Here are the Saddams of tomorrow

In central Asia, there is no mention of the concept of 'failed states' requiring Western surgery
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Whilst the World Bank this week was putting its imprimatur on the Caspian pipeline to take oil from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean via the former Soviet republic of Georgia, announcement of the results of the Georgian elections had to be delayed because of the riots and widespread accusations of fraud. It was even worse in Azerbaijan three weeks ago when riots following the gerrymandered elections to establish the President's son in power led to half a dozen deaths and the arrest of most of the opposition.

Oil, corruption and tyranny: the cycle goes on as we prop up the worst of regimes in the name of stability and security of energy supply. It happened in the Middle East a generation and two ago. It was what kept Saddam Hussein at war with Iran, and encouraged him to believe he could invade Kuwait. And it will all happen again, no doubt, when Kazakhstan begins to exploit its huge oil reserves later this decade.

One could wish it otherwise. The invasion of Iraq has been accompanied by a whole new doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Well-intentioned liberals have joined equally idealistic neocons to elaborate a vision of a West that polices the world not just in the interest of security but to save peoples from their own tyrannies. There are failed states, argues Robert Cooper, the Foreign Office's "licenced free thinker" now in Brussels, which demand that the West abandons its traditional constraints of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. We may have made mistakes in the past with regimes such as Saddam's. But in future it will be different.

If only it would be. Far from going forward to a brave new world of promoting democracy and decency, in reality we are going backwards to the worst of the Cold War world. In the aftermath of 11 September, the US is giving substantial military assistance to well over 130 countries, many of them poor Third World nations which can ill afford to have their economies skewed in this fashion.

There are now 500 US military advisers, in echoes of Vietnam, stationed in Georgia to help President Shevardnadze fight "terrorists". Kyrgyzstan now has the dubious honour of having both American and Russian bases established on its soil. The payments for the US base amount to nearly a fifth of its total budget. In Uzbekistan American payments, and the presence of US troops, goes to support what is now generally recognised as one of the nastiest regimes in the world. We partly know because the British ambassador there was recalled and put on "sick leave" for remarking on it.

Add in oil to this mix and you have all the makings of the Saddams of tomorrow, with us in full support of them. What, after all, is the World Bank's International Finance Corporation doing lending money for a pipeline which has aroused the almost universal objection of environmentalists as well as local communities along the way? It's not financial pump priming. At one million barrels per day, the flows involved easily justify the expenditure. It's the political risk that the World Bank - and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which decides next week - are there to cover. In lending a portion of the cost, the international community, including we in Britain, are implicitly ensuring the survival of the regimes along the way.

And what regimes. Azerbaijan is run by the ailing dictator Geidar Aliyev, who had held power by the simple expedient of removing all rivals and enemies for the past decade (three decades if you include his period as Soviet satrap). The elections in October were held to ensure the succession of his failed casino manager son, Ilham. The result was declared a landslide with 79.5 per cent voting in favour of the young Aliyev. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which supervised the polling, dismissed it as a travesty. Those from the opposition objecting found themselves in gaol.

The Georgian parliamentary elections, called to ensure the control of the ruling party when President Shevardnadze steps down in 2005, were little better. When the vote looked to be close run, with the government trying to produce a narrow majority in a polling which international monitors pronounced "spectacularly flawed", riots broke out and the announcement of the final results was delayed.

Eduard Shevardnadze is no Saddam Hussein (although President Islam Abdughanevich Karamov of Uzbekistan, the self-proclaimed successor to Tamerlaine, could be called that). But the parallel is in the treatment of these states at the beginning of their descent to tyranny, when the West could better influence things. No reference to dictatorial regimes here. No mention of the concept of "failed states" requiring Western surgery.

Instead we are back to the old excuses: difficult part of the world. Not ours to judge. Main thing stability, you know. Can't afford upsets with oil flows at stake. And anyhow they're on the right side when it comes to fighting fundamentalists and terrorists.

And so we betray our principles and their people. Ambassadors are recalled when they speak out. Loans are given against all the best advice. Military assistance is handed out and arms deals concluded. And all the while we talk of a new order of international affairs in which we will be the crusaders of democracy.