Prague. -- Czechoslovakia, soon to become ex-Czechoslovakia, is the economic success among the ex-Communist countries. But this success distracts from the gravity of Czechs' and Slovaks' larger situation, and that of all the south-central and Balkan Europeans. It is the one good thing to be said about a bad scene, upon which the Western governments have turned their backs.
The baroque beauty of Prague is shabby, but is being restored. It is for the moment the glamorous city of Eastern Europe, a place where young Americans in particular come, as they went to Paris in the 1920s, before another dark time began.
The Czechoslovak economy's transition toward the market has been generally successful, although the hardest part, the denationalization of heavy industry, is mostly to come. That will bring increased unemployment, but the current rate of unemployed is an astonishingly low 2.7 percent in the Czech regions and only 11 percent in Slovakia, where most of the obsolete plant exists, notably including arms manufacturers.
Inflation is under 10 percent, the state budget balanced, and the payments and commercial balances positive. It is a considerably better situation than in many of the Western countries, including the United States. But industrial production has fallen, and with it, productivity. The economic situation will get worse under the shock of national break-up, as Slovakia goes its own way.
Goes where, is the question. An independent Slovakia embarks on an exceedingly risky course, which already has produced serious difficulties with Hungary over a hydroelectric installation, for which the Slovakians are diverting the Danube, to the Hungarians' anger. There is a Hungarian ethnic minority in Slovakia numbering some half-million (in a population somewhat over 5 million). The dangers in this are obvious, at a moment when Hungary is experiencing a rise in chauvinism, anti-Semitism, and anti-''cosmopolitanism,'' while other Hungarian minorities abroad, those in Romania and Serbia, are in difficulties, the latter threatened with ''ethnic cleansing.''
The future of ''Czechia,'' or the Czech Republic, or Bohemia-Moravia-Silesia, or whatever it is to be called, is also uncertain, and many are anxious about the viability of a small ZTC Slavic state of some 10 million wedged between Germany and Austria, with their combined populations of 85 million. The Czechs only managed to divorce themselves from the Austrians in 1918.
These are serious considerations at a time when the Western governments display near-total indifference to Eastern Europe. Washington will remain paralyzed until January, and the Clinton government which is in prospect will certainly not give its attention to Eastern Europe's problems until long after that.
The Major government in Britain is entirely taken up with a clownish series of political catastrophes of its own making. The Germans are distracted by the problems of reunion and a frightening rise in anti-foreigner violence. France's political class is obsessed with the Mitterrand succession.
Nowhere is there practical acknowledgment of the urgent need to integrate the East Europeans into the practice and values of the democratic world. As a result, the democratic and liberal forces in the region, which led the resistance against communism in the name of a new Europe, and in the cause of a new continent-wide democracy, find themselves undermined.
This Western indifference makes obscene the claims George Bush and others in the West continue to make about communism's ''defeat,'' and the U.S. and West's ''leadership'' of a new world system. There is no leadership. There was no defeat. There was a self-liberation by the people of the East, and by the Soviet people themselves, and even by the Soviet Union's own leaders (admittedly, without the latter grasping what they really were doing).
There is a changed international system, but only by virtue of the old system's having ceased to exist. Alas, the new system is proving anarchic, violent and on the brink of adding new wars to the peculiarly horrible and genocidal one now going on in Bosnia.
The passivity and indifference of the West is discrediting democracy, in the name of which the Cold War struggle of the past 45 years was conducted. The codes of conduct developed among the Western democracies during that period, transforming the character of inter- national relations in the West, are not being imposed in the East, and therefore are rapidly becoming irrelevant to what is going to happen there.