A HOUSANDS of miles separate United Nations headquarters from the wars raging in the Balkans. Yet the scope and pace of the UN's deepening involvement sometimes makes it seem as if the conflicts are just next door.
While the UN grapples with challenges to its humanitarian mission on the ground, two sets of peace talks are expected to get under way in earnest in New York as the weekend approaches:
* The interrupted talks on the political future of Bosnia-Herzegovina will resume, with the map of Bosnia's future as the central focus. The discussions will have the added input of United States Special Envoy Reginald Bartholomew and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly Churkin.
* Talks between Serb leaders from the Krajina region of Croatia and Croatian officials will try to resolve problems raised by Zagreb's offensive into that region last month and to find a way UN peacekeeping plans in Croatia can be implemented.
The original plan, put forth almost a year ago by UN mediator Cyrus Vance and agreed to in the context of a cease-fire, called on the UN to disband and disarm Serb militias in UN-protected areas and help Croatian refugees return there.
Croatian officials say specific deadlines must be set to get the job done, and all UN-protected areas must be returned to Croatian control. They say Serbs would get firm human rights guarantees.
Serb leaders in the protected areas, who stole back many of the weapons they had stored with UN guards when Croats overran UN cease-fire lines in January, say they do not trust Zagreb and they do not consider their enclaves as part of Croatia. Before leaving for the talks early this week, Goran Hadzic, president of the self-proclaimed Serb Republic of Krajina, said, "We are going to New York to explain that we cannot live together with the Croats."
The UN Security Council will follow progress in both the Bosnia and the Croatia talks. Mr. Vance and his European Community counterpart, Lord David Owen, are said to be still hopeful the Council might endorse their Bosnia peace plan as early as the middle of next week.
They hope the presence of the US, which has not considered their map for Bosnia fair enough to the Muslims, and the Russian Federation, which has strong religious and ethnic ties with the Serbs, may speed progress.
One sure Council move this week will be the extension until March 31 of the mandate, due to expire this weekend, of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Croatia. But further renewal of the UN mandate for the more than 13,000 troops in Croatia is much in question. As one Council diplo-mat says, "The Croatians must agree to the move, and they're not exactly ecstatic about it."
The Council also is expected to consider a detailed proposal from France to establish an international tribunal for war crimes committed in former Yugoslavia.
Another top UN concern in the region is the decision last week by the Bosnian government and local officials to stop distribution of relief aid to Sarajevo and Tuzla until UN convoys do a better job of getting aid through Serb roadblocks to Muslims under siege in eastern Bosnia.
Jose-Maria Mendiluce, head of the UN effort in the former Yugoslavia, called the move "blackmail," saying all three Bosnian armies had harassed convoys. But for four days, Serb commanders blocked two aid convoys on their way to besieged Muslims in eastern Bosnia, and the UN resolved to keep them on the road until they were allowed through.
The Council last fall authorized peacekeepers in Bosnia to use "all necessary means" to get aid through. Yet UN officials in Bosnia interpret that as authorizing self-defense rather than offensive action. Bosnia's government has long prodded the UN to take stronger military action to stop Serb aggression.
Last week US Secretary of State Warren Christopher said the US was ready to take "quite determined steps" to see that aid gets through.
Yet Robin Remington, a Yugoslav expert at the University of Missouri, says a stronger UN mandate is not the answer. "They've got a tough mandate - they don't want to follow it," she says. "If you begin to fight about getting aid in, then the issue becomes the fighting, and no aid moves."
One immediate help in the Bosnian aid situation was the announcement this week by Canada that at least 1,200 of its troops will be moved from Croatia to Bosnia to open relief routes and escort aid convoys.
Meanwhile, those discussing Bosnia's political future here and other analysts agree that it is vital to find a solution all parties will agree to uphold. "I don't think we can go in and impose a peace that would be durable on an independent basis once we leave," says John Moore, director of the International Institute at George Mason University.
"I think the parties really have to come to an agreement," concurs Fred Morrison who teaches international law at the University of Minnesota. Only then can the UN or NATO enforce the plan evenhandedly, he says.