Vladimir Putin insisted on Sunday that he is "on friendly terms" with gay acquaintances and that millions of Russians love pop icon Elton John "despite his orientation", as he sought to defuse calls from gay rights activists to boycott the Winter Olympics.
In an interview with foreign journalists less than three weeks before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Russian president also claimed he had seen no evidence that the event's eye-watering price has been inflated by corruption. He shrugged off an effective boycott of the Games by Western leaders, including Barack Obama, in what is widely seen as a protest at controversial laws banning "propaganda of homosexuality" to people under 18.
And he insisted that neither he nor his government is homophobic, reiterating his position that the law - which critics say effectively banishes discussion of homosexuality or gay rights from the public space - is simply a child-protection measure. "If you want my personal attitude, I would tell you that I don't care about a person's orientation and I myself know some people who are gay. We are on friendly terms. I'm not prejudiced in any way," he said.
"I would like to draw your attention to the fact that in Russia, unlike in one third of the world's countries, being gay is not a crime. So there is no danger for people of this non-traditional sexual orientation to come to the Games." Praising Elton John, who is openly gay, as "an outstanding person [and an] outstanding musician", Mr Putin said: "Millions of our people sincerely love him despite his orientation." Dmitry Isakov, a gay rights activist who lost his job at a state-owned bank after becoming the first person to be charged under the new law, told The Daily Telegraph that the law had contributed to a rising tide of homophobia resulting in public figures calling for the re-criminalisation homosexual relations.
"The problem with that law is that it sends a signal that says gays are people you can fine, who you can insult, who you can maybe even beat up," said Mr Isakov, who was last month fined pounds 80 for holding a placard saying "Freedom to the Gays and Lesbians of Russia. Down with Fascists and Homophobes", in Kazan city centre last June. "Effectively, we don't even have the right to fight discrimination."
The Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi are due to open on February 7 with an estimated price tag of pounds 31?billion - making them by far the most costly Games in Olympic history. The event is a flagship project for Putin, who has mobilised every branch of the state to turn the sleepy Soviet-era resort and nearby mountain villages into a gleaming winter sports hub that will showcase Russia's economic might and modernity. But the massive spending on venues, accommodation and associated infrastructure has led critics to describe the seven-year construction effort as riddled with kickbacks and price fixing.
"We have not seen any big instances of corruption in terms of the Sochi Games. There have been attempts by executives, contractors to drive up the price. But this goes on in every country in the world," he said in the interview broadcast on the BBC's Andrew Marr show on Sunday. "If anyone has such information, give these finding to us, please. But besides talk, no one has given us anything."