Democracy Lab

What I Learned from Gerard Depardieu

The French actor's case is the exception that proves the rule: Citizenship still matters.

I don't really care about Gérard Depardieu. He's a magnificent actor, and apparently a rather silly person. He probably eats too much. And yes, his on-board airplane decorum makes Alec Baldwin look like Taylor Swift. But I don't spend many of my waking hours worrying about it.

Yet his entirely voluntary decision to forsake his French citizenship and get a Russian passport instead has made for a pretty interesting story. It's made a lot of people angry, though it's also pleased a few fans (like Vladimir Putin). It's certainly been a boon for the French press, who have been happy to spotlight every twist and turn of the whole saga, often referring to the man in question as "the Mordovian Depardieu" (a reference to the province that offered him a job as culture minister shortly after the actor became a Russian). His decision to get himself an additional residence in Belgium, of all places, merely added fuel to the flames.

And he's still keeping the story alive. This past weekend, Depardieu made headlines yet again by giving an interview in which he badmouthed Russia's political opposition.

The reactions to all this have taken intriguing forms. One U.S. magazine compares the former Frenchman with European mammals fleeing climate change to Siberia. Another accuses him of following in the footsteps of other Western men who have gone East to seek the pleasures of the flesh.

Perhaps the most interesting take I've seen is the one that sees Depardieu's act as a parable of globalization. After all, the actor's primary motive for breaking with his home country appears to have been his disgruntlement over the high tax rates on top earners floated by Socialist President François Hollande. So a New York Times op-ed writer has accordingly opted to draw a parallel between Depardieu's yearning for a lower bracket (Putin's Russia has a flat tax of 13 percent) and the multinationals prowling the world's markets for bargain-basement operating costs.

In this reading, Depardieu is just another soulless corporate migrant, unconstrained by outmoded national loyalties, purchasing his nationality purely according to ruthless capitalist calculations. Citizenship is above all a business decision. This is certainly true for many other high-income people, of course -- those tennis players and Formula 1 stars who plant themselves in Monaco. But there is nothing new about this. It's a practice that dates back at least to Britain's famous tax exiles in the 1970s (Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones among them) -- or even to Noel Coward two decades before that.

In Depardieu's case, though, there is just one problem: Why, precisely, Russia? It actually isn't such an attractive corporate domicile. You won't find many multinational companies relocating their headquarters to Moscow. And the Russians who've earned their money there don't seem terribly eager to keep it at home. Capital flight last year amounted to a whopping $56.7 billion -- which suggests a problematic investment climate at best. (That figure was actually down significantly from 2011.) What do those Russians know that Depardieu doesn't?

Well, probably they're aware that Russia remains a place where you can't trust the courts, where you can't count on the law to protect your assets, and where your physical and commercial security depends on your relationships to the people in power. Hmm, on second thought, maybe Depardieu does know this. If his harsh talk about Putin's critics is any indication, he's certainly working overtime to suck up to his friend the president.

Depardieu clearly enjoys that special treatment from Czar Vladimir, and, indeed, this is precisely what he's banking on. He doesn't care about tax law. It's precisely the absence of the rule of law that he likes. And if you're a marquee name who happens to be friends with the guy in charge, why wouldn't you? Most Russians don't have that luxury, of course. But that's their problem (as Depardieu would presumably say). To my ears, he actually sounds relatively sincere in his paeans to the system that Putin has built, talking enthusiastically about the "great democracy" that reigns in Russia.

In this, I suspect, Depardieu hearkens back to a long line of other Frenchmen who have trooped off to Russia in the past, seeking various versions of the despotic utopias they were trying to push at home. The lifelong Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre visited the Soviet Union in the early 1950s and couldn't see anything wrong. When the Marquis de Custine traveled to the Russia of Czar Nicholas I in the late 1830s, he was determined to hype the virtues of one-man rule. (To his credit, he ended up being thoroughly disillusioned by the reality he encountered.) And Joseph de Maistre gravitated to the unforgiving court of Catherine the Great, which he saw as the embodiment of everything admirable that had been destroyed by the hated French Revolution.

I doubt that Depardieu has the brain power of these illustrious forbears. But what's striking is that he decided to go that one step farther by actually becoming Russian. And it's this that has made his critics especially angry. How could he do such a thing?

