By Alexei Anishchuk and Megan Davies
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin has granted citizenship to Gerard Depardieu, the French movie star who is quitting his homeland to avoid a tax hike on the rich, the Kremlin said on Thursday.
The "Cyrano de Bergerac" actor bought a house across the border in Belgium last year to avoid a new tax rate for millionaires in France planned by Socialist President Francois Hollande but said he could also seek tax exile elsewhere.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Depardieu had applied for citizenship after Putin told reporters last month the actor would be welcome in Russia. "The citizenship could not have been granted to him without (such an) appeal," Peskov added.
Russia has a flat income tax rate of 13 percent, compared to the 75 percent on income over 1 million euros ($1.32 million) that Hollande wants to impose in France.
Asked, whether Depardieu had plans to move to Russia, Peskov said it was up to him and was "absolutely not mandatory". Putin did not speak to Depardieu before taking the decision, he added.
Depardieu's publicist Francois Hassan Guerrar told Reuters he did not want to comment on the Russian announcement.
Depardieu, 63, had told friends he was considering three options to escape France's new tax regime: settling in Belgium, relocating to Montenegro, where he has a business, or moving to Russia, French daily Le Monde reported in December.
Depardieu has also said he plans to hand in his French passport and social security card.
"Putin has already sent me a passport," Le Monde quoted the actor as jokingly saying in December.
WELCOME IN RUSSIA
Depardieu is well-known in Russia where he has appeared in many advertising campaigns. He worked in the country in 2011 on a film about the eccentric Russian monk Grigory Rasputin.
In 2012 he was one of several Western celebrities invited to celebrate the birthday of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader.
Muscovites said they would welcome Depardieu. "He is a normal guy, he is fond of drinking too, I suppose, the Russian way, so let him come here," said resident Lev Nikolaevich.
Putin has in the past touted good relations with France, which he visited in the summer, but the two nations have disagreed sharply on Syria and Putin is a frequent critic of the West. He had a tense summit with the EU last month and wants the bloc to move faster toward visa-free travel.
Russia does not require people to hand in their foreign passports once they acquire a Russian one. Many Russians have citizenship of other countries and travel without problems.
Depardieu could also request Belgian nationality but has not yet made such a request, said Georges Dallemagne, head of Belgium's parliamentary committee that oversees naturalizations.
"As a Russian he could certainly remain in Belgium, he would possibly need the necessary visas but for a short period he could stay here," said Dallemagne.
"He would need to request a residency permit for longer stays but as a Russian he should be able to get that. It depends on certain factors," Dallemagne added.
France's Constitutional Council last month blocked the planned 75 percent tax rate due to the way it would be applied - but Hollande plans to propose redrafted legislation which will "still ask more of those who have the most".
(Writing by Megan Davies; Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman, Nikolai Isayev and Alexander Fedorov in Moscow, Catherine Bremer in Paris and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Belgium; Editing by Andrew Heavens)