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Hungary-Croatia ties weakest on energy, minister says

Croatia and Hungary's relations are weakest in the field of energy, Peter Szijjarto, the minister of foreign affairs and trade, told Croatian news agency HINA in an interview published on Tuesday.

Szijjarto attended on Monday the inauguration of a local primary school in Petrinja that had been damaged in an earthquake and rebuilt with 8.7 billion forints (EUR 22.5m) of Hungarian government support.

He called the fully rebuilt school “proof of the friendship between Hungary and Croatia and their people”.

In the interview to HINA, Szijjarto said the two countries’ relations were strongest on the protection of the identity and cultural heritage of each other’s national minorities, which he said “could be used as a benchmark in Europe.” At the same time, energy cooperation is the “weakest link” in bilateral ties, he added.

Szijjarto said he understood that regaining ownership of the INA oil company was a key issue for the Croatian government, but “this should not be considered as an issue between the two states”. Talks on this, he said, should be carries out with Hungarian oil and gas company MOL, which is a Hungarian company, but not state-owned.

The minister said he had told his Croatian partners on multiple occasions that Hungary understood that this was a problem, but it had to be kept separate from every other aspect of bilateral cooperation. He added that the Croatian government seemed not to be ready for this.

According to MOL, Croatian oil pipeline operator Janaf was charging a “disproportionately high and unfair” transit fee for its services.

Szijjarto said that the situation should not be “ideologised or politicised” because the matter was a technical one. Hungary, he noted, can only buy natural gas from Russia via Ukraine or from Janaf operating the Croatian section of the Adria pipeline.

Janaf does not have the capacities to be able to make up for a potential shutdown of the pipeline delivering oil from Russia, Szijjarto said. He said that if there had been a “real will” to increase the pipeline’s capacity, there would have been progress in the two years since the start of the war in Ukraine, “but nothing has happened”, adding that Budapest was concerned by this.

He pointed out that supply security was a key issue for Hungary, and Janaf had only offered a three-month agreement and raised prices significantly since the start of the war.

As regards European Union enlargement, Szijjarto said the project would remain incomplete until all Western Balkan countries are EU members. Hungary believes the EU needs the Western Balkans more than the other way round, he added.

He said the bloc was suffering from losing its competitiveness, war fatigue and from becoming less relevant in global politics. Enlargement would give the EU “freshness” and new momentum, he said, adding that Hungary will put significant emphasis on speeding up the process during its presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of the year.

Hungary has a vested interest in the stability of the Western Balkans, so the Hungarian government opposes EU sanctions against Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, Szijjarto said. He said European sanctions had never been effective anywhere, so there was no point in sanctioning a democratically elected leader as that “would only make the situation worse”. Instead, Budapest urges dialogue, he said, adding that his discussions with Dodik made it clear that he was committed to a European path for his country.

The minister said the acceleration of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU membership should be used as a “common denominator” that would unite the country’s leaders and nationalities and ease tensions.

Meanwhile, he said Serbia “can join the European Union easily tomorrow”, and as the “biggest and strongest” country in the region, there could be no stability in the Western Balkans without it.

He said Serbia was a proud nation, adding that the “bureaucracy in Brussels” should change its approach to the country, and that instead of “lecturing”, they should communicate “eye to eye”.

He said linking Serbia’s EU membership to the normalisation of ties with Kosovo was unfair to Belgrade, arguing that this was not solely up to Serbia.

Meanwhile, Szijjarto expressed disagreement with recent remarks by certain Western military leaders, citing Denmark’s defence minister as saying that a Russian attack on a NATO country in a few years could not be ruled out.

“Why would they do so? NATO is much stronger than Russia … Why would one attack someone who is much stronger? Why would that make sense for Russia?” Szijjarto said. “I do not see Russia as a security threat to any NATO member state at all.”

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