🇷🇺How does Putin manage to stay in power?

Letter from Europe #11

The Story

Preservation of power by all means.

It must be about Russia.

The ruling party, United Russia, which supports the president, won the general election, with nearly 50 per cent of the parliamentary vote. 

Seems little by Putin's standards.

Election officials said the party was also winning 198 of the 225 first-past-the-post districts (the candidate with the plurality of votes is the winner), meaning United Russia will continue to hold a two-thirds majority and can enact Kremlin policy, including changes to the Russian constitution.

Ok, but still. There had been authoritarian regimes with higher approval rates at elections.

That is not how the Putin regime works. Russia tries to appear like a democracy.

Who believes that?

The heart of the propaganda system is the Russian media. Nearly all of Russia's television stations and newspapers are under state control. Seventy-two per cent of the people don't have a passport, and for most, the financial means to travel abroad remains out of reach. Subsequently, the messages from the domestic media find a receptive audience.

That's enough?

Putin's second instrument of power is repression. He has overseen a wave of repression during the past few months. Independent media outlets have been labelled foreign agents, opposition figures have been banned from political activity or intimidated into exile, the opposition leader Alexei Navalny is in jail, his closest associates have left the country. 

Putin had received quite a bit of resistance after all.

A dilemma for the Kremlin before this election. If they had offered too many choices, citizens would have picked the wrong candidates; if offered too few, then the underlying authoritarianism of the regime would become grimly apparent. One thing is sure, the semblance of democracy is noticeably fading. The current election makes this obvious. For the first time since 1993, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were not present due to limitations imposed by Russian authorities. Independent vote monitoring group Golos - which the Russian authorities have branded "a foreign agent" - said it had received about 5,000 reports of possible voting violations. Russia's interior ministry, meanwhile, told reporters (according to the BBC) it had not registered any "significant violations".

Is there hope for change?

There are still a few independent local and nationwide media outlets in Russia. For instance, Meduza and the independent television channel TV Rain. But things have dramatically changed, though. Ten years ago, social networks helped bring people to the streets in protest against rigged parliamentary elections. Today, the internet is a heavily policed terrain. "A social media post can cost a few years in prison," Ilya Yablokov, a lecturer in journalism and digital media at Sheffield University, England, wrote these days in a piece very worth reading for the New York Times. The expert is not optimistic either. He is convinced that the media power of those who are loyal to Putin is overwhelming. "There is an army of people, happy to toe any political line in return for promotion and payment," Yablokov says. And: "They choose to work on the side of the winners."