Russia's anger shows that democracy is working

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The Independent Online

Healthy democracies, unlike dictatorships, learn from their mistakes and are strengthened by them. That is the test for Russia today, as the submarine disaster in the Barents Sea approaches what seems increasingly likely to be a tragic ending.

Healthy democracies, unlike dictatorships, learn from their mistakes and are strengthened by them. That is the test for Russia today, as the submarine disaster in the Barents Sea approaches what seems increasingly likely to be a tragic ending.

Russia is still a nation in transition. The accident was initially hushed up, as it would have been under the old Soviet regime. At first, the Russian military and, it would seem, President Vladimir Putin himself refused to ask other countries for help, as they would have refused in Soviet times.

At first, too, there was little reaction from the Russian public: Russian pride demanded solidarity; the tradition of totalitarianism stifled doubt. But then the gates of democracy opened, and the whirlwind of accountability swept into President Putin's holiday dacha. Yesterday's Russian presswas virulent in its criticism of his silence and inaction.

This is a form of politics that is familiar to us. Not only has Mr Putin made a serious error of judgement in failing to ask for help immediately, but he has compounded it by appearing insouciant. No democratic politician can afford to remain on holiday in a crisis. Mr Putin seemed to understand the demands of modern media presentation when he was elected. To be sure, his image-management was a little crude, winning a khaki election on the back of the second Chechen war, but he was recognisably a democratic politician cut from the same sort of material as Blair, Bush and Gore.

That means he is now subject to the cruel blast of democracy. The rages of public opinion can be coarse, vindictive, oblivious to subtleties of argument. They are the worst kind of corrective for political mistakes - apart from any other kind.

Mr Putin will pay a heavy price for his sins of omission in failing to respond quickly to this accident. But he will try to prevent such a disaster from happening again. It must be hoped that public accountability will force the fresh air of democracy into the closed spaces of the Russian military and the Russian government.

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