Oct 23, 2006 | 21:41 GMT

4 mins read

Hungary: 1956 Haunts the Government

Demonstrations to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation have merged with protests against the ruling government.
Demonstrations to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation have merged with protests against the ruling government. As of 6 p.m. local time Oct. 23, security forces began using tear gas grenades, water cannons and rubber bullets against the demonstrators, who numbered in excess of 100,000. The anniversary of Hungary's rebellion against the USSR could not have come at a worse time for the government. The present political crisis began Sept. 17 when a tape of a speech given to newly elected Socialist members of parliament by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany was leaked. In the expletive-laden monologue, Gyurcsany expounded upon how he was sick of lying to the people morning, noon and night about the state of the country's economy. He also said the newly elected members of parliament had a responsibility to support politically unpopular austerity measures in order to get the country's finances back in order. The leaked tape sparked immediate protests, which turned violent the night of Sept. 18. Since then, the unrest has ebbed and flowed, but the demonstrations have never gotten out of hand. That changed today. Oct. 23 is the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising against Soviet forces. The 1956 uprising initially ejected Soviet troops from Budapest, but ended disastrously a week later when Soviet forces poured 17 battalions of tanks into the capital, rounding up hundreds of the leaders of the uprising and executing most of them. The event — Hungarians' proudest and darkest hour all in one — exerts a powerful hold on the Hungarian mind. No matter the political situation of the moment, people were sure to show up in Budapest's downtown to commemorate the event. Normally, the anniversary would have been a solemn occasion to mark the Hungarian people's suffering, perseverance and, above all, courage. But with the current political troubles as a backdrop, the political opposition has succeeded in summoning the spirit of 1956 to call upon the people to bring Gyurcsany's government down. But there is more to celebrating 1956 than simply protests. The Hungarian government sought to celebrate the 50th anniversary with others, and its guest list reads like a veritable "Who's Who" of the democratic world. Heads of government or state are in attendance from Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Switzerland and Ukraine. High-ranking delegations are also present from all other major Western states, plus the European Commission and NATO. Given the lengthy VIP list, security in Kossuth Square — located in front of the parliament building — is understandably extraordinarily tight. Marry such security protocols with an excess of 100,000 protesters and you have a recipe for misunderstandings. Those misunderstandings have now devolved into violence. Due to increased security measures prompted by the visiting VIPs, the police drove out the small crowd in front of parliament. The crowd was pushed to side streets and searched, and the police found items such as coal in socks and small amounts of gasoline. This small group — like the hoodlums who sparked violence Sept. 18 — was itching for a fight. The discovery alarmed the authorities and triggered fierce police actions, resulting in anger among those on the streets to commemorate the '56 revolution with a peaceful march. And one can imagine the reaction from those in the crowd primed for demonstrations. The police counterresponse was equally predictable. In the Hungarian mind, the government now occupies the same position as Soviet troops did back in 1956. This has prompted farmers to threaten to use their equipment to block access to Budapest to inhibit the government's ability to reinforce troops in the capital. These passions will pass, but not tonight. Which means Gyrucsany's government will do just fine — assuming it lasts until dawn.

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