Russia will delay the April 22 national vote on proposed amendments to the constitution amid the COVID-19 outbreak, President Vladimir Putin has announced.
"The absolute priority for us is the health, life and safety of the people. Therefore I believe the vote should be postponed until a later date," Putin said in an address to the nation on Wednesday.
Emphasizing a need to slow the virus's spread, Putin declared the week beginning March 28 and running until April 5 a paid holiday. He assured that all essential services, including transport, stores, banks, pharmacies, and medical institutions would continue to work as normal during this time.
Putin asked the cabinet to give small businesses in sectors affected by the pandemic a six month tax holiday, apart from sale tax, and asked the Central Bank to take other measures to prevent layoffs and bankruptcies, including a six month holiday on bank credit payments for businesses which have suffered a major drop in monthly income, and for individuals whose earnings have fallen by 30 percent or more.
Putin also urged employers to help maintain stability on the labour market, promising that the government would provide assistance to make this possible. "Our most important task - I am appealing to all employers now - is to ensure stability in the labour market, to prevent a surge in unemployment," he said.
The president also asked the government to raise unemployment benefits to the level of the minimum wage. Families with children will receive additional payments on top of existing support for children to the age of three, according to Putin. All social assistance payments will also be continued on an automatic basis for the time being.
New Taxes on Dividends, Interest for Offshore Accounts
In his address, Putin also proposed a 15 percent tax on dividends and interest taken out of the country, warning that Russia would be prepared to withdraw from taxation agreements with any country which disagrees with these new measures.
"I propose to introduce a tax at a rate of 15 percent for those who withdraw their income in the form of dividends into foreign accounts. Naturally, this will require adjustment of our agreements on avoiding double taxation with some countries. I ask the government to organize such work. If our foreign partners do not accept our proposals, Russia will withdraw from these agreements unilaterally," Putin said.
In addition, a 13 percent tax on earnings from interest on securities in excess of one million rubles will be introduced.
Coronavirus Can Affect Anyone, President Stresses
Addressing ordinary Russians, Putin urged citizens not to give in to the "Russian cross-your-finger mentality" on the coronavirus. "Please do not give in to the idea that 'ah this will not affect me'. It can affect anyone," he urged. According to the president, a nonchalant attitude on this crisis could cause the type of chaos afflicting many Western countries to hit Russia in a similar way.
Putin asked Russians to pay "utmost attention" to the recommendations of doctors and authorities in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, especially the elderly and those who suffer from chronic diseases.
Putin stressed that all of the measures being taken by the government will work only if Russians "show unity and understanding of the complexity of the current situation - if the state, society and citizens act together, if we each do what is required of each of us. We need to remember our personal responsibility for our loved ones, for those who live nearby, who need our help and support. By and large, it is precisely this kind of solidarity in which the strength of a society lies," he said, adding that the degree of solidarity will determine the effectiveness of Russia's response to the challenge.
According to the president, the measures taken in advance have helped Russia to restrain the rapid spread of the virus. "But we must understand that Russia - simply because of its geographic location - cannot isolate itself from the threat. Near our borders are states that have already been seriously affected by the pandemic, and it is impossible to completely block its penetration into our country."
In any event, he noted that Russia is already working in a professional, organized and proactive manner to respond to the crisis. Putin thanked workers in the medical community for the work they've done, as well as the Russian scientists studying the virus and working on a vaccine.