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The departing depute of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee calls for provost duty regime change with the civil control of the armed forces.

© Dudás Szabolcs
How would you describe the two waves of street violence that Budapest has witnessed? A state of civil war? Or football hooliganism finding its way into political rallies?


What ever people want to think, it is neither civil war nor football hooliganism. I don't believe in such oversimplifications. After the September confrontations, I talked to several of the arrested at Venyige utca Prison. There were some with criminal passed, but even they were under arrest for minor crimes. I found - the statistics probably agree - that it wasn't hard-core criminals who were arrested. The police clashed with radical but small groups, who derived their power from the feeling that the largest opposition party was behind them.

That's an assumption, and Fidesz's leaders deny it.

Even after the first clashes, Viktor Orban described the mood as understandable. We should not misunderstand Imre Kerenyi, who said before the elections that if the left won, there would be a revolution.

What of the police actions? Ottilia Solt said at the time of the 1989/90 regime change that he bore prejudice against only one minority: the police.

It was Sandor Revesz who first wrote that the "police ethnicity" was particularly criminal: at least as shown by the number of prosecutions launched against them compared to the size of the group. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee issued a statement the day after the TV siege saying that the police on Szabadsag ter had been abandoned by their commanding officers. It is unbelievable that Budapest police chiefs were unable to move enough officers to the square to resist an attack mounted by some 300 people. As for what followed over the next two days and on 23 October, there was certainly a sense that the authorities were taking revenge.

How unexpected was the street violence? Were you expecting these autumn clashes when you wrote an essay over the summer about the failure of the law and order regime change?

It didn't surprise me especially. It followed naturally from what was said after the elections. But the regime change in the world of law and order has nothing to do with what we have seen. In the summer, I thought a wave of reforms was starting which would change the forces of law and order as well - I thought some kind of civil oversight of the police would be created. The English model is a good one: an independent body investigates complaints made against the police. Political influence is also significant: the minister can tell police what kinds of measures to take. Of course, neither the minister nor the prime minister can give an illegal order, but they can put a stop to police attempts to interpret the law for their own ends. Budapest's police chief has no right to ban a legal demonstration, and nor can he claim that the demonstration on Kossuth ter is a political campaigning event that does not come under the heading of the law on free assembly. It is not clear who would have had the right to call off the fireworks ahead of the weather catastrophe on 20 August, or who could have warned the crowds of the approaching storm.

Az interjú második része (Oldaltörés)
In Hungary, it is supposedly the parliamentary committees that exercise civil oversight. For two years in the mid-1990s you were vice-chair of the national security committee. Do you see the work of the police and the secret services differently as a civil rights campaigner than you did as a committee member?

Under the Antall government, the national security office was a law unto itself. One Christian Democrat MP had them prepare a report on his daughter's suitor, for example. Even as a committee member it was impossible to know who knew what. I think the National Security Office has a lot more information at its disposal than our political leadership wants to make use of. Even in 1992, when the crowds prevented Arpad Goncz, the then president, from delivering his speech on 23 October, I asked the police chiefs if they had received any information from the National Security Office. They all said no. But all that afternoon it had been possible to track the movements of the skinheads arriving from the provinces, and the National Security Office must have known they were heading for Budapest.

Let's add that the reports the Office wrote 14 years ago on right-wing radicals continue to be classified. Isn't this bipartisan enthusiasm for official secrets slightly unhealthy?

Absolutely. When the law on official secrets was being debated under the Horn government, I myself said how ridiculous it was to classify the techniques used by the national security services for 90 years. Imagine how absurd it would be if only now we could learn how crystal radios worked or how Istvan Tisza opposed the invasion of Serbia in 1914.

What's your view of the way Gabor Demszky, a former comrade in arms of yours, recently declared the courtyard of City Hall a building site, and how he has given the City Assembly to veto political rallies involving public address systems or stages?

In 1983, Demszky was stopped for speeding. He was driving an old Trabant up a steep street in Buda - you can imagine what kind of speed he was doing. They searched his car and clothes. He complained about the police action, and it emerged that the police had not been entitled to do as they had done. Shortly afterwards, a ministerial council resolution was passed which made everything that Demszky had complained about legal. We called it the lex Demszky. I thought this law would be one of the first to be withdrawn by Parliament after the regime change. But what happened was that the lex Demszky was incorporated into the police law, and it continues to be used. As far as the current situation is concerned - the City Assembly cannot impose restrictions on a a fundamental constitutional right.

Demszky is almost the only active politician remaining from the days of the democratic opposition of the regime change. You are standing down as leader of the Helsinki Committee. Others, Ottilia Solt, Miklos Szabo and most recently Gyorgy Bence, have died. Do you worry that your generation's disappearance from the stage could lead to the demise of liberalism in Hungary?

It's a serious concern. In 1994, I opposed entering into a coalition with the Socialists. Viktor Orban asked the question in an interview: "Imagine. What would happen if a social-liberal coalition came into power, forcing the conservatives and the radical right into one camp on the other side? The no man's land in between would remain barren for another generation." Since then, Viktor Orban has done everything to make his prediction come true. But I'd suggest that if the Free Democrats had not entered into coalition with the Socialists, who had an absolute majority in parliament, then Fidesz might not have gone so far to the right, and the dramatic division of the country into two might not have happened. The democratic opposition should have entrenched itself further into power, like in Poland, where much of both the left- and right-wing elites started inside Solidarity. It is no longer possible to choose, however: there is no way out of the coalition.

GERGELY FAHIDI
hvg.hu English version

Helsinki Committee

The police were far more professional on 23 October than one month ago. There were some police abuses, however. Not even a full parliamentary enquiry together with police and prosecutorial investigations will reveal the whole truth. Ferenc Koszeg, president of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, called for civil oversight of the police.

hvg.hu English version

Many, but small

Police have received a wave of applications to hold demonstrations on the 50th anniversary of the crushing of the 1956 revolution. Kossuth ter remains off-limits to demonstrators, but other parts of the centre are open.

English version

Belfast and Budapest

The implacable hatred held by both left and right for the other side in Hungarian politics can only be compared to that which rages between protestant nationalists and catholic unionists in Belfast. We are in the middle of a 'cold civil war' which has since mid-September been breaking out into 'hot conflicts' in the form of demonstrations and street battles.

HVG English version

Interview with Fitchs David Heslam

The budget has to be balanced, reforms are essential - but the approach adopted, and the person of the prime minister are secondary, according to David Heslam, joint director of Fitch Ratings, the largest European ratings agency.

hvg.hu English version

Agora-phobia

The Kossuth ter protesters are refusing to leave the square even for the events commemorating 1956. They are threatening a repetition of 1956 if policemen try to remove them from the square. As it stands, a square full of tents and cauldrons of stew with the atmosphere of a village wedding is unlikely to make a positive impression on the dignitaries who will arrive from all around the world, and nor will the expected disorder. The TV news crews will be happy, at least: any disturbance would help them spice up their coverage of the commemorative events.

hvg.hu English version

We insist

Are the police allowed to gather information about rioters in Budapest from hospital lists of the injured? Civil rights activists are not sure.

hvg.hu English version

No light in the tunnel

The cost of building the fourth metro could be as much as HUF2bn higher than planned - just for building the station at Fovam ter.

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