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.