By Karolos Grohmann
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - The Sochi Olympics were successful in "breaking the ice of skepticism" surrounding hosts Russia, the country's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said on Saturday, a day ahead of the Winter Games closing ceremony.
Russia's human rights record had been called into question in the buildup to the Games following the arrest and jailing of several high-profile dissidents, while critics said the country's anti-gay propaganda law curbed the rights of homosexuals.
Security was also a serious concern with Islamic militants in the North Caucasus threatening to attack the Olympics, an event which Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes will polish the country's image on the international stage.
"The friendly faces, the warm Sochi sun and the glare of the Olympic gold have broken the ice of skepticism towards the new Russia," said Kozak.
"The Games have turned our country, its culture and the people into something that is a lot closer and more appealing and understandable for the rest of the world," he told reporters.
Asked whether he would have changed anything looking back at the preparations and execution of the Games, he said: "I would not change anything. Nothing should ever be changed here."
He praised organizers for what he said was a seamless operation and said security had worked like a clockwork.
"We were certain that the security agencies were able to accomplish the task," he told reporters. "Their work was stellar, I repeat stellar. Friendly smiling police officers. We fulfilled this task brilliantly."
He also brushed off as "tricks" the efforts of anti-government protesters to highlight what they said were issues of corruption and repression linked to the Games.
Members of protest group Pussy Riot were beaten by Cossacks with a whip as they tried to perform a song in front of a wall displaying a large Sochi Games logo.
"As for what needs to be done to make sure that the sporting competitions eclipsed the tricks pulled off by Pussy Riot, I think we have actually achieved that," said Kozak.
"That requires interesting, captivating sporting competitions and any attempt to provoke us into discussing any other questions or problems will be relegated to the back seat."
He said one of those who had hit members of the group had been arrested.
"The girls came here specifically to provoke this conflict. They have been searching for this for a long time and finally they had their conflict with local citizens, local inhabitants," said Kozak.
"On the basis of this hooligan act, a citizen who committed this act, he was apprehended in accordance with the Russian laws. The girls were not taken into custody, in accordance with the law."
Kozak said claims that the $50 billion Games were a hotbed of corruption among contractors and government officials were simply untrue.
"We asked everyone who stated that: please provide specific facts, specific information about this corruption.
"We'll carry out profound, thorough investigations and if it is proven that there was a case of corruption, the culprits will be punished. But so far we don't have these facts," he said.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)