MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin said a referendum on constitutional amendments that would allow him to continue in power would be pushed back because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The public vote had been slated for April 22 and included a set of reforms that would pave the way for two more six-year presidential terms once Putin’s mandate ends in 2024.
However, the pandemic has put the brakes on the vote and the president has banned any work to take place next week as the country attempts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
“The absolute priority is the health, life and safety of the people. Therefore, I believe that the vote should be moved to a later date,” Putin said in a message to the nation broadcast on state television.
Putin had previously alluded to the possibility of postponing the plebiscite over the pandemic, which has seen 658 infections in Russia, authorities reported on Wednesday.
In recent weeks, Putin had engaged in an intense electoral campaign to win approval for the constitutional reforms.
Should the Russians support Putin’s proposed amendments, he could stand for re-election in 2024 and also in 2030, something the current constitution prohibits.
“We must understand that Russia, due to its geographical location, cannot isolate itself from the threat. Alongside our borders some countries have been seriously affected by the epidemic,” Putin said.
He acknowledged that “completely containing” the coronavirus from entering the Russian territory was “objectively impossible.”
In January, he ordered the closure of the border with China, where the pandemic first originated in December and has since spread across the globe.
“What we can do is work in a professional and organized way, getting ahead of ourselves,” the president continued.
Putin announced a package of social and economic measures to help the population, the first of which was to declare a non-working week from March 28 to April 5.
“It is extremely important to contain the threat of a rapid spread of the infection. That is why I declare next week a non-working one with guaranteed wages,” he said.
The objective of the measure was “to minimize the speed of the spread of the disease,” Putin continued.
He also announced that all social benefits would be extended “automatically” for half a year.
The president urged Russians to obey the recommendations of authorities and ordered the closure of cinemas and entertainment venues on Sunday.
“Believe me, the safest thing now is to stay home,” he said.