ZAGREB, CROATIA — FORMER President Jimmy Carter, a self-styled trouble-shooter for trouble spots around the world, arrived in former Yugoslavia yesterday on a ''private'' mission to help mediate a conflict that the best diplomats in the West have not been able to resolve in three years.
Mr. Carter was to meet today with Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic -- who originally requested Carter's involvement -- after initial talks with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.
Dr. Karadzic, in his try to alter the stalemate in Bosnia with Carter's intervention, may be playing a win-win gambit that will frustrate other efforts by the West.
Analysts and diplomatic sources say Karadzic's sudden and deft peace offer -- even if it fails -- will force an increasingly desperate international community to consider dropping their own peace plan and temper-rising calls in the US Congress for NATO military action in Bosnia.
''I was caught by surprise. I'm still trying to make some sense out of it,'' says a senior Croatian diplomat. ''He's very good at manipulating people.''
On Wednesday, Karadzic stunned observers by announcing a six-point peace proposal and requesting that Carter mediate a settlement in the nearly three-year-old war. The Bosnian Serbs -- who now control about 70 percent of Bosnia -- rejected the five-nation ''contact group'' peace plan this summer that would have given the Muslim-led government 51 percent of Bosnia and the Serbs 49 percent.
For optimists, Carter could provide the political cover that all sides -- the Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, and the West -- need to compromise and agree on a peace settlement. For cynics, Carter is simply the latest in a long line of Western dupes Karadzic has skillfully manipulated to confuse and divide the West and prevent massive NATO military action against the Serbs.
''I don't think there's any reason to trust Karadzic, and what Jimmy Carter did in Haiti was give [former Army commander Raoul] Cedras what he wanted,'' says Jane Sharp, research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research in London. ''It's just a gambit for more time.''
Patrick Glynn, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, sees Karadzic outflanking the West. ''It's a good strategy,'' Glynn says. ''At the very least, he'll be able to complicate things before the moment of truth comes in the US.''
Glynn is referring to the arrival of the new Republican-led Congress in January. Both Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and House Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich of Georgia have called for a pullout of United Nations peacekeepers, the lifting of a UN arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims, and possible airstrikes against Bosnian Serbs.
''The Serbs should be concerned about the US Congress. The Republicans are in the mood to do radical things,'' Glynn says.
The prospects for a deal remain low, with many observers scoffing at Karadzic's offer because he has failed to keep so many promises in the past.
Officials from the Muslim-led Bosnian government have dismissed Karadzic's proposal as an attempt to ''sow confusion'' and divert attention away from the contact-group plan that the Muslims have already accepted. European officials have reacted coolly to the plan, while President Clinton has agreed to back Carter's efforts, analysts say, because he has few other options.
Carter himself remains a big question mark. He has reacted cautiously to the Serb offer, and officials here questioned his knowledge of the region and ability to deal with Karadzic, a former psychiatrist. Some European leaders have expressed concern that Carter will be manipulated by the Serbs and end up embarrassing the contact group nations -- the US, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia -- by agreeing to a plan they cannot support.
''If he is well-briefed and he sticks to the contact group plan, he will do well,'' says one Western diplomat. ''The important thing is that he keep to the plan.''
But some warn that tough-talking Western diplomats who find themselves sinking deeper and deeper into a humiliating Bosnia quagmire may find a Carter-brokered, Serb-friendly settlement too tempting to pass up.
''I think there's a general awareness that some form of a concession is the only logical route given the much-debilitated Western ability to pressure the Serbs,'' Glynn says. ''Unlike some people, I wouldn't just write this off completely.''