The disturbances on Friday as well as on the eve of the anniversary were caused by about two hundred or so demonstrators, but these short-lived events were nothing near the bloody police crackdown of last year. Nevertheless, the authorities weren’t taking any chances, and during a major political rally held by the political opposition on October 23rd, the police were out in overwhelming force. They virtually lined the route the demonstrators took and didn’t allow anyone to join or leave the procession. The only exception was a small group of demonstrators from another rally which somehow were able to break through the police lines. This small but determined group consisted of mostly middle-aged men and women. Since there were many photo journalists around clicking away, the police ultimately gave in and allowed them through.
Despite the bad weather on October 23rd, the political rally drew thousands. Nevertheless, the procession from the rally to a subsequent gathering in front of the Terror House was a mundane affair. After lighting candles the crowd soon dispersed peacefully and everyone went their own separate way.
This is not to say there weren’t any disturbances on that day, either. Near the parliament a small group had gathered shouting anti-government slogans. But the gathering was so small that at one point it seemed as if there were more reporters in fluorescent press jackets than demonstrators. Indeed, a half-hearted baton charge by the police to break up the small crowd appeared to be aimed more at the media than the anti-government demonstrators.
At the end of it all, the police were no doubt quite proud of themselves for a job well done. In many ways, it was a win-win situation for the authorities. If events turned out differently and there was a repeat of last year’s violence, the police could have then justified the need for their overwhelming presence by pointing to their propaganda campaign as a self-fulfilled prophecy. Yet as it had turned out, the authorities were able to note that the relatively peaceful manner in which the October activities had passed was because of the heavy police presence which had scared away most troublemakers. Indeed, not one egg was thrown by a demonstrator.
Contrary to this, however, the massive police presence together with the few instances where there were disturbances has shed light on a unique form of repression which, sadly, looks set to continue, at least in the foreseeable future. Although such forms of heavy-handed repression was noticeable before, especially during election campaigns, it mainly hovered in the background. But now, thanks in large part to the activities of a small group of radical, right-wing protesters this form of repression has been able to freely come out into the open.
There is little that Hungary’s neo-liberalists and the radical right have in common with each other. The only exception is that they both feed off one another. It’s the realization of this by the neo-liberalist state, and the subsequent manipulation of events in which the radical right is allowed (some may even say they are tacitly encouraged) to cause trouble at public events which has led to the present state of affairs.
This past week was a case in point. In Hungary the neo-liberalist state is on the verge of collapse on many fronts — economically, politically, and even morally. The government, led by a coalition of Socialists and Liberals, two supposed left-wing parties which have been the biggest supporters of unadulterated capitalism in its most perverse form (hence the notion of a "new liberalism", one that uses socialist rhetoric to mask capitalist exploitation), have come under pressure from all sides including loyal supporters and party members.
Hence, in classic Stalinist fashion (after all, old habits die hard for many members of the former communist party) terror has been used as a means of consolidation. In other words, it’s not so much the supporters of the right but those on the left which have been terrorized into submission. Fears of resurgent fascism and neo-Nazis running loose on the street have been reinforced by events staged by otherwise small and insignificant right-wing groups which, in turn, benefit from the publicity. The formation of the Hungarian Guard a few months ago is a perfect example of this.
Yet some go further, noting that the massive police presence and the way in which the mass media was ready for action betrays a sense of not only expectation but also of hope for trouble. After all, the bigger the disturbance the more people forget about what they should really be concerned about: austerity measures, government corruption, and so forth.
The disturbances on the night of October 22nd illustrate this point well. The leaders of the protest had made public their intention to use force to break through the police cordon in front of the Opera — making this announcement not only on stage but in front of the television cameras and hundreds of police nearby. Not only this, one of the leaders himself was under curfew and therefore should have been arrested on the spot. Despite this, no attempt at all was made to prevent these troublemakers from marching toward the Opera, even though the police at that place and point in time had the justification, authority and opportunity to do so. Instead, the media was treated to a spectacle of a few minor clashes, and the authorities were then able to deploy an excessive security presence the next day, with police hiding in the doorways so as to convey an image of fear and trepidation.
