Hungary PM criticizes Ukraine, says no rush to ratify Sweden's NATO bid

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By Boldizsar Gyori and Krisztina Than

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary will not support Ukraine in any issue in international affairs until the language rights of ethnic Hungarians there are restored, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told parliament on Monday.

Orban also said Hungary was in no rush to ratify Sweden's NATO accession, flagging a further delay in a process that has been stranded in parliament since last year. Sweden's membership bid is on hold pending approval from Hungary and Turkey.

Hungary clashed with Ukraine over what it says are curbs on the rights of roughly 150,000 ethnic Hungarians to use their native tongue, especially in education, after Kyiv passed a law in 2017 restricting the use of minority languages in schools.

"They want to transform (Hungarian schools) into Ukrainian schools and if that does not work they want to close them," nationalist premier Orban said in his speech, adding that his government would fight for the rights of ethnic Hungarians in western Ukraine.

"We do not support Ukraine in any issue in the international scene until it restores the laws that guarantee the rights of Hungarians."

Orban's remarks come after EU chief Ursula von der Leyen set out a vision of an enlarged European Union that would include Ukraine earlier this month. EU countries are due to decide in December whether to allow Ukraine to begin accession negotiations - a move that would require unanimous backing of all the 27 countries in the bloc.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said after his election in 2019 that he believes it is necessary to prepare a draft law to protect the rights of minorities, particularly in the religious and linguistic spheres.

Getting the go-ahead for EU membership talks would be widely seen as a victory for Kyiv in its conflict with Moscow as it seeks not only to repel Russian forces but also to free itself from Russian geopolitical influence and strengthen ties with the West.

DELAY IN SWEDEN NATO BID

Hungary is a member of NATO and opposes Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but Orban, in power since 2010, has cultivated close relations with Russia and held back from criticising President Vladimir Putin. Hungary has refused to ship weapons to Ukraine.

Orban said Hungary was not in a rush to approve Sweden's bid to join NATO and that there was no threat to Sweden's security. Budapest has cited what it called undue allegations by Swedish politicians that it had eroded democratic rights.

"I wonder if there is something urgent that would force us to ratify Sweden's NATO bid. I cannot see any such circumstance," Orban said.

Orban told parliament on Monday that a plan by Brussels to wean Europe off Russian energy went against the interests of Europe and Hungary. Hungary is heavily exposed to Russian oil and gas supplies, but Orban said it had taken steps to diversify its supplies, citing recent talks with Qatar, Turkey and Azerbaijan on future gas shipments.

(Reporting by Boldizsar Gyori and Krisztina Than in BUDAPEST and Pavel Polityuk in KYIV; editing by Philippa Fletcher)