IN THE former Yugoslavia, United Nations officials are warning of an imminent human tragedy, without parallel in Europe since the Second World War. The CIA has said that 150,000 could die in Bosnia-Herzegovina over the winter. Two leading Western advisers have described Russia as being on the brink of economic disaster. Reports suggest 1.5 million are ready to leave Russia and a further 4.5 million thinking about it. Georgia risks self-destruction. Armenia has been blockaded by Azerbaijan into virtual paralysis and imminent starvation.

Such news is becoming so commonplace as to pass unremarked. Television footage of one civil war after another prompts exasperation with those who seem incapable of seizing the opportunities offered by liberation from Communism. The inclination is to concentrate on local problems and leave Eastern Europe to fend for itself. As with African famines, pity and charity can be stimulated, but no clear sense of threat to our own wellbeing.

Yet the cumulative tragedy building up in post-Communist Europe needs to be assessed against the crudest criteria of self-interest, as well as those derived from a higher morality. It is impossible for one part of a continent as compact and densely populated as Europe to experience economic and social dislocation on a massive scale without the other part being severely affected.

The equilibrium of central Europe depends on calm relations between Russia and Ukraine. The relative moderation of the governments in Moscow and Kiev is being sorely tried by the intractability of their economic problems.

The equilibrium of south-eastern Europe depends on containing the Yugoslav crisis. Douglas Hurd attempted to get the EC to expedite the relief effort at last week's summit, but it all still seems likely to be too little, too late. Even when the supply convoys are on their way, or when attempts are being made to turn on the electricity and water supplies, it only needs a few bullets from a sniper or some mortar shells to set everything back.

Even if the winter can be survived, the dangers of fresh fighting in Croatia still threaten. Zagreb is reluctant to see the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force renewed next spring. The UN troops are seen as protectors of a Serbian enclave.

Kosovo could ignite at any time. This largely Albanian part of Serbia is demanding autonomy. An uneasy peace has been sustained so long as the Kosovers recognise their military inferiority and the Serbs the added strain of another front. Yet as soon as the Bosnian situation becomes clearer events could move rapidly. A Serbian climbdown could encourage Kosovers (and Croats, too) to strike while their enemy was weakened; a Serbian victory could lead the militants to turn on the remaining irritant.

If Kosovo explodes, Albania might find it difficult to stand aside while its co-nationalists were annihilated, as would the many Albanians who make up 30 to 40 per cent of the Macedonian population. The real pessimists, such as George Kenney, the former US State Department desk officer for Yugoslavia, at this point show how Albania and Macedonia come to assist the Albanians, while Greece comes to the aid of Serbia, using the opportunity to put down the Macedonian threat to its own integrity. Turkey finds it difficult to stand aside while Muslims are threatened . . .

Add to this a scenario advanced last week by Jan Urban, former chairman of the Czechoslovak group Civic Forum. This follows the imminent split in his country and is triggered by a dispute, which is already leading to heated exchanges between Hungary and Slovakia over the latter's intention to divert the Danube to power a hydroelectric dam.

Urban warns how nationalists in Hungary might use this dispute to get to power, stressing the position of the 500,000 ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia. If this led to a breakaway Hungarian-speaking state in southern Slovakia, then there could be a precedent that Ukraine might use for its border with Slovakia, or in other Hungarian areas such as Romania (Transylvania) and Serbia (Vojvodina). This would create the basis for a Romanian-Serbian alliance against Hungary, favouring the expulsion of minority populations rather than the redrawing of boundaries.

Remember that there are German- speaking minorities, too, in these countries. Widespread disorder could lead to an asylum problem that would dwarf the one already causing Germany considerable discomfort. German public opinion could easily become agitated if it saw ethnic Germans being forced to flee.

Such scenarios may seem far-fetched, but so at one time did predictions of the Yugoslavian conflagration. The complex ethnic make-up of post-Communist Europe creates natural routes for the transmission of violence, and as central governments weaken in the face of economic hardship they will find it harder to block these routes.

Western European governments have become almost passive in the face of all this. Little is done on debt relief and technical assistance. A dollars 24bn aid package to Moscow was agreed but is still not implemented. France is blocking a Gatt agreement. Britain is refusing to take serious numbers of refugees from Bosnia. Germany's economic policy (and by extension much of Europe's) is still being conducted as if the old rules applied.

Policy seems to be reduced to waiting: waiting to see if winter can be survived in Moscow, if the enlightenened Milan Panic can win his political battle in Belgrade with the hard-line Slobodan Milosevic, if Eduard Shevardnadze can cope with the Georgian civil war, if the Czechs and Slovaks can reach an amicable divorce settlement, if a new US President might give some leadership.

Western Europe cannot manage all the economic crises of Eastern Europe, nor settle all the disputes. Simply exhibiting a degree of urgency on some of these problems would help at least by indicating a serious Western interest in shaping the structure of post-Communist Europe. Shunting these intractable problems to one side is tempting. But soon it will be impossible to ignore them.

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