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.

Some of those who showed  their "justified indignation" against the lies of Prime Minister Gyurcsány

Some of those who showed their “justified indignation” against the lies of Prime Minister Gyurcsány

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.

44 comments

  1. According to my point of view, it is quite normal that a legitimately elected government tried to defend the public order by using the police forces.
    No other way exists for a civilisation to survive, it is the function of this “violence organisations”, it is price of democracy.
    Kossuth square was preparing to celebration , presidents, kings , prime ministers were expected to come, cca 50 of them to attend the celebration of 1956 revolution and the square smelled from urine and other excremental materials.
    Unfortunately enough, these police forces were quite incompetent and frightened, they were not really equipped with either mental or physical tools. There must have been a lot among them who had fought for their life (eg those ordered to service from police shools, ie kids) Its definitely not their fault.
    Look at other countries, where even casualties happen, of course very sadly (think back to Greece).
    Later conflicts with HU hulligans were handled with rubber bullets as a first choice (in Switzerland).

    No European democracy is prepared for the aggressive destruction of the democracy itself.
    This is one of the main weapons of OV, there are no clear rules in the EU wich would apply to what is happening these days in Hungary. No one was even thinking to a similar case, I am speaking of the period from, 2006 to December, 2012.

    May be JÖrg of Austria to whom only few remember. Now it is one of most successful countries of the world.

    OV does not care any EU rule because only the nation will pay for it as a penalty. I meant the Cohesion Funds. There are not viable tools to regulate him (I am starting to see one, it is related to economic breakdown)

    Its too bad what happened in 2006 and afterwards, when these actions took pace (B-midde football fans were “peacefully” burning up the headquarters of Hungarian Television, including the car of the TV president, Mr Baló thoose times the wife of whom was or at least had been Krisztina Morvay sent by Jobbik to the European Parliament), and when Balsay annulled the criminal violence committed by the rioters. (Later it turned out that there were more policemen injured then rioters).

    As a reward Balsay became the member of Constitutional Court.
    It is dark here, sorry for misspellings.
    Happy New Year to all the authors and commenters, esp Eva who runs this blog.
    PS
    no signature, I am commenting under my own name

  2. London Calling!

    Compatriot Paul – not idealised at all.

    Just a short defence of what I wrote above – after all this is Hungarian Spectrum.

    As one who lived through – and experienced the Wapping riots I have every reason to have a jaundiced view of the police – but only if you look backwards.

    However they have changed significantly – and I was specifically writing about unequivocal picture evidence as shown in Eva’s piece.

    Your experience of ‘kettling’ (the technique for containing large crowds) has been challenged – and it has been held that in certain circumstances better to frustrate the crowd than risk unbridled violence. It has been examined in many case and found to be a required tool.

    However if you are in one of these situations you will naturally be instantly anti-police.

    They just can’t win.

    I believe the Hungarian police showed extraordinary restraint in Eva’s piece – refusing to use live ammunition under extreme provocation. But am am not too idealistic to believe that they wouldn’t have wanted to get in some retaliation of their own through other means. English police would never be confronted with this dilemma as few carry guns – and only in specific circumstances.

    As one too who has been ‘fitted up’ by the police – and managed to equip myself against a policeman who committed perjury, believe me, I do not have an idealistic view as to what they can do in their worst moments.

    I have also worked with them in many court cases and some ooze integrity, intelligence and innovation. As probably many Hungarian police do too.

    With the new police commissioners – and with the CPS as described above there have been enormous changes in police behaviour.

    So to recap: The police are more professional in England; more ‘overseen'; and more accountable.

    I think you will only have a continuing jaundiced view from your radical student days if you only look backwards – or are a football hooligan.

    And I anticipated a ‘compatriot’ response – but by all means have the last word on this.

    But look forward.

    Regards

    Charlie

  3. I am deeply sorry to have played troll. I will never do it again, I promise. But it was a good experiment. It is very easy to play in the style of Fidesz, so it does not take much experience to do it if someone has the ambition to be a populist politician. You only have to be completely unscrupulous and then you are elevated from the backwaters (Szijarto, Rogan, Lazar etc. and they are just the better known names).

    Unfortunately it works, in a sense. At the end of the day, we are intellectuals, but we are a minority and think that we should never forget this.

