Russia has sealed its borders, shut down schools and delayed sports tournaments in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But one thing has been deemed too important to postpone: a public vote to adopt a new constitution that could give Vladimir Putin 12 more years in the Kremlin.
While other foreign leaders have steeled their citizens for a long crisis and have spoken of a “war” against the pandemic, Mr Putin has played down the threat and urged citizens to remain calm in an effort to minimise panic — and ensure the nationwide ballot on April 22 takes place.
Drawn up in a matter of weeks by a hastily assembled committee of officials and minor celebrities, Russia’s proposed new constitution was voted through both houses of parliament last week and was endorsed by the country’s constitutional court on Monday.
If it receives the backing of a majority of voters next month, it will reset Mr Putin’s term limits and allow the four-time president to run in two more elections, potentially extending his regime to 2036.
But a mass outbreak of coronavirus could derail the president’s schedule.
“The virus is a challenge and comes at a very bad moment for him,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R. Politik, a political analyst. “Putin doesn’t want to postpone and is insisting that the referendum takes place as soon as possible . . . The longer they wait, the more risks will appear.”
While striving to minimise public anxiety that could threaten the ballot, Mr Putin has sought to portray his vision of a strong, unimpeded — and long-lasting — presidency as a strength during a crisis. Last week he said that during “upheavals and difficulties . . . stability may be more important and must be given priority”.
Russia has taken some steps to curb the spread of the virus, though they are far less drastic than the mass shutdowns in other major European countries such as Italy or France.
The government has encouraged businesses to allow employees to work from home and closed theatres, museums, universities and schools. Foreign citizens were banned from entering the country this week and the majority of international flights have been cancelled.
At the same time, Mr Putin has sought to project an image of control, continuing with his diary of local visits and meetings with senior officials, shaking hands and never wearing a face mask. His ministers have urged against panic buying, stressing that there is enough food and medicine in the country to meet demand.
“Thank God, we generally have everything under control so far. Hopefully, it will continue in the future,” Mr Putin said at a meeting of dozens of local officials on Wednesday that appeared to breach his government’s own rules banning gatherings of more than 50 people.
“Putin wants turnout of more than 50 per cent, but how can you push people to come out and vote in this situation?” said Ms Stanovaya. “When the people around him see that the president insists that the situation is not serious, they don’t want to suggest otherwise.”
Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman, told reporters on Wednesday that the vote could be postponed if “voting will pose a threat to citizens’ health” but: “The final decision, of course, will be made by the president.”
But there are signs of public unease despite the government’s sanguine messaging. Empty shelves have begun to appear in Moscow’s supermarkets, pharmacies have run out of face masks and hand sanitiser and food delivery services have extended delivery waiting times.
The decision to proceed with the vote “demonstrates that in Russia, politics is more important than safety”, wrote Vladimir Ruvinsky, a columnist for newspaper Vedomosti.
Russia said on Friday it had recorded 253 cases of coronavirus. While officials have cited the low number as proof of the success of swiftly closing its border with China in January and steadily cutting flights to affected countries, experts have questioned how the country has proved far more immune than almost any other.
“The present number of patients with coronavirus will be hidden from us,” said Anastasia Vasilieva, chairman of Doctors’ Alliance, a Russian lobby group affiliated with opposition politician Alexei Navalny. She claimed Moscow was instead classifying cases of the virus as pneumonia, the incidence of which increased by almost 40 per cent in January compared with a year previously, government data showed.
Russia on Thursday claimed a 79-year-old woman who was infected with Covid-19 had been killed by a bloodclot, not the disease.
“The value of human life for our president is nil . . . We don’t want to admit to any pandemic,” said Ms Vasilieva. “We know of hospitals that are completely full and nurses who are asked to sew face masks from gauze.”
Neighbouring Belarus has five times more infections per capita than Russia, and France, which has roughly half Russia’s population, has more than 50 times the number of cases.
Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko this week accused Moscow of false data, claiming “all of Russia is ablaze with coronavirus”. Moscow says it has conducted 133,000 coronavirus tests and that its data is accurate.
“No matter what happens in the next 35 days, they have to lie, hush up, and deny. It doesn’t matter at all what really will happen to coronavirus in Russia, whether there will be a moderate outbreak or tens of thousands are killed,” said Igor Pitsyn, a doctor in Yaroslavl, a city 250km north-east of Moscow.
“By Putin’s decree all information about this is declared a state secret until April 22 . . . This ‘nationwide vote’ will be held at all costs.”