Not only this, the presence of a large number of police on a day when people celebrate having toppled a police state (albeit for only a short period) has robbed from Hungarians the significance of the 1956 anniversary: social change by the people against all odds. Such a message is a powerful one, not only in Hungary but elsewhere in Europe where governments for the most part dictate policy over the heads of their own citizens. It’s not the question of one party or group in deference to another, but the rot at the very core of what is often referred to in Hungary as the "political elite". This includes all parties: the government and opposition, as well as those within parliament and without. Indeed, the rally held by the opposition on October 23rd attests to this sad state of affairs, as the speeches had little to do with what the anniversary was actually about, but instead focused on politics as usual.
Given this situation, it should come as little surprise that some have turned to radical politics. As a result, those who can be considered to be among the moderate right find themselves either pushed toward the radical right by an increasingly polarized political climate or, as with many on the left, simply subdued into silence.
The end result of this is the emergence of the surveillance state. Whereas during communism the secret police extended the powers of the government through the use of a network of informers, the neo-liberalist state relies on technology to provide remote, real-time surveillance. It’s an irony of history that during the early years of the cold war the notion of a Soviet soldier on every street corner in Budapest was noting more than cheap, western propaganda; nowadays, it’s a frightening reality as the city is full of CCTV cameras on virtually every street corner. In fact, in preparation for this year’s events, extra cameras were installed throughout the inner city.
Of course, some things never change. The role of the police in Hungary’s neo-liberalist society is more or less the same as it has been for the past fifty years or so: to enforce obedience and demand respect. Thus, spontaneous protest is illegal in Hungary; all forms of protest must be first allowed by the police, and demonstrators then must abide by the conditions under which the privilege to protest was granted. This includes the duration of the protest, among other things.
In addition to this, the powers of the police is such that they can at any time arbitrarily declare an area an "operational zone" and thus prevent anyone — even innocent bystanders — from being in the area. Not only this, the laws are such that two people standing and talking to one another can be considered a gathering, and thus broken up by police with both people arrested for holding an illegal demonstration.
The street blockades this past Friday merely illustrated this narrow mindset of the Hungarian police. In response to a reporter’s question about a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which criticized Hungary for not allowing spontaneous protest, the head of the Budapest police simply dismissed the ruling, saying that Hungarian law takes precedence. What the head of the Budapest police and many politicians who also subscribe to this view fail to realize is that this court ruling reiterates the provisions of the Helsinki Accords, which Hungary had agreed to.
The significance of the street blockades on Friday is that it comes on the anniversary of a similar blockade in 1990 of Budapest’s major bridges. Then, taxi drivers upset at the high price of fuel spontaneously blocked all of Budapest’s major bridges. The only difference between then and now is that the police didn’t intervene. One reason is that the blockades had come shortly after the demise of communism and the police were themselves unsure of their role in a brave new world. Since then, however, they have reasserted themselves with a vengeance.
The rise in police power in Hungary over the past few years doesn’t bode well for the future. In fact, it will only make a bad situation worse. The excessive use of police power helps to not only consolidate and reinforce the grip of the neo-liberal state, but at the same time it increases the number and determination of the radical right. This, in turn, helps to further justify the use of repressive police powers and restrict the right of assembly.
In a true democracy respect for authority is earned and not dictated. Moreover, protest is a fundamental right and not a mere privilege. Unless these and other fundamentals of democracy and human rights aren’t acknowledged and put into practice, then Hungary may one day soon become what Edward S. Herman in his book "The Real Terror Network" (1982) called a National Security State. In other words, Hungary will not only be a banana republic in terms of economics (which is where the country is headed, according to some); it will be a banana republic in terms of democracy.
Photo from hungary.indymedia.org