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Putin's Puppies and Russian Democracy

When overseeing military exercises from aboard a nuclear submarine near Scandinavia, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had developed a new missile system, the finest in the world. It was not his most convincing moment. Three older missiles, launched in his presence, failed to reach their targets on Kamchatka. The submarine that Putin was on resembled the Kursk, which exploded during a similar military exercise in 2000, killing 118 sailors.

After the Kursk catastrophe, Putin was asked what really happened. "It sank," he replied, with a somewhat macabre smile. In a recent joke, an interviewer asks Putin what happened to his favorite dog's puppies, whose birth he proudly announced during last December's parliamentary elections. "They sank," he answers.

Russian democracy is almost as young and blind as Putin's puppies - but much poorer. Low-income countries can develop democracy, but they have a tough time maintaining it. India, which is both poor and democratic, is a happy exception to this rule. Will Russia, whose political legacy is not British but Soviet, be another? Countries with per capita incomes close to the current Russian level sustain democracy for 15-20 years on average. Russian democracy, born in 1991, may be nearing its expiration date.

Putin's first term in office proved to be an economic success and a political failure. High oil prices kept Russia's economy - and common people's income ­- growing rapidly. (Europeans need not be envious: growth is quicker when it begins low; think again about puppies.) Russia is a rich country with a poor population, and redistribution schemes work well in such conditions.