The tanks parked on the streets of Budapest on Monday were supposed to commemorate the 1956 Hungarian uprising half a century ago -- a sort of quaint reminder of anti-Soviet protests that ultimately led to the fall of Communism in 1989 and the establishment of a democratic Eastern Europe.
Government officials had historical pageantry in mind on Monday, but got more than they bargained for. Rioters fought pitched battles long into the night as police countered with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. Peace was restored shortly before 2 a.m. when police charged a group of some 5,000 demonstrators who had barricaded themselves on Elizabeth Bridge, which spans the Danube River in central Budapest.
Protesters even hijacked the unarmed, ceremonial tanks as part of their confrontation. The tanks were a reminder that ordinary citizens had hijacked Soviet tanks during the '56 uprising. Budapest police had to rush one of them on Monday and pull the driver out; the other tank was merely rolled toward police by the mob.
By the end of the day, over 100 people had been injured. Many wound up hospitalized, including a handful of police officers.
The violence was only the most recent phase of unrest in a month of protests in the capital centered around anger with Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. Not only have Gyurcsany's efforts to cut spending -- Hungary's budget deficit, at 10.1 percent of gross domestic product, is the highest in the European Union -- angered those who believed his April campaign promises of tax cuts. But revelations last month that Gyurcsany had lied to win re-election have led to demands for his resignation.
So far, though, Gyurcsany has refused to step down. Pressure from the opposition party Fidesz, which held power from 1998 to 2002, has grown, and now opposition leaders are calling for a series of referenda on health, pension and education policies as well as on land ownership. Fidesz party chief Viktor Orban urged demonstrators to avoid violence during an appearance on Monday before voicing a widespread complaint about the Gyurcsany government: "They lied, they tricked and misled the people, taking away the right of a free election," he said according to Bloomberg. "A democratic referendum is the solution, where people can decide freely."
Clearing the way for an anti-Soviet pageant
The demonstrations on Monday began early when police tried to clear an encampment of protesters from Kossuth Square just outside the country's parliament building. The protesters had vowed to remain on the square until Gyurcsany resigned -- but the day's script called for a gathering of dignitaries on the site to mark the 1956 anniversary.
From there, the clashes proliferated around the city. Many of the demonstrators invoked the crushed revolution with chants of "'56, '56!" with others chanting "Gyurcsany get away!"
"The leaders of this country are the descendents of the servants of the dictatorship," protester Janos Kovacs, whose father was killed during the 1956 uprising, told Bloomberg.
Czech President Vaclav Klaus, Poland's President Lech Kaczynski and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso were present at the official commemoration, led by Prime Minister Gyurcsany. Hungary's president, Laszlo Solyom, bowed out citing security concerns.
The 1956 revolution began on October 23 as students took up arms to demand democracy. The Soviet Army reacted just over a week later and launched its attack on November 4 to quell the violence. The revolution finally ended in January of 1957 with some 2,800 Hungarians and 700 Soviet soldiers dead. By the time the dust had settled, some 200,000 Hungarians had fled the country and an additional 225 were executed by the Communist authorities.
One of those executed was Imre Nagy, a Communist leader-turned-democrat. Gyurcsany said his government reflected the spirit of the 1956 revolution. He called Nagy "the political predecessor of every prime minister" of post-Communist Hungary.