Putin Sets New Date for Vote on Extending His Rule

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MOSCOW — Pushing to get his political program back on track, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said on Monday that a referendum on constitutional changes that would allow him to dispense with term limits and stay in office until 2036 will be held on July 1.

The vote — whose outcome in favor of Mr. Putin sticking around instead of bowing out in 2024 is in little doubt — was originally scheduled for April 22 but got called off because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left Russia the third hardest-hit country after the United States and Brazil.

The pandemic cast a pall of uncertainty over the Kremlin’s carefully choreographed plans, forcing the cancellation of not only the referendum but also military parades in Moscow and other Russian cities to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany in May 1945.

Insisting that the peak of the outbreak had passed, despite a daily increase of around 9,000 new infections, Mr. Putin last week announced that the Victory Day parades will go ahead on June 24. The decision announced on Monday to hold the constitutional referendum a week later completes the Kremlin’s efforts to return Russia to its regular political programing.

ImageMilitary planes flew over Moscow in early May, but the grand parades planned for Victory Day did not go ahead.
Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

With his approval rating at its lowest level since he first took power 20 years ago, Mr. Putin, cooped up in his country residence outside Moscow for most of the past two months, has been eager to get the country and his own plans out of limbo.

Describing July 1 as an “impeccable date” for a referendum, Mr. Putin urged all Russian voters to endorse the constitutional amendments. They include a raft of popular provisions like a ban on senior officials holding foreign bank accounts and mandatory increases in social benefits.

But their main purpose is to let Mr. Putin stay in office long beyond the end of what was supposed to be his last term as president in 2024.

Russia’s docile parliament, which invariably approves Kremlin proposals, enacted all the proposed changes in March but a popular vote would give much-needed legitimacy to what the Kremlin’s critics have denounced as a constitutional coup designed to keep Mr. Putin in power indefinitely.

To calm concerns that the Kremlin is gambling with public health in pursuit of its political agenda, Anna Popova, the head of the state agency leading the battle against the coronavirus, spoke at a video conference of officials along with Mr. Putin and offered assurances that holding the referendum on July 1 would be safe for the public.

The head of the Central Election Commission, Alla Pamfilova, suggested that the vote could be spread over six days to avoid crowds at polling stations.

Moscow city authorities also helped on Monday to prepare the way for the vote, the centerpiece of the Kremlin’s political plans for the year. After nine weeks in lockdown, Moscow reopened parks, shopping malls, car dealerships and many other businesses but restricted entry to people wearing masks and gloves.

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Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The Russian capital, the epicenter of the country’s coronavirus outbreak, has accounted for more than 40 percent of Russia’s total number of reported infections, which numbered 414,878 on Monday, and more than half of all deaths attributed to coronavirus across the country.

Unusually cool weather and steady rain kept many residents indoors despite the partial lifting of restrictions, which, on paper at least, had been among the world’s most severe. Restaurants, bars and coffee shops remained closed, except for takeout service.

Elaborate and often confusing new rules governing when and where taking a walk is now allowed also helped keep people off the streets. An announcement by the Moscow city government that it would set a “walking schedule” for each building to fix the times residents can go out for a stroll depending on where they live provoked dismay and mockery on social media.

In a video posted on Instagram, Maksim Galkin, a prominent television presenter and comedian, impersonated Mr. Putin and the mayor of Moscow, Sergei S. Sobyanin, discussing a “breathing schedule” to decide when and where Muscovites can freely inhale fresh air.

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