Tour Guiding while "Budapest Burns"
Cameron Hewitt, the co-author of our Eastern Europe guidebook, was in Hungary guiding a Rick Steves' Best of Eastern Europe tour when the recent unrest in Budapest broke out. Here's his on-the-spot take on the situation.
On the morning of September 19, I woke up at 6:00 a.m. to my assistant guide knocking on my door — "Cameron, you might want to turn on CNN. There's some sort of rioting in Budapest." We were in the small town of Eger, still tired after a late night of Hungarian wine-tasting. And in just a few hours we were planning to load up the bus and head to the Hungarian capital. But when I turned on the TV, the headline screamed, "Budapest Burns."
Gradually I pieced together the story: In April of this year, Hungary's left-leaning ruling party won re-election. Their attempts to continue (and even expand) the social-spending legacy of the communist era have been popular — but have also worsened a shaky economy. After the election, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány gave a secret speech to his party. The motive of his shockingly frank remarks was to give his colleagues a wake-up call to get things on track. But Gyurcsány's method — ranting on and on and on about how badly they'd (in his words) "f**ked things up" — was ill-advised. And apparently someone recorded the whole thing, waited a few months, then turned it over to the press.
So on September 17, the people of Hungary turned on their TVs to hear their prime minister detailing the ways he and his party had driven their country to the brink of ruin, and then shamelessly lied about it to stay in power:
"...We have f**ked up. Not a little but a lot. No country in Europe has f**ked up as much as we have. It can be explained. We have obviously lied throughout the past 18 to 24 months. It was perfectly clear that what we were saying was not true....We did not actually do anything for four years. Nothing. You cannot mention any significant government measures that we can be proud of, apart from the fact that in the end we managed to get governance out of the sh*t. Nothing. If we have to give an account to the country of what we have done in four years, what are we going to say? ... I almost perished because I had to pretend for 18 months that we were governing. Instead, we lied morning, noon and night." (The BBC has more of Gyurcsány's words of wisdom. Note that the BBC uses tamer language than I have — but my Hungarian friends assure me that my version is more accurate.)
The Hungarians take their young democracy very seriously. So the night of the 18th, demonstrators (many of them members of fringe political groups — and even, according to local scuttlebutt, known gangs of soccer hooligans) showed up at two strategic squares in downtown Budapest, demanding Gyurcsány's resignation. The worst damage occurred when they broke into the state TV headquarters and looted the place until the riot police were sent in to quiet them down with water cannons and tear gas.
Watching this on the news back in Eger, I wondered if our tour should make a last-minute itinerary change. But by the time our group woke up for breakfast, Hungarian news was reporting that the demonstrations were over and the streets of Budapest were calm and peaceful. After scouring the news reports, discussing the situation with our Budapest-based local guide, and conferring with our home office, I decided to stick to the day's plan and head into Hungary's capital city.
On the bus into Budapest, my group was more intrigued than nervous. ("Why would they want him to resign?" one of them half-joked. "It sounds like he's the most honest politician they've got!") Sure enough, on arriving in Budapest, it was clear that everything was business as usual. In fact, our local guide — after scouting everything in person before our arrival — brought our group to the Parliament building, so we could see the (now-peaceful) demonstrators gathered there. Our group seemed to take it as yet another example of how media hype can exaggerate reality. We didn't see riots or a bloody coup d'etat... we saw democracy in action.
I was still a little worried. What if violence broke out again? I asked our local guide if any demonstrations were planned for that night. He said probably not, since it was supposed to rain.
After that, I breathed much easier. I decided: A revolution that's weather-dependent isn't much of a revolution.