Obituary / Corneliu Coposu

Corneliu Coposu's story is one of the most remarkable in the annals of Communist repression in eastern Europe. In 1990, aged 74, he emerged from nearly 50 years of prison and police surveillance to revive the National Peasant and Christian Democratic Party (PNTCD) and make it a magnet of opposition to the ex-Communists in charge of Romania. He was a steadfast opponent of intolerance and did his best to foster relations with Romania's Hungarian and Jewish minorities.

Born in the Transylvanian county of Salaj in 1916, Coposu trained as a lawyer and was close to Iuliu Maniu, leader of the National Peasant Party during the 1937-47 period, acting as his personal secretary before becoming a deputy secretary-general of the party in 1945. His links with a political figure widely respected for his ethical standards and for having played a key role in 1918 in uniting Transylvania with the Romanian state lent stature to Coposu, as did his own prison sufferings after 1947. When he was released in 1964, his weight had fallen from 114 to 51 kilograms and he had forgotten how to speak, his last eight years of captivity having been spent in solitary confinement. His wife Arlette had died in prison as had a great many of the tens of thousands of party members imprisoned after 1947.

In 1964, at a time when the Communist leadership was trying to mobilise support on nationalist grounds for its bid to detach a still Stalinist Romania from Moscow's orbit, Coposu turned down an invitation to occupy an honorific public office. In the quarter of a century of enforced residence and constant surveillance by the secret police that followed, Coposu found political activity impossible. Nevertheless, in 1987, thanks to a clandestine meeting with a senior Italian Christian Democrat, the PNTCD was enrolled in the European Christian Democratic Union, which has provided material assistance for the party in the 1990s.

Coposu took part in the street protests in Bucharest at the end of 1989 that contributed to the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu. But Ion Iliescu, who led the internal party putsch against the dictator, froze Coposu out during these dramatic events. When elections were hastily called in May 1990 by ex- Communists who had formed the National Salvation Front (NSF), it became clear that Coposu's party had lost the social and economic bases which had sustained it before 1945. The worlds of private agriculture, urban commerce and religious faith from which it had derived values, material support and recruits had been shattered in the Communist era.

But, to the democratically minded young, Coposu's dignity, simplicity of manner and clarity of expression made him an inspiring figure. By promoting younger people, he tried to prevent his party becoming a gerontocracy dominated by aged figures keen to resume careers interrupted in the 1940s. Whatever future awaits it now, he ensured that it avoided the splits that have disfigured most other Romanian parties.

Under a less clear-sighted and principled leader, the PNTCD might well have been tempted to compromise with authoritarian forces in order to strengthen its appeal before voters who had been exposed to anti-democratic conditioning over many years. Coposu instead emphasised a civic patriotism and was prepared to co-operate with Romania's ethnic Hungarian leaders, provided the country's territorial integrity was never placed in question. Public statements he made, starting in June 1990, show that he saw an alliance spanning the whole of the Romanian democratic camp as the only feasible way of grabbing the political initiative from the "neo-Communists" of the NSF, a party which he believed was controlled by insincere democrats determined to retain a monopoly of power.

Months of patient negotiation gave rise in 1991 to the Democratic Convention, an opposition electoral alliance. In 1992 its candidates were elected as mayors in large cities across Romania and in the September general election it deprived the ruling party of its majority and forced President Iliescu to a second ballot before he was elected. Many had expected that Iliescu and his supporters could be driven from office, but Coposu's firm anti-Communism and his support for the restoration of King Michael to the throne may have scared off floating voters.

The years after 1992 were frustrating for Coposu. Ultra-nationalists, whose newspapers subjected him to vicious character assassinations, were incorporated into the government to enjoy the spoils of office. The opposition alliance has become increasingly frayed as it is clear that reformists stand little chance of wresting power from President Iliescu in next year's elections. Coposu was dismayed by the retreat of the European ideal and the rise of intolerant nationalism not only in Serbia but also in Britain.

Coposu was a guest of honour at the 1990 Tory party conference but was well aware that the Major government's hostility to European institutions, such as the European Court of Human Rights, made it much easier for nationalists in Romania to flout these institutions by citing the precedent of respected Western democracies.

Relations with Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats were more rewarding; an inveterate smoker, Coposu spent long periods in Germany receiving treatment for a lung complaint. His place in Romanian history is assured and it is likely that future generations will grant him the honours denied in a lifetime full of storms and personal tragedies which Coposu bore with remarkable stoicism.

Tom Gallagher

Corneliu Coposu, politician: born Balota 20 May 1916; President, PNCTD 1990-95; Member of Parliament 1992-95; died Bucharest 11 November 1995.

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