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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Presidential Valentine's Day

A new holiday has joined the list of Russian and Soviet favorites in the last few years: Valentine's Day. Imported from the West, the annual holiday for sweethearts has won our hearts and minds after an aggressive campaign mounted by the advertising industry.

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I remember reading Dickens as a child and asking my parents to explain what valentines were and why people sent them on Feb. 14. These days my 6-year-old daughter needs no explanation. She knows all about Valentine's Day from what she sees in shop windows, on television and on the Internet.

This year Valentine's Day coincides with the official start of the presidential election campaign. This is only fitting, because the campaign is shaping up to be a monthlong love-in with piles of presents. From television we know that the people love President Vladimir Putin just as surely as we know that sugar-free gum helps to prevent tooth decay. It doesn't take a genius to figure out who'll be raking in all the goodies.

The State Duma couldn't wait until the 14th to present Putin with his first big campaign gift. Last week, a bill calling for an extension of the presidential term to seven years, introduced by Ivanovo regional assembly, was put forward for consideration by the Duma. The bill has been put on a fast track to ensure that it comes up for a vote before the presidential election in March.

Putin and a number of bigwigs from the United Russia party were quick to announce their opposition to the bill, declaring that they had no plans to amend the Constitution. Yet the loyal lawmakers from Ivanovo were nevertheless given the green light in the Duma. And analysts (or those who pass themselves off as such) close to the Kremlin have been busy making the case for a longer term based on the premise that meaningful reform cannot be completed in less than a decade. Their message is clear: If you want a better life, elect a president-for-life.

In fact, the pace of "reform" is beside the point. The bureaucracy is capable of wrecking just about anything inside of six months. But as for positive change, a century would not suffice unless the bureaucracy itself is not reformed first. Our great reformers in government seem to have overlooked this point.

The real problem lies elsewhere. For all of the much-ballyhooed success stories, Russian capitalism remains extremely unstable. The ruling elite is not consolidated and each changing of the guard at the Kremlin results in crisis, a free-for-all that the current system might not be able to withstand. In such a crisis, Putin's cronies, who have only just begun to get their hands on the wealth of the nation, stand to lose everything, just like certain oligarchs of the "first wave."

The pressing need for an extension of the president's term in office puts the Kremlin in a bind. The whole point in forming a new constitutional majority in the Duma was to keep Putin in office beyond 2008. But it would not be "democratic" for the party of power to come right out and propose a constitutional amendment. This would only confirm the worst fears of liberals and the left, who warn of creeping authoritarianism. It wouldn't play well in the West, either.

The Kremlin's political masterminds have apparently chosen the tried-and-true strategy described in Shakespeare's "Richard III" and Pushkin's "Boris Godunov." The crowd, incited by seasoned spin doctors -- the Duke of Buckingham and Prince Shuisky -- entreat the hero to accept the crown. He declines and even grows angry, but in the end he acquiesces. In the present version, Putin loudly proclaims his disagreement with the good people of Ivanovo, but they won't be swayed. The people, represented by their provincial legislators and United Russia backbenchers in the Duma, continue to plead, to insist and to sob. The enlightened president will finally have no choice but to accede to the demands of the uncultivated masses of the "political class."

The people cannot be forbidden to bestow gifts on their beloved president. And such orchestrated displays of affection have a long history in this country.

The unfolding drama brings to mind an old Soviet joke. A lecture titled "The Three Types of Love" is being held in a kolkhoz social club. The speaker approaches the podium, clears his throat and begins. "The first type of love is that between a man and a woman -- but you know all about that. Next we have love between two men, but this is strictly forbidden in our country, so we'll move on. The third type is our people's love for its government, and this will be our subject for the next three hours."

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.