A Police State By Any Other Name

06.07.2006

The quick visit to Hungary by George W. Bush demonstrated how far this tiny Central European country really is from being a true democracy

President George W. Bush is often regarded by many as a dictator of sorts. This is thanks to both his domestic policy, in where the state assumes it has the right to spy on all citizens for whatever reason, and for his foreign policy, encapsulated within his infamous "war on terror" campaign. For those with a little interest in and knowledge of history, his quick stopover in Hungary last week further enhanced this image, as his visit to Budapest seemed to mimic that of Hitler's visit to Paris some 65 years ago. Not only were both visits very quick, but the locals were kept well away. In essence, the streets were completely deserted; it was like a visit to a ghost town.

This was quite a contrast to the visit made by President George Bush I to Hungary some 17 years ago. Then, on July 11, 1989, a crowd of a couple of thousand locals waited for the American president. A flash thunderstorm greeted the president unprepared, and someone from the crowd quickly handed him an overcoat. The irony of this contrast between then and now is quite apparent: then was the dawning of the new world order and the end of the cold war; now is a new cold war, and the forgotten dreams of a world order that never was.

Not only does this contrast show how not much has changed in terms of American foreign policy and cold war politics, but how there has been little or no change in countries like Hungary as well. Indeed, George W. Bush's twenty-two hour visit to Hungary clearly demonstrated how the country is still very much a police state. The police apparatus not only tramples over the human rights of individuals, but rides roughshod over the international agreements it has pledged to uphold, such as the Helsinki Accords.

One of the main aspects to a democracy is the reaction of the authorities to protest. During the communist era, anyone who marched or demonstrated outside of May Day or any other permitted day was considered an enemy of the state. Then, the police didn't ask questions: they just shot on sight, both at protesters and bystanders alike. It was this desire for the right to protest which ultimately led to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

In 1990, new laws were drafted regarding the right to protest. Protests were permitted, however permission from the police had to be secured in advance. Realising that this ran counter to the spirit of the Helsinki Accords, the regulation was modified slightly: permission was no longer required, however the police still needed to be informed of a planned protest. The authorities still could prevent a protest from happening, however, citing some reason, such as traffic problems. In this case, they would propose "alternative" areas where the protest could be held.

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The arbitrary way in which protests have been handled under such a regime soon became evident. On the one hand, 120 trucks and the closing down of an entire major street for a parade was viewed as not a problem (i.e. the Love Parade), while 10 people protesting in front of the prime minister's residence over some political issue was.

After a number of court cases against the arbitrary way in which protests were handled by the police, the rules and regulations regarding protests in Hungary changed once again. Now, everyone has the right to protest where they want, with only one exception: protests are not allowed in "operational areas". Yet these so-called "operational areas" can be determined at any time by the authorities, even at the last moment if necessary. Not only this, but within these areas a person's constitutional rights (and most probably their human rights as well) are suspended.

How this new system works in practice could be seen during the visit of George W. Bush last week. Entire sections of the city were hermetically sealed off, and all vehicles in the "operational zone" were towed away. Even pedestrian traffic was curtailed. The zone often extended two or three streets from where the presidential limousine was expected to pass, with riot police checking everyone thoroughly. Meanwhile, outside parliament where President Bush made a short stop, empty trams ringed the area as a barrier, effectively shielding the president behind a makeshift fortress. All this, with locals kept far, far away.

While this unprecedented security operation was justified by the mass media and the government on the grounds of securing the personal safety of the president, most people were aware of another reason for all the fuss. That is, the government was at pains to stifle any criticism of President Bush during his visit. In other words, the massive security operation was as much to restrict the freedom of speech as the freedom of movement. The fact that planned protests against the president were kept at least 5 miles away suggest that the primary objective of the police was to make sure that the president didn't come close to hearing any critical voices.

In conjunction with this, the Hungarian authorities are pains to make Hungary appear as a strong supporter and willing ally of the US. Consequently, there is a cone of silence among politicians and pundits alike. As a result, it's often very difficult to criticise the US because such critics are immediately ostracised and branded as terrorist sympathisers.

All this goes to show that despite calling itself a democracy, little has actually changed in Hungary since the fall of communism. The police may have new cars, new uniforms, and may smile a bit more now and then. Yet attitudes have changed little. They still feel that they are law unto themselves, and that a constitution is merely a piece of paper with little or no significance. Moreover, any action can be justified under the guise of vague and meaningless references.

Along with the new uniforms and equipment, the police in Hungary also have a new motto: to serve and protect. This motto was no doubt adopted from the New York City Police, and was most probably introduced as the result of the close cooperation and training provided by the US. The question is, who are the new masters they are now serving, and who are they really protecting -- and from whom.

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