MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered new assurances to gay athletes and fans attending the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics next month. Yet he defended Russia's anti-gay law by equating gays with pedophiles and said Russia needs to "cleanse" itself of homosexuality if it wants to increase its birth rate.
Putin's comments in an interview broadcast Sunday with Russian and foreign television stations showed the wide gulf between the perception of homosexuality in Russia versus the West.
A Russian law passed last year banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors has caused an international outcry.
Putin refused to answer a question from the BBC on whether he believes that people are born gay or become gay. The Russian law, however, suggests that information about homosexuality can influence a child's sexual orientation.
The law has contributed to growing animosity toward gays in Russian society, with rights activists reporting a rise in harassment and abuse.
International worries about how gays will be treated in Sochi have been met with assurances from Russian officials and Olympics organizers that there will be no discrimination, and Putin reiterated that stance.
"There are no fears for people with this nontraditional orientation who plan to come to Sochi as guests or participants," Putin declared in the TV interview.
He said the law was aimed at banning propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia, suggesting that gays are more likely to abuse children.
Making another favorite argument against homosexuality, Putin noted with pride that Russia saw more births than deaths last year for the first time in two decades. Population growth is vital for Russia's development and "anything that gets in the way of that we should clean up," he said, using a word usually reserved for military operations.
The law on propaganda has been used to justify barring gay pride rallies on the grounds that children might see them. This has raised the question of how athletes and fans would be treated for any gay-rights protests during the Olympics.
When asked about this by the ABC TV channel, Putin said protests against the law itself would not be considered propaganda.
Putin then hit back, accusing the United States of double standards in its criticism of Russia, pointing to laws that remain on the books in some U.S. states classifying gay sex as a crime. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled in 2003 that such laws were unconstitutional.
Homosexuality was a crime in the entire former Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. It was decriminalized in Russia in 1993.
The Sochi Winter Olympics run Feb. 7-23.