    30 % of the Hungarian population has never used internet, and about 25% other uses it rarely. In other words, half of the voters have almost no idea what is going on in the world simply because one can’t get reliable, objective information from Kossuth Radio, MTV1, Magyar Nemzet, RTL, TV2 etc. This half can’t be reached to have a rational debate about issues. And this is just one metric, obviously even internet users often hold crazy views.

    There is no real discourse, the ideal of deliberative democracy does not exist in practice. We can do it here, and I thank for Prof. Eva Balogh, who – in my view – writes better posts here than mainstream journalists who do it for a living and spots the real issues much better than most if not all Hungarian newspapers/sites.

    So arguments like my earlier ones do work because they can’t be refuted or are at least very difficult to refute in practice. A rational person, politician is up against extremely difficult adversaries.

  4. I’m accustomed to following orders of a policeman. If an ordinary traffic cop tells me to get out of the car, I don’t argue with him. I don’t curse at him as Hungarians do with their policemen. If they tried to do that with any policeman here they would find out in short order what would happen to them.

    Only once I felt that I was badly treated by a state trooper. State troopers are in charge of state highways while streets in cities belong to the municipal police forces. I certainly didn’t argue with him but I told him that I will report him to his superiors. He defiantly told me: “Go ahead, here is my number.” I wrote down the number and went home with my $70.00 fine. On closer observation it turned out that I had the choice of not paying it but go to court and argue my case. I decided to do that. I wasn’t going to pay for something I didn’t do.

    Weeks went by and I was waiting for the word about my court appearance. I was preparing my speech in court about being a former refugee from a communist country but even in that communist state no policeman talked to me this way. The opportunity to deliver my speech never came. The court decided not to ask me in. My feeling was that my guy was only too well known to the judges. They knew that they would lose.

    Well, with this long detour, the Hungarian police repeatedly warned people to leave the area that they decided to clear. If “a peaceful bystander” defied the police then he/she shouldn’t have been surprised what came afterwards. But more about that day later. If one gets mixed up with criminals and drunk football hooligans this is what can happen to them. Actually, the police was quite ineffectual. Even on October 23 one could see only retreating policemen, trying to defend themselves.

    One should see what the police does in other countries in such situations. The last time Hungarian football hooligans had an opportunity to learn a thing or two about the Swiss police was when they received rubber bullets because of their disorderly conduct after a football game in Basel. I assume we all remember of what hay Krisztina Morvay made out of police “shooting out the eyes of peaceful bystanders.” Very often she forgot to mention that it was rubber bullets and not real ones and that there was only one case when a policeman shot too high with the rubber bullet. Most likely because he was inexperienced.

  5. Charlie, I’m sorry to disabuse you of your lazy stereotypes, but I have never been ‘kettled’ (although I think it an appalling method of ‘crowd control’ and should be outlawed), nor was I a student or a football hooligan. Nor are my politics particularly radical.

    I am a middle-class, middle-aged, conservative (small ‘c’!) and naturally well disposed to the police. My (at times) negative attitude towards them was fashioned directly by personal experience. I have seen people arrested for just being there, or for breaking minor laws (like collecting money during a miner’s strike march) and then beaten up (for ‘resisting arrest’, of course). I have seen a woman with a baby in her arms being pushed down a long flight of concrete steps by policemen with no numbers (so you can’t identify them), and I have seen a man’s foot broken by a policeman deliberately backing his horse into him (he wasn’t even in the demo, just passing by with his shopping) – and much more. And I have had all the lack-of-rights experience that any football fan who travels to away games will have experienced (and NEVER seen any violence).

    To the police, we are not individuals with rights, we are are just members of crowds that need to be ‘controlled’ – by whatever means are ‘needed’.

    And if you discount my personal experiences, you only have to listen to the news. From the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, through the Waldorf and de Menezes shootings, and more recently Hillsborough and now ‘Plebgate’ – nothing changes.

    No doubt many of them individually are good guys (I have known several myself and they were OK, apart from the inevitable casual racism). But collectively, the police are a law unto themselves, and woe betide you if you get in their way.