Well, of course, he's free to choose any citizenship he wants -- just like the rest of us. But it's also worth pointing out that Depardieu's story is a radical outlier, anything but typical of current global migration flows. The overwhelming majority of the other people applying for Russian citizenship each year are either ethnic Russians who live in other republics of the former Soviet Union, or non-Russian citizens of those same countries who yearn to escape regimes that are even more repressive or economically underdeveloped. (That's right, Tajikistan, I'm talking about you.) The number of applicants from the countries of the developed world (by which I mean not only the "West" but also the equally prosperous democracies of the East) is miniscule.

The reason, presumably, is that most people in the world who chose to move to a new country don't make that decision based exclusively on tax rates. (Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, who decided to renounce his U.S. citizenship in 2011 in order to maximize his take from the initial public offering of the company he helped to create, is another exception that proves the rule.) Most migrants take a hard look at the relative freedom, security, and prosperity of the place they're planning to move to -- a set of criteria one might sum up in the phrase "the rule of law." (Actually, Saverin currently holds citizenship in his home country of Brazil, which is democratic and prosperous, so perhaps he fits this pattern too.)

By comparison, it's quite striking that so many wealthy Russians and Chinese are opting to bank money, buy houses, educate their children (and yes, obtain passports) in countries where they know they can still count on fair treatment before the law. Meanwhile, despite the surface prosperity of Beijing and Moscow, not too many wealthy Westerners seem to be picking up homes there.

I wonder if the dismal fates of businesspeople such as Bill Browder (who made hundreds of millions of dollars in Russia before running afoul of the corruption there) or Neil Heywood (apparently murdered by the wife of now-disgraced Chinese big shot Bo Xilai) have anything to do with it? Such stories suggest, indeed, that Depardieu might find himself rediscovering the virtues of an EU passport if his friendship with Putin happens to sour.

Citizenship, in other words, is still a pretty important issue -- despite all that well-meaning balderdash to the contrary about our "borderless" global civilization. Quite a few people, indeed, are still prepared to put their lives on the line to defend the highly abstract principle of sovereignty -- but only when it's a matter of the countries in which they are citizens. That's why we still get so emotional over seemingly marginal territorial disputes -- or the doings of big shots like Gérard Depardieu.


Democracy Lab

The Year in Unfreedom

An encouraging number of the world's people voted in 2012. But voting does not a democracy make.

2012 was a great year for elections. But it wasn't a great year for democracy.

We often make the mistake of equating democracy with the freedom to choose our leaders. The mix-up is understandable, since it's impossible to imagine a democracy in which a government works without the consent of the governed. Free and fair elections are the central prerequisite of a free society.

But they also aren't enough to guarantee genuine freedom on their own. And if anyone needed any examples, 2012 has plenty to offer.

It was supposed to be a year when voters drove change. As my FP colleagues noted just over a year ago: "If 2011 was the year when governments were overthrown in the streets, 2012 could be the year when politics plays out at the ballot box." One-third of the world's nations held local, state, and national elections in 2012, and four out of five members of the United Nations Security Council (the U.S., Russia, China, and France) had leadership transitions on the agenda.

All this seemed to offer considerable potential for change (especially in the wake of the Arab Spring). Yet that expectation didn't really pan out. 2012 turned out to be a year that was kind to incumbents. Of those four leading UN countries, only France broke the mould, thanks to a solid victory for incoming President François Hollande. China, of course, prefers to get by without elections altogether -- even though the Communist Party does claim to enjoy the overwhelming support of the nation's citizens. (How it knows that with such assurance remains something of a mystery.) In any case, it was no surprise that the man who ended up on top in Beijing, Xi Jinping, was exactly the guy that most people expected to see in the job. In the United States, a long and rowdy election campaign ended in a triumph for President Obama -- but at least the result was far from preordained.

Russia had a presidential election, too. But, as one might have expected, it turned out to be a bit of a joke. Old-new President Vladimir Putin still enjoys considerable popularity among Russians, and he might well have won (though somewhat narrowly, I suspect) even had the poll been truly free and fair. But he still made sure to exploit the prerogatives of his "managed democracy" -- such as control of the electronic media, crackdowns on protestors, and enormous financial and administrative resources -- to ensure that he got the result he wanted. There were, predictably, widespread allegations of vote fixing on election day. But that didn't stop Putin from claiming a mandate.

