Gay rights activists, topless protesters greet Putin

AMSTERDAM: President Vladimir Putin defended Russia’s treatment of homosexuals on Monday in Amsterdam, where 1,000 gay rights activists waved pink and orange balloons and blasted out dance music to press home their protest.

Western nations need Russia for energy and as a market for exports but are uneasy about Putin’s human rights policies and his treatment of opponents in his new Kremlin term.

Putin’s visit to the Netherlands and Germany, Moscow’s biggest trade partners in Europe, also comes at an awkward time after a wave of state inspections of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations in Russia that has been much criticized abroad.

In Amsterdam, Dutch and Russian companies signed a batch of energy deals and Putin met Queen Beatrix and Prime Minister Mark Rutte, while around 1,000 protesters blew whistles, played loud music, and waved the gay pride flag nearby in the city famous for its liberal attitude.

Putin, who laughed off a topless protest earlier in the day in Germany, said Russia did not discriminate against gay people.

“In the Russian Federation – so that it is clear to everybody – there is no infringement on the rights of sexual minorities,” he said.

“These people, like everyone else, enjoy all the same rights and freedoms as everyone else,” he told a news conference – held at Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum in a nod to the days when Peter the Great worked as a young man in an Amsterdam shipyard.

Russia’s parliament has given preliminary approval to a ban on “homosexual propaganda” targeting minors, which critics say would effectively ban gay rights demonstrations. The United States has said the legislation “severely restricts freedom of expression and assembly”.

Many houses and bridges in the historic canal district of Amsterdam were draped with banners and the rainbow flag of the gay pride movement, protesting about what human rights organizations say is institutional repression of gays in Russia.

“Putin go homo,” read one, echoing the message “Putin go home” on the front page of Friday’s NRC Next daily newspaper.

“I’m protesting against the anti-gay law in Russia because it’s unreal. You can’t tell people to go back into the closet,” said one protester, who gave his name as Connie Feather, dressed in a rainbow striped chiffon dress and blue feather boa.

Earlier, in Germany, three members of the women’s rights group Femen, which has protested against Russia’s detention of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot around Europe, disrupted his visit to a trade fair in the German city of Hanover.

They stripped to the waist and shouted slogans calling Putin a “dictator” before being bundled away by security men.

“Regarding this performance, I liked it,” grinned Putin at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “I did not catch what they were shouting, I did not even see if they were blondes, brunettes or chestnut-haired …”