The events that rocked the Hungarian capital on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Revolution shocked the entire world – but what happened exactly ten years ago on the streets of Budapest?
On 17 September 2006, a couple of months after the electoral victory of the governing Socialist-Liberal coalition, a recording of a closed-doors speech by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány to Socialist MPs was leaked. In the infamous “Őszöd speech”, named after the resort at Lake Balaton where Mr. Gyurcsány delivered his speech, the Prime Minister admitted that his ruling coalition frequently and deliberately lied to the public and concealed major facts from the electorate prior to elections.
Within 24 hours of the speech being leaked, a series of demonstrations began in Budapest and several country times, which saw protesters demand the resignation of the Prime Minister. Over the following days, demonstrators formed various groups and organisations; on 18 September, the protesters drafted a petition they wanted to read out on national television (MTV). After security guards refused to allow their delegates into the television building, then located on Szabadság tér near Parliament, an angry mob ransacked the building, causing significant material damage; dozens, including many police officers, were injured.
Throughout the coming weeks, anti-government protests continued; aflter municipal elections, which were won by the opposition centre-right Fidesz party and its allies with a landslide majority, President László Sólyom made clear in a speech on 1 October that he believes that Ferenc Gyurcsány is the person bearing the greatest responsibility for the situation that had evolved and pointed out that the possibility of removing the Prime Minister is open only to governing parties.
However, with 207 in favour, 165 against and no abstentions, PM Gyurcsány survived the subsequent vote of no confidence in Parliament on 6 October. Immediately after the vote, leader of the opposition Viktor Orbán told demonstrators on Kossuth tér that “voters have become opposed to their elected leaders”, tensions remained high and protesters continued to occupy the large central Budapest square where Parliament stands.
Then, as the commemorations to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Freedom Fight approached, police evacuated Kossuth tér in the early hours of 23 October to esnure the safety of the dozens of foreign dignitaries arriving for the event. Four years later, the Supreme Court was to rule that the evacuation of the square was illegal.
In the meanwhile, the media aired a series of reports on what they claimed was an “arsenal of weapons” found in protesters’ tents on Kossuth tér.
At around 10:30 a.m., a group of several dozen young people gathered at St. Stephen’s Basilica, who then attempted to march on to state commemorations on Kossuth tér but were denied access to the square by police, who pushed them in the direction of Nyugati tér.
Some two hours later, at around 12:15 p.m., some 7000 protesters congregated in and around Corvin köz in District VIII, the area which saw perhaps the most intense fighting in 1956. The demonstrators, who were later joined by bikers and Mária Wittner, a survivor of the post-1956 Soviet reprisals, headed towards Kossuth tér later during the afternoon. Arriving to Astoria at around 14:30 p.m., the protesters headed on towards Deák Ferenc tér and finally arrived at the barricade erected at the corner of Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út and Alkotmány utca. Here, violence erupted between a group of protesters and the police, who deployed a water cannon to break up the crowd. The mob, who managed to take control of a public transport bus, were pushed back to Deák tér. At Arany János utca, protesters built barricades and apparently attacked police with rocks, who responded with tear grenades and firing rubber bulets.
In the meanwhile, Fidesz’s commemoration began at 16:00 p.m. in the presence of around 100 000 people. In his speech, Wilfried Martens, president of the European People’s Party, blamed the chaos solely on the Prime Minister, while Viktor Orbán announced the initiation of a popular referendum on “education, health care, pensions and democratic guarantees”. However, the crowd was not informed by speakers that “riot control” was under way at nearby Deák tér. After the event ended at 17:45 p.m., participants were advised to head towards Blaha Lujza tér and Kálvin tér; however, several nevertheless walked towards Deák tér, while protesters were gradually pushed in the opposite direction, towards Astoria.
From 16:30, police continuously used tear grenades, fired rubble bullets and water cannons at protesters, who responded with hurling cobblestones at them. Shortly before 6 o’clock, in what was later to become one of the most memorable moment of the riots, a retired tanker climbed into an exhibited T-34 tank – which played a role also during the 1956 Revolution – and drove some 100 metres before coming to a halt and being pulled out and beaten by police. (He was later handed a four-month suspended prison sentence for his actions.) Near the Synagogue, police charged into the crowd on horseback and distributed blows with the flats of their swords.
Protesters were pushed on towards Astoria, who mixed up with the participants of the Fidesz rally that had just ended. At around 19:20 p.m., police made their way into the busy central Budpest traffic junction and divided the crowd in two. Those seriously injured in clashes included Fidesz MP Máriusz Révész and Jesuit monk László Vértesaljai. Slightly before 21:30 p.m., police began dispersing a crowd of some 2000 people who had congregated around the nearby National Museum; as police turned on demonstrators occupying Kossuth Lajos utca, they retreated towards Ferenciek tere; after failing to prevent law enforcement officers from breaking through a barricade at the bridgehead, all but a couple of dozen fled the area; the most dramatic scenes of the “fiery autumn” of 2006 were over.
According to the Ministry of Health, a total of 195 people were injured in the bloody acts of police brutality; 40 of them were trated by ambulance personnel on the scene, four were taken to the medical clinic of the central ambulance station and 84 were taken to hospital. 35 individuals were arrested and criminal proceedings were launched against 69 protesters.