When the Kremlin's spin-doctors blew into Ukraine last year to help with the election of Viktor Yanukovich, they thought it would be a breeze. His party, after all, controlled most of the press and all the TV stations except Channel 5, which didn't reach much outside the capital. So they behaved like colonial nabobs, threw parties for each other and for their cronies, and distributed orders and millions of dollars in cash (it is said) to the local bosses, factory managers, bureaucrats and election officials who had always taken care of such things before.
That time around they failed. The repercussions of their failure are today being felt all over post-Soviet space. For what took place in Ukraine was a coup d'etat without violence, fuelled by public disaffection and spearheaded by Pora ("It's Time!"), a youth movement armed with little more than text messaging, e-mails, website postings, ridicule, rock music, an arsenal of camcorders and a flair for PR. It was, in fact, an information-age revolution, and it has left the governments of other former Soviet republics - particularly Russia and Belarus - jittery to the point of hysteria.
In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko, who faces re-election next year, has clamped down on foreign residents and expelled visiting teachers and diplomats. He has closed non- state educational institutions and put hundreds of independent publications out of business. He has denied visas to humanitarian workers from abroad and pronounced that students working "for the opposition" will be denied all access to higher education. Meanwhile in Russia, Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, thinking ahead to a presidential election of its own in 2008, is tightening control over every single element that it sees as having played a part in Ukraine's orange revolution: the internet, mobile phones, rock music, foreign NGOs and disaffected youth in general. In July, 3,000 "commissars" of a new, Kremlin-financed youth movement called Nashi ("Our Guys") convened at a summer camp outside Moscow to be told by the Kremlin spin-doctor who was once Russia's chief election strategist in Ukraine: "You must be ready to . . . physically oppose anti-constitutional coups." A few days later, at a meeting at the Kremlin, Putin made it clear who he thought they would be up against. "I categorically object [to] overseas funding for political activities in Russia," he said. "We understand that he who pays the piper calls the tune."
It is not known how much western, and specifically American, money was spent on promoting and backing the orange revolution, but it is no secret that the US government has for years been funnelling money under the Freedom Support Act to groups in former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe "committed to democracy and free elections" - organisations such as Otpor ("Resistance") and Kmara ("Enough!"), which helped topple Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia. Nor is it any secret that these two organisations, and Pora in Ukraine, have links both with each other and with US NGOs.
In June, for example, representatives of all three held a meeting in Tirana, Albania, sponsored by an American NGO, Freedom House - with extra funding from Usaid, the US government agency. Also present were delegates from Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kosovo, Macedonia and Uzbekistan. In the same month the director of Russia's FSB security service, Nikolai Patrushev, announced that two months previously in Bratislava, Slovakia, another American body, the International Republican Institute, had set aside $5m "to encourage democracy" in Belarus. Western NGOs, Patrushev declared, "provide cover for western spies", and were bankrolling plans "to stage revolutions in Belarus and other nearby ex-Soviet republics". The secret services of all the republics had met to discuss the matter in April, he said. Since then they have been active. A member of Pora was recently deported from Azerbaijan; an American NGO, the International Research and Exchanges Board, was forced by the courts to suspend operations in Uzbekistan "for violating Uzbek legislation".
It is hard to see the US wanting to disturb present arrange- ments in oil-and-gas-rich Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, but there is no doubt that a new generation of e-revolutionaries - sponsored by the west and inspired by Poland's Solidarity movement - is at large in post-Soviet space. Belarus in particular is regarded as fair game. The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has described the Lukashenko regime as "the last tyranny in Europe".
To counter state control of the media, videos and CDs are being smuggled in. There are moves to set up Belarussian-language TV stations in Lithuania and Poland, which have offered sanctuary to students from schools and universities that Lukashenko has closed down. Money is flowing to opposition politicians and to Zubr, Belarus's nascent equivalent of Pora. The methods are the same as before: mobile-phone and web-based networks of sympathisers, chatrooms, e-competitions and video loops lampooning the Boss, leading to e-summoned rallies in the capital. Certainly, this is what Lukashenko fears. Besides sacking journalism students suspected of "co-operating with the opposition" and moving against cartoonists who publish their work on the internet, his secret services have also deported two Kmara activists, one of them a junior member of the Georgian government.
There is a problem, however, with the west's aspirations in Belarus. Lukashenko is a close ally of President Putin - so close that discussions are even going on about turning the two countries into a unified state. If a Soviet-style election in Belarus were to return Lukashenko to power and a Kiev-style revolution were then to strive to unseat him, Putin would almost certainly send in the Russian army to quell it. That would prompt confrontation with the west.
In Russia, the effects of the west's public embrace of the so-called "velvet" revolutions can already be seen. Human rights groups have been threatened with reprisals if they stray on to political terrain and at least one Russian NGO, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society (funded by the US State Department, the EU and Norway), has been virtually hounded out of business. The FSB, in addition to demanding powers to regulate NGOs on Russian soil, has called for increased control over the internet and mandatory registration of all mobile phones with internet access. An attempt has also been made to woo rock bands into the service of the state, and a $17.5m fund set up to promote patriotism.
Most sinister of all, there is Nashi, which already hugely outnumbers the youth movements of all the other political parties combined. Its platform is patriotic, anti-western and "anti-fascist". Its members have roughed up journalists and twice invaded the headquarters of its most effective rival, the radical situationists of the National Bolshevik Party, led by the writer Eduard Limonov. Nashi is suspected of attacks on Poles in Moscow and of a recent assault on the youth wing of the Communist Party. Its public face is of a liberal-denouncing, street-fighting force aiming to cow all opposition, particularly in universities and schools.
It inevitably reminds some observers of the Hitler Youth, a comparison that a speech at the commissars' camp this summer by Putin's deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, did nothing to discourage. Surkov told his young audience that their duty was "to protect the youth from western influence" and - in an eerie echo of "Tomorrow Belongs To Me", the Hitler Youth anthem from Cabaret - urged: "Come to us sooner and we will hand over the country to you."
All this signals that even though the Lukashenko regime in Belarus (like others in post-Soviet space) may be corrupt, anti-democratic and shaky, any moves to undermine it will have undesirable consequences. It is also a reminder that, in Russia, to which the US Senate assigns tens of millions of dollars each year under the Freedom Support Act, a "velvet" democratic revolution is still pie in the sky. Democracy and the west are anathema to the majority of Russians - surely a direct result of the last time, in the early 1990s, that the west tried to export its ideas to Russian territory.