ZAGREB, Croatia -- On the battlegrounds of the former Yugoslavia, the United Nations peacekeeping force can be seen at its best and worst.
The worst is in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where 24,000 U.N. troops face derision, shattered supply lines and shattered morale.
It is at its best, and has come closest to success, in Croatia, where a U.N.-patrolled cease-fire has held for a year along a 500-mile front. But even here, there is an air of failure, because of Croatia's insistence that the U.N. soldiers either be replaced by a smaller force or that they leave entirely. A Western alliance trying to salvage the mission reported yesterday that they have reached an agreement with Croatia that would allow a reduced force to stay in the country.
Because of Croatia's demand that the force be changed, and because of the April 30 expiration of a cease-fire agreement in Bosnia, the future of U.N. peacekeeping in the Balkans suddenly seems to be in doubt.
French Gen. Bertrand de Lapresle, who recently ended his tour of duty as U.N. commander for the former Yugoslavia, described the odd and difficult nature of the job: It was, he said, like entering a war "with no enemies to fight, but with a lot of partners around me; with no victory to win, but a peace to hTC promote; with no soldiers of my own army, but soldiers from so many countries."
The feeling of helplessness and danger is evident along the front lines in Croatia, where Croats and Serbs routinely chisel away at the United Nation's authority.
Such is the case in the area known as Sector West.
In Sector West, about 2,800 soldiers from Argentina, Jordan and Nepal patrol both sides of the cease-fire line -- about 200 square miles in all. Neither Croats nor Serbs are permitted to have soldiers there. Only Croatian and Serbian civilian police are allowed, and they are supposed to carry only sidearms. Those, at least, are the rules established by the United Nations.
In the middle of the Sector West is the town called Pakrac -- and there the rules mean little, if anything:
As soon as the U.N. forces arrived in Pakrac, Serbian and Croatian soldiers began to wear the uniforms of police. "I have been here for a year," said Martin Carlsson, station commander for a unit of UNPROFOR, the U.N. force, "and we have seen the number of 'police' increase the whole time."
When five refugees were slain in May, Croatian authorities used the incident to send 300 additional "police." Another 300 arrived in December.
"Officially there are only 100 [Croatian] police, but we know they have more than a thousand," Mr. Carlsson said. "I can't do anything about it more than reporting it back. It is the same problem in every sector."
But at least these "police" only have handguns, right?
"They have guns right up the road here," said Martin Shankey-Smith, the deputy commander.
What kind of weapons?
"AK-47s. Grenade launchers."
The U.N. force once carried out a raid, confiscated the Croatian weapons and, as policy required, turned the weapons over to the Croatian army. Then, according to Mr. Shankey-Smith, the Croats brought all the weapons back.
At least the Croats bother to hide them.
"The Serbs don't care," Mr. Carlsson said. "We see them with military trucks and heavy weapons every day. We have raised a lot of questions about it, but UNPROFOR doesn't want to do anything. They know if they try to do anything, there will be fighting between UNPROFOR and the Serbs."
So it's not surprising that some U.N. people hint that they are sitting ducks.
Harris McLean, a Canadian Mountie whose unit monitors the cease-fire line in Pakrac, described his work as "patrolling up and down in the middle with a little white car, hoping nothing happens."
Then how has the U.N. operation kept the cease-fire intact in Croatia, while similar agreements in Bosnia have inevitably fallen apart?
It's not the United Nations' doing, said Jozo Curic, spokesman for Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.
"The cease-fire has been kept because the Croatians and the Croatian Serbs want to keep it," Mr. Curic said. "Without that, you can put 20,000 or 50,000 U.N. soldiers there, and you won't have a cease-fire."
The United Nations does get some credit from the Croatian Serbs, however. "UNPROFOR succeeded in making an atmosphere here which provided a cease-fire," said Radomir Knesevic, adviser to President Milan Martic of the self-declared Republic of the Serbian Krajina, the government of the rebel Serbs. "They also helped very much in the economic negotiations."
As far as the Croatian government is concerned, such success has only rewarded the aggressor, protecting Serbian military gains and keeping the occupying armies fed.
That's one reason Zoran Bosnjak, a foreign policy adviser in the Croatian government, has little but criticism for U.N. efforts. "It is one of the greatest outrages in the history of the United Nations," Mr. Bosnjak said. "The only thing the international community knows how to do is to appease the bully, and unfortunately it goes on all over the world."
Public opinion polls show that 75 percent of Croatians want U.N. forces to leave the country or substantially change their mission. But no one in Croatia has yet complained about the United Nation spending money here.
Slavan Letica, a former national security adviser to Mr. Tudjman, estimates that the U.N. peacekeeping operation, with its large headquarters complex in Zagreb, accounts for about 8 percent of the Croatian economy. That may explain why Mr. Tudjman has said that the United Nations is more than welcome to keep its headquarters intact, even though at least some of the soldiers must go.