komentuję zdarzenia dla rosyjskiej gazety

Gdy byłem w Rosji koleżka z Memoriału poprosił mnie o napisanie komentarza na temat powiązań między obecnymi protestami a 1956 rokiem. Komentarz miał być dla ich gazety 30 oktiabra poświęconej represjom komunistycznym (30 października to w Rosji dzień represjonowanych obchodzony od 1974 roku). Koleżkę lubię, komentarz napisałem napisałem jeszcze w samolocie z Moskwy. Dręczy mnie jednak niepewność bo cała historia, wydaje się, jeszcze się nie zakończyła – na tą sobotę zapowiadane są kolejne demonstracje – i moje rozumienie tego co się dzieje może się zmienić. Zaryzykuję jednak możliwość szybkiej dezaktualizacji, tekst (jest po angielsku) zamieszczam poniżej.

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Protests in Hungary: 2006 like 1956?

The engine of a T-34 with a few young people sitting on the turret and waving Hungarian flags roared and the tank started rolling towards rows of armed defenders of the government. The crowd surrounding it cheered in excitement. Looks familiar? Of course, it’s the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Actually, I have just described a scene from riots that have just rocked Budapest on the anniversary of the uprising on 23 October.

The tank scene has not been the only was symbolic link between the attempt to free Hungary from combined communist and Soviet yoke in 1956 and the recent demonstrations demanding that the prime minister Gyurcsány steps down. Despite all the differences between the situation in 1956 and 2006 the protesters try and explore the analogies between the protests now and then to the maximum in order to strengthen the appeal of their cause. Let’s have a closer look at these analogies.

Current protests have roots in a deep division of Hungarian society into the supporters of the right wing Fidesz and the coalition of socialist and liberal parties. The division results in relatively high election participation figures (a respectable 65% voting in the recent parliamentary one last May resulting in a victory of the socialist party) but at the same time it splits families and friends unable to discuss peacefully their political differences. Some even talk of a cold civil war.

Fidesz and other right-wing groups often refer to national symbols in its rhetorics presenting itself and its supporters as “the nation”. The opponents, by default, serve foreign interests, be it – once – the Soviet Union or – now – foreign investors or the European Union. The strategy has been successful to some extent, partly because the socialist and liberal party cannot and do not want to compete with right-wing parties on nationalism platform. For instance, the 150-year old custom of wearing a national ribbon on 15 March, the anniversary of the 1848 uprising, has been largely appropriated by the right-wing.

Right-wing forces have similarly tried to appropriate the anniversary of 1956. This has been easier for them as socialist party, being a descendant of the communist Hungarian Socialist Worker Party, is indirectly an heir to the forces that orchestrated bloody repressions following Soviet intervention serving as the puppets of the occupier. Their claim to the heritage of Imre Nagy, the then Prime Minister, communist and an undisputed national hero, is not convincing. Right-wing parties and groups have been organising rallies on the holiday commemorating the uprising – and disrupted celebrations organised by others. The most spectacular case of such disruption took place when a group of jeering skinheads made it impossible for Árpád Göncz, the then president of the country, to finish his speech. Göncz was a participant of the uprising sentenced to death and later freed within an amnesty.

Recent riots started after a recording of a May, post-election speech of the PM to his party’s parliamentary caucus was leaked to the media. In this rather blunt speech he was trying to shake up his audience and convince them to the need for painful austerity package and budget reforms. Importantly, he said that the rosy picture of the economy painted in the election campaign was a lie; in fact because of a ballooning budget deficit Hungary was heading towards a catastrophe. “We were lying in the morning, at noon and in the evening” were his words. They sounded familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the history of 1956 as this is what an announcer of the public radio said once the institution declared its support for the uprising. The “we” in the statement was also ominous. Gyurcsány is married to the granddaughter of Antal Apró, a member of the leadership of the communist party after the crushing of the revolt.

The protesters both noticed these analogies and produced further ones. Soon after the protests began a list of demands was formed and the protesters went to the building of television demanding that they are broadcast (it has to be added that Fidesz organised a series of its own, peaceful demonstrations and condemned violence). This and the subsequent siege and taking of the building were clearly re-enacting of 1956. Committees formed to lead the spontaneously organised protests similarly were inspired by the 56 events. Some people started talking of a revolution.

Further protests, culminating on the anniversary of the revolt on 23 October, further evoked a feeling of deja-vu. Spontaneous gatherings of people, marches and later clashes with the police and attempts to build barricades were familiar. Bizarrely, the protests were mixed with the organised celebrations of the anniversary, which included an open air exhibition of 1956 vehicles such as buses, fire engines, police cars as well as tanks (the tank mentioned before came from this exhibition) and guns, staged living pictures from the uprising or old trucks driving groups of people with flags singing revolutionary songs. Sometimes it was hardly clear who is a protester and who is simply peacefully celebrating the anniversary.

By the evening the protest turned nasty. The police determined to take control of the situation were shooting rubber bullets into the crowd. Again, the power of this image of a mass of people waving Hungarian tricolor and being shoot at, even if this time these were rubber and not live rounds, was amplified by the 1956 memories.

One should not however be misguided by these analogies. The situation, the protagonists and the issue are very different.

First, while in 1956 the Hungarians were demanding and fighting for national independence and freedom for the people now the main demand is that the prime minister steps down. Fifty years ago the protesters were facing ruthless political police and then the invading Soviet army, now they are against police, whose alleged abuses (themselves incomparable with the deeds of stalinist repression apparatus) are immediately subject to a parliamentary investigation. Despite the fact of historical connections between the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party in 1956 and the Hungarian Socialist Party in 2006, the former was a totalitarian force installed with Soviet help after World War II while the latter has been a participant in the democratic system Hungary has enjoyed since 1990. The demonstrators fifty years ago were quite representative of society, current protesters however are clearly right-wing and, judging from the number of flags with white and red strips used by the Hungarian Arrow Cross (fascist) movement in the 1940s, they often profess the ideology of the extreme right.

The numbers also different. Despite all the dangers associated with demonstrating in 56, the manifestations that took place then attracted hundreds of thousands while current protests gather crowds that are way smaller. Most importantly perhaps, while in 1956 there seemed to emerge a national consensus about the demands, at the moment Hungarian society is painfully split.

The anniversary of the 1956 revolution, in contrast to the 1848 uprising, has not become unifying holiday in Hungary. After this year’s events one can expect that it may further slip into the embrace of the right-wing forces. Despite the unity the revolution created among the Hungarians fifty years ago, its anniversaries seem likely to serve as an instrument of divisive politics oriented at particular interests in the future.