Putin ignores virus, shows off military might ahead of crucial vote – POLITICO


MOSCOW — Russia held a massive World War II victory parade on Wednesday despite the coronavirus pandemic, setting a patriotic tone ahead of a national vote that could keep Vladimir Putin in power until 2036.

The annual May 9 parade of troops and tanks across Red Square — this year celebrating 75 years since the USSR’s defeat of Nazi Germany — was postponed as Russia’s corona caseload skyrocketed. But at the end of last month, Putin announced it would be rescheduled for June 24, the day that returning Soviet troops cast down Nazi standards outside the Kremlin walls.

The new celebration was also the day before an “all people’s vote” on constitutional changes passed by parliament this spring, which paves the way for Putin, who has already been in power for two decades, to remain president. Putin’s presidential term, his last under the current rules, is supposed to end in 2024. But if the constitutional changes are approved, it would reset Putin’s presidential term count back to zero, meaning he could stand in the next two elections, in 2024 and 2030.

While many Russians celebrate their relatives who died in the war, the parade this year appeared designed to also fire up Putin’s electorate and shore up his flagging ratings before the largely symbolic vote. Mass events are still officially banned in Moscow.

“It was our people who defeated the terrible, total evil, crushed more than 600 divisions, destroyed 75 percent of the total number of Nazi aircraft, tanks, artillery units, and walked their righteous and infinitely sacrificial path to the end, to their victorious destination,” Putin told veterans and leaders of former Soviet republics, few of whom were wearing face masks.

Critics have accused Putin of offering bread and circuses at the expense of the population’s well-being.

“This is the main truth about the war, honest and clear. We must protect and defend it, and pass it on to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Today’s military parade is a tribute to this sacred truth.”

The elderly veterans were reportedly quarantined for two weeks outside Moscow before watching the parade with Putin, and the officials in attendance were screened for COVID-19.

Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbay Jeenbekov flew home without attending the parade after two members of his delegation tested positive for the virus.

The Russian defense ministry previously claimed the 14,000 soldiers taking part were being monitored and were immune or hadn’t shown symptoms of COVID-19.

There were few masks and no social distancing, however, among the onlookers who crowded along the barricades on central Moscow streets. People in the crowd told POLITICO that the peak of the pandemic had already passed, and noted that the authorities have promised a vaccine by the fall.

But Russia, the third worst-hit country after the United States and Brazil, reported 7,176 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, bringing its total to above 600,000. At least 8,513 have died of COVID-19, a number that is widely believed to be under-reported.

At least 25 other cities have further postponed their victory parades. Although major military towns were required to hold the parades, 10 did so without spectators.

Critics have accused Putin of offering bread and circuses at the expense of the population’s well-being.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny said in a blog post that the state had spent almost 1 billion rubles (€13 million) on the parade, not including military budget expenditure.

“You could buy medicine for pensioners for this money,” he said. “Two and a half months people at home, half of them without work or salaries. A parade is the last thing on their minds. But this bunker grandpa wants a parade, he needs to show himself off on the reviewing stand.”

Wednesday’s parade caps off a week of pageantry meant to salve the hardships that have followed the oil price collapse and coronavirus economic downturn.

While Putin’s popularity has fallen slightly, there is little doubt he will be able to achieve a satisfactory result in the vote | Alexey Nokolsky/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday, Putin addressed hundreds of soldiers and prayed with the Russian Orthodox patriarch at a new cathedral outside Moscow, the steps of which are reportedly made from melted Nazi tanks.

On Tuesday, he raised the income tax rate for rich Russians by 2 percent during a televised speech and promised additional benefits for families with young children.

Also in the package of measures to be voted on are populist moves such index-linking pensions to match inflation and banning presidential candidates with foreign residency. So far advertising has focused on such messaging — “We won’t give up an inch of our native lands,” read billboards showing pictures of Crimea and the date of the vote — without mentioning that the vote could mean Putin remaining in office until he’s 84.

While the president’s popularity has fallen slightly, there is little doubt he will be able to achieve a satisfactory result. A survey by the independent Levada Center in late May found that 59 percent of Russians approved of Putin’s job performance, down from 69 percent in February. However, only 25 percent said they trust their president.

Opposition activists have complained that the e-voting will take place without independent monitoring, as will much of the socially distanced polling station voting.

The vote will begin with online balloting starting Thursday before polling stations open on July 1. Opposition activists have complained that the e-voting will take place without independent monitoring, as will much of the socially distanced polling station voting.

On the day of the vote, scanning devices will allow state companies to keep track of which employees vote. Restaurant vouchers, movie tickets and “pharmaceutical supplies” will be given out to participants to boost turnout.





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