Russia will host the Winter Olympics in Sochi in six months. But what should be a good news story has instead thrust Moscow's recently passed anti-gay propaganda law into the headlines.
Gay rights campaigners have drawn parallels between Moscow's actions and Nazi Germany's persecution of Jews or apartheid in South Africa.
Protests have ranged from bars dumping Russian vodka to calls from some quarters for a boycott of the Games themselves.
U.S. President Barack Obama has even stepped into the fray, saying on Friday at a White House news conference that "nobody's more offended than me" by anti-gay legislation "you've been seeing in Russia."
Meanwhile, Russia insists that its law barring "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors" is not discriminatory but is intended to protect children.
So what is behind what critics say is a concerted crackdown on Russia's lesbian, gay and transgender community?
Boris Dittrich, who leads Human Rights Watch's advocacy efforts on LGBT rights around the world, points to a combination of factors -- with political expediency, ignorance and religion all in the mix.
"There are always elections coming up in Russia and it makes politicians popular to look for a scapegoat," he said. "LGBT people are a scapegoat because people don't know much about LGBT -- they mix it up with pedophilia, bestiality or even think it has something to do with the devil."
'Paying the price'
The situation is not helped by the Russian Orthodox Church, which spreads misinformation about the gay community, Dittrich said.
Added to this, "there are not many openly gay or lesbian people in Russian society, so there's not really role models" for people to judge by, he said.
As for Russia's president, Dittrich considers that Vladimir Putin makes use of the issue to differentiate himself from the West.
While there is a growing acceptance toward the LGBT community in the United States and other countries, Dittich said, "this is something he uses to say 'Russians are different' and the LGBT people in Russia pay the price for that."
The anti-gay propaganda law, passed overwhelmingly in parliament and signed off by Putin, bans the public discussion of gay rights and relationships anywhere children might hear it. Those found in breach of it can be fined and, if they are foreign, deported.
Critics say the law is so vaguely defined that it can be used to prosecute someone just for wearing a rainbow T-shirt or holding hands with someone of the same sex in public. Amnesty International has condemned it as an "affront to freedom of expression and an attack on minority rights."
Polls: Widespread homophobia
There's no doubt that protest efforts against the law are gaining international traction.
Gay rights campaign group All Out presented a 320,000-signature petition calling for repeal of the law to the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland this week -- and pressed their case with senior IOC staff.
Speaking Friday in Moscow, IOC President Jacques Rogge said the committee had received a written assurance from the Russian government that the anti-gay propaganda law would not be applied to visitors to Sochi -- but that "there are still uncertainties" which need further clarification.
"We are waiting for this clarification before having final judgment on these reassurances," he said.
"The Olympic charter is very clear: it says that sport is a human right and it should be available to all, regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation and the Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination. So our position is very clear."
But within Russia, debate on the issue of gay rights is muted -- and barely heard outside the big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
This may reflect what polling indicates is a wide rejection of homosexuality within Russian society.
Almost three-quarters of Russians said homosexuality should not be accepted by society, while just 16% said it should be accepted, a recent Pew Research Center survey of global attitudes revealed.
By comparison, 33% of people surveyed in the United States said homosexuality should not be accepted by society, while 60% said it should. In Britain, only 18% did not favor accepting homosexuality, with 76% saying it should be accepted.