Hungary's foreign minister travels to Russia for energy expo

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary's top diplomat traveled to Russia on Monday to take part in an international forum on nuclear energy, underscoring his country's persistently close ties with Moscow amid the war in Ukraine.

Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto gave a speech at the opening plenary session of the two-day ATOMEXPO international forum in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, according to the event's website.

The forum, titled “Nuclear Spring,” is aimed at the global nuclear industry and serves as a “business platform for discussing the current state of the nuclear industry and setting future trends,” the website says.

In a post on Facebook early Monday, Szijjarto said his appearance at the expo would include talks with the head of Russia's state atomic energy company, Rosatom, over a planned Russia-backed expansion of Hungary's only nuclear power plant. He said the project was “in Hungary’s national strategic and national security interests.”

“The global energy crisis means that it is of unprecedented importance for a country to be able to produce the energy it needs. The Paks nuclear power plant plays a key role in our energy security,” Szijjarto wrote.

The trip was the latest sign of Hungary's continuing diplomatic and trade ties with Russia which have confounded some European leaders as the war in Ukraine nears nine months. Szijjarto was last in Russia in October for natural gas negotiations with Russian state energy company Gazprom, a visit Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky called “scandalous” since some of those present were “people who are on a (European Union) sanctions list.”

Hungary's government under populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban has pursued close diplomatic and economic ties with Moscow, and sought to protect its supply of Russian oil and gas — on which it is heavily dependent — as other European countries have aimed to cut off their Russian energy imports to punish the Kremlin for its war in Ukraine.

Orban, considered Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest ally in the EU, has lobbied vigorously against EU sanctions on Moscow, arguing they have led to skyrocketing energy prices that are hurting European economies more than they are Russia.

On Monday, Szijjarto insisted that “no sanctions of any kind can limit Hungary’s energy supply, since one of the basic principles of our country’s energy strategy is that the energy mix is an exclusive national competence,” according to Hungarian state news agency MTI.

Last week, Szijjarto met with Rosatom chief Alexei Likhachev in Uzbekistan at a summit of the Organization of Turkic States to discuss the Paks nuclear project, a 12 billion-euro ($12.3 billion) expansion involving the construction of two new nuclear reactors. The work is to be carried out by Rosatom and financed with a 10 billion-euro ($10.2 billion) loan from a Russian state bank.

Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on the project in 2014, but it has gone through numerous delays and permit issues. Critics of the project say it makes Hungary more financially and politically dependence on Russia and poses environmental and safety risks.

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Justin Spike, The Associated Press