- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The United States and the European Union have fallen victim to a “kind of hysteria” in their reactions to the new constitution enacted this year by Hungary’s ruling nationalist, a leading spokesman for the Central European nation says.

Criticism of judicial, media, banking and religious laws pushed through by the Fidesz Party’s parliamentary supermajority got so “fierce” that Budapest is now a “whipping boy” of the Western media, said Zoltan Kovacs, Hungary’s state secretary for government communication.

“And being a whipping boy is never good, because we’ve found that whatever we do is being criticized,” he told The Washington Times.

While tumult elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Greece, dominates headlines, Hungary remains quietly in the cross hairs of the EU, which it joined in 2004.

The EU has threatened to block $600 million in development aid and appears bent on disputing portions of Hungary’s new constitution before the European Court of Justice.

Some have gone so far to say Hungary is devolving into a Russian-styled democracy where political power is more centralized than in Western Europe.

The principal concern is that Hungary’s remodeled laws signal a backpedaling on democratic advances made since the nation emerged from communism two decades ago, said Heather A. Conley, head of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic International Studies.

“During the past two years, we’ve seen a number of significant and fundamental changes to the law,” Mrs. Conley said. “Whether it’s the banking sector, the media or the judiciary, they deserve very close scrutiny and some important corrections.”

“How and if and when the Hungarian government wishes to make those corrections is obviously up to them,” she added. “But I think both the U.S. and Europe have laid out in great detail their concerns and would like to see some response from Budapest.”

International civil rights groups have also weighed in, most notably Freedom House, which downgraded Hungary from “Free” to “Partly Free” in its 2012 worldwide report on press freedom.

“Throughout 2010, the Fidesz Party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban used its parliamentary supermajority to pass numerous mutually reinforcing legislative changes, tightening government control of the broadcast media and extending regulation to print and online media,” Freedom House said on its website.

An official European inquiry, meanwhile, is examining the extent to which Hungary’s new laws may violate EU law. In addition to the media regulation, the EU has raised questions about Hungary’s move to lower the mandatory retirement age of judges to 62 from 70.

The EU appeared last month to soften threats to withhold development funds, citing positive steps taken by Budapest to ease the nation’s deficit. But an EU probe remains open into the independence of Hungary’s new central bank.

The new constitution has also drawn the ire of Washington.

In a letter to Mr. Orban last December, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said U.S. officials were “deeply concerned” about new parliamentary powers over which religious institutions could receive state funding.

“Outside observers note the rules for religions to gain recognition are prohibitively cumbersome, and the requirement for two-thirds approval by Parliament unnecessarily politicizes decisions surrounding a basic human right,” Mrs. Clinton wrote.

Such complaints are off the mark, according to Mr. Kovacs, who came to Washington last month to combat “distorted” views of Hungary’s new laws.

He called on world leaders to recognize that, while Hungary is a truly committed EU member, “we’re trying to solve our problems without help.”

“Give us a chance,” he said.

The new churches law, for instance, is less political than a means to clean up a sloppy system that had allowed 300 churches to receive state funds, he said.

The new media law, Mr. Kovacs added, is similarly designed to clean up mismanagement.

“It’s easy to suggest, from an American point of view, that the media law is something evil,” he said, but it’s less about curbing freedom than “rethinking” poorly structured regulatory bodies.

Similar reasoning justifies the new judicial law, he added, explaining that the retirement age for judges was lowered to combat an overly socialistic pension system.

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