BUDAPEST, Hungary - For decades Hungary was one of Eastern Europe's most democratic nations, leading former Soviet countries in adopting the political and economic norms of the free world.
But a series of restrictive laws passed by the new populist, center-right government is sparking widespread concerns about Hungary's democratic credentials as it prepares to assume the presidency of the European Union on Saturday and become the EU's public face for the next six months.
A media law passed this month allows a handpicked authority to take newspapers and broadcast outlets to court and seek fines of up to $1 million for reports it considers unbalanced.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his cabinet also have curtailed the powers of the respected constitutional court. And they are seeking to push out the head of the traditionally independent central bank in a struggle over who controls fiscal policy of the deeply indebted nation.
The media law has come under the strongest criticism from other EU nations, with Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn saying the law "raises the question whether such a country is worthy of leading the EU."
German Deputy Foreign Minister Werner Hoyer warned of "serious concern if there is only the smallest suspicion" of media freedoms being restricted, and a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that her government was following the media law "with great attention."
Orban is defiant, telling Hungarian TV last week that despite foreign criticism, "we are not even considering" changing the media law.
That comment is not surprising. It was Orban who said that "Hungary shouldn't have to adapt to the European Union; the EU should adapt to Hungary," during his first term as prime minister 11 years ago, as Hungary was still seeking EU membership.
Laszlo L. Simon, a member of Orban's FIDESZ party and the head of parliament's Cultural and Media Committee, told the state news agency MTI Wednesday that the foreign criticism was a "European circus," stoked by the continent's Socialist parties.
Orban sailed into power again seven months ago after defeating an unpopular Socialist government with a more than two-thirds majority.
Critics have accused him of seeking a one-party system, particularly after he said this year that he envisioned Hungary being run by a "major ruling party, a centrally dominated political power capable of tackling national issues" without the distractions of "constant [political] debate."
Insiders, meanwhile, say that senior officials of the European Commission - the EU government - are extremely displeased both with Orban's deeds and defiant words.
Laszlo Kovacs, the EU's former commissioner for taxation and customs union, says that former colleagues "were privately very critical" during his recent visit to the Belgian capital, which is also the EU's headquarters.
"The general tone was that 'the Hungarian government should refrain from sending arrogant messages to Brussels,' " says Kovacs, who has served as Hungarian foreign minister and is now deputy head of the opposition Socialist Party.
Major European newspapers are less circumspect.
"What can Orban, shackler of the media, say about human rights and media freedoms in Belarus, in Russia, in China and elsewhere?" wrote the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau. "He can't say a thing, he can't even utter a peep."