Hungary: A Nation of Fence Sitters

In a true democracy you can't have your cake and eat it too

Last Friday, in a show of defiance and civil disobedience, members of the leading opposition party in the Hungarian parliament (FIDESZ) took apart a police fence which had been erected in front of parliament. The cordon was soon re-erected by the police, but subsequent demonstrations saw thousands attempting to gather and protest near the area. Aside from a few minor scuffles, there was no violence and about two dozen demonstrators were arrested.

On Monday, the police subsequently charged the MPs for taking down the cordon; the judge, however, threw back the case citing several deficiencies. For one, the police didn't go through the proper procedures to formally identify the perpetrators. Likewise, others pointed to the fact that although it may have been officially against the law to dismantle the security fence around parliament without permission from the relevant authorities, the fact that the police simply stood by and watched -- and didn't tell the MPs to stop -- means those who took part in dismantling the fence can't be charged with a crime since the authorities had allowed it to happen and therefore gave their tacit approval.

The protective fence around parliament was erected over three months ago in response to lingering protests against the government, in particular against the prime minister himself, Ferenc Gyurcsany. Since then, it has become a symbol of the present state of Hungarian democracy. Prior to the actions taken by the FIDESZ parliamentarians, there was much debate about the fence on its 100 day anniversary, which had recently past. Many used the occasion to call for the fence to be removed, noting that it was illegal as it curtailed the freedom of movement.

The government response to all this was simple enough. According to Emese Danks, the government spokeswoman, people criticised the government before for having too much influence on the police; now they criticise the government for not having enough.

Yet there is a big difference between exercising control of the police for political purposes, as was used during October of last year, and exercising oversight into how the police do their job. By letting the police do what they want because "it's their business" runs contrary to the notion of civil control over the security services, a key point in any true democracy. As with the military, it is the civil authorities to which the security services are accountable. Thus, it's the government which decides whether the country goes to war or not, and whether the police should erect a security fence around parliament. The military and police may give recommendations and their reasons for taking a certain action, but the final decision rests with the civil authorities. To do otherwise is to acknowledge a de-facto police state, as during the communist era, where the government turned a blind eye to human rights violations and abuses. Then, as now, the reasoning is the same: the police are charged with a task, and it's not the government's place to influence their work (except when it is politically expedient).

Debate on civil disobedience in Hungary

The cordon incident last Friday generated much debate on the legality and appropriateness of civil disobedience in Hungary. Interestingly enough, all sides appear to be in some measure of agreement that the fence around parliament is illegal. Still, those siding with the government and the police claim that even if this is so, the action of removing it is also illegal. In other words, two wrongs don't make a right.

Such reasoning is clearly ridiculous. If such an argument is accepted as valid, then it can also be used to claim that the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was illegal, and that the young people who took part in it were simply criminals and juvenile delinquents (this, by the way, was the official version of events of the reinstated communist government, which was put back into power by way of military force from the Soviet Union).

There were a myriad other examples of such faulty reasoning. What was especially ridiculous was the statement of Gabor Kuncze, the leader of the SZDSZ, the government's junior coalition partner. According to Kuncze, there is no problem with taking down the protective fence if it can be guaranteed that the right to protest will not be abused. However, since this guarantee can't be given, the fence should stay where it is.

The problem with this argument is what does it mean exactly to "abuse" the right to protest? In Hungary, many argue that this right was not abused as the police forcefully removed peaceful protesters on the eve of the October 23rd anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution in order to spare the prime minister the embarrassment in front of world leaders. In the end, what was embarrassing, if not shameful, was that Hungarians were kept away from their own anniversary by brute force. It's ironic that sharpshooters on the rooftops protecting world leaders were reminiscent of the same sharpshooters which had killed scores of protesters on October 25, 1956.

By way of Kuncze's warped reasoning, all democracies around the world should erect a cordon around their parliaments and other key institutions since nowhere in the world can such a "guarantee" be given. Indeed, in a true democracy such a notion is absurd, for what constitutes an abuse of the right to protest is highly subjective. As far as dictators as pseudo democrats are concerned, any form of protest is an abuse of this right. Accordingly, to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, we all have freedom until when we need it the most.

Unfortunately, many Hungarians at this stage appear to be content with simply sitting on the fence. A prime example of this was the President of Hungary, Laszlo Solyom, and his comments shortly after the incident. Like many others, he criticised the actions of the FIDESZ parliamentarians; on the other hand, he acknowledged that the fence poses a problem for Hungarian democracy. While some would commend Solyom for trying to be objective, he nevertheless fails to confront the issue head on.

This failure to confront the issue head on is, sadly, endemic within the Hungarian political system. The Gonczol Commission, which was formed late last year and charged with the task of looking into last year's disturbances, is a prime example. Its report, released on Tuesday, laid the blame for the disturbances last year far and wide: on the police, the government, the President, and the media. It regarded the protests and disturbances last year as an "attempt to overthrow the government" yet, strangely enough, it also added that "it did not throw the constitutional regime into crisis." Yet rather than curb the powers of the police, the commission's report appears to be a whitewash, handling the issue of police brutality with kid?s gloves while relegating the rights of ordinary citizens to the background. Indeed, part of its criticism of the police wasn't so much that they had used excessive force, but that they had allowed the demonstrations to go on for so long in the first place. As a result, one recommendation by the commission is to not allow for demonstrations to last more than 24 hours.

