WARSAW -- The winter-scape of Eastern Europe, a year after the collapse of communism, is forbiddingly dark.

The fervor for freedom that spilled into the streets last year and fueled the 20th century's most remarkable round of democratic change has run low. In its place, there is a dazed awareness of freedom's cost.

Deepening recession of a severity not seen since World War II is grinding down all of Eastern Europe. In several countries there is destitution and demagoguery and in some the makings of civil war.

The difficulty of the transition from communism to capitalism appears to have been grossly underestimated both by the East Europeans themselves and by the Western countries that applauded the demise of the old East Bloc.

The United Nations and many Western analysts now agree that change in Eastern Europe will exact more human privation, destabilize more elected governments, unleash more ethnic rivalry, cost the West more in aid and last far longer than had been expected as recently as six months ago.

Bulgaria, for instance, is a post-Communist nation where darkness is more than a metaphor.

The country's only nuclear power plant had an accident. Imports of crude oil have dwindled to a trickle. Electricity flows only in fits and starts. In the intermittent light, Bulgaria's first freely elected government in five decades collapsed, having worked half a year and accomplished nothing. A promising candidate for prime minister turned out to be a secret-police informer. Debts are unpayable, exports have collapsed, and educated young people are fleeing. The week before Christmas was observed with a ban on gasoline sales. Eggs are rationed at six per person per month.

Without doubt, there have been major accomplishments in Eastern Europe. Free elections were conducted across most of the region. The rule of law has replaced the whim of dictators. People everywhere are free to travel and speak their mind.

Economic achievements, however, have been extraordinarily uneven and seem likely to remain that way. Consumer shortages have disappeared in some countries while intensifying disastrously in others.

In each country where economic change has been successful, the key has been a national consensus for it. The governments of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia have been able to build on such consensus, even though there are signals that it is weak and getting weaker. In the Balkan nations of Romania and Bulgaria, no consensus exists.

After just one year, post-Communist Eastern Europe has cleaved into two separate and unequal regions. Ivan Berend, an economist who is president of the Hungarian Academy of Science, says the Balkans are already five years behind the northern countries.

A year-end report by the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe explains that for the north, which includes Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, there is a positive aspect to the post-Communist misery.

Economic decline in these countries "reflects the impact of . . . determined efforts to speed up the pace of economic transformation" and is helping to cleanse them of the distortions and inefficiencies of centrally planned economies, the report says.

There is no therapeutic value, however, in the even steeper decline of Romania and Bulgaria. The report says daily life in these two countries is "deteriorating outside of any coherent policy framework and reflects a collapse of central control and a failure to embark on an effective program of reform."

In Yugoslavia, resurgent ethnic rivalry has emerged as the major obstacle to economic change. A free-market reform program there made extraordinary progress for about six months this year. Then, when the old Communist system was being crushed by a series of free elections in Yugoslavia's six republics, the program was picked to pieces by nationalist jealousies.

Democracy, in fact, is dismembering Yugoslavia, with pressures similar to those boiling over in the multi-ethnic Soviet Union. The populist president of Serbia, the largest republic, scored a crushing election win this month by standing up for Serbia's ethnic rights. In doing so, Communist Slobodan Milosevic frightens and alienates the non-Serbs who make up two-thirds of the country.

Milosevic has turned the Serbian province of Kosovo, where 90 percent of the inhabitants are ethnic Albanians, into an armed camp run by imported Serbian technocrats. Albanian women have their babies at home now, rather than go to a state hospital where a Serbian obstetrician would touch them.

Milosevic has goaded the northwestern republic of Slovenia into a secession vote, given unofficial aid to Serbian separatists in the republic of Croatia, and used the Serbian press to undermine support for free-market change. The CIA has predicted the breakup of the country and discussed the possibility of civil war.Looking Toward the West

Adding up the losses in Eastern Europe, the Economic Commission for Europe says the "old system of centralized planning has been destroyed more rapidly than new institutions and patterns of behavior or a market economy can be put in their place."

In the commotion, the commission estimates an average 20 percent drop in industrial production across the region. Without "immediate and massive" aid from the West, the commission said, there may be social unrest and "enormous pressure for emigration from the East to the West."

Economic forecasters at London-based Morgan Stanley & Co. said last week that unemployment in Eastern Europe could reach 14 million, or 21 percent of the working population. That is more than three times the current rate in Poland, where unemployment is highest.

To keep the region from drowning in adjustment poverty, Morgan Stanley advises that the West pay for "an adequate social safety net" that is likely to cost $270 billion to $370 billion over the next five years. Western governments and international agencies have pledged less than one-tenth that amount for the region in the last year.

