RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin's latent charm offensive ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics to persuade the West that he is not homophobic was condemned by Russian gay rights campaigners as "lies".
In a round of carefully choreographed interviews with British and US television presenters Mr Putin claimed he was on "friendly terms" with a number of gay people and was "not prejudiced" in any way.
The Russian president also insisted there was no professional or social discrimination against gays in Russia. He also said Elton John (pictured above)-- who condemned a newly enacted law that criminalises "gay propaganda" during a recent performance in Moscow -- was an "extraordinary person" loved by millions "regardless of his sexual orientation".
He told the BBC that he would be prepared to meet with the star and the English actor Ian McKellen to discuss their concerns.
However, Mr Putin's newly-found liberal voice was met with incredulity by gay rights activists who said it did not square with the government-sponsored discrimination that was routinely practised in Russia.
Yelena Kostyuchenko, a columnist for the independent newspaper 'Novaya Gazeta' and an LGBT organiser, said Mr Putin was "lying" when he said that gay people did not face discrimination at work or in Russian society.
Activists pointed to arrests, homophobic statements from officials and persistent violence against the LGBT community as proof that the opposite was true.
Ms Kostyuchenko said she herself had been detained and beaten with other activists during attempts to hold gay pride parades and "kissing rallies" pressing for LGBT rights.
The gay community now faces the possibility of further laws targeting them. Proposals by Yelena Mizulina, the author of the 'gay propaganda' law, would see a new law allowing children to be taken away from gay parents.
"Many of my friends in same-sex families are either moving abroad or buying guns" in response to the proposals, Ms Kostyuchenko said.
In June last year, Mr Putin signed a law forbidding the promotion of "gay propaganda" among minors that could be interpreted to ban any public event in support of gay rights.
Activists argue that the law also condones homophobia and violence against gay people.
Mr Putin says the new law does not harm anybody and there is "no danger" for homosexual competitors or spectators at the Winter Olympics.
But on Saturday, a gay man was detained in Voronezh when he ran toward the Olympic torch relay with a rainbow flag. He was later questioned at a police station.
(© Independent News Service)