Hungary: Bloody Monday

      "Paranoia strikes deep:

      Into your life it will creep

      It starts when you’re always afraid

      You step out of line, the man come and take you away."

            For What It’s Worth

            Buffalo Springfield, 1967

There is no doubt that October 23, 2006, will not be remembered for what it should have been remembered. Instead of celebrating the 50th anniversary of a special day when people came together in solidarity to share their desire for freedom, the present has turned out to be the exact opposite. Freedom and democracy are mere words with little meaning, the country is split amid competing interests, and the police exercise a form of brutality that only the Stalinist secret police of the past could admire.

That the illegal and heavy-handed methods of the police were responsible for the way in which the events unfolded that day can’t be disputed. Many foreign observers, including a television crew from the ZDF, a German station with past experience in covering protests and civil unrest, admitted that the Hungarian police were exceptionally aggressive.

This aggressiveness could be seen in the aftermath of the violence: over 100 injured, the vast majority being peaceful protesters. Although the authorities point out that there were no life-threatening injuries, this still doesn’t mask the brutality with which the Hungarian police put down the demonstrations. A large number sustained injuries from rubber bullets, many of them with shots to the head. One person was shot in the eye, and an opposition member of parliament not only was shot in the head, but also had several ribs broken. There were also injuries resulting from police on horseback using sabers, with some people sustaining slash wounds to the head.

The government line is that the police are authorized to maintain law and order — at whatever cost. Ironically, this is the exact same line used by dictatorships. If the purpose of the state is to maintain law and order at whatever cost, including risking the lives and security of those for whom the state is supposedly protecting, then one wonders where is the dividing line between a democracy and a dictatorship.

That the Hungarian authorities engineered the violence against peaceful protesters is quite apparent. Moreover, this day of infamy didn’t begin in the late afternoon, but much earlier. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that the Hungarian authorities had planned for it several days in advance.

Careful Planning

In retrospect, the violence engineered by the state had its roots in the so-called compromise of the previous week between the demonstrators in front of parliament and the police. When the president had asked the government not to use force to remove the demonstrators — to which the government agreed — it now seems that the government had no intention on keeping its word. This can be seen in the way in which events subsequently unfolded.

On October 22nd, huge billboards were erected which effectively hid the demonstrators from view. Apparently this wasn’t enough, and in the early hours on October 23rd, the police moved in and forcibly removed the demonstrators. The reason for doing so was that they claimed the protesters had broken the agreement. The authorities maintained that they needed to do a security check of the area and because the protesters didn’t leave the area they were then forcibly removed.

By mid-afternoon, the area formerly occupied by the demonstrators was still sealed off as the security check was "in progress". This was quite strange as the ceremonies involving important foreign dignitaries (the reason for the security check) had already finished. Also, how long do the authorities need to check an area of approximately one thousand square meters?

Yet even after this security check was finally completed, the police didn’t allow anyone close to parliament. This only further irritated many people. Hence, the official anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution basically shut out the general public. Only government and foreign dignitaries were allowed to commemorate an event which took place fifty years ago and, ironically, which was initiated by the general public. In other words, the public was kept away from its own anniversary.

Some point to the flimsy excuse of security arrangements for visiting dignitaries as justification for the Hungarian government keeping its own people at bay. Even so, there was no reason why the ceremonies had to be conducted in front of parliament if security was an issue. A more appropriate venue would have been Hero’s Square. Since the commemoration was for the "Heroes of the Hungarian Revolution", the setting would have been apt. Furthermore, the enigma of demonstrators in front of parliament would have then been easily side-stepped.

That is, if the government was interested in side-stepping the problem in the first place. As the two-month demonstration has been clearly an embarrassment for the government and a thorn in the side of Prime Minister Gyurcsany, it’s quite conceivable that the situation was used as a means to solve an annoying political problem. The expected backlash this would cause was no doubt careful calculated and taken into consideration.

Hence, massive numbers of police were brought up to Budapest from all parts of the country and a huge array of weaponry amassed. Indeed, there have been several reports that police from outside the country were brought in to help out. Moreover, in addition to rubber bullets and sabers, jeeps equipped with rapid-fire tear gas launchers, which can fire up to fifty canisters at a time in rapid succession and at a long distance, were all at the disposal of the police. The tear gas used was exceptionally strong; the day after, people walking in the center of Budapest were still being stung by the lingering gas. In addition to all this, expired cans of tear gas were used as well as what are known as "viper sticks" (telescopic sticks), the latter of which is supposed to be banned from use.

Given the amount of weaponry and the number of police brought in to Budapest, it goes without saying that such preparation requires extensive planning and time to organize. This only reinforces the argument that the disturbances of October 23rd were planned well in advance by the authorities. As a result, when a small group of protesters attempted to force their way back to parliament square where they felt they had a legal right to be, the police used this as a pretext for their massive and very violent crackdown.

