On September 15, Mikhail Prokhorov abruptly resigned as chairman of Right Cause, casting a cloud over plans for a regime-friendly center-right party to enter the State Duma.
Ten days later, on September 24, United Russia nominated Vladimir Putin as its candidate for president in 2012, dashing the hopes of those who hoped to see Dmitry Medvedev remain in the Kremlin for a second term.
And two days later, on September 26, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin resigned following a public dustup ostensibly over military spending, removing one of the most strident advocates of fiscal probity and political reform from the government.
The managed-democracy project, if not dead, appears to be on life support at best (Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko may still yet get into the State Duma as a token liberal party). And with Putin set to occupy the Kremlin until 2024, any hopes for economic modernization and a gradual transition to more democratic governance have been buried.
But was this really preordained? In his speech at the United Russia congress, Medvedev provoked cries of betrayal from his supporters when he suggested as much, saying the decision for Putin to return was made "years ago."
The past four years could conceivably have been a big ruse, with only Putin and Medvedev in on the con -- but color me skeptical on that score. The evidence overwhelmingly points to a debate over how to proceed post-2012 among the inner core of the ruling elite. And one side won and one side lost -- decisively.
The result was the mirror image of the decision back in 2007-08, when Putin resisted the appeals of Igor Sechin, Viktor Ivanov, and others urging him to change the constitution and serve a third consecutive term.
This time, those seeking Putin's return to the Kremlin won the argument. And there was an argument, not just about the Putin-Medvedev question, but also the composition of the State Duma and whether United Russia would be allowed a continued constitutional majority.
The lines were often blurred and it wasn't always easy to determine who was on which side (with the exception of obvious advocates of a Putin return like Sechin and supporters of political reform like Kudrin). Some, like Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, the regime's unofficial ideologist, appeared to be playing both sides of the fence.
Back in June 2009, for example, Surkov appeared to telegraph the doomed Right Cause project when he argued that United Russia needed to share power in the Duma with other parties.
"We believe that once a system has settled, there should be more degrees of freedom inside it. One should be flexible, one should learn to enter into coalitions. Democracy is a compromise. Democracy is a procedure. It's a tedious one, but it's a procedure," Surkov said at the time.
Surkov's comments drew a harsh response from Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who said: "Our parliament of the majority based on one party is a necessity for Russia.... The parliamentary majority allows us to adopt laws that determine political and economic stability."
Looks like Gryzlov won that argument. Or Surkov had second thoughts.
Another sign of conflict inside the elite was the abrupt departure from the Kremlin in April of onetime uber-spinmeister Gleb Pavlovsky, one of the key architects of Putin's first presidential campaign in 2000.
Pavlovsky was a vocal proponent of a second term for Medvedev, with Putin keeping a dominant role in Russian politics and was becoming increasingly critical of United Russia. And it was for these sins that he was reportedly pushed out into the wilderness.
In interviews after his firing, Pavlovsky said the elite was close to endorsing a second term for Medvedev but was getting cold feet.
"I think that, of course, that first and foremost, this debate is painful for Putin. Not easy for him to step aside. Also, he rightly fears that there could be instability in the bureaucracy after the nomination of a candidate," he told Gazeta.ru.
Moreover, on several occasions, Kudrin spoke out in favor of greater democracy -- at the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum in February, in an interview with "The Wall Street Journal" in April, and in an interview with "The New York Times" in June.
Kudrin's basic argument was that effective economic reform was not possible without political reform because the authorities will need a "mandate of trust" from the people.
So the argument came down to this: one side argued that modernizing Russia's economy requires at least limited reforms of the political system while another argued that loosening things up politically could lead to instability and chaos.
Putin was going to be the key player in either scenario -- he could be the formal leader as president or an informal national leader and head of the deep state. Putin is indispensible because he is the power broker among the Kremlin clans and without him, open warfare among them would likely break out.
I expected, wrongly, Putin to choose the informal leader route. In a recent interview, longtime Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, the international editor of "The Economist" and author of "The New Cold War," offered interesting insight into why Putin and a critical mass of the elite decided he had to return to the Kremlin:
-- Brian Whitmore