In Depth

Coronavirus: how is Covid-19 affecting Russia?

Vladimir Putin delays vote on extending rule amid pandemic

Russian President Vladimir Putin has delayed a national vote on constitutional amendments that would have extended his rule until 2036, acknowledging that the risks posed by the growing coronavirus outbreak made the vote unwise.

The plebiscite had been scheduled for 22 April, and with government data indicating until recently that infection had been relatively well contained - despite claims that official numbers understated the true scale of the contagion - the president had resisted calls to delay it.

This week, however, the number of confirmed cases increased from 495 to 658.

“You know how seriously I feel about this,” said Putin about the vote, speaking solemnly in a national television address. “However, our absolute priority is the health and safety of our people, which is why I think it is necessary to move the vote to a later date.”

A new date for the vote has not been announced.

Why was the vote important?

Both houses of the Duma - Russia’s parliament - passed the constitutional changes last month with overwhelming support, and Russians were expected to approve the legislation in April’s vote.

The amendments concentrate power in the office of the president, reducing the power of international law, local government, and the judiciary.

Crucially, they restart the clock on presidential term limits, meaning Putin can begin a further twelve years in power when his current term ends in 2024.

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How is Covid-19 affecting Russia?

So far, the Russian government’s statistics indicate that the coronavirus pandemic is yet to hit the country with as much severity as its European neighbours. The authority’s efforts to keep the virus out were well publicised.

The government had already closed its borders to almost all incoming foreigners, but “some experts have questioned the level of testing and methodology employed by Moscow”, says the Financial Times. “Analysts have voiced concerns that the Kremlin has downplayed the crisis to maintain calm ahead of next month’s vote.”

Last week, Rosstat, Russia’s statistics agency, reported a 37% increase in pneumonia cases in Moscow in January compared to the same month’s yearly average. On Tuesday, the Kremlin said Moscow’s Mayor Sergei Sobyanin had told Putin directly that the situation was worse than people thought.

“The growth is high; a serious situation is developing,” he told Putin during the meeting, reported on the Kremlin’s website, pointing out that many cases had gone undiagnosed, and the reality “would emerge sooner or later”.

“The number who are really sick is far higher” than realised, he reportedly said.

Now, even official government statistics are showing the virus is spreading faster than before, and in the same address in which Putin announced the delay of April’s plebiscite, he beseeched Russians to stay home.

“Don’t think, as we Russians do, ‘It won’t happen to me!’ It can happen to anyone. And then what’s happening today in many western countries, in Europe and across the ocean, could happen to us in the near future,” said the president.

“Following all recommendations is absolutely essential. Keep yourselves and your loved ones safe by being disciplined and responsible. And, believe me, the safest thing now is to stay home. It is now crucial to prevent the threat of the disease spreading rapidly. Therefore I declare next week a non-working week with pay.”

The BBC concluded that “this is Vladimir Putin bowing, finally, to the inevitable”.

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