In recent months, billboards around Russia have been advertising the coming presidential elections with the colours of the Russian flag and the message “Our country, our president, our choice”. Millions will vote on March 18th, but they will not have much choice at all. Vladimir Putin, who has already ruled for longer than any Russian leader since Stalin, has managed to get rid of any credible competition and there is no doubt he will emerge victorious and embark on another six-year term. The fall of communism more than a quarter-century ago was supposed to usher in a new democratic Russia. So how is it that Mr Putin can triumph every time?
Since assuming the presidency in 2000, Mr Putin has systematically consolidated his position. During his first terms after 2000, he neutralised the power of the oligarchs, who had accumulated vast influence in the 1990s; re-established state control over television; and reinstated the direct appointment of governors.
Rising oil prices fuelled a booming economy, which also helped underwrite support for him. After switching to the post of prime minister in 2008 and making Dmitry Medvedev president, Mr Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 a diminished figure following widespread protests against his rule. Yet soon after his return, the crisis in Ukraine provided an opportunity for Mr Putin to assert himself once again on the world stage. Russia annexed Crimea and sparked a war in the east of Ukraine. Mr Putin presented himself as the defender of a Russia besieged by enemies and a leader who had returned the country to its place as a “great power” in the world. His approval ratings shot above 80% and have not come back to earth since. Ahead of the coming elections, Mr Putin has not even taken part in debates, has barely campaigned, and even skipped his own nomination announcement.