UNITED States diplomats, unwilling to use military power to force a settlement in the former Yugoslavia, have devised a plan that is more dependent than ever on the good will of rebel Serbs.
The tentative agreement, announced by US Vice President Al Gore and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman at the World Summit for Social Development here Sunday, would cut the number of United Nations Protections Force (UNPROFOR) troops in Croatia to 5,000.
The troubled UN mission may now have to enforce even more resolutions with 60 percent fewer troops.
''Privately, there's a lot of apprehension because it looks like we'll be dumped with a solution we can't implement, and we'll be scapegoated again,'' says an UNPROFOR official who asked not to be named. ''I think there are going to be huge practical problems with it.''
According to the tentative plan, UN troops will take control of 25 to 30 border-crossing points between Serb-held parts of Croatia and Serb-held parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Border crossings between Serbia proper and a small section of eastern Croatia under rebel-Serb control will also be taken over by the UN.
In the past, the UN has stood by as Croatian Serb soldiers and military equipment have routinely crossed the border into Bosnia to aid a Bosnian Serb-led assault on the Muslim-controlled Bihac pocket. Fearing that peacekeepers would be taken hostage or killed, Western governments and UNPROFOR commanders have refused to use force to halt the Serb border crossings.
In a Monitor interview, US Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith defended the agreement. Mr. Galbraith says the best deal possible was made with Mr. Tudjman. The Croatian leader is increasingly impatient with slow UN and Western diplomatic efforts to get rebel Serbs -- who have declared their own independent ''Republic of Serb Krajina'' -- to rejoin Croatia.''The purpose ... was to keep the UN operation in Croatia to avoid a war,'' Galbraith says. ''This is what was required.''
Croatian officials, who bitterly criticized UNPROFOR as weak and ineffective, are expecting a new get-tough approach from the UN. In an interview, a senior Croatian diplomat says the new UN effort will be given only six months to regain control of the border and make progress on reintegration.
''We want personnel with a different attitude and a very specific mandate,'' the official says. ''Personnel that would be more oriented to first of all establishing control of the borders.''
The new plan will also test whether the West's long-running and much-criticized strategy of relying on Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to deliver peace in the region will work. He may balk at the proposal.
And rebel Serbs, believed to be under Mr. Milosevic's control, and who control nearly one-third of Croatia, have said they will not agree to any change in the UN mandate.
Galbraith says the plan will be implemented, if necessary, without the consent of the Krajina Serbs. But he predicts the Serbs, who are eager to have the UN continue patrolling a tense zone of separation between the two sides, will allow the new border posts to be established.
''They're very keenly interested in a UN presence remaining, and this does that,'' Galbraith says.
''If they want to sabotage it, they can refuse the border patrols, but then they won't have the zone of separation,'' he adds.
How long the elderly Tudjman, who says he is under intense domestic political pressure to take back Serb-held areas by force, will wait remains to be seen. The key factor, diplomats say, is Tudjman's ego.
''Tudjman always has been worried about the history books. He sees himself as the father of an independent and united Croatia,'' says one Western diplomat. ''I think this all has a lot to do with vanity. That may be the key rather than so-called domestic pressure.''