What’s wrong with the Hungarian police?

Of course, a lot. One could list scores of problems, starting with its overly centralized structure. A number of experts on Hungarian law enforcement would love to see the introduction of local police forces in cities and towns. Others blame Fidesz for its constant criticism of the police that ended in the paralysis of the entire organization. People on the right blame the socialists and the liberals for using the police as a political tool.

I’m sure that some of these are all valid observations, but here I would like to talk about something else: the confusion that seems to reign about whom the police are supposed to defend. The events in Gyöngyöspata lend support to my opinion about these wrong assumptions. There as elsewhere in troubled villages the police assumed the role of an honest broker. Yes, there are the neo-Nazis and there are the Gypsies. The neo-Nazis don’t like the Gypsies, so let’s separate them, however temporarily. Neo-Nazis to the right, Gypsies to the left, and all will be well. The Hungarian police don’t seem to understand that, among other things, they are supposed to ensure the safety of the minority. Be that ethnic or peaceful protesters.

Let me illustrate what I mean with an event that took place Monday in front of the Sándor Palota just before Pál Schmitt signed the new constitution. Interest in the event was slim. About one hundred people, including a group of tourists from Hong Kong, stood and waited for the great moment. Thanks to a video available on Origo’s website we can see some elderly citizens in rapture. Real hard-core true believers who seem to have slim knowledge of Hungarian history or anything else. The military band played merrily while they explained to the reporter that things went wrong in the past because everybody could do whatever they felt like doing. Everything will be fine after the introduction of the new constitution because it will put an end to liberalism that ever since 1919 has done incredible damage to the nation.

Although it was raining, the enthusiasts gathered to celebrate “the historic event.” There was one lone protester who was holding up a poster which said “No Fidesz tákolmány” (No Fidesz botched-up job). Police were on hand, but they did nothing when some people from the crowd attacked the man, grabbed his poster, threw it on the ground, trampled on it, and tore it into pieces. At this point the police went into “action”. They stood by the man as he was picking up the remnants of his poster, and when he finished they escorted him away from the scene. I don’t think that it occurred to these policemen that they were supposed to defend the protester’s right to free speech, that he wasn’t the one who did something wrong but it was rather those government supporters who attacked him and ruined his poster.

I don’t expect these young policemen to know much about democracy and freedom of speech on their own, but I do expect their superiors to teach them something. I don’t know what orders the police in Heves County received when they were told to go to Gyöngyöspata, but we would expect them to be told that in a democracy they have to defend the minority from an aggressive paramilitary group that seems to enjoy the support of the majority. Separating them into two parts of the village is simply not enough.

I was also astonished by the fact that when the Roma women and children returned from Csillebérc and Szolnok the police were not there to protect them from a group of people who were not exactly rolling out the welcome mat. One didn’t need a lot of imagination to predict that there might be trouble if the two groups met. And indeed, when a non-Gypsy woman yelled that it was too bad that the Roma people returned, a Gypsy woman hit her rather hard on the face.

When one comes to reading the reports of what happened in Gyöngyöspata last night there is only confusion. The neo-Nazis blame the Gypsies and the Gypsies the neo-Nazis. It is not at all clear whether we will ever find out exactly what happened. But all reports agree that the police were not on hand. According to one account there was only one patrolman left in the whole village; a few hours later there were more policemen in the village but they were busy elsewhere attending to some neighborhood squabble. We do know that both the neo-Nazis and the Gypsies were out on the streets courting trouble. Not surprisingly, trouble came.

All this tells me that the Hungarian police force was not up to snuff. The policemen allowed a situation to develop that was bound to end badly. The members of Véderő, reinforced with another paramilitary group that calls itself “Highwaymen,” returned to Gyöngyöspata one by one until their number perhaps exceeded the original small band that set up camp in the village last week. The more uniformed paramilitary troops in sight, the greater the panic on the other side. Something is very wrong with the organization and the self-assessment of the police’s role. Some fundamentals about the defense of the minority are in order. And not only in the police force but also in the present Hungarian government.

April 27, 2011