Budapest gripped by riots

Some demonstrators hijacked a Soviet tank, on display for the occasion, and drove it about a hundred metres before police ousted them and recovered the vehicle.

Water cannon were also used to disperse thousands of demonstrators across the city, initially to keep them from reaching the parliament where Hungarian and foreign dignitaries had held ceremonies to mark the 1956 uprising.

The main opposition right-wing Fidesz party, which has sought to compare
Hungary’s current prime minister to the former Soviet oppressors, boycotted the official ceremonies led by the Socialist government.

That boycott, combined with the riots, torpedoed efforts to put on a show of national unity half a century after the failed revolt that sealed Hungary’s fate as a Soviet satellite state until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.

Most of those battling police were far-right extremists, many of whom were waving the red-and-white striped flag used by Hungary’s pro-Nazi government during World War II.

There were fears that the riots could bring a return of the chaos triggered by a leaked recording in mid-September in which Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said he had lied to voters about the economy to win re-election in April.

Those protests, which lasted more than one month, degenerated into riots, leaving hundreds injured.

Monday’s violence, which also saw police on horseback charging protestors, left at least 27 injured, the emergency services said. Forty people were arrested, police said.

Fidesz leader Viktor Orban, a former prime minister, told a rival commemoration of the uprising, attended by thousands of his supporters, that “an entire country has turned against this illegitimate government.”

His party went ahead with its boycott despite an appeal by Hungary’s president to mark the uprising as one people.

But unity appeared more elusive than ever before in the post-communist era, despite the legacy of the uprising in which a 10-million-strong nation came together in a mass upheaval against Stalinist oppression.

The uprising, which started out as a peaceful student protest on October 23, 1956, turned into armed resistance across Hungary. Youngsters, dubbed freedom fighters, used guns and petrol bombs in fierce street battles against Soviet tanks sent to put down the protests.

The revolt was crushed after two weeks. The crackdown left 2,800 Hungarians dead, 12,000 were wounded and led some 200,000 to flee to the capitalist West.

Fidesz has for years refused to commemorate the uprising with the
Socialists because it says they are the inheritors of the Communist party that colluded with the Soviets back in 1956.

The 45-year-old Gyurcsany was born five years after the uprising but was a communist youth leader in the 1980s.

Orban on Monday told his followers that he wanted to have a series of referenda on the government’s economic reforms, his latest attempt to try to oust Gyurcsany.

The government’s reform programme, approved by the European Commission last month, is aimed at reining in the highest public deficit in the EU to prepare the country for the adoption of the euro.

Analysts have warned the economy could go into a tailspin if the reforms were rolled back.