Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday postponed a nationwide vote on constitutional changes that would allow him to extend his rule, saying the health and safety of citizens was his top priority as the global coronavirus pandemic worsens.
The changes, already approved by parliament and Russia's Constitutional Court, would reset Putin's presidential term tally to zero, allowing him to serve two more back-to-back six year terms until 2036.
His postponement followed calls from critics to delay the vote, which had been planned for April 22. One opposition activist, Andrei Pivovarov, likened the idea to proceed amid coronavirus to "holding a party during the plague".
"We see how severely the coronavirus epidemic is developing in the world. In many countries the number of cases is continuing to grow, the whole world economy is under threat," Putin said in a televised address to the nation.
"The absolute priority for us is the health, life and safety of people. Therefore I believe that the vote should be postponed until a later date."
Putin, who has dominated the Russian political landscape as president or prime minister for two decades, spoke on the day that Russia recorded its biggest one day rise in cases, though at 658, the official tally remains much lower than in many European countries.
The mayor of Moscow told Putin on Tuesday however that the real scale of the problem in the Russian capital far exceeded official figures, and Reuters reported earlier this month that a reported sharp increase in pneumonia cases in Moscow was fuelling fears about the accuracy of official data.
Putin, in the same address, unveiled new measures designed to slow the spread of the virus and to help the economy, which has already been hit by prolonged uncertainty over coronavirus and tumbling oil prices, sending the rouble to four-year lows.
He declared next week would be a non-working week for many Russians and urged people to stay at home. He also spoke of the need to give tax breaks to small and medium-sized businesses and to allow consumers to delay paying back loans.
Billboards urging Russians to take part in the nationwide vote on constitutional changes have already gone up in many Russian towns and cities.
If Putin, as critics expect, opts to run again for president in 2024, the new rules would allow the 67-year-old former KGB officer to stay in power until 2036, though the Kremlin points out that he has not spoken of his own plans after 2024.
Putin did not propose a new date for the vote, saying only that he and others would listen to medical advice and evaluate the situation to decide when the time for a new vote was right.
Putin's critics have likened the proposed changes to a constitutional coup that they say is illegal and would allow him to remain in power long after he should have stepped down.
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