Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday postponed a vote on constitutional reforms and urged Russians to stay home to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, but did not impose the kind of strong measures taken in other countries.
In a rare televised address to the nation, Putin said that Russia could not isolate itself from the spreading pandemic, but focused mainly on support for the struggling economy.
“The health, life and safety of people is our absolute priority,” Putin said.
The vote on constitutional reforms, which had been scheduled for April 22, “must be postponed to a later date,” he said, without specifying when.
The reforms, proposed by Putin and approved by lawmakers over the past few months, would reset presidential term limits and potentially allow Putin — who has been in power for 20 years — to stay in office until 2036.
Critics have denounced the project as a way for Putin to remain “president for life.”
He also took the unusual step of declaring a non-working week from tomorrow to slow the spread of the virus, urging Russians to stay at home.
“It is extremely important now to prevent the threat of the disease spreading rapidly,” he said. “This can affect everyone. What is happening today in many Western countries — in Europe and across the ocean — can become our nearest future.”
He unveiled a series of measures to support Russians and boost the economy, including breaks on consumer loans and mortgage payments, support for small and medium-sized businesses and early payouts of social benefits.
To pay for it, he announced a new tax on interest from bank deposits of more than 1 million rubles (US$12,734).
The coronavirus and a plunge in oil prices have sparked a two-pronged crisis for the Russian economy, with the ruble falling to its lowest levels since early 2016.
This presents a huge challenge to Putin’s promises to boost growth and raise living standards.
The Kremlin announced Putin’s address as Russia on Wednesday recorded its biggest daily spike in confirmed coronavirus infections so far, with 163 new cases. As of yesterday, the nation had 840 cases.
Putin’s decision not to impose more stringent measures drew criticism from some.
“The effect will be the opposite of what’s needed,” opposition leader Alexei Navalny said on Twitter, adding that many would use a week off to take trips.
“For the first time in my life, I wished Putin had given a harsher speech,” Yelena Chernenko, a journalist at the Kommersant newspaper, wrote on Twitter.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin yesterday announced harsher measures for the capital, closing parks, cafes, restaurants, malls and other nonessential services as of tomorrow.
On Wednesday, the Moscow Health Department announced that two elderly people who had tested positive for COVID-19 had died, but Russia has not confirmed any deaths directly due to the coronavirus and it was not immediately clear whether these deaths would be counted in its tally.
Concern has risen as the number of cases steadily grows.
“The problem is that the volume of testing is very low and no one has a clear picture,” Sobyanin said.
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