In the euphoria, it is easy to forget that liberation is often the beginning of human folly, not the end. (The book of Exodus is a useful text on the subject.) Liberty is an invitation to folly. In the liberated zones of Eastern Europe, the invitation is being accepted.

Bulgarians have been free for about a month. What is the first great cause they have taken up with their newfound freedoms of assembly, petition and speech? Chanting "Bulgaria for Bulgarians," they demand the repression of the Moslem minority. The country is racked with civil disorder protesting the repeal by the new Communist regime of oppressive anti-Turkish decrees.

At the first whiff of glasnost, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Georgians and Ossetians, Uzbeks and Meskhetians marked the lifting of the yoke of the Soviet imperium by taking to the streets to beat each other bloody. The newest riots in southern Azerbaijan, however, have progressed beyond mere ethnic quarreling. The local citizenry, Shiite Muslims, are near insurrection, attacking authorities and tearing down border posts. Their demand? Reunification with Iran.

To my recollection, Paul Johnson was the first (August 1988) to warn of the coming Balkanization of East Europe and the rekindling of ancient ethnic strife as the Soviet empire broke up. By now everyone is familiar with the fact -- though few anticipated the fury -- of intolerant nationalism as the great bane and potential ruin of the newly liberated Soviet zone.

Another source of potential ruin is now equally obvious: the economic costs of de-communization. A report from Poland last weekend spoke of people losing patience with Solidarity's program of radical economic reform. Polish capitalism was all of six days old at the time.

There is, however, one other bane facing liberated Europe, less obvious than ethnic and economic disillusionment but equally preordained. It is the coming political disillusionment. Democracy in the abstract is a glory second to none. But liberated Europe is about to experience the first half of Churchill's famous quip that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.

Not just that it is messy and corrupt. A friend of mine, an adviser to one of Hungary's new democratic parties, brought a group of aspiring Hungarian politicians over to the United States last fall to imbibe democracy at the wellspring. They were treated to a tour of the New York mayoralty and the Virginia gubernatorial campaigns. During their 40 years of jail and repression, of samizdat and secret police, did they dream, could they have imagined, that at the end of the tunnel lay Jackie Mason?

It is not just that Hungary and the rest are headed for party squabbling and backroom deals, tracking polls and campaign lies. The disillusionment with democracy will involve something far deeper.

First, the realization that real democracy actually establishes limits to popular will. Under constitutionalism, not everything is permitted even if the people will it. In one of the liberation's more remarkable twists, Bulgaria's government last week rejected calls in the street for a referendum. The demonstrators demanded a referendum on ethnic rights -- in order to deny them to the 15 percent Turkish minority. A statement pointing out that fundamental human rights cannot be subject to popular vote was issued jointly by the democratic opposition and -- how rich our history -- the Communist Party.

The second and more deeply disillusioning truth about democracy is that it is designed at its core to be spiritually empty. As Isaiah Berlin wrote 30 years ago in his essay "John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life," the defining proposition of liberal democracy is that it mandates means (elections, parliaments, markets) but not ends. Democracy leaves the goals of life entirely up to the individual. Where the totalitarian state decrees life's purposes -- Deng's Four Modernizations, Castro's Rectification Campaigns, the generic exhortation to "Build Socialism" -- democracy leaves the public square naked.

What a shock for those whose lives have been so infused with purpose by the struggle against totalitarianism. That is why the original East German oppositionists looked with dismay at the post-Wall revelers, those content to see the revolution "drowned in West Berlin chocolate." That is why the victory, the miracle, of 1989 will be as disillusioning as it is now exhilarating. The fruit of that victory is bourgeois democracy -- the most free, most humane, most decent political system ever invented by man, and the most banal. Dying for it is far more ennobling than living it. Liberated Europe is just getting to the living part.