French actor Depardieu slams Russia protest movement

MOSCOW (AFP) - French actor turned Russian national Gerard Depardieu on Sunday accused President Vladimir Putin's opposition of lacking vision and defended the Kremlin's treatment of the Pussy Riot protest punks.

Depardieu received a Russian passport at a Jan 6 dinner with Mr Putin that followed a bitter and very public fight with the French authorities over a disputed new tax on the super-rich.

The screen star has denied seeking to profit from Russia's flat 13 per cent tax on incomes and has never specified whether he intends to live in the country long term.

But he has been feted as a hero by Russian state media for offering the Kremlin a chance to highlight the benefits of its policies in the face of broad criticism of Mr Putin abroad.

Both Mr Putin and Depardieu refer to each other as friends and the French actor served up a severe criticism of those who oppose the Russian leader's 13-year rule.

"The Russian opposition has no programme - it has nothing," he told Rossiya state television's weekly analytical programme in his first extended interview as a Russian citizen.

"Unfortunately, the masses are stupid. Only the individual is beautiful," Depardieu said in remarks translated to Russian from French.

Russia's first mass post-Soviet rallies erupted a year ago in response to a fraud-riddled December parliamentary poll in which the ruling party barely hung on to power.

The opposition held a series of subsequent protests that reached up to 120,000 people at their height.

But Mr Putin's thumping presidential return in May cast a pall over the movement and just over 20,000 turned out for a march held Sunday in protest against a new law banning adoptions by Americans.

Depardieu said the opposition had "very smart people" such as former chess champion Garry Kasparov in its ranks.

"But that is good for chess and not much else," said the star of films such as Cyrano de Bergerac and the Asterix & Obelix series.

He also heavily criticised the anti-Putin protest stunt that the Pussy Riot all-female punk band performed last year in Russia's main cathedral.

Two band members are currently serving two-year sentences in Russia's notorious manual labour camps.

Depardieu almost directly repeated Mr Putin's argument that the band members would have received worse treatment had they gone to an Arab country and performed in a mosque.

"Imagine if these ladies walked into a mosque - they would not come out alive," the actor said in a different section of the interview taped in apparent secrecy with the help of a cell phone.

"But when I say such things in France, I am considered an idiot," he added.

Depardieu's comments immediately spread among Russian opposition bloggers and were received as a challenge by leftist radical leader Sergei Udaltsov.

"He seems to be interested in Russian politics - I heard he had a few things to say about the opposition," Mr Udaltsov told the RIA Novosti news agency.

"We would be glad to see him at our next event. Please, he would be more than welcome." Depardieu instead lavished praise on Russia's culture and the merits of its "soul".

He said he knew "many Russians in France - and not just France - who have returned to Russia because they lacked this spiritual warmth" abroad.

And he added that he already understood the Russian language.

"I hope to speak it soon," the 64-year-old said.

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