The Lessons of March

Hungary has now entered the club of being a hooligan-ridden democracy

The March 15th anniversary of the 1848 Revolution in Hungary was, in many ways, an anti-climax to months of fear and trepidation. In addition to this, the much hated cordon fence surrounding parliament was removed in the early hours of this morning. A sense of normality seemed to slowly but surely make itself felt in the Hungarian capital.

The massive demonstrations and violence which were evident last September and October never materialised last Thursday. Moreover, despite the 1,500 who took to the streets, the police appeared to be more restrained this time round and was able to disperse the crowd in a relatively peaceful manner.

This isn't to say that there weren't some forms of police misconduct. The authorities still relied on the use of illegal equipment, such as "quick cuffs", a strip of plastic to quickly tie a person's hands behind their back. Also there were a few instances of the police mistreating innocent bystanders, such as an elderly man who was roughed up by officers.

The Hungarian authorities were quick to point out that although tear gas was used to disperse the crowds, they didn't use rubber bullets. Although this may be true, the tear gas that was fired at the crowd were steel-encased canisters which, in some cases, could be even worse than rubber bullets if they hit a person directly at close range. Normally, tear gas canisters fired by the police are of a cardboard-like material which wouldn't cause serious injury if it hit a person directly.

Despite this and other shortcomings, the police action on March 15th was restrained. Reporters at the scene noted that officers were friendly and didn't rough them up this time. Also, the contentious issue of police badges appeared resolved as officers had their number sewn onto their uniforms.

These apparent "positive" changes, however, are cosmetic at best. Reporters and others at the scene shouldn't have been surprised at the relatively friendly manner at which the police dealt with them. In many respects, Europe and other parts of the world were watching carefully, and many countries had sent observers to view events on the ground.

While these observers were also generally satisfied with the performance of the Hungarian police during the demonstrations, they still noted that the overall security presence was intimidating. One observer from Switzerland, for example, commented on how access to the parliament was so restrictive that it even exceeded security measures in the US. As far as he was concerned, such security measures in Hungary were definitely overkill.

Meanwhile, other noted improvements, such as the use of police badges, were presented in such a way that it obscured the real issue. For one, the so-called "badges" worn by officers were nothing more than a set of numbers on a piece of material sewn on to the uniform. Not only was the size restrictive in that it wasn't easy to see the numbers, but the fact that these numbers were simply pieces of material sewn on to the uniforms can't be regarded as genuine identification badges. What is more, the European Union had recommended that the identification number be painted on the helmets of officers so they could be clearly seen from a distance. Not only was such a recommendation not followed, but the entire police badge issue was presented in such a way as if the authorities were taking the initiative and doing something extra for the general public, when in fact they were merely doing what was required of them by law.

In the end, although the demonstrations ended with a few arrests and minor injuries, along with some damage to private and public property, both sides of the political divide claimed victory. The government patted itself on the back for the way in which it had handled the situation, while the opposition pointed out that they had been right all along, that government propaganda over the past few weeks of various groups that were intent on spreading destruction and mayhem was nothing more than cheap scare tactics.

For the public at large, however, the March 15th anniversary this year was nothing to be happy about. As with the 50th anniversary to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 last year in October, many felt that the March 15th anniversary to the 1848 Revolution this year was "stolen" from them by the authorities. The commemorations of 1848 are more of a light-hearted, family affair, as opposed to the sombre mood commemorating October 1956 (no doubt the different seasons have an effect: the former is held during spring while the latter is during the fall). Thanks in large part to government and police propaganda, most families stayed at home this year rather than taking part in the festivities for fear of violence.

In much the same manner, the handing out of state awards was overshadowed by events. The March 15th anniversary is when the prestigious Kossuth Award is handed out to leading Hungarian artists and personalities. Sadly, few paid attention as to who got what this year.

Although the cordon fence around parliament is now gone and some demonstrators vow to carry on their protests in front of parliament, the initial protest movement which had sparked the events of the past few months in Hungary is gone. Its objectives have been warped by extremists and many aspects of the original protest hijacked by the political opposition.

The initial protests in front of parliament needed to be followed by industrial action, which never came. This industrial action wasn't forthcoming because of a lack of social solidarity. This is due to the hangman's noose of debt and a culture of consumption which has permeated the country. As a result, no one is willing to take part in something which might jeopardise their jobs and, hence, risk the few possessions they have.

Under such conditions, there can't be any form of social change. True social change can only come about when people don't fear the state, either because they are confident in themselves, not tied down by the whims of a consumerist society or, as is the case in most revolutions, they have nothing to lose, but everything to win.

In the end, what the so-called "demonstrations" have shown is how Hungary has moved to a stage of socio-political development which, unfortunately, is characteristic of most western democracies. The "demonstrators" on March 15th were clearly not the same as those who took to the streets in October of last year. Then, protesters didn't vandalise; on the contrary, it was the police who smashed store windows and the like.

The way in which true protest has been compromised is perhaps best illustrated by the violent attack on the state television building last year. Those who attacked the building and the police guarding it were not of the same peaceful protesters in front of parliament. While a large crowd from that protest did go over to see what was going on (after all, it was just around the corner), they stood idly by and didn't take part, even though they were being encouraged to join in the fray by those who attacked the building.

What all this shows is how demonstrations nowadays in Hungary resemble the hooligan outbreaks of violence which usually takes place during football matches. In fact, it appears that from now on such hooliganism will be a common feature during national holidays in Hungary. Thus, if the authorities feel they can sit back and relax, they need to think again: May Day is around the corner, and perhaps the commemoration of the Treaty of Trianon during the summer will provide another excuse, and then we are back to September and October, and so on.

In light of the events of the past few weeks, there is every reason to believe that the authorities are well aware of all this. The so-called sixty groups or 2,500 individuals who were supposed to disrupt the March 15th anniversary were probably the same list of people the authorities have already marked as football hooligans. The only difference now is that the political climate in Hungary is such that these same individuals are now emboldened and even encouraged to partake in hooliganism during national holidays and political demonstrations. Because a large segment of the population feel cheated, they tacitly approve of such violence and vandalism (although they themselves would not take part) because they feel that all political and constitutional channels have been either exhausted or suppressed. Without such tacit support, this hooliganism in Hungary would not have been able to emerge, but would have remained confined to the football pitch.

For the authorities, this situation provides a good excuse to not only expand the surveillance powers of the police, but as a means to discredit legitimate protest. As in the case of football hooliganism throughout Europe, many no longer like going to games because of the likelihood of violence. In much the same way, people are now less likely to attend political rallies or take part in demonstrations because of the likelihood of some sort of violence.

This, of course, doesn't mean we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. No-one would deny that it's not the game of football itself which is responsible for football hooliganism. Thus, in the same way that people are able to decouple hooliganism from the game of football, the same now needs to be done with political protest in Hungary. Whether such distinctions can be made remains to be seen. For now, it appears that with every national holiday or major political demonstration in Hungary, the threat of violence lingers -- and with it, the suppressive powers of a police state. (John Horvath)