Putin sets July 1 for reform vote as Moscow lockdown eases

Michael MAINVILLE
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Moscow parks have been given the go-ahead to reopen after the virus lockdown. This park reopened early

Moscow parks have been given the go-ahead to reopen after the virus lockdown. This park reopened early (AFP Photo/Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV)

Moscow (AFP) - President Vladimir Putin said Monday that Russia will vote on July 1 on constitutional reforms that could extend his rule beyond 2024, pressing ahead with the plan despite the coronavirus pandemic.

The move came with officials saying the health crisis has passed its peak in Russia and with Moscow easing lockdown measures, though the country is still reporting thousands of new cases every day.

Critics have warned authorities may be moving too quickly to open up, but Putin said Monday it was time to plan again for the vote that was delayed from April.

"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.

He then 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 Putin, 67, to run for president again when his fourth term expires in 2024, and potentially to stay in power until 2036.

A public vote on the reforms had been planned for April 22 but had to be postponed after Russia experienced a surge in coronavirus cases that has since seen it record the world's third-highest number of cases.

- Falling infection rates -

The rise in infections has been declining in recent days, prompting Putin to announce an easing of lockdown measures and the rescheduling of a May 9 Victory Day parade for June 24.

Moscow eased its nine-week lockdown on Monday, with residents allowed to exercise, stroll and shop, though many remained largely confined to their homes.

Russia continues to record a significant number of coronavirus cases -- with 9,035 new infections on Monday bringing its total to 414,878, behind only the United States and Brazil in the global tally.

Officials say the high numbers are the result of large-scale testing and 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.

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."

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 restrictions in place since March 30.

On Monday retail shops and malls were allowed to re-open and residents were able to exercise outdoors before 9:00 am, but with masks required at all times and gloves needed in shops and on public transport.

- 'Finally breathe fresh air' -

As a two-week test measure, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said residents would be allowed to take walks within two kilometres of their homes according to a staggered schedule based on their address.

The convoluted system -- which allows walks between 9:00 am and 9:00 pm no more than three times a week -- has drawn ridicule, with some quipping that life in Moscow was beginning to imitate dystopian fiction.

Cold and rainy weather on Monday conspired to keep many indoors, but in Gorky Park a few hardy Muscovites were enjoying their newfound freedom.

"We can finally breathe fresh air," said 17-year-old Liza Astashevskaya as she wandered the famed riverside park with a friend.

Millions of the city's residents were still required to spend most of their time at home, with those allowed to work required to obtain official passes.

Restaurants, cafes and cinemas were to remain closed and no mass gatherings would be allowed until at least June 14.