The Day Budapest Shut Down

The last week of October began in Budapest with a three-day celebration honoring the 1956 uprising against Soviet occupation. It ended with three days of angry confrontation between a union of taxi drivers and the government over an official decree raising gas prices by 76 percent. Moscow had shut off the pipeline that carries oil from the USSR to Hungary. With the government forced to buy oil on the market at higher prices, so the economic officials said, in order to make up the difference gas in Hungary would now be raised to about $3.90 per gallon at the current exchange rate, more expensive than in Austria.

After delaying too long, the government announced its move on Thursday, October 25, just after the celebration of national independence, apparently hoping to benefit from the euphoria of the preceding days. Unexpectedly, however, thousands of taxi drivers organized a coordinated protest within five hours and, beginning on Thursday evening, they used their cabs to block roads and bridges and shut down traffic on the bridges across the Danube between Buda and Pest. Streetcars were stalled at the bridges, adding to the blockade. In effect the taxi drivers controlled the main streets in and out of the city. Supplies of milk and bread began to run low. Tourists and Western executives from international corporations sat on their luggage while they fretted about getting to the airport. The border between Hungary and Austria was closed to motorists. The underground train linking Buda and Pest carried home the few workers who were still able to reach their jobs. Blockades by both taxi drivers and owners of private cars sprang up throughout the country to protest the rise in gas prices.

By the second day, Saturday, the mood of the people crossing the centrally located “Freedom Bridge” between Buda and Pest became almost festive. Pedestrians, baby carriages, and bicycles moved from the sidewalks into the roads. The air was less polluted than usual. Few pedestrians looked angry, and many seemed sympathetic to the drivers. The government, in their view, was inept—few Hungarians need to be convinced of this—and therefore the drivers deserved sympathy. A demonstration organized by the Forum party against the drivers attracted little support. The leaders of the Free Democrat opposition party issued a plea for a peaceful solution. The police chief said that if the government ordered direct intervention, he would resign. There was much talk of the events of 1956, and of the bad impression that a breakdown of public order would give to potential foreign investors. No one wanted another violent showdown in the streets of Budapest.

Strikes are a new phenomenon in Eastern Europe and there is no agreement on how they should be handled. (Recently, the employees of the Budapest Railroad Station threatened a strike to call attention to the rising number of homeless people who were taking refuge there.) Very few Hungarians I spoke to thought that shutting down the bridges in this case was a …

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