He had little to fear by doing so. The Russian opposition is a feeble force, bereft of credible leaders. In 2012 it showed that it was good at massing middle-class demonstrators in big cities, but poor at articulating a political program calculated to appeal to mainstream voters. The government still rules over a massive security apparatus and a tame judiciary. (Just witness the carefully choreographed trial of the political punk band Pussy Riot). Civil society is weak. And it's likely to stay that way, given the elaborate restrictions imposed on non-government organizations by the Putin administration last year.

Much of the same can be said of Venezuela, where incumbent Hugo Chávez achieved a convincing win in October's presidential election. Venezuela does differ from Russia in that it boasts a convincing and well-organized opposition movement, led in the election by upstart governor Henrique Capriles. But however free Venezuela's brand of democracy may look, it's a long way from fair.

Like his Russian counterpart, Chávez has used the perks of office to leverage the Venezuelan state to preserve his power. Over his 14 years in office he has extended his influence to institutions ranging from the courts to the oil industry. Author Will Dobson, writing in his fine book The Dictator's Learning Curve, captures the problem concisely: "‘Election day is not a problem,' a former member of the national electoral council [in Venezuela] told me. ‘All the damage -- the use of money, goods, excess power, communications -- happens beforehand.'" This capture of the state by the forces of chavismo has far-reaching consequences. As a result, even the prospect of the commandante's death from cancer -- a possibility now being widely discussed -- doesn't mean that democracy is destined to break out.

Elections don't necessarily democratize society even when they're conducted according to democratic rules. The parliamentary vote in Georgia this past autumn was hailed as a milestone in that country's progress when President Mikheil Saakashvili gracefully conceded his party's loss to opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. But the achievement of that first peaceful transition of power in the country's history was tarnished when Ivanishvili quickly moved to order the arrest of a series of Saakashvili's political allies -- a move seen by some observers as a risky act of political revenge. Here's hoping that Georgia can overcome that friction and move forward to a stable liberal order.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has used its post-Arab Spring victory in parliamentary and presidential elections to impose its own political vision on society by centralizing power in the presidency and drawing up a constitution that enshrines an Islamic government. This is to mistake majoritarianism for democracy: Winning most of the votes doesn't give you carte blanche to run roughshod over the rights of those who didn't cast their ballots for you. What about the 10 percent of Egyptians who happen to be Coptic Christians -- or the even larger group who simply prefer a secular state? One can only hope that 2013 will see the different factions in Egyptian society work out a way to return to a shared political ethos. If they can't, disaster likely lies ahead -- elections or not.

It's also important to remember that voting isn't supposed to be an end unto itself. Democracy is also supposed to ensure good governance. Voters expect the politicians they elect to deliver on their promises of an improved society. But so far it doesn't seem to have worked out that way for Tunisians, who had the privilege of electing a new government in 2011 after their own Arab Spring uprising, but then spent much of the past year protesting in large numbers over that same government's failure to boost the economy. Libya's 2012 parliamentary election surprised many observers by delivering a solid majority to secular parties rather than Islamist ones. Yet real power remains in the hands of countless militias, who represent a considerable threat to the consolidation of democracy.

And yet, despite all these caveats, it's still true that there's nothing like a genuine free vote in a former tyranny to make one's spirit soar. The parliamentary by-election won by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the other members of her opposition National League of Democracy last spring gave them only a negligible presence in Burma's national assembly -- yet that result still represented a tremendous moral and political victory for the forces of freedom. Burma still faces a long uphill climb in its journey towards an open society; the country's profound poverty and the recent outburst of ethnic violence attest to that. At least its leaders appear to have recognized that the old authoritarian system has outlived its usefulness.

If only we could say the same about Syria. But President Bashar al Assad continues to hold doggedly to his post, while his opponents from the Sunni majority cling just as desperately to the hope of victory. A Sunni victory becomes more probable as the fighting grinds on, but it is unlikely to mean an end to the bloodshed, given the spread of jihadi ideology among the revolutionaries and the growing bent for retaliation against Assad's ruling Alawite minority. The prospects for democracy under such conditions are grim at best. And that, perhaps, is the saddest conclusion to be drawn from the experience of 2012.