By Liza Dobkina
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - U.S. pop singer Selena Gomez has scrapped two concerts in Russia after falling foul of new visa rules which critics say can be used to keep out Western artists who promote gay rights.
The concert organizers said the "Come and Get It" singer pulled out of the planned performances in St. Petersburg and Moscow next week when it became clear she would not be able to secure a visa in time.
They blamed the delay on the new rules, which they said were prompted by official concern over two concerts in Russia at which Madonna and Lady Gaga defended gay rights, and a gig in neighboring Ukraine where the lead singer of U.S. group Bloodhound Gang stuffed a Russian flag down his trousers.
"The situation is a result of the scandals over the Madonna, Lady Gaga and Bloodhound Gang concerts, after which the Russian authorities changed procedures for issuing visas to foreign musical and artistic groups," said the promoters, the Russian Entertainment Academy.
A representative for Gomez, 21, confirmed the Russia concerts were canceled but declined further comment.
Gomez, who has not taken a public stance on gay rights, has also come under pressure to denounce Russia's law prohibiting gay propaganda to minors. A U.S. petition started on the Change.org website has gained about 14,000 signatures.
Foreign artists can no longer receive visas by invitation from the Culture Ministry under the aegis of cultural links if they come to Russia to conduct commercial activity, according to state-run news agency RIA.
It said the procedures were changed following complaints from Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg legislator who criticized Madonna and Lady Gaga and has campaigned against gay rights.
Performing in St. Petersburg last year in black lingerie with the words "No Fear" scrawled on her back, Madonna attacked a city law promoted by Milonov that imposed fines for spreading homosexual "propaganda".
Lady Gaga also denounced the law on stage in St Petersburg last year, declaring: "Tonight, this is my house Russia. You can be gay in my house."
A Russian state news agency quoted the head of PMI, which organized Madonna's concert in St. Petersburg, as saying the new rules could be used by the Russian authorities to keep out performers not to their liking.
"Not a single person is going to visit us if the Prosecutor General's Office starts disputing something or looking for guilty parties," Yevgeny Finkelshtein was quoted as saying last month.
Russia has courted controversy since the ban on anti-gay propaganda among minors went into force nationwide this year, as part of a drive by President Vladimir Putin to win over conservative voters after protests against his long rule.
Human rights campaigners say the law is discriminatory and it has prompted calls for a boycott of the Winter Olympics being hosted by the Russian resort city of Sochi next February.
U.S. singer Cher turned down an opportunity to perform at the Winter Games in Sochi because of the anti-gay propaganda, saying the decision was a "no brainer".
Madonna even faced a court battle against anti-gay activists who tried - but failed - to press a $10-million compensation claim against her because they said she had hurt their feelings by promoting homosexuality at her St. Petersburg concert.
Putin defended the law on Thursday, saying: "Any minority's right to be different must be respected, but the right of the majority must not be questioned."
(Reporting by Liza Dobkina and Steve Gutterman; Additional reporting by Eric Kelsey in Los Angeles; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Toby Chopra and Eric Walsh)