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Citing virus, Putin delays vote that would extend his rule

MOSCOW (AP) — Citing the coronavirus, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday postponed a nationwide vote on proposed constitutional amendments that include a change potentially allowing him to stay in office until 2036.

Putin didn’t set a new date for the plebiscite, which was originally scheduled for April 22, saying that it would depend on how the pandemic develops in Russia. The country reported its first two deaths from the virus on Wednesday.

He also announced during a televised address to the nation that the government doesn’t want Russians to go to work next week, except for those in essential sectors. Stores, pharmacies and banks will stay open, he said.

“Health, life and safety of the people is an absolute priority for us,” Putin said. “That is why I believe that the vote should be postponed. We will assess how the situation in the regions and the country as a whole develops, and will set a new date for the vote based exclusively on professional opinion and advice from doctors and experts.”

Under the 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-old Putin has been in power since 2000, longer than any other ruler in the country since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Other constitutional changes further strengthen the presidency and emphasize the priority of Russian law over international norms — a provision reflecting the Kremlin’s irritation with the European Court of Human Rights and other international bodies that have often issued verdicts against Russia.

There also are proposed amendments to outlaw same-sex marriage and to mention “a belief in God” as one of Russia’s traditional values.

Authorities in Moscow and other cities already have put up billboards promoting the constitutional changes as essential for Russia’s well-being and stability.

Officials reported 163 more virus cases in the country Wednesday from a day earlier, bringing the national 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 number of cases given its size and shared border with China raised questions and doubts about the veracity of official statistics. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin told Putin on Tuesday that the low number could reflect insufficient screening in Russia rather than the actual scale of the outbreak and said the situation was “serious.”

Kremlin critics have accused the authorities of manipulating coronavirus statistics to ram the constitutional vote through at any cost — allegations that the government has rejected.

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