The role of the Hungarian police on October 23, 2006

There have been many thoughtful comments in the past few days on a range of topics: foreign languages, József Antall’s policies, the economic success of the Orbán government, and the political views of Hungarian émigrés. I would like to answer them all, but I don’t want to create a hodge-podge of a blog. Instead, I would like to focus on the events of October 23, 2006, and the question of police brutality. Let me note right at the beginning that throughout the conflict I watched the events on television. The MTV’s cameramen were on the spot. In addition, I read quite a bit about what happened and heard several interviews with people from both sides.

It seems that we, Minsztrel and I, agree that Krisztina Morvai is not the best spokesman for the right. If I read him correctly, he wouldn’t mind if Krisztina Morvai were sacked. Most likely her sugary and phoney style turns him off; it’s very hard to take. However, my hunch is that Viktor Orbán won’t get rid of her. She is far too successful at creating a myth. If I may say so, Morvai and the Hungarian right even managed to convince Minsztrel that the original "melee … spilled over onto the Fidesz rally." The fact is that this is not what happened.

To start roughly at the beginning: in 2006 observers were somewhat surprised that the Fidesz planned a political rally in front of the Astoria and were even more surprised that the Budapest police permitted it. The Astoria sits at an important intersection: Múzeum-Károly kőrút and Kosuth Lajos-Rákóczi út. But nothing important happened there during the revolution except, as I half jokingly said earlier, that’s where I first saw the Russian tanks at 5 a.m. on October 24th. I thought that the site of the Fidesz rally was far too close to Kossuth tér–where the "hooligans" were gathering–from where everybody was expecting trouble. By now I suspect that the Fidesz demonstration was strategically located. Orbán, I think, hoped that something dreadful would happen that might expedite the Gyurcsány government’s early departure. He guessed right: there was trouble but, most likely to Orbán’s sorrow, not big enough (though it seems endlessly enduring) trouble.

What the police wanted to achieve was twofold: first to keep the trouble makers from disrupting the Fidesz gathering and second to keep them from comingling with the Fidesz rally participants once the rally was over. They succeeded in their first objective. They managed to keep the trouble makers away from the Fidesz gathering while the meeting was in progress. Then, in order to achieve their second objective, they phoned the organizers of the Fidesz meeting asking them to warn their people not to leave the intersection in front of the Astoria in the direction of Károly kőrút. Up to this point the performance of the police was impeccable.

For whatever reason, the organizers of the rally neglected to pass this message on to the participants, and thus some people began going north toward Deák tér. Joining them were bystanders who, upon hearing the noise of the upheaval coming from Károly kőrút, also started walking in that direction. Who knows what motivated them to become part of a dangerously confrontational situation. I suspect that some of them were simply curious (Hungarian doesn’t have the expression "curiosity killed the cat"), others wanted to yell obscenities against the police or chant some anti-Gyurcsány slogans. In any event, what happened was inevitable. Some people who were not throwing rocks at the police were also hurt in the melee. And yes, there were a few people against whom excessive force was used. Yet, on the whole, I was surprised at how patiently the line of police stood fast without attacking the attackers. In Western Europe and in this country the police are a great deal less patient. The results are telling: over 400 policemen were hurt (some quite seriously) while only about 140 rioters received wounds. The most controversial weapons the police used were rubber bullets which apparently are used all over the world in similar situations. It is another matter that again, due to inexperience, perhaps some of the bullets were fired too high. (Since then the Hungarian police have not been using rubber bullets. They have received better equipment.)

Yes, there were a few cases of police brutality and about forty policemen are under investigation. In these cases we still don’t know who is telling the truth, the rioters or the policemen. As far as the rioters are concerned, many of them covered their faces and therefore identification is difficult. The question of identification of policemen is the subject of a huge controversy. The police say that they had identifying numbers on, while the other side says no, they didn’t. Hard to decide who is telling the truth.

What happened there might have been a less than effective handling of a dangerous situation, but talking about a "bloodbath" as Krisztina Morvai says is more than exaggeration. It is an outright lie.

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I think many people from all parties involved in the Oct 23 debacle acted in shameful ways, and I agree that the police did not start the riots. However I think you are being far too easy on the police. ‘How patiently the line of police stood fast without attacking’ – Did we see the same media footage? They most certainly used excessive force. I couldn’t imagine the political fallout if police in the UK acted the way the Hungarian police did on October 23, none of them involved would still have a job. I remember watching it on the BBC in London and people were shocked at their behaviour. ‘The most controversial weapon used was rubber bullets’ – (trained professionals would know that firing rubber bullets at close range above the waist can cause serious injury) What about the infamous Viperas? Those are banned for police use by the Hungarian government themselves. There is photographic proof of this – even the government or police no longer deny they were used. I didn’t realise there was any controversy over police ID, it seems clear in pictures they wore none… maybe that’s why so few are being prosecuted.
Perhaps being able to smell the teargas on October 23rd allows for more perspective. The afternoon of October 23, 2006, two friends and I went to the Fidesz rally, primarily to hear what whoppers Viktor Orbán would be saying that year. As we walked down Bajcsy-Zsilinszky utca from Andrássy út, Árpád-striped flag waving people walked in the opposite direction, asking us to join them. Since shouting insults at the prime minister with a bunch of drunk proto-fascists is not my idea of a good time, I continued on to the Fidesz rally. Shortly thereafter, at the intersection of Alkotmány utca and Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, the protestors and police clashed, and a riot began, from where they traveled nearly a mile over an hour’s time in the direction of the Fidesz rally. The government has insisted that the rioters pulled the fight in that direction, while the opposition has accused the police of pushing the riot onto the Fidesz rally. One thing is certain, however, that with ample time and resources, the police did not create a defensive blockade to protect the peaceful rally from the riot. Why did Fidesz hold their rally at Astoria? Only they know the answer. It could be… Read more »

Morvai appeared on the BBC World Service Radio a month or so after the riots, presenting her story line about the police attacking peaceful demonstrators without provocation and sniping at the Gyurcsany governemnet as if this was the intention of Feri Gy. himself. She used that sweet and measured tone of voice which sounds persuasive in Hungarian but actually sets alarm bells off in English language ears (*Warning! Compulsive lying about to begin! Warning!*)
As soon as the BBC presentor began to question her – pointing out that the police reponded to actual threats such as a hijacked tank and the experience of the TV building siege – Morvai turned nasty and her voice grew agressive. She refused to answer the questions put to her and kept repeating her talking points about how the bad police had intentionally shot at demonstrators, and her voice changed completely. Eventually she was sputtering mad and had to be abruptly cut off by the presentor.
Incidentally, Nick Thorpe, the BBC’s local reporter in Budapest, probably set her up to speak with the BBC. Thorpe is a strong FIDESZ supporter, and his reporting sometimes shocks me with its open bias toward FIDESZ’ political goals.