September 24, 2011: The Day That Changed Russia

What it meant when Vladimir Putin officially became the once and future president of Russia

Putin-Medvedev-Banner.jpgRIA Novosti/Reuters

A year ago, one political era in Russia ended and another began. On September 24, 2011, Dmitry Medvedev took the stage at United Russia's party congress and suggested it nominate Vladimir Putin to run for president. Putin followed suit by saying he would like Medvedev to serve as his prime minister.

The tightly choreographed maneuver finally settled years of speculation about which member of the tandem would be president after 2012. But more importantly, it also answered a deeper question that had lingered throughout the Medvedev presidency: Was this strange little four-year interregnum a transition period to a more pluralistic system? Or was it just a mechanism to keep Putin in the Kremlin for the foreseeable future without violating the letter of the constitution?

The answer deeply disappointed -- and in some cases outraged -- those in the elite and broader society whose expectations had been raised during Medvedev's term that a more open political system was in the offing.

The fallout was visible almost immediately, and continues to this day. Longtime Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin's resignation days after the announcement signaled that all wasn't well in Russia's ruling class. Kudrin is a close personal friend of Putin's and his defection clearly came as a shock. "How could you let me down in this way?" Putin reportedly asked him at the time. And weeks later, when fans at a martial arts boxing match booed Putin when he entered the ring to address them, it was a sign that the self-styled national leader was wearing out his welcome with the general public as well. Putin, it appeared, had lost his aura of invincibility. His mojo clearly wasn't what it once was. And there was a rebellion brewing below the decks that would soon be visible on the streets of Moscow and other cities.

But September 24, 2011 also did something more subtle, but perhaps more important. It exposed something that had been hidden. Or more accurately, it made it impossible to ignore something that everybody had previously pretended wasn't there. Most attentive Russia-watchers eventually come to an understanding that the country's formal institutions of governance -- the presidency, the State Duma, the courts -- are, to a large degree, a facade. Real decisions are made by a small cabal of a few dozen people informally known as everything from "Putin's politburo" to " the collective Putin" to "the Team." The formal institutions merely execute these decisions.

I prefer to call this "Russia's Deep State." And a year ago, this "deep state" stopped being deep and thus lost a degree of its effectiveness. "The deep state worked when everyone was aware that it existed ... but it was willing to operate behind a carapace, a facade of politicians," longtime Kremlin-watcher and New York University professor Mark Galeotti said in a recent podcast. "Putin made the presence of the deep state so clear. He rubbed it in Russians' noses, and that was a big mistake."

In a recent interview with CNN, socialite-turned-activist Ksenia Sobchak said this was the moment that drove her into the opposition. "They decided to change Medvedev for Putin and Putin for Medvedev and then they gave us the result. This is not how it should work and people were offended," Sobchak said. In addition to inflaming public opinion, especially among the fledgling urban middle class, the announcement also ignited a debilitating cold war inside the deep state itself -- where there was apparently little consensus on Putin's return to the Kremlin.

So September 24, 2011 was one of those inflection points, one of those explosive before-and-after moments that foreshadows political change. And one year later we are still waiting for the dust to settle.

Copyright (c) 2012. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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