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Putin postpones Russian vote on constitutional amendments that would let him run for president again

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MOSCOW — Next week will be a nationwide paid holiday for Russians in what is their country’s latest response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a televised address to the nation Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin also announced he will postpone a vote on a package of constitutional amendments that would enable him to run for two more terms.

The vote was set for April 22, and a new date has not been announced.

“We are managing to hold back the virus, but Russia can't completely seal itself off from the threat,” Putin said.

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Russia has said it has 658 confirmed coronavirus cases, a relatively low total for its 145 million population. That enabled Moscow to avoid the large-scale commercial closures, curfews and stay-home orders other European and Asian countries have adopted.

But in a meeting with Putin on Tuesday, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the country probably has “significantly” more cases than the official numbers show. Putin later visited one of the Moscow region’s coronavirus hospitals, donning a full hazmat suit. The country announced 163 new cases Wednesday, by far its largest one-day increase.

“Please do not think that it won’t concern me,” Putin said in his address. “This might concern everyone, and what is happening now in European countries might become our future.”

Putin was scheduled to visit St. Petersburg on Wednesday but canceled his plans to instead prepare the speech. In the speech, he said all nonessential work in the country would be suspended next week, though he promised salaries would still be paid. He encouraged citizens to stay home during what he described as a long weekend.

The measure falls short of a full-scale lockdown; while Putin asked Russians to stay home, he did not outline penalties for disregarding the request. Moscow, which has more than half of the country’s coronavirus cases, has closed schools, nightclubs and theaters and offered financial incentives for people older than 65 to self-isolate for two weeks.

Putin also announced other initiatives to support Russians amid an economic downturn — the ruble is down 20 percent since the start of the year — including a $63 monthly stipend per child to families and a six-month tax deferral for small and midsize business.

Putin’s somber tone in the address was in sharp contrast to his comments last week, when he said “the situation in our country looks a lot better” than it does in Europe and is “under control.”

“Don’t think that ‘This can't happen to me.’ It can happen to anyone,” he cautioned Wednesday.

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The delay of the nationwide vote on changing the constitution is a blow to Putin’s main project for the year. He first proposed the constitutional changes, including stricter limits on presidential terms, in his January address to parliament. Then, earlier this month, a member of Putin’s United Russia party proposed that a reconstructed constitution should give Putin a clean slate of presidential terms, meaning he could run twice more for the presidency once his current term expires in 2024.

The measure was overwhelmingly approved by parliament and then greenlighted by the country’s Constitutional Court. Putin, 67, has been in power for 20 years, and two more presidential terms would mean he would rule Russia until 2036, when he turns 83.

The coronavirus pandemic could also lead to the cancellation of Russia’s Victory Day parade on May 9 — the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany. French President Emmanuel Macron, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien are among the confirmed guests for the military parade.

Putin did not reference the parade in his address Wednesday, but earlier in the day, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “Certainly, this issue is being discussed, no decisions have been made yet, and preparations are continuing.”

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