You pick up the paper or turn on the TV news these days and there's only one thing you can conclude: The world is finally coming unglued.

Everything you counted on or feared over the years is falling apart. Remember the Warsaw Pact? It doesn't exist anymore. An entire country, East Germany, disappears overnight. Yugoslavia - for now, anyway - looks like it could do the same thing.You can't count on communists to be the bad guys anymore. Instead of being America's chief international villain, Mikhail Gorbachev is winning the Nobel Peace Prize and getting praised by President Bush. A human rights advocate and all-around nice guy named Vaclav Havel is running Czechoslovakia. Other former Iron Curtain countries send soldiers to help America fight the war in the Persian Gulf.

It seems as if everywhere you look, from the Baltics to the Balkans, from Vladivostok to Vilnius, the world is getting a lot more complicated. Sorting out whom we're supposed to like from whom we aren't is getting almost impossible.

If you're beginning to find it all a bit confusing, then brace yourself. It's about to get worse. Much worse. And Yugoslavia is probably where it's going to start.

Yugoslavia is one of those places that was cobbled together after World War I from the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like many other countries created at the time, Yugoslavia isn't a real "nation" in the way Americans understand the word.

Instead, it's a very loose confederation of six republics and two provinces populated by 24 million people who don't like each other and apparently never have. Ask someone in the north what nationality they are and they'll tell you Slovene, or Croatian. In the south, they'll say Serbian, Bosnian or Macedonian. Few call themselves Yugoslavs.

All this in a country the size of Wyoming.

What's happening in Yugoslavia is very close to civil war. Mostly, it's a dispute between the Serbians, who make up about 36 percent of the population, and the Croatians, who are about 20 percent. These people have been enemies for centuries, partly because the Serbians are mostly Eastern Orthodox Christians and the Croatians Roman Catholic.

But religion has almost nothing to do with what's going on now. These days, the problem is that the government of the Serbian republic is hard-line communist and doesn't want any part of the new reforms that Gorbachev touched off in the socialist world.

Croatia, it almost goes without saying, has a center-right government that's very much in favor of reform and would try to break away from Yugoslavia if the reforms don't go through.

The dispute came to a head last week when the defense minister, Veljko Kadijevic, issued an ultimatum that the army will seize power if the civilian government doesn't stop the ethnic violence that has killed at least 20 people in recent days. Specifically, what the military wants is a nationwide state of emergency, under which it would rule by martial law.

To back up his threat, Kadijevic called up the reserves and put the army on combat alert. He also sent troops into several areas of Croatia to separate fighting factions of Croatians and Serbians.

Even so, scattered shooting and bombings were reported in Croatia and in the neighboring republic of Bosnia. The bombings cut off electricity and water in some areas of Croatian Adriatic coast.

The country's eight-member collective presidency is unable to come up with a realistic plan on how to save the federation, not to mention their own jobs. Politicians on both sides agreed that Yugoslavia is on the brink of insurrection or civil war. Nobody knows how the situation will turn out.

If you think all this is a lot of huffing and puffing signifying nothing, it might be useful to remember that the area now known as Yugoslavia is where World War I got started in 1914. If tiny sparks can ignite wars, then Yugoslavia is the best example of it.

Yugoslavia is also the place that brought us the awkward word "Balkanization." In modern political usage, it means the breaking up of nations into small, hostile political units, usually based on ethnic, language or cultural differences.

This is what's going on in Yugoslavia these days. And as I said, it's only the beginning.

Now that iron-fisted Leninism is being relaxed throughout the former Communist world, the old antagonisms and rivalries, the old language and religious disputes, are coming out again to cause trouble.

We're seeing it in the Baltic republics, where Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are striving to break free from Moscow. We're seeing it in the bitter religious war just cranking up between Moslems in Azerbaijan and Christians in neighboring Armenia. We're also seeing it in Czechoslovakia, where Czechs and Slovaks are beginning to square off.

Totalitarian communism may be on the way out, but what's rising up to replace it isn't going to be all sweetness and light.