IN what could set a precedent for future United Nations peacekeeping operations, Croatia is insisting that it control which UN forces monitor its borders with Serbia and Bosnia.
The unusual demand, which follows Croatia's earlier threat to remove all UN peacekeepers by June 30, could undermine the credibility of UN peacekeeping operations and may even smack of racism, according to senior UN officials here.
''They only want white people guarding their borders,'' says a senior UN official. ''From our point of view, it seems like basic Croatian racism.''
UN officials point to a series of unsuccessful requests since January by Croatian President Franjo Tudjman that troops only from NATO nations, then troops only from Western Europe, and finally troops only from the ''contact group'' -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia -- be allowed to stay in Croatia. Most of those nations are predominantly white.
Under a new deal brokered by the US in early March, about half of the 15,000 peacekeepers in Croatia will be allowed to stay and police a tenuous truce between government troops and rebel Serbs. Draft UN Security Council resolutions on the mandate and composition of the new force are being circulated behind closed doors this week at the UN, but Croatian officials insist they control the makeup of that new force.
''We need troops that come from countries that have experience, equipment, and are trained for the new task,'' Mario Nobilo, Croatia's ambassador to the UN told reporters after a meeting between President Tudjman and UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali on March 17.
Western diplomats based in Zagreb caution that UN officials are injecting race where it doesn't belong. But UN officials complain that Croatia wants no new peacekeepers from developing nations and that Kenyan, Nepalese, and Jordanian battalions serving in Croatia should leave.
''The mayor [of the Croatian town] of Osijek has been making some extremely racist statements recently'' to UN field workers, the UN official says, ''that the Africans and the Asians should be sent to Bosnia.''
Very few good men?
Senior Croatian officials say their requests for an all-European or NATO force has nothing to do with race and everything to do with effectiveness. The new, smaller UN force will take on the additional duty of monitoring 25 to 30 border posts to ''deter'' Croatian Serb military forces from crossing into or being resupplied by Serb-dominated areas in neighboring Bosnia and Serbia.
''We're looking for people that are properly equipped and trained and most of all have a new attitude,'' says a senior Croatian diplomat. ''We want things enforced.''
Senior UN officials here argue that the complaints from the Croatian government, which first requested that all Russian and Ukrainian peacekeepers be forced to leave and has now decided that both groups can stay, go beyond effectiveness.
Russian and Ukrainian peacekeepers in Croatia and Bosnia are rumored to be engaged in massive corruption -- including selling fuel to rebel Serbs in both countries, but UN investigations of alleged corruption have been withheld from the press.
''If it's that anyone who is corrupt has got to go, that's one thing. The Russians are as corrupt as anybody,'' says the senior UN official. ''But it seems if you're powerful and corrupt, you can stay.''
The dispute also reflects the long-running UN practice of allowing rich nations to largely support peacekeeping financially, while poor countries provide troops for potentially hazardous duties. Critics have called that racist, but UN officials -- dependent on rich countries -- say they have no choice.
'Desperate to stay'
UN officials here argue that reverting to a European-only force in Croatia would undermine the UN's credibility and future peacekeeping operations.
''One of the strengths of a UN force is that soldiers from outside the region can be brought in and not be accused of having a historical bias,'' says Chris Gunness, a UN spokesman in Zagreb. ''Any attempt to subvert that policy sets a precedent that may cause some trouble with the security council.''
But other UN officials here fear that the West, eager to keep UN troops in Croatia to avert a wider war in the region, may cave in to the Croatian demand. ''We're kind of desperate to stay,'' says one UN official, who asked not to be named, ''so we may be more flexible than we should be.''
The key, UN officials say, is the United States. American officials here say the US opposes the Croatian request, but UN officials fear that the US may not be willing to force the Croatians to back down again. ''I've got a horrible feeling [the Croatian request] won't be rejected,'' says a UN official. ''Just like the Americans forced this horrible new mandate down our throat, they'll force this on us too.''