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Putin has the Olympian-like skill to balance bigotry and ignorance while at the same time crushing all political opposition.
Vladimir Putin has promised gay visitors to the Sochi Olympic Games they will have nothing to fear in Russia, but warned them to “leave children alone” as he defended a controversial ban on promoting homosexuality to juveniles.
The Russian president’s comments came during a meeting with Olympic volunteers.
When asked how the rainbow design – widely used by gay rights groups around the world – of volunteers’ uniforms at Sochi could be compatible with a controversial ban on “homosexual propaganda”, he responded: “We do not have a ban on non-traditional sexual relationships.
“We have a ban on the propaganda of homosexuality and paedopilia. I want to emphasise this. Among children. These are completely different things — a ban on something, or a ban on such relationships or a ban on propaganda of such relationships.”
He went on to claim Russia was much more liberal than other countries, claiming that several American states still criminalize homosexual relationships.
“We haven’t banned anything and no one is being grabbed off the street unlike in some countries,” said Mr Putin, who also claimed that some US states still consider homosexual relations a crime.
“So you will feel quite secure, at ease, but leave kids alone, please,” he said.
His reply is likely to infuriate gay rights campaigners and foreign governments. Several world leaders have declined to attend the games or have downgraded their delegations in protest at a Russian law passed last year banning the promotion of “non-traditional” relationships, amid a Kremlin effort to repositioning itself as a guardian of “traditional” values against creeping western liberalism.
Speaking to the Russian press, Mr Putin insisted that Russia would continue to defend its traditional values against the slipperly slope of liberalism that he claimed had led some countries to consider legalisation of paedophilia.
“It’s not a secret, look on the internet and you’ll find [the countries in question] straight away,” he said. “Parties have raised the question in several parliaments. Should we follow them like lapdogs toward unknown consequences? We have our own traditions, our own culture, and we ask our partners to respect them.”
Last week the Russian foreign ministry issued a report on human rights in the European Union in which it accused EU states of “aggressively” pushing recognition of same-sex relationships on countries that consider them “alien”.
While Mr Putin has consistently defended the law simply as a measure to protect of children, rights activists say it effectively strips sexual minorities of basic rights like freedom of speech and assembly and has stoked homophobia.
“He’s trying to say this law is only directed at protecting minors and it doesn’t have affect on LGBT people’s lives, but that’s just not the case,” said Nikolai Alexeyev, the founder of the Gay Russia rights group and one of a handful of people to be brought to court under the new law.