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MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree for a nationwide referendum on constitutional amendments that open the possibility of him remaining in power for a further 16 years.

Putin on March 17 signed the decree setting the date for April 22, but he said the referendum could be postponed “if the situation requires,” as Russia, along with the rest of the world, battles to stem the coronavirus pandemic.

Central Election Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova, who met with Putin, said that “in the complicated epidemiological situation that is evolving in the world…we will hold this vote only if this situation allows for holding such events.”

Russia, which has reported nearly 100 cases of the virus so far but no deaths, has taken measures to curtail the spread of the COVID-19 virus, including a ban on the entry of most foreign nationals until at least May 1.

On March 16, Russia’s Constitutional Court approved the constitutional amendments, after both chambers of the national parliament and all Russian regions backed the controversial bill.

Final approval will require the support of more than half of the country’s voters in the referendum.

The legislation sets Putin’s previous presidential term count back to zero because of the sweeping changes to the constitution.

Putin’s current term, his second consecutive six-year term, was slated to end in 2024. The previous rules forbade him from running for a third consecutive mandate, but that changes with the provisions of the amendments, meaning he can seek a fifth overall presidential term in 2024, and conceivably a sixth in 2030.

Putin, a 67-year-old former KGB officer, has ruled Russia as a president or prime minister for more than 20 years.

With reporting by Reuters and Interfax