Russia holds grand WWII parade ahead of vote on Putin reforms


Moscow (AFP)

Columns of tanks and troops will parade through Red Square on Wednesday as President Vladimir Putin oversees grand World War II commemorations to stir up patriotic fervour ahead of a vote on extending his rule.

Forced to postpone the country's traditional May 9 Victory Day celebrations by the coronavirus pandemic, Putin rescheduled the parade for just a week ahead of a July 1 public vote on controversial constitutional reforms.

Among other changes, the reforms Putin proposed earlier this year would reset the presidential term-limit clock to zero, allowing him to potentially stay in the Kremlin until 2036.

He announced the new dates for the parade and the vote -- initially planned for April -- last month despite Russia still recording thousands of new coronavirus cases every day.

The rate of new infections has fallen in recent weeks and cities including Moscow have lifted anti-virus lockdowns, but critics accuse Putin of rushing ahead with public events to pursue his own political ends.

This year's parade, marking 75 years since the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany, will include some 13,000 troops from 13 countries, as well as vintage equipment and the latest military hardware showing off Russia's fighting capabilities.

More than 20 pieces of new equipment will be on show for the first time including Tosochka flame-throwers, T-90M tanks and Buk-M3 surface-to-air missile systems.

Officials say the date was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the first post-war parade on Red Square, which saw Soviet troops throw down Nazi standards in front of the Lenin mausoleum on June 24, 1945.

In his two decades in office, Putin has harnessed the legacy of the Soviet Union's victory in World War II to boost patriotic sentiment and support for his government.

Ahead of the parade, he slammed the West for "insulting Russia" by playing down the USSR's role in winning the war.

- Contagion fears -

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron had been scheduled before the pandemic to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Kremlin chief at the parade, in a testament to Russia's growing international influence under Putin.

Now the Russian president will be flanked by the heads of breakaway statelets in the former Soviet Union and leaders of close allies like Serbia and Belarus.

With more than 8,000 recorded fatalities and around 600,000 confirmed infections, Russia has the third-largest coronavirus caseload in the world after the United States and Brazil.

The Kremlin said that safety precautions were being taken in the lead-up to the parade -- but participants will not wear masks and there is still a ban on mass gatherings in Moscow.

Dozens of regions have decided not to go ahead with their own commemorative parades, citing concerns that a spike in cases could overwhelm underfunded and poorly equipped hospitals throughout the country.

Yet events marking the Soviet victory will go ahead in Saint Petersburg, Volgograd and Simferopol in Russian-annexed Crimea.

Reflecting these concerns, both Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov have advised people to watch the procession on television rather than attend in person.

War veterans quarantined ahead of the event in sanatoriums will be seated at intervals in the stands on Red Square.

Precautions are also being taken for the constitutional vote, with early balloting starting on Thursday and continuing through to the official vote day on July 1.

Chief opposition figure and one-time presidential hopeful Alexei Navalny has criticised authorities for spending vast sums on the parade and urged his supporters to boycott the ballot.

"One crazy, greedy man who has gone mad with power is making the whole country engage in delirium," he said.