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News 03 Feb 16

Croatia Acts to Heal Breach With Hungary

Croatia's new Foreign Minister has set off for Budapest as the new centre-right government moves to repair its rocky ties with Hungary - burdened by rows over refugees and over INA.

Sven Milekic
BIRN
Zagreb
Miro Kovac. | Photo: BETAPHOTO/HINA/Daniel KASAP/DS

Croatia's new Foreign Minister, Miro Kovac, has made his first official visit to neighbouring Hungary, with which Croatia has had troubled relations in the recent past.

Ties between the right-wing Hungarian government of Viktor Orban and Croatia's former centre-left government deteriorated during the recent refugee crisis, after Hungary in October erected a wire fence and closed the border to refugees coming from Croatia.

Another ongoing problem is the arbitration process between the Hungarian energy company MOL and the Croatian state over management rights to the Croatian energy company INA, in which MOL controls just over 49 per cent of the shares.

The new centre-right government, led by Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, plans to restore once good relations with Hungary.

“With some neighbouring countries - Slovenia, Hungary and Serbia - relations deteriorated due to the refugee crisis. There was a lot of shouting and failures over the past year when the refugee wave reached Croatia,” Kovac said on Tuesday, before departing for Hungary to meet his Hungarian counterpart, Peter Szijjarto.

He said that a priority for the government in Zagreb was to “repair and create stronger relations with our neighbours”.

“Croatia and Hungary are two friendly countries, our friendship is historically strong and on this basis we’ll resolve all the open issues,” Kovac said later in Budapest.

“We want to develop a strong Central European vertical and our friends in Hungary play a very important role in that,” he added.

For his part, Szijjarto said that if Southeastern and Central Europe could not be properly defended from an influx of refugees, “then we’ll be in big problems”.

The Hungarian minister also voiced satisfaction that centre-right political options were now in charge in Croatia. “I am satisfied that their [centre-right] option won in Croatia, and so I congratulate you Miro [Kovac] in particular, as my colleague, and all the members of the new Croatian government,” he added.

Dejan Jovic, professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Zagreb, told BIRN that the new government could certainly improve the relationship with Hungary.

“There are two components to this. The first is ideological, since both countries now are led by governments from the right,” he opined.

“You can even see the foreign press commenting that Croatia is likely to join the club of so-called 'illiberal' democracies of Hungary and Poland,” he added.

Besides the ideological similarity between both governments, especially in terms of resolving the refugee crisis, both countries have similar foreign policy goals, he added.

“Both countries advocate the so called ‘Adriatic-Baltic Vertical”, a branch of which goes through Hungary towards the Black Sea,” he said, adding that all the countries in this region are searching for alternative associations “if things in the EU don’t go well”.

Along with Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Hungary is also a member of the Visegrad group, which advocates joint activities between these countries.

Jovic said that some of these countries are making overtures towards Russia, although not all are united in a common policy on this issue.

While relations with Hungary will probably become better, they will still not be ideal, the professor warned, due to the INA-MOL dispute, “which has created an animosity in the [Croatian] public towards Hungary”, he noted.

During her two-day visit to Hungary last October, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, also coming from the HDZ, was a special guest of a Visegrad Group conference.

At the time, she said that “Croatia does not control its borders”, thereby criticizing the way the then centre-left government was managing the refugee situation and lending support to the  Hungarian government's tougher line.

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