One of them featured the burning of the EU’s flag, another focused on Hungary’s colonization and a third pointed out never before seen international aggression. This weekend, three far-right protests opened a series of pro-government rallies in Hungary.
International pressure is mounting on Hungary: it appears that the country’s government must rethink its recent legislative efforts and restore confidence in its management of the economy if it is to prevent an economic crisis induced by a sovereign debt default. Before anything, however, the Hungarian government is blamed for its recent “putinization” of the EU nation and for abandoning the core democratic values of the European Union. Amidst fears that prime minister Viktor Orbán might suffer the fate of Berlusconi and Papandreou, however, the Hungarian government resorted to a new strategy: to encouraging pro-government rallies.
The country’s far-right was the first to react by angry protests. The parliamentary party Jobbik, a lesser known group Life Chain for Hungary and the Hungarian Truth and Life Party each held a protest on Saturday, January 14 in support of the Hungarian government’s handling of its domestic and international affairs.
Jobbik’s Protest in Buda
On Jan. 11, the executive board of the European Union announced that it is prepared to take steps against Hungary’s insufficient handling of its budget deficit as well as against potential violations of EU treaties by legislation recently introduced in Hungary. On the same day, Jobbik chairman Gábor Vona held a press conference urging Hungary’s exit from the European Union. As if this were not clear enough, however, the party – which currently occupies 12% of the seats in the Hungarian parliament – also decided to take its message to the European Commission’s Hungarian offices in the form of a demonstration.
“Tagok legyünk, vagy szabadok?”, the witty slogan of the protest asked. A pun on a line from one of the best known Hungarian patriotic poems – from “National Song,” by Sándor Petőfi, a poet of Hungary’s 1848 revolution – in English the sentence reads “Shall we be members or free?” The original line of the poem says “Rabok legyünk, vagy szabadok?” – “Shall we be slaves or free?”
This, however, was only the beginning to a spectacle-filled program on the demonstration’s stage. “Barroso’s letter is a declaration of war on Hungary,” told Gábor Vona to the few thousand demonstrators gathered for the protest, and he went on to demand a national referendum on Hungary’s exit from the European Union. Csanád Szegedi, one of Jobbik’s three delegates to the European Parliament told his party’s supporters that “after eight years, it is time for Hungarian society to downgrade the European Union at a popular referendum.”
Many of the protesters present wore quasi-military outfits; uniformed members of the New Hungarian Guard, Jobbik’s banned para-military arm, could be seen in the crowd.
Jobbik members of the Hungarian parliament also assisted the ritualistic program of the demonstration. At the completion of the event, Jobbik member of parliament Előd Novák drenched an EU flag, held by Jobbik MP Gábor Szabó, in lighter fluid. A third Jobbik MP, Levente Murányi set the flag on fire. He also helped put out the flames by stomping on the flag repeatedly. “Perish, European Union” and “Ria, ria, Hungaria,” the crowd chanted.
More pictures of the signs displayed at the demonstration – seemingly designed for the international community – may be viewed among the pictures taken at the demonstration and posted at the websites of origo.hu and index.hu.
Update: Since writing this post, I was able to find pictures of banned paramilitary guards participating at this protest. They are in the following post:
In Pest: Hands Off Hungary!
A demonstration held almost simultaneously on Kossuth Square was comparable to the one organized by Jobbik in its far-right radicalism, though completely lacking in theatrics or violent symbolism. “El a kezekkel Magyarországtól!” (“Hands off Hungary!”) was organized by a self-professed environmentalist political party, “Élőlánc Magyarországért” (Live Chain for Hungary). In their call for action, they wrote the following about what brought them to the streets:
“Over the past few weeks a massive overall financial and political offensive was unleashed against Hungarian sovereignty. The clear objective is to provoke regime change through a sovereign default or a coup d’etat. The onslaught seeks to force Hungary to abandon her efforts to restore her economic sovereignty and to break out of debt slavery; to accept the IMF’s stand-by credit; to restore the supposedly endangered independence of the National Bank of Hungary; and, ultimately, to return the country to colonial status.”
