Russian president Vladimir Putin has postponed a nationwide vote that was set to extend his rule by 12 years, bowing to increased pressure to delay after being warned that the coronavirus outbreak in the country was far worse than his government’s data suggested.
The about-turn is a blow to Mr Putin, who needs the public vote to complete his rapid rewriting of the constitution in order to extend his control of the Kremlin beyond 2024 but has found his political plans thrown into disarray by the spread of Covid-19.
Mr Putin, who had earlier vowed that the April 22 vote would go ahead while stressing that the spread of the disease was “under control”, used a nationwide address on Tuesday to announce his U-turn, hours after the number of Covid-19 cases in Russia jumped by a third in its largest daily increase.
“You know how seriously I feel about this [vote],” said Mr Putin, in a sombre speech broadcast across television channels. “However, our absolute priority is the health and safety of our people, which is why I think it is necessary to move the vote to a later date.”
Mr Putin said a new date would chosen be once the scale of the outbreak was better understood. He did not use the speech to impose a full-scale quarantine on Russia, as many European cities have done, but announced a “long weekend” that would run from Saturday, March 28 to Sunday, April 5, essentially asking people not to go to work next week.
The hastily arranged speech, announced just hours before it took place, came a day after the mayor of Moscow and Mr Putin’s former chief of staff publicly warned the president that the number of people infected was “far more” than his government was admitting, and that the healthcare system was in danger of being overrun.
Despite Tuesday’s jump in cases that took Russia’s total to 658, the country has reported far fewer cases than all other major European countries.
That has led experts to question the level of testing and methodology employed by Moscow, and led some analysts to suspect that the Kremlin was seeking to maintain calm in order to hold the vote next month.
“It is impossible to block the virus from entering our state. What we can do, we are already doing,” Mr Putin said in Tuesday’s address. “The main priority is the life and health of our citizens.”
The constitutional changes, which Mr Putin suggested in a shock announcement in January, have been rushed through a rapidly assembled drafting committee and were approved by both houses of parliament last month.
The final hurdle is a national plebiscite and, if the changes are endorsed by a majority of the public, they would reset Mr Putin’s presidential terms to zero. This would allow him to run twice more after 2024, by which time he will have completed four terms as president.