Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Hungary Prepares for Renewed Unrest
By László Perczel in Budapest
Such an eruption of violence came completely unexpected. The Monday night unrest in Budapest last night was the worst the country has seen in the 16 years since the fall of communism. It was "the longest and darkest night," said Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, an "attack on the republic." He called an emergency session of parliament -- and refused to give in to opposition demands that he step down. He also refused his justice minister's offer of resignation. The main thing was to avert a nationwide crisis. Should riots resume, he promised, they will be quelled -- with force if necessary.
But last night, the out-of-control protests already did their damage: Between 150 and 200 were injured, with more than 100 of them police officers. One officer was in serious condition. The state-controlled television station was stormed and temporarily shut down -- some €200,000 in damages was inflicted on the building, located directly next door to Hungary's parliament building. The police were completely surprised by the violence, and totally ill-equipped to deal with it.
On Tuesday, one day after the protests, Budapest was quiet. The television building had been sealed off by police, but demonstrations continue. Around midday, some 300 supporters of the right-extremist Jobbik Party gathered before parliament with a wooden coffin demanding that the Gyurcsany government be "buried." And the disgust with the country's leadership remains widespread. The police are expecting the worst again tonight.
And it was Gyurcsany himself who unleashed the wave of violence. His admissions to having lied to the country about the true state of the Hungarian economy to win elections in April triggered the unrest. The premier told a group of center-left party cohorts behind closed doors that the economy had been kept afloat through "divine providence" and "hundreds of tricks." The comments were recorded and leaked to the press. "We screwed up. Not a little, a lot," Gyurcsany's voice can be heard as saying on the tape. "No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have.... I almost died when for a year and a half we had to pretend we were governing. Instead, we lied morning, evening and night."
Prior to the election, Gyurcsany had promised tax cuts and a number of other measures to ease the burden on Hungary's voters. None of that materialized, however. Since the vote, taxes have been raised and subsidies have been cut in a desperate attempt to slash the country's prodigious deficit and kick-start the moribund economy.
Now, the anger is intense. According to recent surveys, half of all Hungarians want to see their prime minister step down. The opposition hopes to transform local elections, to be held on October 1, into a referendum. Former prime minister Viktor Orban from the conservative opposition party Fidesz said recently he wouldn't be surprised should Hungarians resort to civil disobedience. Instead, there was rioting.
The chronology of the protests demonstrates just how caught off guard Hungary's police and politicians were by the riots. In the middle of the day on Monday, the protests seemed rather harmless, with a small demonstration of some 1,500 people in the center of the city. In the evening, the number swelled to around 8,000 demonstrators. Not long later, the first politicians showed up: Istvan Csurka, head of the right-wing extremist MIEP, and Maria Wittner, a parliamentarian from Fidesz. Protesters waved Hungarian flags and held aloft posters demanding the resignation of the government and insulting both the socialists and liberals. At around 10 p.m. some 2,000 to 3,000 people began moving toward the state television station, a number of them clearly belonging to the right-wing scene. Some police followed, leaving behind a peaceful demonstration in front of parliament. By midnight, most of those protesters had headed home for the night.
The violent ones, though, gathered in front of the television station and began trying to force their way in. By the time the police showed up with tear gas and water cannons, the crowd had worked its way into a rage and set a police vehicle on fire. Thousands standing in front of the television station demanded that a statement be read on air.
At first, the police and security personnel could hold back the mob. But at around 1:20 a.m. the mob broke through and stormed the station. The situation descended into complete chaos. Windows were shattered, cobblestones flew through the air, even park benches were used as weapons. Before long, the first parked cars were set on fire -- and the police could only look helplessly on. The rioters occupied the first two floors of the building and began destroying equipment -- the station went off the air for 80 minutes.
The police had totally misjudged the instability of the situation. The president had decided to allow unregistered demonstrations due to the approaching elections. A bad idea perhaps -- and one which led to Justice Minister Jozsef Petretei offering up his resignation on Tuesday morning. Following the emergency meeting of parliament, Hungarian officials are hoping that the police are better prepared for the rest of the week.
Following the session, Gyurcsany addressed the public, admitting that the police had been caught off guard. He also issued a warning to his opponents: Freedom of opinion, he said, is no justification for violence. But the conservative opposition likewise seemed shell shocked. Fidesz elected to cancel an anti-government demonstration scheduled for Saturday.
Laszlo Kovacs, former foreign minister and current EU Commissioner, called for calm and for the country's security forces to re-establish peace and order. Others are hoping that Gyurcsany's speech will help stabilize the situation. Several thousand reinforcements have been called in to the capital from around the country. What happens next, though, remains an open question.