Coronavirus delays Russian vote on Putin staying in power

Russian President Vladimir Putin has postponed a vote on constitutional change that would allow him to stay in power, because of coronavirus concerns.

He said the public vote – previously due to be held on 22 April – would be delayed until a "later date".

The proposed changes include scrapping a ban on allowing Mr Putin to run for office again.

The changes have already been approved by parliament and Russia's constitutional court.

They would give Mr Putin – who is serving his fourth presidential term and has dominated Russian politics for two decades – the right to serve two more consecutive terms.

On Wednesday Russia confirmed 163 new cases, bringing its total to 658. So far no-one has died from the virus there, officials say.

"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," Mr Putin said.

Mr Putin also announced that Russians would not work next week "to slow the speed" of the infection.

But he warned that it was impossible to prevent any spread of the virus at all in Russia because of the country's size.

This is Vladimir Putin bowing, finally, to the inevitable.

Holding a nationwide vote in a pandemic had always seemed bad politics, at the very least. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny had even called it "criminal", especially as Russia's most faithful voters are pensioners and among the most vulnerable to the virus.

Mr Putin had seemed to be delaying the decision, though, hoping Russia would somehow escape the worst of Covid-19.

Some suspected the statistics were being massaged to make it seem that way, a claim officials here have denied repeatedly. But the number of confirmed cases is now climbing in Russia, like everywhere else.

Russia's president promised this was a postponement, not a cancellation. While critics call the vote a crude way of ensuring Mr Putin remains in power, the Kremlin is keen the process should look legitimate, the people's choice.

The delay, though, does mean officials across the country can finally focus on the clear priority – battling a pandemic, not securing a vote for Mr Putin.

The Russian economy was also under serious pressure because of the virus, Mr Putin said.

During their week off, employees would continue to be paid and key services would continue, he said.

He also announced extended welfare support, including for families with children and those who had lost jobs.

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Russia has already taken measures such as a two-week quarantine for people arriving from abroad, school closures and warning for elderly people in Moscow to self-isolate.

It has also stopped cultural and sporting events and closed gyms, cinemas and nightclubs, although cafes and restaurants have been allowed to stay open.

But the country has so far stopped short of imposing the kind of lockdown seen in some European countries.

What is the situation across Europe?

There have been more than 435,000 confirmed cases worldwide. Europe is now the centre of the global outbreak.

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