There’s a reason Putin keeps winning

Written By: Ilya Yablokov © 2021 The New York Times Company The New York Times
Washington Published: Sep 20, 2021, 04:10 PM(IST)

Russian President Vladimir Putin Photograph:( Reuters )

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Putin’s media method — propaganda on one hand, repression on the other — continues to bear fruit

Elections in Russia are always tricky for the Kremlin. Offer too much choice, and citizens may pick the wrong candidates. Offer too little, and the underlying authoritarianism of the regime becomes grimly apparent.

This year, for the parliamentary elections that began on Friday and end on Sunday, President Vladimir Putin is not taking any chances. From the moment Aleksei Navalny, the opposition leader and the Kremlin’s best-known critic, returned to the country in January, the president has overseen a wave of repression.

Scores of independent media outlets have been labeled foreign agents, hobbling their activities, and opposition figures have either been banned from political activity or intimidated into exile. Mr. Navalny is in jail, most of his closest associates have left the country and his organization has been disbanded. The opposition is in tatters.

There has been no sustained outcry within the country against these moves. Mr. Putin’s approval ratings remain solid, and the election is likely to return a majority for his party, United Russia. The system grinds on.

At the heart of the Kremlin’s continued social and political control sits the Russian media. A sprawling network of television stations and newspapers, often lurid in style and spurious in content, the Kremlin’s propaganda system is a central pillar of Mr. Putin’s power. Against all the dissent and discontent with his regime, inside and outside the country, it acts as an impermeable shield. Combined with repression, it is how he wins.

Nearly all of Russia’s television stations and newspapers are under state control. Some, like REN TV, are owned by private companies with links to the Kremlin. Others, like Rossiya and Channel One, are state-owned and often deliver outright propaganda as the news.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Putin’s accomplices — like Alexei Gromov, who as deputy chief of staff in the presidential administration oversees the media — carefully manage the message. Failures are downplayed, criticism avoided and, at every turn, praise heaped on the president, who is cast as a sensible and wise leader.

This machine doesn’t need coercion. An army of reporters, editors and producers, happy to toe any political line in return for promotion and payment, churns out an endless stream of fawning accounts of Mr. Putin, the prime minister and influential regional governors. Conformists and careerists, these journalists are not blind to the realities of contemporary Russia. But they choose to work on the side of the winners.

Funded to the tune of billions of dollars by those close to Mr. Putin, the media preys on the population’s worst fears. The threats of economic disaster and territorial disintegration, in a country that suffered both in the 1990s, are constantly invoked: Only loyalty to the Kremlin can keep the monsters at bay. The European Union, Britain and the United States are portrayed as sites of moral decay, rife with political instability and impoverishment.

In a country where 72 percent of the population doesn’t have a passport and where the financial means to travel abroad remain generally out of reach, such messages find a receptive audience.

This wall-to-wall coverage has profound effects on public opinion. In 2008, as conflict between Russia and neighboring Georgia escalated, the media went into overdrive, depicting Georgia as a haven of anti-Russian activity intent on violence. The results were stunning: A year later, after the war ended, 62 percent of Russians considered Georgia, a small republic in the south Caucasus, to be Russia’s main enemy.

Now ruled by a government more friendly to Russia, Georgia has largely disappeared from state television. The view of it as the main enemy has steadily dropped and is now held by just 15 percent of Russians.

Both broadcast and print are comprehensively under the Kremlin’s control. So too, nearly, is the internet. Ten years ago, social networks helped bring people to the streets in protest against rigged parliamentary elections. Since then, a set of technological and legislative measures — tapping users’ phones and computers, introducing criminal charges for content labeled “extremist” and curtailing the independence of Russia’s biggest tech company, Yandex — have turned the internet into heavily policed terrain. A social media post can cost a few years in prison.

But that’s not the whole story. The great success of Mr. Navalny’s film about Mr. Putin’s alleged mansion by the Black Sea, which has been watched by at least 118 million people since it was released in January, shows that the state’s domination over the media is not enough to prevent undesired content from reaching ordinary Russians. No matter how extensively the Kremlin intervenes in internet platforms — through bots, paid trolls and law enforcement — it remains possible to spread information injurious to the regime.

There are still a few independent local and nationwide media outlets in Russia. Though they can hardly compete with state-funded television channels and newspapers, they are able to reach a sizable slice of the population.

Meduza, for example, one of Russia’s most respected independent news outlets, draws millions of readers to its website a year, and MediaZona, an independent outlet that focuses on corruption and the misuse of law enforcement powers, added more than two million readers earlier this year through its coverage of Mr. Navalny’s trial. TV Rain, an independent television channel, manages to command the attention of 2.3 million viewers.

This success, however small and circumscribed, proved too much for Mr. Putin — and he turned to repression. Through the “foreign agent law,” introduced in 2012 and initially aimed at foreign-funded media such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, the Kremlin has been able to decimate the ranks of independent media. Six outlets were given the designation this year, along with 19 journalists. For the smaller publications, it was the end. Bigger outlets, including Meduza, are scrapping for survival.

The situation, though bleak, is not lost. Independent journalists and outlets continue to find a way to operate, inventively sidestepping the constraints cast on them by the Kremlin through canny crowdfunding and humor. In this, they offer an example to other independent journalists around the world fighting to keep authoritarian politicians accountable.

Even so, Mr. Putin’s media method — propaganda on one hand, repression on the other — continues to bear fruit. Faced with a stagnant economy, an aging population and simmering discontent, it surely can’t go on forever. But, for now, it’s working.

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