Many Hungarians feel that it's time for a real change

What is interesting to note is that a poll taken shortly after the fence incident last week shows that a majority of Hungarians supports neither the status quo position of Kuncze, the fence-sitting views of the President, nor the pseudo-intellectual conclusions of the Gonczol Commission. When questioned on who was responsible for the incident, a minority actually pointed to the FIDESZ; the government, on the other hand, took more of the blame. Over half of those surveyed, however, blamed the entire political elite for the situation.

This is because a majority of Hungarians have had enough of politicians, for they are all viewed as corrupt. Most are the same old faces from since the change of regime in 1989, with many of them from even before then. The ideas they espouse are stale, and they are collectively blamed for the mess the country is now in. Many feel that it's time for a real change -- both in terms of new faces and a new approach.

Aside from economic austerity, many Hungarians have come to realise that democracy is nothing more than an empty word. They feel they have been taken advantage of by multinationals such as Tesco (whom Danks has links to) or by the various utility and service companies to whom they are enslaved. There appears to be no redress anywhere, either through government agencies such as the consumer protection agency, or the courts. Indeed, in many cases the courts and other institutions appear overly bureaucratic and corrupt. Membership in the EU, meanwhile, which was supposed to bring Hungary up to European standards, has done just the opposite: standards have sunk to an all time low, with inferior and dangerous products lining the shelves, and bales of garbage from Germany and elsewhere dumped throughout the country. It's all as if Hungary is nothing more than Europe's backyard compost pit.

On top of all this, the way in which the police and politicians (both government and opposition) handled the demonstrations last year merely adds to this feeling of resentment. In a way, it can be said that history is repeating itself somewhat. As in 1956, when the Soviets intervened in the beginning of November, for many this marked the end of the revolution. Yet the struggle and protests continued. In fact, in many places the acronym MUK appeared which translated as "In March we begin again." Unfortunately, the retaliation of the regime was such that by the end of January 1957 all hopes for such a revival were dashed.

The same can be said now of the present. Although the state had brutally put down the protests in late October of last year, erecting fences around parliament and the ruling Socialist Party headquarters (which was removed by the police shortly after), demonstrations throughout the country continued. Meanwhile, the government and the police have begun to prepare for March. In January the police were granted 3 billion forint (almost 12 million dollars) for the purchase of shields, tear gas, rubber bullets, and other armaments. They have already taken delivery of much of this equipment and have been reported to be holding training exercises.

The fear of the police and the government is not entirely unfounded, however. Like October 23rd, which commemorates the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, March 15th is an important date, for it commemorates another revolution, that of 1848. Already, some groups are preparing for the anniversary.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the fence incident last Friday has left many with a feeling of trepidation. Two-thirds of Hungarians feel that what happened last week will inevitably lead to civil unrest akin to what happened in September and October of last year, maybe even worse. While this is a view held by many on the left, those on the right are likewise unsure of what the future may hold. They regard the FIDESZ dismantling of the fence as an unnecessary provocation, perhaps even as an excuse for the authorities to begin an early clampdown. Indeed, many blame the FIDESZ for hijacking the protest movement last year; likewise, they feel that FIDESZ has now preemptively hijacked the protests planned for March.

Others take a more conspiratorial view and actually see the government's hand in all of this. As with the protests last year, they believe that the government (perhaps with some help from the opposition) has engineered such crises in order to "let off a little steam" so as to avoid a truly massive protest that could possibly bring down the government. Similarly, some view these episodes as a means to divert people's attention from the austerity measures being introduced, in much the same way that the pompous funeral of legendary footballer Ferenc Puskas was used to this end (even the organiser of the event was surprised at how few people attended). The fact that this incident occurred when the price for gas and bread was once again raised only reinforces the convictions of those who subscribe to this view.

And finally there are those who view the whole situation from a more international perspective. They claim that the speech made by Gyurcsany which precipitated the protests last October was actually engineered by the CIA, for the US has been increasingly concerned over the close ties between Gyurcsany and Putin. In effect, what has been going on in Hungary is merely the fallout from a larger power play in the global energy wars between east and west. Gyurcsany has been leaning closer east, with the hope of making the Hungary a major transit hub for Russian oil destined to Europe.

In the end, whether the present situation has been hijacked or manipulated for ulterior motives is beside the point. What people on both the left and right in Hungary seem to agree on is that the change in system which was supposed to have taken place in 1989 is only now beginning. For the past two decades, only piecemeal and cosmetic changes have occurred on all fronts -- politically, socially, and economically. Problems have been always deferred to the future. Yet the future is here and now, and no-one seems to have an idea of how to handle it. (John Horvath)