Three weeks in advance of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with a group of volunteers Friday and raised eyebrows with his remarks aimed at assuaging fears about the safety of gay athletes and visitors during the games.
According to the state-run ITAR-Tass news agency, Putin claimed that Russia, “unlike some other countries, does not criminalize homosexual relationships.”
Some might ask how that is any different from criminalizing the admission of homosexuality, or passing a law that allows known gay associates, supporters and sympathizers to be thrown in jail and fined, as Putin did in June 2013.
According to a report in The New York Times, Putin’s law is full of vague wording like, “propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientations” among minors, which leaves interpretation open to Russian prosecutors and judges.
Nonetheless, Putin was available for a photo shoot sitting in a room full of Olympic volunteers as he made his noble comments concerning children.
"We don't outlaw anything and don't nab anyone," Putin said. "That's why you can feel safe and free here, but please leave our children in peace."
The statement smacked more of public relations propaganda than altruistic concern for kids, particularly since Russia’s orphanages are full of children that could be available for adoption by US couples, except for the ban Putin signed into law in 2012 forbidding such adoptions.
In a previous move to soften Russia’s stand against gay rights, Putin signed an amnesty law in December that allowed the release of high-profile individuals jailed for protests, including more than 30 members of Greenpeace aboard the Arctic Sunrise vessel, who were against Shell oil drilling in the Arctic.
President Barack Obama sent his own not so subtle protest message against Putin’s intolerant laws when he chose not to attend the Olympics, but announced he would be sending a delegation that includes three openly gay athletes.
Tennis great Billie Jean King, ice hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow and figure skater Brian Boitano will be among the US representatives.
"The US Delegation to the Olympic Games represents the diversity that is the United States. All our delegation members are distinguished by their accomplishments in government service, civic activism, and sports. We are proud of each and every one of them and think they will serve as great ambassadors of the United States to the Olympic Games," said President Obama last month.
Leon Aron, director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute wrote an extensive essay for Politico in which he outlines the political importance of Sochi, a beachside resort for winter games, to the former KGB operative. It is personal to Putin and the government has invested upward of $55 billion dollars on the games, although many Russians are still living in poverty.
Putin told George Stephanopoulos on ABC News, “No, no. I want it to be the nation’s success… not my personal ambition.”
After two bombings in the southern city of Volgograd just 400 miles away, security is heavy both on the ground and in the air as final plans are made in the city along the Black Sea. They are expecting thousands of visitors and an estimated 6,000 athletes from 85 countries.
Putin’s message Friday was clear that all gays will be safe as long as they leave the children alone.