Putin delays vote that would extend rule

Daria Litvinova
Vladimir Putin, who wore a protective suit to visit COVID-19 patients, has delayed a plebiscite

Russian President Vladimir Putin has postponed a country-wide vote on proposed constitutional amendments that include a change that would allow him to seek another term in power.

Putin didn't set a new date for the plebiscite originally set for April 22, saying that it would depend on how the coronavirus pandemic develops.

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

"Health, life and safety of the people is an absolute priority for us," Putin said.

Under 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 Russian leader has been in power since 2000, longer than any other country ruler since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Russian authorities reported 163 more virus cases on Wednesday since the day before, bringing the country's 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 caseload given its size and shared border with China has raised questions and, in some quarters, doubts.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin told Putin on Tuesday that the low number of cases in Russia could reflect insufficient screening rather than the actual scale of the epidemic and said the situation was "serious".

Denis Protsenko, chief doctor of the top Moscow hospital treating COVID-19 patients, echoed the mayor's sentiment and later told Putin that Russia needed to "prepare for the Italian scenario".

Putin last week ordered the vote on amending the Russian constitution to be held but kept the door open for a delay if the coronavirus situation worsened.

He donned a yellow protective suit during a visit to a Moscow hospital treating people with COVID-19 and conferred with officials on strategies to contain the outbreak.