Budapest Burning

After Decades of Deception Under the Communists, Hungarians Take to the Streets to Protest a Government of Lies

Protests in Budapest | Photo: Associated Press

It all started peacefully enough on Tuesday, Sept. 19, on Budapest’s Freedom Square. Tens of thousands of people came out to protest the admission by the Hungarian Prime Minister that he had lied to the electorate. And he had lied a lot.

“We lied in the morning, we lied in the evening and at night,” Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany had said at a closed Socialist Party meeting in Balatonoszod on May 26. “I am through with this.”  Somehow, the prime minister’s words had been recorded and leaked to Hungarian state radio, which had posted excerpts on its website on Sunday.

Gyurcsany had quickly confirmed the authenticity of the excerpts and was described by the Associated Press as even seeming “relieved,” suggesting that he may have had a hand in their release. Still, he insisted he would stay in power, pledging to implement tax increases and spending cuts.

On Sunday night, he appeared on television in an attempt to shape the debate, assigning guilt to a wide elite and to the general tone of Hungary’s political culture.

“I will continue on because I still have much to do here,” Gyurcsany said in the Sept 18 edition of the German magazine Focus.

However by Monday, the mood had turned against him, with the opposition parties calling for his resignation.

By Tuesday morning, floods of disillusioned residents had taken to the streets.

The protests turned violent when a group of protestors broke away from the crowd, and launched an assault on the headquarters of Hungary’s national television station, MTV1.

“What the prime minister said was unbelievable,” said Marton Kovacs, a car mechanic and long-time Budapest resident, shouting angrily  over the noise. “I was shocked when I heard it, as were many people here. So it’s understandable these protesters turned out to demonstrate against a government built on lies.”

The protestors seemed to be trying to attack policemen, hurling stones and other heavy objects at them. An estimated crowd of 300 stormed the MTV1 building using metal fencing as battering-rams and breaking windows to get in.

“The police were too weak,” said Ronai Gergely, a photographer for the Budapest Sun. “The demonstrators soon took command and set around six cars on fire.” The police used tear gas and water cannon on one group of protesters, and for a brief period the station was forced off the air.

Hungarians in Vienna, watching the protest on television, were riveted to their seats, overwhelmed by the images.

“Such fighting hasn’t happened since 1956!” said Melina B. in Vienna only a matter of hours.  In the night of the riots only the one private channel of the political right, HIRTV, broadcast the riots “live,” because the state-supported MTV1 had been dark. A splinter group had moved on foot to the station demanding a live broadcast of their petition.

“Rumour has it,” Melinda said, “that a police man and a former member of the Hungarian military got them moving.” MTV1’s refusal to corporate with the mob at their door caused the riots to go out of control, she said. “There were cars burning, people threw with whatever they could get their hands on, the police was totally overwhelmed as they had to retreat into the MTV1 building, because people started to demolish the metal rails of MTV1’s heavy entrance gates – with their bare hands”

The police was outnumbered by the protesters and had to retreat from the crowd, and a military truck was called in equipped with water canons. However, the truck was taken over by the outraged mob, smashed and set on fire.

“We saw this TV reporter on the scene, shocked and frightened, screaming over and over again, ‘People are still in there, burning alive!” Melinda said

Around 2 O` clock in the morning, the raging mob had fought its way through the metal door, stormed up the stairs, throwing stones onto the building’s glass façade, forcing their way into the ‘inner sanctum’ of the TV station.

“You could see those young people who had been fighting so relentlessly and angrily in order to occupy this station, come into the building and settle in there; I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry when I saw this footage,” Melinda said. The young squatters had looked around very interested, playfully turned on all the computers, pushing each of the buttons, taking over the now-abandoned reception. “Many went to the canteen, gobbling down the ‘leftovers’– the fighting must have made them really hungry,” she said.

With protesters burning cars, throwing stones, with clouds of tear gas, the chanting of patriotic songs and the waving of flags reminded many of the earlier Hungarian Uprising in 1956. Then too protestors tried to break into the Radio Building of Budapest, which was guarded by the Hungarian Secret Police (AVH), to broadcast their demands. The delegation was detained and the crowd grew increasingly unruly as rumors spread that students had been shot. Tear gas was thrown from the upper windows and the AVH opened fire on the crowds, killing many.

