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Hungary threatens to block Ukraine's EU progress in language row

KIEV/BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary said on Tuesday it will block its neighbour Ukraine from integrating further with the European Union in retaliation for Kiev’s decision to end teaching in minority languages including Hungarian.

Ukraine passed a law on Sept. 5 obliging teachers to use only Ukrainian in secondary schools - a move that has already drawn protests from its biggest neighbour, Russia, as well as Romania.

Kiev’s government said it wanted to integrate minorities into society and make it easier for them to get public sector jobs.

But Ukraine’s neighbours have seen it as a slight and said it will lead to discrimination.

“We guarantee that all of this will be painful for Ukraine in the future,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told national news agency MTI.

Hungary would veto any EU measures that could foster Ukrainian integration, he said. Budapest was previously a strong supporter of giving Ukrainian citizens visa-free travel to the EU.

Language is a highly sensitive topic across the region - Ukrainian was sidelined when Ukraine was under the sway of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine’s former pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, presented himself as a champion of Russian speakers, until a popular uprising forced him to leave in 2014.

Kiev has since been looking for ways to shake off Russia’s influence, particularly since Moscow’s annexation of its Crimea region and support for eastern separatists. The September education law reversed a bill brought in under Yanukovich and other laws require a certain percentage of music, news and films on radio and TV to be in the Ukrainian language.

Ukraine’s education minister, Liliia Hrynevych, called Hungary’s threat “extremely disappointing” and said ethnic Hungarian children could still learn Hungarian at school.

“We need more mutual understanding, instead of ultimatums,” she told TV broadcaster 112.

Romania’s president, Klaus Iohannis, cancelled a visit to Ukraine over the issue and withdrew an invitation for the speaker of Ukraine’s parliament to visit Romania.

Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement on September 12 that the law was designed to hurt the interests of millions of Russian-speakers.

More than 40 percent of Ukrainians still speak Russian at home, according to a 2016 survey by the Kiev-based Razumkov Centre think-tank.

Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, Luiza Ilie in Bucharest and Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Andrew Heavens