This winter's darkness is deepened by an unlucky confluence of forces that lie beyond the control of the people or governments of Eastern Europe. At a time when the region desperately needs cheap energy, Western aid and access to Western markets, the industrialized world is sliding into a recession and oil prices have soared because of the Persian Gulf crisis.

If oil costs $30 a barrel throughout the coming year, Morgan Stanley said, the countries of Eastern Europe will pay $17.3 billion more for fuel in 1991 than they paid this year. The investment firm predicts that the oil shock will force widespread default on foreign debt.

The gulf crisis and the U.N. trade boycott of Iraq have deprived Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Yugoslavia of several billion dollars worth of oil that was owed them by Baghdad. In addition, Poland says it has lost the equivalent of 40 percent of its foreign trade earnings with Western countries.

No Longer Propped Up

The fuel pinch plaguing the nations of the former East Bloc stems not only from the difficulties of their new trading partners in the West, but also from those of their former patron, the Soviet Union. For decades, Moscow has been the principal energy supplier to Eastern Europe. Oil and natural gas were cheap and plentiful, allowing the East Bloc to become the world's least efficient energy consumer. But its trading organization, Comecon, has fallen apart, and on Jan. 1 Moscow will start charging for fuel at world prices in hard currency.

Soviet oil prices will jump overnight from an average of $7.50 a barrel to more than $25 a barrel. In addition, the Soviet Union has sharply cut the amount of oil and natural gas it will deliver to Eastern Europe -- at any price.

Poland, for instance, relied on the Soviet Union for 89 million barrels of crude oil in 1989. Next year, Moscow promises only 31.5 million barrels. The 65 percent shortfall -- which could be much greater if there is turmoil in the Soviet Union -- will have to be made up with purchases in the West.

Beyond the energy sector, the collapse of Comecon is crippling trade among Eastern countries. A "virtual trade war" has broken out, with trade among Eastern countries down by about 18 percent, according to the United Nations.

The sharpest fall has been with the former East Germany. Since being absorbed into what was West Germany, it has canceled up to 75 percent of its imports from the East.

Every East European country is scrambling to steer trade to the West, but European Community agriculture tariffs, the breakdown of world trade negotiations and the looming recession limit the East's opportunities.

While much is beyond their control, elected leaders in Eastern Europe control the critical levers of economic change. These levers cannot be shifted, however, unless reform principles mesh with a social consensus.

The last year shows how difficult it can be for free-market ideas to take root among citizens accustomed to subsidized prices and free social services.

In Hungary and Czechoslovakia, there has been significantly more free-market rhetoric than action. Both governments say they want to remove consumer subsidies and accelerate the sale of state property. But they put off most of the pain until 1991.

Public appetite for sacrifice has been, at best, equivocal. In the Czech lands, after the Prague government made clear that life was soon to become far less subsidized, the Communist Party made a strong showing in local elections.

In Hungary last fall, after gasoline prices were raised to Western levels, transit workers in Budapest went on strike and paralyzed the city. The government backed off.

By procrastinating, Hungary and Czechoslovakia have painted themselves into a corner. They are embarking on deep structural change just as oil prices, the world recession and the breakdown of Comecon trade make it most difficult to succeed. 'Dreaming in Color'

Poland is the one country where everything seemed to come together, at least for a while.

As 1990 began, Poles believed in the Solidarity-led government of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the only alternative to the ruinous economics of communism. The new finance minister, Leszek Balcerowicz, knew precisely what he wanted to do and lawmakers quickly allowed him to do it.

It only took three months or so at the beginning of the year for "shock therapy" reforms to stanch hyperinflation and fill Poland's shops with a wide selection of food and consumer goods. Wages were frozen as state subsidies on food and fuel were lifted.

The social cost was high: a 30 percent drop in the average Pole's buying power. But opinion polls showed that the victims of shock therapy thought their misery was worth it.

In fact, it was. With inflation under control and goods to sell, privatization of small shops took off like a brush fire. As this year ends, about half of the country's 130,000 state-owned shops are now in private hands.

Privatization of Poland's 6,000 large state-owned enterprises has progressed much more slowly, but its start has been a promising one. When shares in five large companies were offered for sale, demand from small investors far exceeded the supply.

Exports to the West soared to record highs this year, and Poland piled up a $4.5 billion trade surplus -- a hard-currency cushion that can be used to buy gasoline.

Shops this Christmas are dressed up in a panoply of lights and shimmering color the likes of which Poles say they have never seen, except in the West.