As a result, all pretense of moderation was dropped: Police cars were flipped over and set on fire; guns were seized from gun shops and military depots, and distributed amongst the crowds by arms factory and arsenal workers.

And as it happened 50 years earlier, this time there was much confusion and misinformation.

“Most of these protesters simply don’t know what Prime Minister Gyurcsany actually said in his speech,” said Tamas Szabo, a law student at the University of ELTE, Budapest, returning from the demonstration. “Yes, he admitted that he and his government had been lying. But he said much more than that. The rioters just needed an excuse to go on the streets and cause trouble.”

As police used tear gas and hoses to disperse the crowd, some of the protestors sprayed paint on the square’s Soviet memorial and pulled it to pieces. A water cannon truck arrived around midnight, but was soon damaged as rioters climbed on top of it.

Not long after that, several protestors managed to break into the television building, vandalizing several offices, stealing official papers and equipment.

It was after 3:30 a.m. that police officers were finally able to disperse the crowd. However, few were appeased. And there was widespread sympathy with the protestors.

But many still wondered how this could happen in 2006 at all. The government had lied, yes. But being lied to by the government was surely nothing new in Hungary.

“Before 1990, the communist government had been lying to us for the past 40 years, since 1956,” Melinda recalled. “Up to this day many teachers do not teach correctly, or sometimes even at all, about the time between1956 to 1989,” she explained. An English teacher in Budapest, she had once invited a veteran of the 1956 Uprising to speak at the school’s annual memorial ceremony. The guest had spoken at length about life under communism, she remembered. “These 13- and 14-year-olds listened to him open mouthed, for there were many things they had never heard of in such detail before.”

When the riots were over, officials estimated that about 150 people were injured in this, the worst violence since the fall of communism – including 102 police officers, one of whom suffered severe head injuries and was described on state television as being only in satisfactory condition after undergoing an operation to remove a bone splinter from his skull.

Most of the violence, they said, came from fans of the local soccer team ‘Ferencvaros,’ known for their hooliganism and hatred of the government. Few were arrested, and many warrants are still outstanding.

After a Sept. 19 emergency meeting of the National Security Council, Prime Minister Gyurcsany called the riots “the longest and darkest night in history of the Republic of Hungary.”

However he challenged the rioters, saying that freedom of expression did not equal the right to violence and that “demonstrating is not a solution, but a source of conflict and crisis.”

Parts of the speech were first revealed on Sept. 17 on Hungarian state radio. PM Gyurcsany said to the commercial television ATV that the lies he referred to were characteristic for the entire political elite in the past six to eight years and emphasized that he would like to change the “shameful” domestic political atmosphere.

“We have screwed it up,” Gyurcsany said on the tape. “Not just a bit, big time. No country in Europe has ever done anything so impudent as we have done. We have obviously lied over the past one and a half to two years. It was absolutely clear that what we were saying was not true… I almost died when I had to pretend for one and a half years that we were governing.”

The next day, the principle opposition party Fidesz called on the government to resign.

“The government should go; Ferenc Gyurcsany is unwanted in Hungarian politics,” Minority Leader Tibor Navracsics told ATV.  Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom said Gyurcsany’s May remarks and his attempts to spread responsibility about the “lies and half-truths of the past 16 years” had thrown the country into a “moral crisis.”

The protests continued until Sept. 24, and were on the whole peaceful.

Still, many sought a satisfactory way to explain why violence had erupted in the first place.

“Without a doubt, the tension of local elections, held after the legislative ones in April, when the Opposition lost by a narrow margin, contributed to the outburst of violence,” said retired political studies professor Pal Bessenyei. “The opportunity was too tempting for opposition leaders not to take advantage of it.”

And with the announcement of stricter economic policy aimed at rebalancing the budget, the decrease in living standards, and predictions of future difficulties naturally played a part in mobilizing the protesters.

However, the deeper cause, Bessenyei suggested, was surely the long, very tough transition from communism that pervades Eastern and Central Europe, a transition that leads to social tensions just under the surface and ready to explode. “When an unsuccessful geopolitical situation is added to all these, then the outcomes may prove devastating,” he said.

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