“No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have”.
Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány
In 2006 I set off to go travelling across Europe and Asia by train. One stop on this trip was a week in Budapest, Hungary, getting drunk with Csoky the hostel receptionist and relaxing in the Széchenyi natural spring spas.
One evening I was on a date with a local girl I noticed some rioting on the tv in the corner of the bar. I asked my date when that was and she said it was happening right at that moment.
Ferenc Gyurcsány was the Prime Minister at the time and at a 2006 meeting of his MSZP party, he told some home truths. Which is fine, unless if you say stuff like this:
“…we screwed up. Not a little, a lot. No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have. Evidently, we lied throughout the last year-and-a-half, two years. It was totally clear that what we are saying is not true. “
and it’s recorded then broadcast to every corner of the country by Hungarian Radio, things can get pretty awkward. And people decided to take to the streets.
Prime Minister of Hungary
2004 – 2009
Back at the date, I decided to make my excuses and – reassuring her I wasn’t joking and not just going to the toilet – I went back to the hostel and got my camera and made my way in the direction of the rioting: the Parliament building.
When I arrived at the Parliament, there were just peaceful protesters with placards and someone addressing the crowds.
It seemed the rioting had dispersed and I had missed it. I thought I’d walk around the city centre and see if anything else was happening.
As it happened something was very happening just round the corner at the Magyar Televízió MTV building – state TV to you and me. The scene outside in the square was reminiscent of those news reports we saw on the telly when the Iron Curtain was coming down: big crowds, baton-weilding police, old-fashioned police trucks with water cannons hosing down hundreds of angry protesters, cars ablaze. It was chaos.
As I rummaged about in my bag for my camera, some poor guy ran past and tripped up infront of me. In about three seconds he getting his face smashed off Rodney King style by three riot police with truncheons of justice. As I retreated across the water-logged square towards the Magyar Televízió building, dodging the water cannons and baton-happy police, I hoped wielding a big camera would grant me some kind of clemency from a officially sanctioned state beatdown.
The rioters – about a thousand in all – were trying to get inside the MTV building to broadcast a message asking the Premier to step down.
The police would have any of it and had barricaded themselves in the building and were sending water jets over the marauding rioters and firing tear gas as to dissuade them from coming inside and fucking shit up.
Unfortunately the rioters were quite intent on fucking shit up like it was the only thing on the menu.
Soon enough, the police dropped the hose and retreated back inside. The rioters, now joined by Hungary’s creme-de-la-creme of football hooligans who had travelled in from all over the place just for a laugh, broke down the doors and swarmed into the lobby.
Outside, the protesters were encouraging others to come inside and get involved and soon there were quite a number of people in the building.
Once inside, the majority of protesters wandered not really knowing what to do. Afterwards I learned that some of the first ones in had manage to get into the actual studios and managed a speech that would make Martin Luther King weep on the spot. Unfortunately, someone at TV HQ had flipped the big red broadcasting switch to OFF, which meant it wasn’t broadcast and thus revolution wasn’t instigated. Possibly.
‘Wishing for change’ had a different meaning for some protesters.
Most riot participants got bored after midnight and started to filter out of the building. Some random blokes with fire extinguishers started putting out the fires and things quieten down.
People generally got a bit bored after midnight and just sat around, not doing much. Having got some good shots and totally ruined my special for-dates-only shoes, I returned to my hostel and had a large whiskey. I tried to contact some picture desks to sell some shots but all I managed to do was to be connected to Reuters Singapore and I think the woman on the other end didn’t even know where Hungary was.
I spent the next day relaxing in the spas and apologising to my date from the previous evening. I would make up for it, I told her. Dinner in a nice restaurant. Unfortunately I heard from Csoky that another load of protests were taking place that night and so I postponed yet again (she was less than happy, obviously) and headed out again.
After wandering around the city centre (in more suitable footwear I might add) for about an hour, a convoy of big army trucks sped past. I followed them and soon arrived at a big standoff near the Oktagon subway station in the center of town.
The police, standing across the length of the Oxford street equivalent were letting off tear gas and intermittently charging towards the rioters, squawking a kind of Hungarian rebel yell.
Slightly intimidating but bit boring so I waited for a gap in the lines and pegged it across to the rioters’ side – wholly more interesting. This time the protests had a darker edge to them – no placards or message, the majority football hooligans just out to get their money’s worth.
Not much was happening inn comparison to the previous night. The police and protesters held their lines, the police would fire teargas over to the rioters, who would then throw it back. My father’s old silk cravatte came in handy against the tear gas at this point and also made me look like a rather trendy na’er do well. Teargas is a weird one: I can liken it to someone blowing mild curry powder in your eyes.
I followed a group of rioting youths down an alley off of no-man’s land for nothing better to do and soon found it was a deadend. The police sealed then sealed it off and stood there being taunted by the youths, swearing and throwing stones. Suddenly, the police charged with their truncheons raised and their rebel yell in the air. This was one of the few times in my life where instinct took over, I didn’t even think about doing anything else, but running. I leapt up from behind the bin I was shooting from and legged it. The rioters scattered and some in blind panic ran into me. As the police caught up with us, I just held my camera in the air and this seemed to give me some refuge from a whack with a baton. The other guys were not so lucky.
After those guys were lead away, I beat hasty retreat back to hostel for the now-traditional post-riot whiskey. I’d had quite an experience over the past few days and got to experience a very interesting couple of days in Budapest. Over 150 people were injured on the first day and I felt lucky not to have been assaulted by the police despite my proximity to the event. After I left for Bucharest, the riots and protests continued for a few weeks.
Ference Gyurcśany managed to hold on as Prime Minister and eventually resigned three years later.