BUDAPEST, JAN. 8 -- Hungary and Kuwait moved to adjust to the new realities of East Europe's oil market with an announcement today by Kuwaiti Oil Minister Rashid Salem Al-Ameeri that Kuwait Petroleum Corp. is considering an investment of more than $100 million to help modernize Hungary's outdated oil-refining industry.
The project could blossom into a broader scenario in which Kuwait becomes a key oil supplier to Hungary and, at the same time, uses Hungary as a base to refine and distribute petroleum products in the region, according to Kuwaiti officials. Their ideas clearly reflect optimism that Iraq's occupation of Kuwait's oil fields will end soon.
The refinery project stems from the sudden reordering of Eastern Europe's vast oil market following drastic cutbacks in Soviet deliveries and a switch to hard-currency payments. Eastern Europe, reliant during the past 40 years on underpriced crude from the Soviet Union, now must buy most of its oil from OPEC countries at world prices.
The financial burden has strained the region's new governments as they make the painful transition from communism to capitalism. Bulgaria, unable to pay for oil imports, has instituted a two-week moratorium on domestic oil sales, such as gasoline and heating oil.
Hungary, like its neighbors, also is strapped and is trying to negotiate low prices for imported oil from OPEC. It also is trying to modernize its enormous but outmoded refineries, which are excessively expensive to operate, produce a limited range of oil products and are environmentally unsound.
The emergence of Eastern Europe as a new market for OPEC oil and investment comes as the exiled Kuwaiti regime is looking for new partners. Kuwaiti officials, assuming that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will be forced out of their country, said Hungary and other Eastern European countries could take up some of the slack from oil clients that have strayed away during the Iraqi occupation.
The move by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries into Eastern Europe was underscored today by the Kuwaiti oil minister, who signed a $6 million joint-venture accord to modernize and operate 17 gas stations in Hungary, which will be renamed "Q8," as an initial step toward establishing a nationwide chain. It is the Kuwaitis' first oil-related investment here.
"Our new joint venture ... is among the first of what I hope will be many cooperative arrangements between our countries," oil minister Al-Ameeri said, adding that the emir of Kuwait has instructed him to expand investments in Eastern Europe, which has joined the anti-Iraq coalition. He said Kuwaiti economic officials now are in touch with the Polish and Czechoslovak governments.
Al-Ameeri said a feasibility study is being conducted about the modernization of one of Hungary's four oil refineries -- three of which were built before World War II. He said the cost of the project would be in excess of $100 million, and one of his aides said the study would be completed within three months.
If the project gets past the feasibility study, Hungarian and Kuwaiti officials foresee the possibility of a broad accord in which Hungary purchases oil from Kuwait at preferential rates, refines it and re-exports some of it in Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the Soviet Union.
Kuwait Petroleum Corp. operates three refineries in Italy, Holland and Denmark, Kuwaiti officials said.
Hungary's oil imports from the Soviet Union declined to about 31.5 million barrels in 1990 from about 42.5 million barrels a year earlier. So far, the Soviet Union has agreed to supply only 7 million barrels of oil for 1991, although Hungarian officials hope to obtain about 10.5 million additional barrels through separate agreements with the Soviet republics.
The Soviet shortfall -- which will be at least 14 million barrels and could be as much as 24.5 million barrels -- is being offset mostly by imports from Arab members of OPEC and delivered through a pipeline from a port in Yugoslavia, according to officials here. Soviet oil is delivered via a pipeline from the Soviet Union.
A Kuwaiti official traveling with Al-Ameeri said his government eventually could supply up to 50 percent of Hungary's imported oil. He said the Kuwaiti government, once it is back in power, aims to sell up to 10 percent of its oil exports to Eastern European countries.
Al-Ameeri also said the Iraqi occupation has cost Kuwait about $6 billion in lost oil revenue, and he said the Iraqis have stripped major equipment from oil refineries and looted storehouses of spare parts and chemicals. He said Kuwait will have to "spend a lot of money" to repair the damage when it regains control.