chinese people.

Depardieu has done the same thing. In Russia, he can benefit from the double standards the country affords members of the pro-government elite vis-à-vis the general public. Due to his personal friendship with President Vladimir Putin, Depardieu will benefit from the country’s low taxation and other perks of dealing with a democratically unaccountable system, such as having his citizenship fast-tracked by presidential decree while ordinary people have to wait years to get their passports.

When put this way, Depardieu’s dart to Russia seems quite harmless.

Yet it is the last sentence of this passage that I want to dwell on. It’s quite indicative of the way Russia is ruled that it took a mere three days after Putin signed an executive order granting Depardieu citizenship that the French actor had his passport in hand, let alone delivered by the First Migration Officer Putin himself. If anyone was looking for an example of the “power vertical” or, perhaps more poignantly put, the “Putin vertical” it’s the speed in which the Russian bureaucratic machine worked in this instance. It goes to show that in some cases, when the vozhd speaks, someone listens, and with a high profile friend of Putin in the limelight the wheels are all the more greased.

This feat on the part of the Russian bureaucracy was not lost on Shaun Walker, the Moscow correspondent for the Independent, who tweeted: “It took just 3 days for Depardieu to get his Russian passport – and during public holidays. What a triumph for Russian bureaucracy.”

It may be a triumph for the Russian bureaucracy, but is for Putin? Frankly all he’s proven, and this extends to all controversial laws the Duma subserviently passed since March, ending with the Yakovlev Law, which was concocted in Putin’s office, is that he can still rule. He can still command. But can he still govern? That, I’m afraid, remains to be seen.

Gazeta also found this “triumph” curious and decided to investigate on what it takes to get an internal Russian passport and whether Mr. Depardieu had to jump through the hoops. What they found proves that when it comes to citizenship and passports, Putin is still in front of the cue ball.

According to the Russian law on citizenship, the following documents are required to get an internal passport:

“Two copies of an application, a notarized translation of [the applicant’s] national passport (which must be at least six months before its expiration date), a notarized copy of the birth certificate or a notarized translation, a notarized copy of a marriage or divorce certificate, “extracts from a housing register,” a copy of personal finance records, four 3.5 x 4.5 photos, a receipt for the 2000 ruble application fee, a copy of a diploma, a renunciation of previous citizenship (unless the country of origin has a dual citizenship agreement with Russia), and a notarized confirmation of passage of an exam showing proficiency in the Russian language.”

It’s quite doubtful, in fact it’s damn near impossible, that Depardieu got all of these in order. Especially if you consider that Depardieu made his desire to move to Russia public on December 18 and the next day Putin declared, “If Gerard really wants a Russian residence permit or passport, consider that done.” True to form, Putin said that all the required forms, notarized copies, and other scraps of legal documents wouldn’t be needed since it was suddenly urgent to attract people “spiritually and culturally close to [Russia].” Given how natural Depardieu looks in a traditional Russian peasant blouse the spiritual and cultural part appears covered. All he needs to do now is grow a beard and he’d be a shoe in for the next production of Boris Godunov.

We won’t know whether Depardieu submitted any of the documents, except for the 3.5 x 4.5 photos, judging from the pictures of him gleefully displaying his new Russian passport. When asked if Depardieu filed all the necessary documents his press secretary said that he “didn’t have the right to answer that question” and that he “had the information but didn’t have the right to reveal it.”

It seems that no one really knows, and Dmitrii Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, says that all of the forms were submitted and that French diplomats stepped in and quickened the process on their side. That means, as Gazeta notes, that it took the actor a half a day to assemble all eleven documents. That’s right, half a day.

And it took all of one day for the Russian Federal Migration Service to produce the passport.

When asked how many people worked on processing Depardieu’s passport, Zalina Kornikova, FMS press secretary bobbed and weaved:

“What is Depardieu presence to you? Do you have any information or not? First, we have people on duty during the holidays. I can’t answer now, I have to clear up who issued [the passport]. You have to ask technological services how many people worked on it. Why are you interested? How many people worked on Depardieu’s [case]? You have to excuse me, I also have work to do. Depardieu . . . somebody. I don’t understand the question . . . Who took the blank from the stack of passports? Who printed it? Do you have this in mind?”

Later, Kornikova sent an sms to Gazeta simply stating: “It was an exceptional case by decree of the President. And what you have a problem with this?”

But apparently, as Gazeta notes, there are decrees from a Russian president and there are decrees from Putin. After all, when Medvedev granted the Olympic track star Ahn Hyun-Soo Russian citizenship on 26 December 2011, she didn’t get her passport until 7 January 2012, and only after she submitted all the documents.  And when Medvedev granted the American snowboarder Vicki Wild citizenship in May 2012 it also took several days, and Wild had already submitted her documents in 2011. True, these women got their passports fast, but not Depardieu fast. Nor, by the way, did either of these women’s becoming Russian citizens turn into an international scandal.

The difference, it seems, boils down to one word: Putin. It’s Putin who made the Depardieu Affair generate such outrage inside and outside Russia. But it is also Putin that made Depardieu’s rapid nationalization possible in the first place. His footprint is everywhere: from personally decreeing Depardieu citizenship, to the rapid generation of the passport, to Putin personally handing it to Russia’s most popular new citizen.

Yet, ironically, this whole debacle shouldn’t be seen as a sign of Putin’s strength. Sure it shows that things move fast when they are at Putin’s personal behest, even on holidays. But at the same time we need to remember that in the big scheme of things granting citizenship is small potatoes. Putin shows that he can still deliver a passport in good order. But can he still deliver Russia?