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Posted: Sunday, 19 January 2014 9:34AM

Putin Defends Anti-Gay Law, Vows 'No Problems' for Olympic Visitors



Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images(MOSCOW) --  Russian President Vladimir Putin defended his country's controversial new anti-gay law, saying it aims to protect children and does not discriminate against anyone.

"It seems to me that the law that we have adopted does not hurt anyone," he said during an interview with a small group of reporters in Sochi Friday, including ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos, the only U.S. reporter.

"Moreover, individuals of non-traditional orientation cannot feel like second-rate humans in this country because they are not discriminated against in any way."

The Russian law, passed last year, outlaws what it describes as "propaganda" of "non-traditional sexual relations" around minors. Critics and gay rights advocates say, however, that the law potentially makes any public display of homosexuality, or even displaying gay pride symbols like a rainbow pin, illegal.

In the wide-ranging interview, his first with a U.S. television network since returning to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin rejected that characterization, noting that Soviet-era laws making homosexuality illegal were struck down years ago.

"It has nothing to do with persecuting people for their non-traditional orientation," Putin said Friday. "My personal position is that society must keep children safe."

His comments come amid fears that fans and athletes at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi could be prosecuted for violating the law. Russia has provided assurances to the International Olympic Committee that the law will not apply during the games, yet senior Russian officials have sent mixed signals.

In his interview, Putin suggested foreigners will not be prosecuted during the games.

"I couldn't care less about their sexual orientation. We will welcome all athletes and all visitors to the Olympics," he said. "None of our guests will have any problems."

Putin blasted those calling for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics because of the law and rejected Western criticism of the law, saying "the Russian people have their own cultural code, their own tradition. We don't interfere, don't stick our noses in their life and we ask that our traditions and culture are treated with the same respect."

Putin said he would be willing to meet with the U.S. delegation, which includes gay athletes like tennis legend Billie Jean King, figure skating star Brian Boitano and hockey player Caitlin Cahow.

King recently told ABC News' Amy Robach that she has a direct message for President Putin.

"Please change this law. Just be inclusive -- champion everyone, don't -- have groups where you don't treat them the same ," she said.

King said the Sochi Olympics should be seen as an opportunity for gay athletes.

"For me, personally, if I were still young enough to be going to the Olympics to perform, this would give me such high incentive. I'd be crazed. I'd be like, 'Let's go,'" she said. Though few have been prosecuted under the law since it was enacted last year, gay rights activists say it has made an already difficult situation for Russia's gays even more perilous.

"The propaganda laws are almost the least of it. It's a huge concerted campaign that's unleashed by the Kremlin. It's a campaign of hate and violence," Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who recently fled to New York for fear of Russia's mounting threats on homosexuals.

"Basically, it's a law that enshrines second-class citizenship," Gessen said.

During his interview Friday, Putin also addressed some of the other controversies surrounding the Sochi Olympics, namely the alleged corruption that was to blame for its $51 billion price tag, making it by far the most expensive Olympics ever.

"Given the scale and, let's be honest about it, given the lack of experience of construction on such a vast scale in this country, in today's Russia, of course setbacks were inevitable," he said.

Putin rejected claims that up to a third of the Olympic budget was stolen or inflated due to corruption.

"If anyone has specific information about 'signs of corruption' in regard to the implementation of the Sochi Olympics project, we ask for objective data to be given to us," he told Stephanopoulos. "So far, I do not see any serious signs of corruption at this time."

Just under three weeks before the Opening Ceremony, the Olympic city still a giant construction site, but Putin said he was confident that all Olympic projects will be completed on time.

"Everything has been done. Things need to be cleaned up," he said. "All the facilities are ready."

He said he hopes foreigners attending the Games, and those watching on television, will see a new Russia.

"Take an unbiased, fresh look at it," he said. "I'm positive that it will produce, should produce a positive, good result and will facilitate Russia's relationship-building with its partners around the world."

Putin told Stephanopoulos that Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who received asylum in Russia, is free to attend the Sochi Olympics if he wants to.

"Everybody is invited," he said. "Mr. Snowden is subject to the treatment of provisional asylum here in Russia. He has a right to travel freely across the country, he has no special limitation, he can just buy a ticket and come here."

Asked whether Snowden could stay as long as he wants, Putin replied: "Yes, sure, definitely."

Putin told Stephanopoulos that he hoped the Olympics would help bridge the divide between the United States and Russia.

"Between major countries there certainly always are some common ground and points of tension," he said.

"With respect to athletes I'd recommend and advise them not to think about the political differences," Putin said, adding with a smile: "Politics should not interfere with sports. And sports should impact politics."

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