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Kremlin defends holding July vote that could extend Putin's rule despite coronavirus


MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Kremlin defended on Wednesday plans to hold a nationwide vote next month on constitutional reforms that could allow President Vladimir Putin to extend his long rule, saying the coronavirus epidemic was expected to ease before it is held.

Russia has reported more than 430,000 coronavirus cases, a tally surpassed by only Brazil and the United States, but has begun to record a drop in new cases in areas including Moscow.

The outbreak forced Russia to put off plans to hold the vote on constitutional reforms on April 22 and a World War Two Victory Day military parade on May 9.

The parade will now be on June 24, with special safety measures in place, and the vote will be on July 1.

Critics say holding events of this scale during a pandemic jeopardises public health and risks a new surge in coronavirus cases.

But, asked about the plans, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: "According to experts' estimates... the epidemiological situation will be significantly better in comparison to what we had and to what we have now."

Melita Vujnovic, the World Health Organization's Russia representative, said on Wednesday she hoped Moscow would take into account WHO recommendations to prioritise public health when organising large-scale events.

"I hope that the epidemic will continue to decline and that no such massive, large-scale event will represent a risk of new surges," she said, referring to the parade.

If voters back the constitutional changes on July 1, Putin's presidential term tally would in effect be reset at zero, allowing him to serve two more back-to-back six-year terms if re-elected, and to remain in power until 2036. His current term is due to end in 2024.

Critics say the vote amounts to a constitutional coup and will be rigged. The Kremlin has denied this.

(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov and Gabrielle T├ętrault-Farber, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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