"I am observing a country that is boiling with business. There exists a Polish hunger for trade, with great reserves of energy and will," said Waldemar Kuczysnski, minister for ownership changes in the outgoing government.

Why is a government that accomplished so much dissolving after just one year? The answer is that post-Communist politics, like politics everywhere, amounts to far more than sound economics.

Mazowiecki, the shy, intellectual prime minister, proved an abysmal failure in selling his government's achievements to the public. Despite early indications of popular support, strikes started after four months of shock therapy. Unemployment soared past 1 million. Poles grumbled that there were too many former Communists still in charge of factories.

Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, sensing public disaffection, forced a presidential election. He promised that if he were president, workers would not suffer so much. Mazowiecki accused Walesa of demagoguery built on false hope, and ran against him.

As the campaign unfolded, fed-up voters gave Walesa and Mazowiecki some shock therapy of their own. In the first round of voting, Mazowiecki ran third behind an emigre businessman, Stanislaw Tyminski, who said he could make everyone rich in one month.

Walesa handily won a runoff, but Tyminski garnered one of every four votes cast. The upstart challenger indicated that a sizable part of the electorate prefers snake oil to the long grind of free-market change and, in doing so, he raised serious doubts about the future of hard-nosed economic change in the region.

As President Walesa tries to put together a government, he has stopped making populist promises and insists that reform must continue. There is little doubt, however, that the social consensus has been weakened.

"We had social consent for policies of sacrifice. Walesa won because that policy lost support. Consent for more sacrifice will not be repeated," said Jacek Kuron, the outgoing labor minister. "The problem is that we are dreaming in color and society won't wake up." Balkans' Grim Decade

If Poland represents the upper range of economic progress in a post-Communist state, Romania stands as a testament to how elected leaders can bungle economic change and squander political will. Its problems typify the grim decade that stretches out in front of the Balkan nations.

A year after the revolution that claimed 1,033 lives, it is possible for Romanians to cruise Boulevard Magheru in central Bucharest in a private taxi while listening to Jermaine Jackson over independent radio Nova. But when they look out the window, there are three-mile-long lines for gasoline. Shopping for winter boots or light bulbs or razor blades is hopeless.

"I am furious," a Bucharest secretary for a foreign energy company said this month. "It is winter. I have a 5-year-old daughter, and I can find nothing to put on her feet."

About 6,000 of the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's dreaded Securitate police still work in the shady avenues of law enforcement. They keep a wary eye on the tens of thousands of protesters who gather regularly in the streets to howl that the revolution was a con job.

Since the National Salvation Front seized power during the bloody overthrow of Ceausescu, it has flip-flopped between condemning capitalism and asking for special powers to accelerate free-market reform, between praising democracy on television and using vigilante miners to crack heads in the street.

During an election last spring, the government promised to cushion workers from the "savage effects" of capitalism. Workers were given raises, and consumer subsidies were retained. Privatization and land reform were ignored.

By this fall, Romania's rulers realized that they were presiding over economic chaos. Industrial production had fallen 28 percent. Exports were off 46 percent. A post-revolution flood of imports had pushed the hard-currency trade deficit to a record $1.4 billion. There were shortages of food and basic consumer goods almost as severe as those enforced under Ceausescu.

Prime Minister Petre Roman tried to reverse course in October. He asked the legislature for special powers to end subsidies, sell state industries and make the currency convertible. Prices were scheduled to double and triple.

No sooner had the reforms been announced, however, than the country reacted with strikes and huge street demonstrations. Unlike the Poles, Romanians had not agreed to economic pain. In the last two months, the government has retreated into a reactive, defensive and increasingly fragile position. It has postponed food price increases and opened power-sharing talks with opposition leaders.

In the week before Christmas, with state television broadcasting gruesome footage of last year's street fighting in Bucharest, there was an almost surreal feeling in the capital. Persistent rumors circulated of an imminent army coup. Across the country, tens of thousands of people were in the streets demanding that the government resign.

Roman insisted in an interview last week that his countrymen were "proud and confident" about their revolution. In Bucharest, most people do not agree. There is confusion, anger and fear.

"Now Christmas is coming, and I don't feel anything. The only thing we have now is the right to speak," said one. "Otherwise, nothing has changed."

In a somber warning, the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe says that none of the countries of Eastern Europe is immune to political upheaval.

"The risks are that all the present problems, from external shocks to internal incompetence, will be blamed on the reform process," the commission said.

If that happens, momentum for reform could disappear. "The consequences of such a failure are incalculable," the commission said.

Special correspondent Peter Maass in Budapest contributed to this report.