Halfhearted finger wags

Take one huge, troubled country, a land of lawless provinces, criminal chieftains and constant tension. Its history is full of destruction and conflict. Today, It falls prey again to the most violent terrorism. A strong man rules, but nobody who lives in his shadow can rule out corruption or state-sponsored assassination. There's an election coming, yet its probable outcome is regarded with deep cynicism. Democracy has shallow roots in this soil. And, just for luck, let's toss nuclear capability into the mix. What could be more alarming?

Possibly another country in much the same condition. Alternative B, Pakistan, is ruled by President Musharraf, and the "world community" is desperate for him to hold an election. George Bush and Gordon Brown, among others, say they want a stable, free, Islamic nation that will bring moderation to an immoderate region. Meanwhile, the president of troubled land A has just been named Time magazine's man of the year and is courted by world community businessmen looking for extra energy and the cash to buy a football team.

Do any cheerleaders in the democratic chorus seek to put real pressure Vladimir Putin? Of course not. He may try to hang on to power by the most risible manoeuvre. But only a few halfhearted fingers wag in his direction, and sentient commentators unite to praise his adroitness, his grip - and the prosperity he has brought to Russia.

Some dislocation here, surely? And, just as surely, a good deal of hypocrisy. If Musharraf paddled his own canoe on an ocean of oil and gas, the freedom anthems might be sung in a different key. But that is by no means the whole of the story.

From embassy to embassy, there is tacit recognition that Yeltsin's Russia was a giant stumbling along a road to nowhere. And, by contrast, recognition that Putin has been clever and ruthless enough to find the levers of power and pull them hard. Is this democracy? Well, Putin was shrewd enough to get elected and he's been shrewd enough to squash his rivals since. He is undeniably popular. He offers the magic of calm, clout and growing prosperity. Pragmatism rules uneasily, but OK for now.

And Musharraf? He, too, has some years of stability on his record sheet. He, too, has seen his country's economy grow. He, too, has the support of millions who just want to get on with their lives. But Benazir Bhutto's PPP, in a poll published before her death, was only running at 30% of the vote, with Nawaz Sharif's supporters second at 25% and Musharraf's on 23%.

None of this makes Musharraf a Putin clone. His state of emergency was a disaster. His re-election by a tame parliament hasn't helped. The army he led for so long has lost popularity as well. Before Bhutto died, there was a clear wish to see him gone.

Take a longer look at those polls, though, and you see only turbulence. Nobody now can tell who gains from what. All the western cries for an early ballot won't deliver any handy "aims", just more chaos and demands for a spatchcock coalition between politicians who manifestly hate each other.

Is it the army's fault that its rivals are so venal and visceral? Perhaps; the army is deep into politics. But can any new Pakistani administration manage without it? Since it couldn't, calls for immediate democracy are beside the point.

Musharraf helped create this shambles and is probably the only available force capable of sorting it out. And if democracy now is the only answer, then recognise that there's nobody fit to respond to that call. Leave him to clear it up, and to think - as he does so - how much easier he'd find his puppet masters if his name was Vladimir.

Peter Preston