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Friday April 3rd, 2020 7:30AM

Citing virus, Putin delays vote that would extend his rule

By The Associated Press
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MOSCOW (AP) — Citing the coronavirus, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday postponed a nationwide vote on proposed constitutional amendments that include a change potentially allowing him to stay in office until 2036.

Putin didn't set a new date for the plebiscite, which was originally scheduled for April 22, saying that it would depend on how the pandemic develops in Russia. The country reported its first two deaths from the virus on Wednesday.

He also announced during a televised address to the nation that the government doesn't want Russians to go to work next week, except for those in essential sectors. Stores, pharmacies and banks will stay open, he said.

“Health, life and safety of the people is an absolute priority for us,” Putin said. “That is why I believe that the vote should be postponed. We will assess how the situation in the regions and the country as a whole develops, and will set a new date for the vote based exclusively on professional opinion and advice from doctors and experts.”

Under the current law, Putin wouldn't be able to run for president again in 2024 because of term limits. A new measure would reset his term count, allowing him to run for two more six-year terms if he chooses.

The 67-year-old Putin has been in power since 2000, longer than any other ruler in the country since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Other constitutional changes further strengthen the presidency and emphasize the priority of Russian law over international norms — a provision reflecting the Kremlin's irritation with the European Court of Human Rights and other international bodies that have often issued verdicts against Russia.

There also are proposed amendments to outlaw same-sex marriage and to mention “a belief in God” as one of Russia's traditional values.

Authorities in Moscow and other cities already have put up billboards promoting the constitutional changes as essential for Russia's well-being and stability.

Officials reported 163 more virus cases in the country Wednesday from a day earlier, bringing the national total to 658. That marked a significantly bigger daily increase from previous days, when the number of new infections grew only by several dozens.

Russia's comparatively low number of cases given its size and shared border with China raised questions and doubts about the veracity of official statistics. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin told Putin on Tuesday that the low number could reflect insufficient screening in Russia rather than the actual scale of the outbreak and said the situation was “serious.”

Kremlin critics have accused the authorities of manipulating coronavirus statistics to ram the constitutional vote through at any cost — allegations that the government has rejected.

Last week, when Putin ordered the vote on constitutional changes, he kept the door open for delaying it if the coronavirus situation worsened. On Tuesday, he donned a yellow hazmat suit to visit a Moscow hospital treating COVID-19 patients, where the chief doctor warned him that Russia needed to “prepare for the Italian scenario.” Italy has been the hardest-hit nation in Europe with more than 69,000 infections and over 6,800 deaths.

While telling Russians they shouldn't go to work next week, Putin also asked them to stay home, although it was unclear if his call was just advisory or would mean a government lockdown order similar to those in other countries.

“Don’t think ‘I won’t be hurt.’ Anyone could be hurt, and what’s going on now in many countries in Western Europe and across the ocean could be our near future,” Putin said. “Believe me, the safest thing you can do now is to stay home. It’s necessary to take care of yourselves and your relatives, show discipline and responsibility.”

He pledged that the government will support businesses hurt by the outbreak and promised tax breaks for businesses and individuals, a deferment on mortgages and a half-year moratorium on bankruptcies. He also offered tax incentives for small and medium businesses to help them retain their employees along with measures to support families with children.

At the same time, Putin ordered a new tax on dividends being funneled into tax havens abroad, saying that a 2 percent tax on such transfers is “unfairly” low in the current situation. He also said a standard income rate will be applied on yields from bank accounts to help the nation survive the coronavirus shock.

The outbreak poses a severe challenge to Putin at a time when prices for oil, Russia’s main source of income, plummeted amid a price war with Saudi Arabia, causing the ruble to drop sharply. That boosted the cost of imports and sped up inflation.

Russian authorities so far have refrained from sweeping lockdowns and closures of businesses, but they will likely change course as the outbreak spreads. That could deal a crippling blow to a Russian economy already weakened by sagging energy prices and Western sanctions.

Many in Russia have voiced concern that its underfunded health care system could be hard pressed to cope with a coronavirus crisis. The Russian military on Wednesday launched massive drills to train for deployment across the vast country to help the infected and quarantined areas.

Putin didn't say if the coronavirus outbreak could prompt the Kremlin to scale down or cancel the May 9 celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the Allies' victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Russia has planned a massive parade in Red Square to mark the nation's most important holiday to be attended by foreign leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a decision on whether to go ahead with the parade will be made later, depending on how the coronavirus situation develops.

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