Budapest, Hungary – March 15, 2012
I weave my way through the crowd, which swells with every passing minute. An unfamiliar sun reveals an immaculate blue sky. The vicious cold of this past February has dissipated. It is Revolution Day, the Hungarian national holiday that commemorates their uprising against the Hapsburgs. Most of Kossuth Lajos square is cordoned off. The Parliament building is decked out in Hungarian flags. A podium awaits. I linger near the cordon. A cheer arises from those gathered. The red and white Polish flag appears. The crowd parts and applauds as a large group of Poles strides forward. They have come to show their solidarity with Hungary and with prime minister Viktor Orban, who is currently at the top of the European Union’s shit list. Among those who despise him, he is known as “The Viktator”.
I’m here as a spectator, not a participant. Drawn by the promise of some excitement. It’s been a long winter. Over a hundred thousand people are expected. Over the past couple of years, I’ve declined invitations by foreign activists to various rallies or marches in Budapest. There are expat news websites, with dubious funding, that follow the accepted pro EU slant. It seems rather obnoxious to meddle in the affairs of other countries when my own country is a total mess. No, thanks, I’m just gonna stand back and observe.
The cordon is lifted. The crowd surges forward with the jubilation of teenagers at a rock concert. I’m swept along in the wave. The stage rises above us. Spontaneous songs snake through the crowd. Flags and balloons float overhead. All that’s missing is a beach ball.
A roar erupts as people begin to file onstage. A politician, the opening act, speaks for a few long moments. The crowd fidgets. When he steps away, the crowd begins to chant, “Viktor! Viktor!” And he struts forward. Eyebrows raised, a chuckle of surprise. He begins to speak. The crowd falls silent. Their attention is so rapt that I feel self-conscious as I try to slip away. A couple of women narrow their eyes and block my path. I put on an I’m-going-to-vomit face. “Én beteg.” I’m sick. People back away and let me pass. The square is completely packed and runs into the side streets. It takes me several minutes to be free.
I make my way towards Erzsébet Bridge. A left-wing opposition rally is taking place simultaneously. I arrive just as a young man takes the stage. He speaks with the passion of someone reading his shopping list. The crowd stretches far down the road, but there’s more breathing space between bodies. There are no flags and very little signs. Meager applause. Did I get here too late? Well, there’s still the Far Right Jobbik rally to check out at Deak Ferenc ter. It is said to be the most colorful of them all.
Then I hear gruff chanting coming from Ferenciek Ter. I perk up. Could Jobbik be coming to stir things up? I head towards the excitement, passing a smiling gentleman with a pro EU sign.
Not really sure what that last part means.
The chanting grows more ferocious as I draw near. A group of around one thousand has assembled. Flimsy metal fencing and a wall of riot police separate them from the pro EU crowd. A banner that says Nem EU – no EU- hangs next to a small stage.
They are not from Jobbik, but rather Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom*. Shaved skulls and Hungarian flag arm bands. Black flags. Spontaneous growling chants. The hair on the back of my neck stands up. I step up onto a small cement garden plot and lean next to the tree. A couple of young British girls stand next to me. The crowd behind me thickens. The pro EU people have moved down to check out the action. They yell “Nazis” and other taunts. The black flag people turn their heads away, but cast baleful glances over their shoulders. Some of them shout back and then restrain themselves. The air is thick with tension. The riot police put on their helmets. A female officer blinks back tears. My heart pounds. I look up at the tree. A couple of people are already up there, but if needed, I could shimmy up there. One of the British girls turns to the other, “Are you okay?” Her eyes shine. The girl shrugs, but her jaw is clenched.
“I bet you weren’t expecting this when you booked your trip.” I say with a snicker.
She smiles and shakes her head.
A small-boned, bespectacled man wearing a tweed blazer and wielding a briefcase inches his way forward. He sets down his briefcase next to me, puts his hands on his hips and squeals. “Fuck you, fascists!” He nods his little bald head. “Yeah, fuck you!” He looks around at us with a smug smile and then moseys along.**
A guy with a guitar takes the stage. Another picks up the microphone. The guitarist begins to strum a pleasant melody. Both sides fall silent.The singer unleashes a stream of guttural croaks into the microphone. The contrast is so shocking that I burst out laughing. Acoustic death metal. Slipknot meets Bob Dylan. The British girls look at me and giggle nervously. I clamp my mouth shut. The pro EU people resume their taunts, but with less gusto. Their bait is not being taken.
The crowd behind me begins to thin out. The tension ebbs away. One row of the riot police moves forward, urging us to move along. I cast a look over my shoulder one last time. The finale of the rally seems to be a ritual. Dark pageantry resurrecting past glory. I shiver and turn away.
When I reach Astoria, I look to the left, towards Deak Ferenc Ter. The Jobbik rally is probably still happening. A profound weariness stifles the last of my energy. I turn away and shuffle home.
*The Sixty-four Counties Youth Movement. This group seeks to take back all of the pre-Trianon Hungarian territories, such as Transylvania and Slovakia.
**I caught this on video.