Russia today warned it would clamp down on an unsanctioned gay rights protest in Moscow planned to coincide with the Eurovision Song Contest final in the Russian capital.
Russia is proudly trumpeting the holding of the annual pop extravaganza in Moscow as the latest example of its international prestige.
But away from the lights and laser beams at the mammoth 80,000-capacity Olympiysky Arena, a planned "Slavic Gay Pride" parade in central Moscow on Saturday risks showing up another aspect of modern Russia.
Previous attempts to hold a gay rights parade in Moscow were banned by the city government, and activists who defied the bans and showed up were violently harassed by ultra-nationalists.
"In case any sort of unsanctioned actions are carried out, whether it be the gay parade or some other event, the police will act strictly in adherence with the law," Leonid Vedenov, a police major general, was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
"We will act in the way that we would act in relation to any unsanctioned event," said Vedenov, who heads the public safety department of the Russian interior ministry.
Russia considered homosexuality a crime until 1993 and ceased to classify it as mental illness only in 1999. Emphasising the hurdles still faced by homosexuals in Russia, the Moscow city government on Tuesday blocked an attempt by two lesbians to get married on the eve of the Song Contest.
"Although I am determined to support our Russian comrades, like them I am anxious about what may happen to us," prominent British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said in a statement this week.
"I don't have much confidence that the Moscow police will accept our right to protest or that they will protect us against neo-Nazi violence," said Tatchell, who plans to be in Russia for the parade on Saturday.
The Eurovision is the latest mega-event to be held in Russia under strongman leader Vladimir Putin after it hosted football's Champions League Final in 2008. Russia is due to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Moscow has been festooned with Eurovision banners in the white, blue and red of the Russian flag and pictures of Miss World 2008, Ksenya Sukhinova, voluptuously dressed in the national colours of all the entrants.
Norway is the bookies' favourite to win the contest from the 25 acts, with an entry that appears aimed at breaking recent Eastern European domination of the contest by beating them at their own game.
The song, "Fairytale," is sung by the Belarus-born Alexander Rybak and features a distinctly Eastern European-sounding rhythm and even Cossack-style dancing.
"I'm in love with a fairytale/ Even though it hurts/ Cause I don't care if I lose my mind/ I'm already cursed," sings the baby-faced Rybak, who also plays the violin and does plenty of leaping around the stage.
Also high in the running are the oriental rhythms and belly dancing of "Dum Tek Tek" from Turkey's Hadise and the disco beat of "This is Our Night" from heart-throb Greek star Sakis Rouvas.
Russia, Serbia and Ukraine have all won in recent years, helped by a tendency for viewers in ex-Communist states to vote as an Eastern bloc in the televoting that decided the contest.
However this time organisers have responded to criticism of bloc voting by introducing a new system that gives professional juries half of the vote and viewers from across Europe the other half.
Western European countries have also brought out some heavy weaponry to break the Eastern and Scandinavian dominance of the contest.
Britain's entry "It's My Time" has been penned by musical maestro Andrew Lloyd Webber, while France's "Et S'il Fallait Le Faire" will be performed by pop diva Patricia Kaas.Reuse content