A lot of things that people say never happened before suddenly seem to be happening.
When news agencies incorrectly reported
-- based on a forged government press release -- that President Vladimir Putin had sacked his longtime ally, Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin, last week some analysts called the incident unprecedented.
"Nothing like this has ever happened before," Alexander Rahr of the German Council of Foreign Relations, a biographer of Putin, told Reuters
Actually, it did.
Back in February, Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich appeared to announce his resignation
on Twitter. He later announced on Facebook that he hadn't resigned, that his account had been hacked, and the tweet in question was a fake.
But Dvorkovich is pretty peripheral to Putin's inner circle while Yakunin is a bona fide member of his Politburo.
Nevertheless, if last week's firing wasn't exactly unprecedented, it was at least highly unusual. And so, too, was another firing that actually happened.
According to most accounts, Putin really didn't want to remove Anatoly Serdyukov as defense minister in November despite the procurement scandals engulfing him. But he appeared to have been pressured into doing so by a cabal of aides including Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, and Russian Technologies chief Sergei Chemezov.
It "may have been the first instance of Putin giving in to pressure and doing something he didn't want to do," political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky
Yakunin's fake firing and Serdyukov's real one each illustrate that despite his bluster, Putin has actually become an increasingly weak leader who can no longer control his courtiers. On last week's "Power Vertical" podcast
, co-host Mark Galeotti of New York University likened the phenomenon to that of a collective mirage being lifted.
"In politics, everything is about a consensual hallucination. Everything is about people agreeing with each other about what really matters. People agreeing with each other about who is powerful," said Galeotti, who authors the blog "In Moscow's Shadows
"Putin for a long time was the beneficiary of this," Galeotti added. "He had this astonishingly effective image as the ruthless, mechanical, totally well informed chekist
in the Kremlin. People on the whole didn't want to go up against him."
Nobody is going up against him yet. Not directly anyway.
But he couldn't prevent what was a clear attack -- even if it is still unclear from whom -- against Yakunin, one of his closest allies. And he couldn't resist the Ivanov-Rogozin-Chemezov conspiracy to get Serdyukov fired.
Putin is also known to disdain the elite airing its dirty laundry in public, and during his first stint in the Kremlin the mudslinging was kept to a minimum.
Now it is commonplace.
Remember those videos attacking Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev
that appeared on the YouTube account of Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin?
It was once unthinkable for members of Putin's inner circle to openly vie to be his successor. Now it is conventional wisdom that the president's own chief of staff
is angling for that designation.
All the open infighting, brazen shenanigans, and naked ambition suggest not only that the chimera of Putin's omnipotence is fading. It also suggests that Putin is no longer able to perform his key role as the ultimate trusted arbiter of disputes among the elite's various clans -- the role that has long made him Russia's indispensable man.
Nobody is quite saying "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain
" quite yet.
But the consensual hallucination in the Kremlin is indeed fading.
And we still don't know what reality -- or the next hallucination -- will look like.
-- Brian Whitmore