Coronavirus forces Putin critics to scale back protests before big vote

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Opponents of Vladimir Putin’s plans to amend the constitution so that he can run for president again in 2024 said on Friday they had been forced to scale back protests this weekend due to coronavirus, but would press ahead with some demonstrations.

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Kyrgyz counterpart Sooronbay Jeenbekov at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/File Photo

Putin’s changes, which have already been approved by both houses of parliament, would overturn a current constitutional ban on him running for president again in 2024, allowing him to potentially stay in power until 2036.

The changes are due to be put to a nationwide vote on April 22. That vote is for now still going ahead despite the suspension due to coronavirus of most other public events and restrictions on mass gatherings.

The decision to postpone protests shows how coronavirus is compounding an already difficult situation for the anti-Kremlin opposition, which is divided over how to respond to Putin’s constitutional shake-up.

Critics had planned to take to the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg on Sunday to express their disgust over what some critics have called a constitutional coup, but said on Friday that those protests would be postponed due to coronavirus.

Protests in nine other towns and cities would take place on Sunday however, organizers said in a statement, but would be subject to government rules limiting the size of public gatherings due to coronavirus risks.

Russia has so far recorded 199 coronavirus cases and one person diagnosed with the virus has died.

Prominent opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who last summer helped bring up to 60,000 people to the streets of central Moscow, on Thursday said coronavirus was hobbling the opposition’s attempts to mount a proper protest movement against the changes.

Navalny, who argued it would be irresponsible to organize mass demonstrations because of coronavirus risks, called for a boycott of the vote on Putin’s changes.

“The only tactic can be not recognizing the vote and its outcome,” said Navalny, predicting it would be falsified and that taking part was a waste of people’s time.

Other opposition figures, who want people to take part but vote no, have called for the vote to be postponed.

“The coronavirus epidemic has become such a big threat that even (Kremlin) loyalists are sounding the alarm,” Andrei Pivovarov, a co-ordinator of the ‘vote no’ campaign, wrote.

“...Organizing a nationwide vote on constitutional amendments is like holding a party during a plague.”

Putin though, when earlier this month explaining his decision to back changing the constitution in a way that favored himself, cited coronavirus as one of the reasons why he needed to be allowed to have the option of extending his rule.

“I strongly believe that a strong presidential vertical for our country, for Russia, is absolutely necessary,” said Putin.

Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by William Maclean