It must be remembered that October 23rd marks the day the Hungarian revolution began fifty years ago. Since this revolution was a spontaneous uprising, various events occurred simultaneously throughout Budapest. Therefore, aside from the "official" government-only ceremonies, other non-official commemorations took place at different times and in different parts of the city.

A city full of different groups of people at different places is a nightmare for authorities stricken with paranoia. Hence, the inner city of Budapest was sealed off in such a way that crowds gathered in one area of the city were being directed by the police toward the city center as the various commemorations ended. As a result, those wishing to go home and respected the police instructions soon found themselves herded into one area.

Meanwhile, the handful of demonstrators who tried to force their way toward parliament were beaten back and likewise herded toward the center in the direction of the peaceful protesters — not in the opposite direction as they should have been. Soon, the various different groups were all concentrated into a small area near the city center, which was easier for the authorities to manage. At the same time, the police themselves had also concentrated their manpower and weaponry in the same area.

Bloody Crackdown

Even though the various groups were mixed, the protesters were more or less peaceful. As the police advanced, huge letter blocks which spelled the word "freedom" straddled a main street. It goes without saying that "freedom" on the streets of Budapest was soon torn apart by the Hungarian authorities.

Although there have been vain attempts to blame the crowds for starting the violence, pictures and video clips clearly show that the police initiated the attack, with most of the vandalism and damage caused by the authorities. In one particular case, patrons inside a cafe which had closed its doors in order to keep out the tear gas were roughed up by the police after they had smashed their way into the place, breaking all the windows.

It goes without saying that there was some damage caused by the protesters. Some garbage cans were burned and one or two cars were set alight, but this was well after the police had begun their crackdown. Moreover, these objects were actually used as barricades to try and slow the advance of the police.

The one isolated incident which the authorities continually use as justification for the violence is when a T-34 tank on display, symbolic of the type used in 1956, was successfully started and driven toward the police lines (naturally, it never reached its target as it soon ran out of gas). Although this was obviously done in jest, the authorities nevertheless point to this as one of the main reasons for the massive crackdown. Ironically, the next day museums removed all such weaponry from their displays for fear that they might somehow be used during a demonstration. This only illustrates the paranoia and fear which now is common in Budapest and elsewhere in Hungary.

As the crowds were forced down a main street toward the Danube river, for almost an hour a standoff ensued between the police and protesters. The demonstrators simply shouted slogans, some saying "we want peace", and waving flags. Toward midnight the standoff ended when the police decided to advance against the final group of protesters who were trapped on a bridge.

Why the police decided to breakup the demonstrations when in effectnothing happened is unclear. One thing is for certain: at no point were the authorities provoked to charge into the crowds.

Reasons for the crackdown aside, the way in which individual police officers conducted themselves was horrendous. As they charged into the crowds, shooting and slashing wildly, demonstrators who were already apprehended — lying on the ground and handcuffed — were kicked and hit by officers as they passed by. In one incident, an individual lying on the ground was continually kicked and beaten by six policemen. The profile of the injured "violent protesters" tells it all: among them were not only a member of parliament, but also a catholic priest, children, and foreign tourists.

Despite this and other evidence contrary to the official version of events, the authorities maintain that the police did everything according to the regulations. The chief of police points out that the demonstrators were given an opportunity to leave the area. However, video footage clearly shows that less than five seconds after giving a warning, a tear gas jeep drove to the front of the barricades to launch a barrage. Thus, those who wished to leave were not even allowed to do so.

The Far Right

As with the two-month demonstration in front of parliament, feeble attempts have been made to somehow link the protests with the far right. The only problem is that this attempt has often failed because it was the radical right which had urged its followers to beware of police provocation and to go home, and that in Hungary there isn’t a revolutionary situation.

There is no question that the two-month demonstration in front of parliament degraded into a protest that seemed to have lost most of its enthusiasm and energy. Part of this was due to the attempt by the right-wing opposition in parliament which tried to hijack the movement for its own purposes, thereby scaring away moderates and some on the left who had initially sympathized with the aims of the demonstration when it began two months ago.

The fact that all kinds of fringe groups eventually set themselves up in front of parliament, including those with a far right agenda, doesn’t entail that the demonstration itself in front of parliament was a far-right affair. Indeed, what has been missing from the various news reports and political speeches over the past few weeks is mention of Hungary’s radical right party, the Truth and Justice Party (MIEP).

When the MIEP was in parliament, from 1998-2002, warnings were often heard of a neo-fascist resurgence via the MIEP and its leader, Istvan Csurka. During subsequent election campaigns, the same type of warnings could be heard, not only from the left, but also from right wing parties, which were afraid of losing votes to the MIEP. This, despite the fact that the MIEP was by then clearly in decline. In fact, since 2002 the radical right party saw its level of support fall from above 5% to less than half, with internal bickering breaking up the party slowly but surely from inside.

