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Hungarian Line on Croatia Riles EU Partners

Budapest's decision to break ranks over Croatian accession underlines the fact that it sees itself as an increasingly important player in the Balkans.
By Neil Barnett

The delay in Croatia's accession talks with the European Union is causing growing friction within the union, as several of its neighbours lobby in support of Zagreb's application against strong opposition from Britain and others.


While most of the debates have taken place in closed committee rooms in Brussels, Hungary's prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, has infuriated Britain, France and Germany by publicly disputing their policy on Croatia.


In March, EU foreign ministers decided to delay talks on Croatia's accession, saying Zagreb was not fully cooperating with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY.


They specifically accused Croatia of not doing enough to secure the arrest of the former Croatian army general, Ante Gotovina, indicted by the Hague court for the death and displacement of Serb civilians in the 1995 offensive, known as Operation Oluja (Storm).


Croatia's prime minister, Ivo Sanader, in March said Zagreb was not in a position to arrest Gotovina. "According to all our information, he is not in Croatia. This is the only and full truth," he said.


But while Britain, above all, disputes this assertion, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia and Slovenia have taken the opposite line and strongly backed Croatia's case for immediate talks.


None, however, has gone as far as Hungary's leader who told the BBC last week that the EU decision against Croatia was based on rumours and allegations and was not supported by any evidence.


Gyurcsany has made similar, though less direct statements, several times in recent months, including on visits to the Netherlands and Sweden. But it was the comments to the BBC, flatly rejecting the Anglo-French line, which caused most irritation.


One diplomat, from an EU country that has been instrumental in delaying Croatia's talks, told IWPR, "Countries can have different assessments. But Hungary has chosen publicly to say it accepts the Croatian version of events against the assessments of The Hague, which are backed by a UN Security Council resolution as well as by Hungary's EU and NATO partners."


Earlier this year, several EU governments presented Hungary with intelligence assessments supporting their case, but Gyurcsany has dismissed the information as little more than rumours and allegations.


Dr Istvan Gyarmati, a former Hungarian ambassador and member of the International Balkans Commission, said Budapest was right to voice scepticism about the assessments, especially in the light of the fiasco over intelligence on Iraq. "It is not credible enough as it stands," he said.


On a smaller scale, the row replicates the issue of Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction, WMD. Doubt is being cast on intelligence material that is vaguely supported. And, following the failure to find WMD in Iraq, doubters are in a stronger position than they might have been a few years ago.


Victor Polgari, Hungary's foreign ministry spokesman, said, "Hungary, together with a few other EU members, is of the opinion that accession talks with Croatia should begin without delay."


Hungary's position is that over recent months, Croatia has done much to enhance its cooperation with the ICTY. Furthermore, it says there is no conclusive evidence that Croatia is not doing all it can to get hold of the elusive Gotovina.


Although Hungary's views endorse Croatia's version of events over that of some of its EU partners, Polgari denied that Hungary was slighting them in Croatia's favour.


Ironically, within EU institutions, Austria, not Hungary, has normally taken the lead in lobbying for Croatia. Diplomats regard such internal lobbying as a normal part of the union's business; it is public breaches that they view as not "communautaire".


Gyurcsany is relatively inexperienced in such diplomacy and has been outspoken before. In February, following a football match between Hungary and Saudi Arabia, he congratulated the team for showing such courage against what he called Saudi "terrorists". Saudi Arabia's response was to withdraw its ambassador.


Some strategists muse that Budapest's championing of Zagreb may reflect a certain nostalgia for the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Croatia was closely linked to Hungary.


Dr Gyarmati, on the other hand, says Hungary has an important role to play as an advocate for Balkan countries in the same way that Poland has lobbied for Ukraine.


Either way, Hungary's economic influence in the Balkans is growing fast. The Hungarian oil company MOL and the country's leading bank, OTP, are both expanding in the Balkans.


MOL already owns a stake in the Croatian oil company INA, which it may seek to increase in the coming years, while in April OTP expanded its stake in one of Croatia’s medium-sized banks, Nova Banka, to over 96 per cent.


Earlier this year the chairman of OTP, Lszlo Wolf, announced the company had ambitious plans to expand into Romania, Serbia and Turkey.


Not only is Hungary an increasingly important player in Balkan business, but its championing of Balkan countries in the EU is likely to be in the interests of the likes of MOL, OTP.


For Croatia, the current delay in talks is unlikely to seriously damage its EU accession prospects. The country has already secured candidate status and Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner, in March, confirmed that he wanted "to underline that Croatia's future is in the European family".


"Croatia is a candidate country, nothing has changed in that regard. Croatia has also made plenty of progress, lots of progress, and I hope that the last stumbling block could be cleared soon," he said.


But until that stumbling block is cleared, EU policy seems unshakeable, and no amount of lobbying by Croatia's supporters looks likely to change it.


As one diplomatic source told IWPR, "Full cooperation with ICTY is a basic pillar of EU policy towards the Balkans. Several member states feel very strongly about this. The [accession] process is built on rigorous conditionality. For it to work we need a success, but not at any price


Neil Barnett is a foreign affairs writer: www.neil-barnett.com


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