The siege of the Hungarian Television Station, September 18, 2006
For those of you who are either not familiar with the fateful events of the fall of 2006 in Hungary or don’t remember all the details I should state again that there were two distinct phases of the riots. The first took place on September 17-18 and the second at the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the 1956 Revolution, an occasion attended by scores of foreign dignitaries.
Every time the topic of these riots comes up Fidesz supporters like to make a sharp distinction between the “peaceful demonstrators” of October 23 and the next few days and the criminal elements who laid siege to the Hungarian Television Station on September 18. However, immediately after that bloody night on Szabadság (Liberty) Square Fidesz politicians insisted that the siege was a spontaneous outburst of justified indignation. At the same time they accused the government of purposely sending the ill-equipped policemen into harm’s way, thereby compromising the opposition that supported them. One thing is sure: the violence that characterized the siege and the characters who took part in it didn’t rock the government. According to a Medián poll taken before the siege, 52% of those asked thought that Gyurcsány should resign. After the siege, only 45%.
First let’s examine how “spontaneous” the gathering was on Kossuth Square on the evening of September 17, right after the release of the incriminating lines from Gyurcsány’s speech. Initially the police noted only 20-30 people, but minute by minute more people came from all directions. To the police it looked as if recruiting were taking place, most likely through cell phones. Eventually there were at least 1,000 people, if not more. Soon enough they even had loudspeakers and managed to put together a podium. Speaker after speaker kept repeating parts of Gyurcsány’s speech. It began to rain and somebody distributed yellow raincoats used at Fidesz gatherings. The demonstration was peaceful at the beginning, but eventually some of the people broke the cordon the police had erected.
This “spontaneous” demonstration was illegal because it had not been registered with the police. The police leadership, especially Péter Gergényi, the police chief of Budapest, misjudged the situation by declaring it part of the campaign season for the municipal elections. During such times spontaneous gatherings indeed are permitted. Gergényi talked to József Petrétei, the minister of justice, and his deputy Ferenc Kondorosi and informed them that there was nothing to do. “Let them let off some steam.” He predicted that the demonstration planned for the following day would also be peaceful. Petrétei happily agreed. According to Debreczeni, the real culprit of this story was the incompetent Petrétei, in civilian life a professor of law at the University of Pécs who, according to his job description, is supposed to “direct” the police. Instead, he was watching the events on television at home.
Some of the crowd didn’t leave the square even during the night. Soon enough someone was serving them food and Gyula Budai, today undersecretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and in the first two years of the Orbán government the commissioner in charge of “political crimes” of MSZP politicians, provided them with portable toilets. He also brought along a tractor with which he led some of the people to Jászai Mari Square in order to lay siege to the building that serves as an office building for members of parliament.
Meanwhile extremist groups came with their flags and slogans: the Honfoglalás 2000, Hatvannégy Vármegye, Magyar Nemzeti Front, and Jobbik. Football hooligans who used to fight among themselves now united in order to attack the television station the next day. Busloads of football fans arrived from Debrecen and Nyíregyháza, the UTE (Újpest) fans came straight from a game in Sopron. They arrived with a police escort! Maria Wittner, the heroine of 1956 and an extremist politician, made a speech and announced that there was a new “revolutionary situation.” By evening the word came that “Fidesz assures the demonstrators its solidarity.” Naturally, a huge ovation followed the announcement.
I’m not going to go into all the details of the siege of the building the following evening. Instead I suggest you view a video by Ádám Csillag entitled “Under Siege” (Ostrom alatt).
The police leadership turned out to be singularly untalented and the policemen’s equipment was woefully inadequate. Hundreds of policemen were seriously injured. In 2002 the question of providing the police with proper riot gear came up after a demonstration that blocked Elizabeth Bridge, but the undersecretary in charge of police matters in the Ministry of Interior vetoed it. It was too expensive and unnecessary. Instead they bought 40 Ford Mondeos for patrolling the streets.
Not only the equipment was problematic. The Hungarian police force, especially those who can handle riots, was very small and ill-trained. On that day no more than about 850 policemen were available in the whole country who could be called to the scene. Altogether there were only 2,400 policemen on the streets nationwide, including ordinary traffic cops. In the Netherlands there are 16,000 available at any given moment.
Eventually, they came up with a twenty-five-year-old water cannon whose power was negligible. And when it was a question of getting equipment to fire tear gas, the staff couldn’t accommodate because the equipment was locked up in a room where arms were kept.
It was an incident with this water cannon that make people very suspicious that someone was actually giving orders to the crowd. There were a number of policeman inside the water cannon which the rioters set on fire. Everybody was expecting that either these people will burn alive inside or, if they come out, they will be lynched. But no, when they came out the crowd retreated. Obviously, the organizers were careful not to go too far.
Another episode also indicates some kind of central planning. At one point a number of policemen were cornered; they were practically lying on the ground trying to defend themselves from the stones hurled at them. However, the organizers allowed another unit to rescue them.
In addition to Maria Wittner, Gábor Kubatov, currently the president of Ferencváros and right-hand man of Viktor Orbán, most likely also had a large role to play behind the scenes in the events of September 17 and 18. At least this is what József Debreczeni heard from some people in the Office of National Security.
I should also mention László Sólyom’s rather unfortunate role on September 18. He decided to talk about the “moral crisis” that had developed as a result of the Balatonőszöd speech and practically called for Gyurcsány’s resignation. That added oil to the fire. The attackers felt perfectly justified. After all, even the president thinks that they are on the right side. If Gyurcsány doesn’t resign, they will force him to do so. Standing behind this crowd, be it Viktor Orbán or László Sólyom, showed either very poor judgment or cunning. With Sólyom I suspect it was a lack of knowledge of what was going on exactly and who the actors were. With Orbán, I think one must be less forgiving. He was ready to exploit criminal elements if they served his purpose.