President Vladimir Putin said Sunday that Russia does not discriminate against gays 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 Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Putin reiterated that Russia would welcome all athletes and visitors, regardless of their sexuality.
"People have different sexual orientation. We will welcome all athletes and all guests of the Olympics," he said.
By way of example, he praised John, who is openly gay, as "an outstanding person [and] outstanding musician".
"Millions of our people sincerely love him despite his orientation," Putin said.
Gay rights activists have criticized the Russian strongman for a recent law banning the dissemination of so-called "gay propaganda" to minors.
John himself spoke out against the law during a sold-out Moscow concert last month.
"I am deeply saddened and shocked over the current legislation that is now in place against the [homosexual] community here in Russia," he said.
"In my opinion, it is inhumane and it is isolating. Harmony is what makes a happy family and a strong society."
The 66-year-old Briton has a long history of performances in Russia, beginning with a groundbreaking concert in 1979 that made him a household name in the then-Soviet Union.
He ignored calls to cancel his December concerts in the wake of the "gay propaganda" law, saying Russia's gays and lesbians would feel abandoned if big-name performers did not come for visits and offer them support.
Putin said Sunday the law "does not offend anyone."
"People with non-traditional sexual orientation cannot feel like they are second-rate because they are in no way discriminated against: not professionally, not career-wise, not when it comes to recognition by society," he said.
The Russian strongman also downplayed planned no-shows at the Olympics by Western leaders including US President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande.