Russian President Vladimir Putin has said a delayed vote on constitutional reforms that could extend his rule beyond 2024 will take place on July 1, pressing ahead with the plan despite the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
The announcement on Monday comes days after officials said the health crisis had passed its peak – though the country is still reporting thousands of new infections every day.
“As the situation with the pandemic improves, we of course are returning to normal life, including the need to think about further work on amendments to the constitution,” Putin said in a video call with electoral and health officials.
The president agreed to proposals from officials that the vote be held on July 1, saying public health needed to be the “first and foremost priority” for organisers.
Putin announced the series of surprise constitutional reforms earlier this year, including a provision that would reset the clock on his term limits to zero. This would allow the 67-year-old to run for president again when his fourth term expires in 2024, and potentially to stay in power until 2036.
The vote will be held a week after Russia is due to hold rescheduled grand celebrations on June 24 marking 75 years since the end of World War II in Europe.
Lyubov Sobol, a Moscow opposition leader and ally of chief Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, denounced the plan to hold the constitutional vote in July.
“This is the basic law of our country, and they have arranged this circus,” she said on Twitter. “Putin is ready to risk people’s lives and health.”
The vote on the reforms had been planned for April 22 but had to be postponed after Russia experienced a surge in coronavirus infections that has since seen it record the world’s third-highest number of confirmed cases, behind the United States and Brazil.
Russia continues to record a significant number of coronavirus cases – with 9,035 new infections on Monday bringing its total to 414,878.
Officials say the high numbers are the result of large-scale testing, adding that a steady decline in new infections and a low reported death toll of 4,855 mean Russia can ease restrictions.
Critics have accused authorities of under-reporting deaths and of putting people at risk by lifting lockdowns.
With more than half of the recorded cases in Moscow and the surrounding region, authorities in the city of more than 12 million have been cautious in removing curbs in place since March 30.
On Monday, retail stores and shopping centres were allowed to reopen and residents were able to exercise outdoors before 9am, but with masks required at all times and gloves needed in shops and on public transport.
Restaurants, cafes and cinemas were to remain closed and no mass gatherings were to be allowed until at least June 14.