Although some pundits tried to paint the demonstrations on October 23rd as unrest engineered by the far right, both Csurka and the MIEP were noticeably absent from the political recriminations which followed. Aside from a few individuals carrying Arpad flags, a historic flag from the House of Arpad (the founding dynasty in Hungary) and used later by the fascist Arrow Cross in 1944-45, there was little else to sustain the argument that the events of October 23rd was exclusively a far-right affair.

This doesn’t mean that Csurka and the MIEP weren’t present. On October 23rd, Csurka held a rally at the Corvin Koz, scene of some of the bloodiest fighting during the 1956 revolution. Toward the end of the rally, he warned his followers not to be provoked by the police, and that he had just received information that people were being herded to the city center. He added that the situation was not a revolutionary one, as some from the opposition FIDESZ (the main right-wing opposition party) had claimed, and warned people not to go to the city center but to head home instead. Thus, the fact that the radical right didn’t want anything to do with the events unfolding in the city center debunks any notion that what happened in Budapest on October 23rd, 2006, was engineered by the far right.

A Day to Forget

What should have been a day to celebrate solidarity and the triumph of democracy over dictatorship turned out to be the exact opposite. The events of October 23, 2006, showed to what extent a government would go when it’s afraid of its own people.

This was apparent not only in the use of brute force, but how the commemorations marking the anniversary of the Hungarian revolution were carried out. The Hungarian government used the opportunity to politicize the event, as was evident in the speech Prime Minister Gyurcsany gave in parliament to his invited foreign guests. It’s hard to discern exactly what most of these foreign guests felt, but many didn’t appear pleased nor happy. Perhaps a more appropriate type of ceremony would have been if these heads of state could have actually met and shaken hands with some of the actual survivors and veterans of the revolution they were supposedly commemorating.

After the hermetically sealed off ceremony in front of parliament, where prime minister Gyurcsany didn’t have to worry about being embarrassed in public, the invited foreign guests then made their way to the cemetery where the victims of the revolution were buried. However, in a complete disregard for protocol, when these visiting heads of state arrived no-one from the Hungarian government nor diplomatic service was present. Unsure of what to do, the foreign dignitaries quickly laid their flowers and left.

Aware of the politicized nature of the ceremonies and that the agreement he had brokered with the government was unashamedly broken, the president of Hungary, Laszlo Solyom, refused to appear at the unveiling of the 1956 monument near Hero’s Square that same evening. Meanwhile, despite the best efforts of the police, a few hundred protesters were able to make it to the unveiling ceremony where they subsequently heckled Prime Minister Gyurcsany.

Since the events of October 23, 2006, the Hungarian authorities have taken further precautions in order to stifle any form of protest or opposition. The city council of Budapest, headed by a political ally of Gyurcsany, passed regulations forbidding spontaneous protests and gatherings. All gatherings have to be approved by the police, and the authorities have already shown their unwillingness to approve of protests they don’t like, such as a demonstration by farmers who wished to come to Budapest with their tractors to show their dissatisfaction with the government and its policies.

Meanwhile, for those who do protest the fear of retaliation by the authorities have held back many from taking to the streets. A recent demonstration by public sector workers was noticeably small in number, as many decided to stay home rather than risk being beat up by the police.

The refusal of the police to wear identification badges and the fact that many wore a mask to cover their face contravenes not only Hungarian law but various international agreements as well. Indeed, labeling a demonstration as illegal because it hasn’t been approved by the police contravenes the Helsinki accords, of which Hungary is a signatory. People have the right to demonstrate spontaneously and they don’t need to ask permission; the role of the police is merely to provide security for the demonstrators. Moreover, police officers must be easily identifiable, hence the reason for them to have their badges clearly visible and not to wear masks.

These and other infringements of human rights and civil liberties are being blatantly ignored by the Hungarian authorities. One reason it’s able to do so is because the majority of the population live in fear: not so much in fear of the police, but in fear of their economic well-being. Unlike the past, most Hungarians of the present are caught in an economic stranglehold. Thus, they are much more concerned of losing their homes, cars, or jobs instead of their rights and civil liberties.

This is what repressive political forces in Hungary are now counting on as they push through their so-called "reforms", many of which are Lisbon Agenda dictates in disguise. In the neo-liberalist race to the bottom in order to be "more competitive", it has become quite apparent that social cohesion and political freedom have been sacrificed for the sake of economic competitiveness. However, there is a limit to how much people are able or willing to bear. If the Hungarian government isn’t careful, even the fear of losing one’s home, car, or job won’t be enough to keep people off the streets.

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