— Crossposted from Cogitamus —
It’s March 15, a national holiday, and police was duly out in massive numbers to guard the some twenty different, mostly oppositional, manifestations that took place. March 15, on which Hungarians commemorate the 1848 uprising against their Habsburgian overlords, is one of the two or three most volatile days in this country. There’s always a great number of protest manifestations (especially if there is a leftwing government), and the last couple of years there was widespread rioting.
Which is why today was a bit of a disappointment, really.
I was sort of ready to ignore the festivities already, since after two and a half years and a dozen iterations, the demo-cum-riot scene has jumped the shark. It’s always the same anyway: angry grannies and families with Hungarian flags in the afternoon, hooded and balaclavad youths in the evening, when the mainstream conservative politicians sternly intoning their dire warnings make way for younger rabble-rousers, who shout about PM Gyurcsany, the commies, the police and the Jews. Demonstrators who look like the kind of mix of students and squatters you’d get in a far-left demo in Western Europe. Much posturing, waiting around, exchanging of tall tales, waving flags and shouting slogans; not to mention trying to impress the far-right girls, who are surprisingly cute. Marching this way and that, avoiding the police, building barricades, and then the inevitable show-down; teargas, batons, the crowd tearing back with scarves over their mouths. A lengthy cat-and-mouse game, as the rioters taunt the cops and pelt them with stones, until the dull thuds of tear gas grenades being shot into the crowd set everyone running again. Only for the game to start over twenty minutes later once the dust is settled. Rinse and repeat.
Nevertheless, I did keep an eye on the website of the Magyar Nemzet, a national-conservative newspaper which at every new iteration publishes a breathless minute-by-minute account of goings-on in the city. Very practical if you want to know where the riots are at any given moment. Not saying they actively incite the rioters, but … OK, who am I kidding, they do.
But it was thin gruel today. No large street battles, no kidnapped tank being driven around by demonstrators. A year ago, and two years ago, rioters would control sections of major thoroughfares downtown a mile long, rocks would rain down on the police shields. Barricades would be built, phonebooths felled and used as material, Molotov cocktails hurled. This time there was basically one violent clash of sorts, in the late afternoon near the Saint Stephen’s Basilica, around the corner from my work. Which was quickly smothered by an overwhelming police presence, with the riot cops easily outnumbering the rioters. (They’ve been recruiting).
By the time I bothered to haul myself over to the area, it was kind of sad really. Clumps of protestors, hanging around in small groups. Barely a flag among them, though there was a guy or two in a Hungarian Guard uniform. No chants of “Gyurcsany, bugger off”. Just waiting, cracking the odd joke but generally sharing a desultory mood. Warily watching the columns of riot police, clad in black, that blocked off the sidestreets. Sometimes a unit, upon barked commands, rattled off in a lockstep run, or moved into place. The whole street lined with police cars, vans, a whole bus arriving with fresh manpower.
Generally though, the police seem to have learnt a lot, these past two years. In the first round of rioting, when protestors briefly occupied the building of Hungarian Television, more cops were injured than protestors. Night after night, they were hunting after bands of rioters running amock, unable to do more than chase them off to ever new places. Now, they seem in full control. What are they doing differently now? Lesson one: overwhelming numbers. Have a disproportionate presence vis-a-vis the rioters. Outnumber them in such proportions, they’re intimidated before they even start. Lesson two: preempt their moves. Smother even the slightest rioting before it escalates. Block off entire neighbourhoods if need be. Lesson three, and this may seem paradoxical: mingle. Well, mingle is perhaps not the right word. But again and again, a point arrived where a phalanx of riot cops crossed the street or jumped out of a bus — not, in old school style, to form a big line of shields and then push the protesting youths into a pack and then backward — but to mix into the crowd. With one cop for every protestor, noone even thinks of resistance as the cops scatter and demand ID from every youth, and frisk many of them.
Of course that’s only possible thanks to their force of numbers. And how this fits with your various civil rights, I don’t know. I’ve never been asked to ID myself just for gathering in protest when taking part in demonstrations back home – and that’s all these kids were doing, by the time I arrived.
Hear me, I’m defending fascists now. And there is genuine reason to worry about the flourishing far right movements, with the Hungarian Guard ceremonially inducting 650 new members today. Just two days ago, a right wing group called the Hungarian Arrows Liberation Army (named in reference to the WW2-era Arrow Cross regime) claimed responsibility for a bus explosion in Bács county. The group said it had wanted to punish a local coach company that had transported a group of Roma “marching against Hungarians” to a demonstration in Ózd, in order to “avenge the anti-Hungarian sentiment”. In all, four people have been killed in seven recent attacks against Roma.
The silent majority, meanwhile, is just disgusted with it all. A Eurobarometer poll published last month showed that just 16% of Hungarians trust their national government – compared to 45% who trusted local and regional authorities and 51% who trusted the EU. More damningly, a national pollconducted last month showed that “all Hungary’s politicians [..] have negative ratings”. Neither the President, a conservative, nor the Prime Minister, a socialist (albeit, as is the case with many ex-communists in the region, one who has embraced the market reform with a passion), was evaluated positively. Nor was the Speaker of the Parliament – or any of the main opposition leaders.
Nor does it seem to be a particularly ideological matter. While the conservative opposition party Fidesz “towers above all the other parties” in the poll, the least impopular politician is actually a Socialist. Moreover, it’s Katalin Szili, the parliamentary speaker who often criticizes PM Gyurscany … from the left. So the Hungarians don’t agree whether the answer lies to the left or to the right, they just know they’re fed up with what they have now. Which neatly summarises the political history of postcommunist Hungary, come to think of it.