He loves Elton John and has gay friends, but Russian President Vladimir Putin equated LGBT people to pedophiles and suggested "cleaning up" Russia of their influence in a robust defense of the country's anti-gay law before the Winter Olympics in Sochi next month.
In an interview taped Friday and broadcast Sunday, Putin told Russian and foreign news anchors that nobody who protested the law during the Olympics would be arrested for "gay propaganda" and claimed to be uninterested in people's sexual orientation. A transcript of the interview was posted on the Kremlin's website.
"None of our guests will have any problems with this," Putin said. "There are no fears for people with this nontraditional orientation who plan to come to Sochi as guests or participants," he added.
Nonetheless, Putin attempted to deflect the firestorm of international criticism over the law that has overshadowed the Games.
"Read the law carefully and see what it's called. The law's called "On banning the promotion of pedophilia and homosexuality,'" Putin said, repeating earlier claims that some European countries are discussing legalizing pedophilia. In fact, the Russian ban is not a separate law and consists of amendments to two child protection laws.
Putin went on to claim that the law, which essentially bans all public discussion of homosexuality that falls short of outright condemnation, was important because it helped combat Russia's demographic decline. Proudly pointing out that births outnumbered deaths in Russia last year for the first time in two decades, Putin said that "society should protect its children, if only for the possibility to multiply, not only through immigrants, but through our own base.
"We want Russians and other peoples of the Russian Federation to develop and have a historical opportunity. And we should 'clean up' everything that gets in our way there," Putin said. "But we should do it with modern, humane means, without offending anyone and without making anyone second-class people," he added.
Putin, who claimed in a separate BBC interview the same day that he was on "friendly terms" with "some people who are gay," said that the law did not discriminate against gay people and would not make them second-class citizens.
"If [gay people] achieve great things, like, for example, Elton John does, he's a brilliant man, a brilliant musician, and millions of people sincerely love him, despite his [sexual] orientation, it doesn't have any significance as regards him, especially as a brilliant musician," Putin said. "I think that that very entirely democratic approach to people with non-traditional sexual orientation, with measures to defend our children and our future demographic growth are optimal," he added.
Repeating comments made to a group of volunteers earlier Friday, Putin said that the criticism was unfounded and disproportionate, since many other countries have far harsher laws against homosexuality.
"There are criminal penalties for homosexuality in 70 countries of the world, and seven countries of the world of those 70 have the death penalty for homosexuality," Putin said. "Does that mean we should cancel all major international sporting competitions in those countries? Probably not." Since most of those countries are Muslim, that meant that the Russian Orthodox Church's recent support for making homosexuality illegal there was in line with other religious traditions around the world, Putin added.
Putin also repeated earlier comments that sodomy is illegal in 14 U.S. states. Though the laws remain on the books, they have been unenforceable since the Supreme Court struck down Texas' law in a 2003 decision, Lawrence v. Texas.
"How can they criticize us for a far milder and more liberal approach to these issues than they themselves have at home?" Putin said.
Putin refused to answer a question about whether people are born gay or whether their sexuality can be influenced by their environment. Russia's law implies that positive information about homosexuality can turn children gay.
LGBT activists say that the Russian law has led to a sharp rise in homophobic violence and intimidation since it was passed in June.