    Getting back OT – one of the things I’ve always liked about Hungary was its amateurish police force (after all, despite what the locals think, its level of crime hardly justifies much more). In Debrecen until a few years ago, you hardly ever saw the police, but now the place is crawling with them (mostly hanging about chatting and smoking, or harassing homeless people). Imagine what that lot will get up to with no real crime to fight and encouragement from their political masters. And, you are right, we do at least theoretically have a chance against the police abusing our rights in the UK, the poor bloody Hungarians won’t stand a chance.

  6. London Calling!

    Eva – your ‘police’ story is quite similar to my own – except the policeman did turn up and perjure himself in court. I was lucky in my own actions too – as you were – I actually asked him if he minded if I took notes – he gave a very surprised ‘No’ – and so I proceeded to notate (and time!) everything he said. In addition I had a very good (theatrical and entertaining!) solicitor.

    Against such a solid defence it was obvious the policeman was lying – even from his body language – and the courts deliberation was less than three minutes – so swift that the policeman got the message – and costs were awarded against the police; in itself quite a rare occurrence here.

    The case took a whole year (to the day) to come to court – and it overshadowed my life completely during this period – so I can empathise with your experience – and know what you probably went through.

    When it was over I was so stunned I just sat in the court room (dock!) – “You are free to go, Sir, you have been found not guilty”

    When I got home and opened the front door I saw down the hall my cat was being sick on the kitchen floor – and I said to her – “Yes Mitzi – we all hate a bent copper!”

    From that day onwards, whenever the cat was sick – I used to say she had “Scrivenered again!”. ‘PC Scrivener’ was the bent copper who perjured himself.

    He is still serving in the British Police force – as the Police Complaints Commission can only weigh my word against his. To quote them “He is bomb-proof – we can only get rid of him if he admits to lying.”

    However his superior was aware of his qualities and advised me that he would be watched carefully as they had a pretty good idea of what had occurred.

    Luck too was on my side here – the investigating policeman on the subsequent enquiry was a good friend of one of my friends. No no nepotism! He was just more forthcoming than he would have otherwise have been.

    But this was in the past – just as the dreadful ‘Guildford Four’ and the ‘Birmingham Six’ cases. (My post is already too long! You can easily find the cases on English Wikipedia if you are so inclined, for further information – but they are ‘celebrated’ – dreadful – miscarriages of justice.)

    I believe such serious miscarriages or justice are much more unlikely in the future.

    Recently a case occurred with Ian Tomlinson who had a heart attack when pushed to the ground gratuitously by a policeman during London City riots. Whilst the circumstances were entirely unsatisfactory, this time he was identified by serving colleagues – when otherwise they would have closed ranks. I suspect they were aware of all the mobile phone footage.

    In London certainly there has been a sea change in the attitude of the police – I hope there has been in your neck of the woods!

    Regards

    Charlie

  7. @Eva
    “…there was only one case when a policeman shot too high with the rubber bullet. Most likely because he was inexperienced.”

    It wasn’t even necessary to aim high to hit someone on the eye – the only requirement is that both the bullet and the eye is on the same level.

    Now, imagine as a ‘peaceful protester’ just bent down to pick up a cobblestone or any similarly ‘peaceful’ object – eyes under the belt level – as the means of his expression of his free opinion and the manifestation of freedom of speech ( – please, don’t laugh, these were the words then, really!) and his eye and the properly fired rubber bullet already on collision curse bound to meet each other, as they regretfully done so.

    Not even once I have heard this kind of reasoning, only that “Gyurcsány made the police to shot out the eyes of the demonstrators” or the variations of this sentence, and hear it ever since.

    You know, “sling the mud – even if don’t stick will leave a stain” and it’s working just wonderfully…

  8. spectator :
    Not even once I have heard this kind of reasoning, only that “Gyurcsány made the police to shot out the eyes of the demonstrators” or the variations of this sentence, and hear it ever since.
    You know, “sling the mud – even if don’t stick will leave a stain” and it’s working just wonderfully…

    It takes a very good shooter to aim and hit the eyes of a moving person. Maybe Morvai should be taken to a target practice and see how well she does especially with moving targets, while she wears heavy outfit and others are pushing her.
    I honestly think most Hungarian politicians have some serious mental issues.

