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.
Later on Wednesday Russia confirmed the deaths of two people who had been diagnosed with the virus. The 88- and 73-year-olds had pre-existing conditions, Ria Novosti reported. Russia has a total of 658 cases.
“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.
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.
- Spain’s death toll has surpassed the official figure from China, becoming the second highest in the world. Deaths have risen by 738 in just 24 hours to a total of 3,434
- Italy has increased punishments for breaking virus control measures, including fines of thousands of euros and five-year prison terms for anyone who tests positive and breaks their quarantine. Nearly 70,000 people have tested positive for the illness there
- On Tuesday, France became the fifth country to record more than 1,000 coronavirus deaths. Jerome Salomon, the country’s top health official, has warned that the number could be even higher, as the 1,100 confirmed total only counts people who died in hospitals. Scientific advisers have called for the lockdown there to be extended from 15 days to six weeks – something health officials have not ruled out
- And in the UK, heir to the throne Prince Charles has tested positive after displaying “mild” symptoms
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