The protest’s organizers mobilized approximately 500 protesters, many of them from the older generations. One of the speakers, Gábor Karátson, likened Hungary’s current situation to the Hungarian revolution of 1956. This time around, however, not the Soviets, but the “educated West” is attacking Hungary. Karátson called the West “racist” since “they hate everything Hungarian.” They want to exterminate Hungarians, he told the protesters, but of course God will not allow for that.
MIÉP Demonstration in Szeged
The demonstration held in the south-Hungarian city was sponsored by Hungary’s oldest far-right party, MIÉP (Hungarian Truth and Life Party) – the party of ultra-nationalist and anti-semitic writer István Csurka, who is also one of the protagonists of the recent New Theater scandal. In the part of the program leading up to Csurka’s appearance, one of the speakers argued that Hungary was a “secondary citizen” of the EU and that the country rightfully expects not to be subjected to “negative discrimination” by the Union. By this point, approximately 1,500 were in attendance and listening.
When Csurka took the stage, he spoke of the “unprecedented and perfidious international co-operation with which Hungary is being pushed back into a situation where everything belongs to foreigners.” In his opinion, plans have been made for Hungary’s annihilation by international forces, and as such, he called for “the Christian Hungarian masses” to march to the streets.
Origins of A Risky Idea
Following the success of the left-wing opposition’s mass demonstration against Hungary’s new constitution on January 2, the idea that the government had better “respond in kind” suggested itself almost immediately to the most zealous supporters of the government.
The day after, an acrimonious opinion piece was published in the Hungarian daily Magyar Hírlap. Its author, Zsolt Bayer – an ardent polemicist with a lengthy record of anti-semitic writings and an even longer personal friendship with Viktor Orbán – titled his piece “Dogs of Satan.” One of the most memorable sentences of the protest of the previous day was a warning by distinguished legal expert László Majtényi, who wrapped up his speech by the statement that it is a much better fate to be a failed prime minister than to be a dictator who is removed by the ire of the people. Responding to this thought, Bayer wrote the following:
“This is a monstrous truth, Mr. Majtényi, and in my gratitude I am also going to tell you one in exchange: it is much better to scream lies into the microphone at a protest than to die in a civil war. This is my good advice to you [all]. Figure out its meaning, we too are going to do the same with the hidden messages of your truth.
And to make it easier, I am going to reveal one thing: slowly the time has come to march out onto the street, for a hundred or many hundred thousands of us. On the side of the government. Not because we don’t have any criticism, but what these dogs of Satan are doing with the government at home and abroad is quite simply intolerable.”
Henceforth, the idea that the government might organize a rally in support of its own policies has been given careful consideration in government circles.
Reportedly, within the next few days Fidesz’ executive committee held a discussion about the feasibility of a centrally organized demonstration in support of the government. Although the merits of the idea were duly recognized, it was thought that the winter weather would not allow for mobilizing a sufficient number of participants and therefore any such demonstration would have to wait until a later time.
By January 9, Hungarian foreign minister János Martonyi openly discussed the possibility of a “show of strength” rally, as the Hungarian press likes to call it, with Helen Pidd of The Guardian, though in much milder tones than it was originally introduced to Hungarian public discourse. Recasting Bayer’s threat of civil war as a concern for democratic dialogue, Martonyi said that
“You shouldn’t forget that our political family, if it wants, we can put to the streets 10 times more people than they [the opposition] can … But we don’t want to. But we don’t think this is the way of having a democratic dialogue, [competing] who can send more people to the streets.”
At some point, Viktor Orbán’s February state of the nation speech was rumored to be the occasion for the pro-government demonstration. Though Fidesz party members will likely be solicited to show up in great numbers to Orbán’s February speech as well, the “show of strength” pro-government rally is now scheduled for March 15, a national holiday celebrating Hungary’s revolt against the Habsburg empire and its subsequent war of independence. It is just the perfect narrative to juxtapose with the way in which Orban’s followers conceive of Hungary’s international standing in the current moment, and it suggests that Orbán is counting on surviving into the spring. It is probably also not a mere coincidence in the choice of the date that the opposition’s next mass demonstration will also take place on March 15.
Before February, however, at least another pro-government rally is going to be held in Budapest: Zsolt Bayer and an assortment of public personalities registered a “peace march” in Budapest for next Saturday (January 21) in support of the position taken by the Hungarian government against both the IMF and the EU. Their protest is expected to be slightly better attended than today’s far-right demonstrations.