In Budapest: Unhappy Anniversary

50 Years After the Hungarian Uprising, Streets Turn Violent and Feelings Bitter

For Hungarians, Oct. 23, 1956 is a day remembered with pride – the day they stood up to Soviet rule, the first communist satellite country to do so.

This October, on the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising, that pride deteriorated into fierce conflict, leaving behind some of the deepest divisions ever experienced in Hungarian politics.

The anniversary had been long in the planning. For more than two years, a memorial committee had been working with the government to prepare suitable ways to mark the anniversary of the revolution. It was an opportunity to build greater solidarity; Hungarians remember 1956 as a moment of national unity, rare these days in Hungary.

Today, clashes, social unrest and increased controversy more often characterize public life. In September, people had taken to the streets of Budapest to protest Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany’s admission that the government had consistently lied to the public about the condition of government finances to win reelection.

Just days before the anniversary, former Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the opposition party Fidesz announced their members would boycott the celebrations. Tensions were stretching to the breaking point.

Thus the government’s intention wasn’t only to remember the heroes and victims of the revolution, but also to show the world a positive face of Hungary, a nation Gyurcsany said “has come to terms with its past and is comfortable with its present.”

Events proved otherwise. Monday’s commemorations were marked by street battles between hardcore rightist insurgents and the police.

“The protestors were acting as if they were back fighting the Russians again,” said Robert Szekhelyi, a graduate student of International Communication, in frustration. “Fifty years ago, people were fighting a ‘real’ enemy. Today they were just acting as barbarians.

“Hungary is a modern and democratic state, and protestors could have acted peacefully. As long as the Hungarian nation considers the followers of the other party as enemies, this country will remain in deep political crisis.”

Protests began when 2,000 police officers tried to empty Kossuth square in front of Parliament on Sunday night in order to secure the area for the European Commission’s President Jose Manuel Barroso, NATO’s Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Spain’s King Juan Carlos, and other foreign dignitaries attending the commemoration ceremonies.

Demonstrators had been occupying the square for the past four weeks demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, following his admission of lying to the public. Police had earlier asked them to leave the area temporarily, promising that they would be allowed to return after the official events had been finished.

A small group of demonstrators refused to leave, and started throwing anything they could get their hands on at the police. Many of the protesters were from far-right groups and some carried the red-and-white striped flag of the Arpad dynasty – a centuries-old symbol of Hungary that was also used by the nationalist pro-Nazi government during World War II.

One group of demonstrators briefly commandeered a tank taken from an exhibition marking the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising, and promptly won a space on the front pages of newspapers around the world.
“We had to fight a government that is constantly lying to its people,” said Janos Haraszti, a 26 year old waiter from Budapest who was among the rioters. “We will continue to fight by all means to destroy such a government that is putting Hungary into a deeper economic and political crisis each year.”

Eventually the police used a snow plough to break through the barricades and sought to disperse the demonstrators by firing rubber bullets, tear gas and using water cannons. Accusations of police brutality came fast, and the main opposition party, Fidesz, called for the resignation of Budapest’s police chief who, backed by the governing socialists and liberals, denied using excessive force. Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany called for an investigation, but cautioned that it would have to wait until calm was restored.

The public was split about the accusations.

“The police were acting within the law and did not use excessive force against the demonstrators,” claimed Daniel Kerepesi, an eye-witness.

But many from the opposition were outraged by the “brutal acts” of the Hungarian police. Marta Nagy, an estate agent from Budapest who had watched the events on the television, was outraged.

“They did not hesitate to use force even against women and elderly,” she said.  The European Union has asked Hungary for an explanation of the reports, although EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini said he had not made any accusations but rather asked for “clarification on the allegation of the possible excessive use of force.”

This anniversary finds Hungarians even more divided than before over the legacy of 1956. For several years, the left and right have refused to celebrate the anniversary together. This year the opposition party Fidesz boycotted commemorative events where Gyurcsany was speaking and held separate meetings saying the prime minister had brought shame on Hungary. In a speech made public last month, the prime minister confessed to lying to the public about the state of economy to win the elections.

Today, there is a strong political struggle over the legacy of 1956 from both political parties seeking to gain advantages for the present. Leftist groups hope to use the symbols of 1956 to broaden their support – even though Hungary’s contemporary democracy has nothing to do with past dictators. For the opposition, 1956 will always remain a strong weapon against the Socialists, as they are the legal successors to the country’s former communists.

“Because of the different interpretations of the 1956 revolution by the Socialists and Fidesz, the whole meaning has lost its value for me” says Sandra Toth, a student in Budapest.

“We should be proud of our heroes who contributed to Hungarian history and who were brave enough to fight to enable a better life for ‘us.’ Instead we have totally forgotten about them, and the concept of 1956 has become a political tool.

“My grandparents who were actually there on the events would be very sad to see this,” she added.

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