President Vladimir Putin postponed a vote on constitutional reforms and urged Russians to stay home to contain the coronavirus on Wednesday, but did not impose the kind of strong measures taken in other countries.
In a rare televised address to the nation, Putin said Russia could not isolate itself from the spreading pandemic but focused mainly on support for the struggling economy.
“The health, life and safety of people is our absolute priority,” Putin said.
The vote on constitutional reforms, which had been due to take place on April 22, “must be postponed to a later date”, he said, without specifying when.
The reforms, proposed by the president and approved by lawmakers over the last few months, would reset presidential term limits and potentially allow Putin, in power for 20 years, to stay in office until 2036.
Critics have denounced the project as a way for Putin to remain “president for life”.
He also took the unusual step of declaring March 28 to April 5 a non-working week in order to slow the spread of the virus, urging Russians to stay at home.
“It is extremely important now to prevent the threat of the disease spreading rapidly,” he said.
– ‘Can affect everyone’ –
“This can affect everyone. What is happening today in many Western countries — in Europe and across the ocean — can become our nearest future.”
He unveiled a series of measures to support Russians and boost the economy, including breaks on consumer loans and mortgage payments, support for small- and medium-sized businesses and early payouts of social benefits.
To pay for it, he announced a new tax on interest from bank deposits above 1 million rubles ($12,800).
The coronavirus and a dizzying fall in oil prices have sparked a two-pronged crisis for the Russian economy, with the ruble falling to its lowest levels since early 2016.
This presents a huge challenge to Putin’s promises to boost growth and raise living standards.
The Kremlin announced Putin’s address as Russia on Wednesday recorded its biggest daily spike in confirmed coronavirus infections so far, with 163 new cases for a total of 658 across the country.
Putin’s decision not to impose more stringent measures drew criticism from some.
“The effect will be the opposite of what’s needed,” opposition leader Alexei Navalny tweeted, saying many would use a week off to take trips.
“For the first time in my life I wished Putin had given a harsher speech,” Yelena Chernenko, a journalist at Kommersant daily, wrote on Twitter.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin told Russian television he would shortly announce harsher measures for the capital, saying he wants to close parks, cafes, restaurants and malls next week.
Later Wednesday, Moscow city health department announced that two elderly people who had tested positive for coronavirus had died.
Russia has not confirmed any deaths directly due to coronavirus and it was not immediately clear whether these deaths would be counted in its tally.
Concern has risen as the number of cases steadily grows.
Putin met with top officials to discuss containment measures on Tuesday, putting on a yellow hazmat suit as he visited a major hospital treating coronavirus patients.
Sobyanin, who heads a coronavirus task force, told Putin the actual number of cases was probably “significantly” higher than official figures.
“The problem is that the volume of testing is very low and no one has a clear picture,” Sobyanin said.
Russia previously imposed 14-day quarantines on people arriving from abroad, closed schools and told elderly residents in Moscow, where most of the cases are concentrated, to self-isolate.
It halted cultural and sports events and closed fitness clubs, cinemas and night clubs.
Authorities have repeatedly denied plans to impose lockdowns like those seen in China, Italy, Spain, France or Britain, but warnings from officials were stark.
– ‘Italian’ scenario –
Denis Protsenko, head doctor of Moscow’s new hospital treating coronavirus patients, told Putin that Russia needed to be ready for an “Italian” scenario, referring to what is now the hardest-hit country in the world in terms of deaths.
“If there is a big spike, and Moscow is headed there, our hospital is ready to transform,” he said.
Russian lawmakers have proposed imposing severe punishments — including up to seven years in prison — for people breaking coronavirus quarantine rules.
Putin did not say whether he will postpone a massive military parade on May 9 to mark 75 years since the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Dozens of foreign leaders have been invited to take part.