  9. Some1 :

    It takes a very good shooter to aim and hit the eyes of a moving person. Maybe Morvai should be taken to a target practice and see how well she does especially with moving targets, while she wears heavy outfit and others are pushing her.
    I honestly think most Hungarian politicians have some serious mental issues.

    Stupidity and ignorance combined. The latest is that Mária Wittner, the great heroine of 56 who never finished high school, gave a lecture about church history yesterday when the parliamentary committee in which she serves turned down the application of a formerly recognized small church. She declared: “Gentlemen! There is only one God, we don’t need sects.” All that after she declared that after all the Catholic Church is 2,000 year old and although it is true that there was a Reformation and after there were all these churches that multiplied as “amoeba,” but still. I guess in her eyes all other churches are only sects and that must include Judaism as well as Islam. The woman’s stupidity is horrendous.

  10. Eva S. Balogh :

    Some1 :

    It takes a very good shooter to aim and hit the eyes of a moving person. Maybe Morvai should be taken to a target practice and see how well she does especially with moving targets, while she wears heavy outfit and others are pushing her.
    I honestly think most Hungarian politicians have some serious mental issues.

    Stupidity and ignorance combined. The latest is that Mária Wittner, the great heroine of 56 who never finished high school, gave a lecture about church history yesterday when the parliamentary committee in which she serves turned down the application of a formerly recognized small church. She declared: “Gentlemen! There is only one God, we don’t need sects.” All that after she declared that after all the Catholic Church is 2,000 year old and although it is true that there was a Reformation and after there were all these churches that multiplied as “amoeba,” but still. I guess in her eyes all other churches are only sects and that must include Judaism as well as Islam. The woman’s stupidity is horrendous.

    Well, with Wittner’s logic we should outlaw Christianity, as Judaism beats that with at lest a thousand year. Christians referred to Judaism in the Old Testament (Book of Esther/Purim). In fact Judaism was the first monotheistic religion. Jews were monotheists at the time when the magyars did not even heard of one God yet, but were chasing magic tags.

  11. An :
    So, Gyurcsany acknowledged in his speech that they were lying to win elections, and people riot because he is unwilling to resign. Orban lies day and night without ever admitting to any of his lies, plus removes democratic checks and balances that makes it impossible to control or influence his power through democratic means, so that the only way to exert any political influence is taking the streets (see unions, student demonstration)… but still no violence. So, people just haven’t reached that tipping point they did when they were rallying against Gyurcsany?
    I tend to think that although there were may people rightly angry about the Gyurcsany speech, the events would not have culminated into what they did without the active help and orchestration by Fidesz, who decided to take politics out to the street (long before there was any reason to do that, see the incident on Erzsebet here after MszP won the elections in 2002). Just as they do not care for democratic rules and norms now, they did not care about them while in opposition either.
    It is actually very easy to exploit and instigate people’s anger for an unscrupulous leader. One reason why Orban does not see similar riots is that such charismatic and unscrupulous leader willing to play on people’s emotions hasn’t emerged on the other side. In the end, though, desperation will get people to the tipping point, and we can only hope that righteous anger will not be exploited again by a political adventurer but will lead to positive changes in the country.

    –“I tend to think that although there were may people rightly angry about the Gyurcsany speech…”

    No, they weren’t ‘rightly angry’! What on earth for? Because a politician had the tenacity and decency to confess that past actions were wrong and had to be corrected? No. Let us remember, as many have said before, that Hungarians are, or can be, sheep in wolves’ clothing….that is, when they are directed to do so as Fidesz did in haranguing the populace to react. There was zero justification for indignant reaction.

    As for the rioting and the ineffectiveness of the police, I would ascribe that to Fidesz work through their government allies–should anyone require proof that the police and the secret services have always been strictly right-wing?–in the police department. That someone got injured with a rubber bullet is ridiculous. Such rioting in the West would result in deaths–many of them, and much more severe use of police power as was used on this occasion.

    I’m afraid Gyurcsany wasn’t up to snuff on this occasion: he should’ve reacted angrily to Fidesz accusations, and the actions of the police. I’m reminded of Prime Minister Trudeau’s answer when questioned about the implementation of the War Measures Act:

    “How far will you go, Mr. Prime Minister?”

    “Just watch me!”

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