Coronavirus delays Russian vote on Putin staying in power

25/Mar/2020, 12.07 EDT

Europe,Russia,Times Of Lion

Andrew Roth in Moscow

Russian president says new date will be set later as coronavirus emergency measures rolled out

Vladimir Putin has delayed a public vote on constitutional amendments that could allow him to stay in power until 2036 due to the coronavirus outbreak in Russia.

The plebiscite, seen as an important test of support for Putin’s aim to remain in power after his current term ends in 2024, had been scheduled for 22 April.

Putin said a new date would be set later. The vote does not have any legal impact and the constitutional amendments have already been accepted into law.

Putin also announced a series of emergency measures to limit the health and economic impact of the spread of the virus in Russia. He asked people to stay at home, but he stopped short of issuing a mandatory quarantine or state of emergency.

He announced a nationwide week-long holiday to run from Saturday, 28 March, until 5 April. Workers across the country would be guaranteed to receive their salaries, he said.

Putin also promised debt relief for people diagnosed with coronavirus, support for unemployed people, additional benefits for families with small children, a tax holiday for small businesses and a moratorium on some bankruptcies.

In a direct appeal to Russians, Putin said: “Don’t think ‘this can’t happen to me’. It can happen to anyone.”

Under previous law, Putin would not be able to run for president again in 2024 because of term limits. The new measure would reset his term count, allowing him to run for two more six-year terms if he chooses.

The 67-year-old has been in power since 2000, longer than any other of the country’s rulers since the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

On Tuesday Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, told Putin that government tallies underestimated the number of coronavirus victims in the country and that the Kremlin needed to take urgent steps to address the spread of the virus before it turned into a crisis.

Sobyanin said the rate of coronavirus growth was high, “a serious situation is developing” and the healthcare system may be overwhelmed at the virus’s peak.

The public warning signalled a pivot in the Kremlin’s approach to the disease. Putin donned a bright yellow protective suit to visit the country’s main coronavirus hospital later that day and then addressed the nation on Wednesday.

Previously, Russian officials had urged people to avoid panic. Russian testing methods and the official numbers of infected had been treated with scepticism, especially after it was revealed that rates of pneumonia for Moscow had risen by more than 35% year on year, indicating that coronavirus cases may have been misidentified.

Official statistics have now revealed a significant acceleration in the spread of coronavirus in Russia. A record 163 new cases were reported on Wednesday, bringing the country’s total to 658. Most of the new infections, 120, were identified in Moscow. One death has been attributed to the disease.

Russia’s parliament said on Wednesday that it would review legislation that could put quarantine breakers in jail for a period of three to seven years. Currently, those who return from abroad or exhibit symptoms of sickness are required to self-isolate for 14 days.

Anyone found guilty of intentionally infecting others could even face terrorism charges, a Russian lawmaker said. “In the event of intentional causing of one or more deaths as a result of the deliberate violation of sanitary and epidemiological regulations, irrespective of the intentions, such an action will be defined as terrorism, hooliganism or sabotage,” Pavel Krasheninnikov said.