- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Rooted in West

Hungary’s foreign minister scoffed at analysts who fear that Russia is using energy to coax the former Soviet client state back into Moscow’s sphere of influence and insisted that her nation is firmly rooted in the West.

“We are definitely not slipping into the Russian sphere. It is an absurdity,” Kinga Goncz told Embassy Row on a Washington visit last week. “It is clear that Hungary belongs to the European Union and NATO.”

Her government faced criticism in March when it broke with the EU goal of developing its own gas pipeline by joining the Russian energy giant, Gazprom, in building a pipeline from Turkey to Hungary. Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany defended the decision, pointing out that the Russian project is an extension of an existing pipeline while the EU project, which has yet to begin, is still a pipe-dream.

“If someone could say to me definitely that you would have gas by a certain time, fine,” he told the International Herald-Tribune. “But you can only heat the apartments with gas and not with dreams.”

Hungary gets about 80 percent of its natural gas from Russia, while the European Union as a whole gets about 40 percent from Moscow.

Mrs. Goncz told Embassy Row that she was visiting Washington primarily for talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. They last met at the United Nations a year ago. The foreign minister said they had little time to discuss common issues because of the bustle of diplomatic activities at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.

“It’s important to meet personally,” Mrs. Goncz said.

The top item on her agenda with Miss Rice concerned the contentious U.S. visa-waiver program, which allowed citizens from some countries to visit the United States for up to 90 days without first obtaining visas.

Hungary is currently excluded, chiefly because U.S. consular officers reject too many visa requests from Hungarians. Mostly these rejections deal with younger applicants who cannot demonstrate that they have a job, property or other financial incentives that will ensure they return to Hungary, Mrs. Goncz said.

Congress recently raised the acceptable rejection rate to 10 percent of visa applications, but Hungary’s refusal rate is 11 percent.

“It is very difficult for people to accept that they have to have a visa to travel to the United States,” Mrs. Goncz said, explaining that Hungarians say they deserve the visa-free privilege because of their strong support for U.S. foreign policy, especially in the war on terrorism.

Hungarian troops are due to take over security at Kabul airport in Afghanistan and are helping train Iraqi forces in Baghdad.

The foreign minister also plans to update Miss Rice on Hungary’s efforts to promote democracy in Cuba and discuss the future of Kosovo, which clamors for independence from Serbia.

She also met with Paul Rosenzweig, deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security, and with Nancy Brinker, a former ambassador to Hungary and now chief of protocol.

Restore democracy

A top U.S. diplomat yesterday urged Bangladesh to speed its return to democracy, following a decision by the army-backed government to lift bans on indoor political gatherings.

“Full democracy is vital to the country. Full participation in the electoral process is also vital to democracy,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement after a meeting between John A. Gastright Jr., deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asian Affairs, and government leaders in the capital, Dhaka.

Bangladesh imposed a state of emergency in January after months of political violence and canceled elections.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@ washingtontimes.com.

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