April 3, 2007 / 6:46 PM / 12 years ago

Hungarians divided over fate of Soviet monument

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - While Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany was in Moscow two weeks ago striking energy deals, activists at home were collecting signatures to demolish a huge monument to Soviet soldiers who died in World War Two.

The fight over the monument to the Red Army war dead in Budapest shows the split between Hungary’s ruling Socialists, keen to win Moscow’s favor, and the political right, which is worried by the ex-colonial power’s growing influence.

Soviet troops left in June 1991 with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and memories of four decades of rule by Moscow were rekindled last October in anti-government protests on the 50th anniversary of Hungary’s 1956 uprising against communism.

“The Communists made a law keeping this monument from being torn down. How shameful,” said Petra Kiss, 32, as she collected signatures in a Budapest subway station.

The row over the monument here mirrors one in Estonia where threats to remove a statue to a Soviet soldier in Tallinn triggered an angry response from Russia, which believes the Soviet Union’s role defeating the Nazis is being diminished.

The five meter (16 feet) high monument in Budapest’s “Liberty Square” near parliament is decorated with a gold representation of the communist red star — a symbol banned in Hungary — and protesters demanding its removal have pitched camp around its base.

Most of Budapest’s Soviet-era statuary has been consigned to a commercial theme park on the edge of the city but the monument to the World War Two Soviet dead is for some people a symbol of Hungary’s incomplete transition from communism.

“I have all the respect and sympathy for the Russian people but the symbols and remains of dictatorships should be removed. There is no place for such a monument on Liberty Square in Budapest,” said Tibor Berta, signing the petition.

Hungary’s Foreign Ministry says the monument is protected by a treaty with Russia and will not be demolished.

NO RECOGNITION OF PAST

The right sees the Socialists, who have won three of Hungary’s five free elections since 1990 including the one in 2006, as the direct descendents of the communists.

Unlike in Poland and the Czech Republic, no one in Hungary has ever been held to account for their role in 40 years of communism during which thousands of people were imprisoned, killed and tortured.

Gyurcsany made millions of dollars from real estate deals and was head of the Communist Party’s youth wing in the 1980s.

His admission he had lied about the parlous state of the country’s finances to win the 2006 elections, which triggered protests and riots last year, has only deepened suspicions among some people that Hungary is being robbed of its young democracy.

They call Gyurcsany and his allies the “new aristocracy”.

“Some people are stopping the nation from coming to terms with those 40 to 50 years (of communism) but it must still be done,” said Zoltan Laszlo, 28, a local councilor for the main centre-right Fidesz opposition party, at a February rally to commemorate the victims of communism.

GROWING RUSSIAN COMMERCIAL INTEREST

Russian companies are also becoming more active in here, with energy giant Gazprom buying a stake in the gas storage business with Hungarian oil company MOL Plc.

Hungarian state airline Malev has been bought by a Russian carrier and German media reported Russian telephone company Sistema wants to buy Deutsche Telekom AG’s share in former state telephone firm Magyar Telekom.

But it is in the sensitive field of energy that the issue is most keenly felt in a country which is already dependent on Russia for 80 percent of its natural gas.

The Hungarian government’s failure to fully endorse a $6 billion European Union-backed pipeline called Nabucco to reduce dependency on Russian gas is seen as an indication the Socialists and Gyurcsany are all keen to agree with Moscow.

Comments on Russia’s energy policy by Viktor Orban, the leader of Fidesz, last week drew an angry response from Russia’s ambassador to Budapest, who accused Orban of lying.

The government said Orban had “run amok diplomatically” by offending the Russians.

But Orban returned to the attack on Friday.

“We did not close the door on certain things just for them to creep back in through the window. We opened the door for the West and closed it for the Russians, the Soviet Union and communism,” he said.

Additional reporting by Sandor Peto, Andras Gergely, Gergely Szakacs and Kriszta Fenyo

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