Contrary to expectations, the New Hungarian Guard – a splinter-group of the paramilitary arm organized by Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party – did not hold a huge demonstration of force on March 17 on Budapest’s Heroes Square. Approximately a hundred new members were initiated at the event; according to a press release by the Hungarian police, “due to the involvement of the police, lining up in formation and oath-taking did not take place.” A small group of anti-fascist demonstrators were also present to protest.
It’s a bizarre opening, but to my defense, I have taken the summary from a typical report circulating about the event in the Hungarian press (the same understated tone is hit in the coverage of Euronews, which has video footage of the event).
There is absolutely no excuse for getting complacent about Hungary’s guard problems. At the same time, there also does not seem to be much harm in highlighting the absurdity of this mighty event.
News portals of the extreme right were burning with anticipation about this year’s guard initiation event, hailing it as the long-awaited opportunity to return Jobbik’s paramilitary wing to the glorified awe invoked by their collective presence at the Hungarian national monument in years past. On March 15, 2009, during the politically implosive period of street protest, this is what the Hungarian Guard’s initiation looked like:
Guard initiation on Heroes Square on March 15 2009.
In comparison, this year’s new additions to the Hungarian Guard’s successor organization sat on the ground throughout the entire ceremony fearing that standing up might be interpreted as unlawful activity by the police and would lead to their arrest. The new members wore uniform clothing, though not a uniform similar to the Hungarian Guard’s. The oaths were taken in a kneeling position, and, again in order to avoid police intervention, rather than being stated aloud, its text was recited silently by each new member during the ceremony.
Guard initiation on Heroes Square on March 17 2012, photo by Andrei Stavila. For many more pictures taken at the scene, see his blog post at this link.
The botched demonstration of far-right might is due to a number of legal developments regarding the continued existence of the Hungarian guard. Court battles have led to ever more precise delineations between explicitly forbidden vs. non-actionable, tolerable and lawful guard activities.
While under the previous Hungarian government, the far-right used to show its defiance of the public order through street confrontations, the increased guard activities of the last few months indicate willingness on the part of the guard’s leadership to co-operate with the Hungarian authorities in order to avoid clashes and arrests.
On March 15, police and extremists were similarly co-operative with one another. As this video captured by the Hungarian news blog Egyenlítő TV shows, a group of neo-Nazi protesters – members of the 64 Counties Youth Movement – decided to break away from their counter-protest of the anti-government demonstration, and to march on the Hungarian offices of the IMF. Though they were facing the riot police at the time they announced their plan (and though the press following them gets there in time to take a picture of them entering the building), they still have plenty of time in the lobby to argue at length with security guards and to set off pyrotechnics. At 4:43, a man is overheard saying that “the police is coming in,” and all of the protesters manage to scurry away just in time to avoid the police contingent arriving to the building. Prior to their exit from the building, the police merely stood by as their leader gave them a stirring speech ending in chants of “we will win.”
The New Hungarian Guard attempted to hold initiations connected to the Hungarian national holiday, March 15, in last year as well, but the event came to an abrupt end due to the intervention of the police. Most of the fines for the illegal activities on that day did not stand up in court, however.
Court battles since the 2009 ban of the Hungarian guard have pitted two disparate legal arguments against each other. The guardists would prefer to frame the question of whether there is anything legally objectionable about the existence of uniformed paramilitaries in terms of their constitutional right to free assembly. They continue to see the conflict as a conflict between the individual and the state, though they also continue to describe their ultimate aims as directed at extra-democratic goals (the parliamentary party whose chairman, Gábor Vona, remains the chief co-ordinator of Hungarian guard activities described his party in a recent speech this January as a party “not democratic” in its spiritual center).
In the meanwhile, Hungarian law has taken the side of the argument that the exercise of such constitutional rights may not violate the constitutional right of others. Surprisingly, this seems to be a weakness rather than the strength of the ban, leading to concessions of much of the forbidden territory in actual practice. As members of the guards who have continued to assemble in spite of the ban have proven, it is possible to operate a militia without being found in the act of violating the rights of others (a more detailed explanation of how guards activities remain protected by court opinions, as well as on Vona’s remark quoted above may be found in this post).
Of course one would suppose that there really is no point in refraining from making some kind of a restrictive impact on one’s target in actuality – the Hungarian far-right’s scape-goats remain the Roma population; rather than being anti-Muslim, they are known for their anti-semitism – if one has already decided to become a guard member. But I am only surmising that this, and the law of course does not recognize “surmising” (not that it should, as long as we want to remain on a democratic footing). Surmising this much, however, especially since this specific conjecture is based on Jobbik’s own rhetoric, might be a good reason not to get too complacent about Hungary’s guard problem too soon.