Democrats in a shrine to evil

New rulers forced to use Ceausescu's monstrosity
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Romania's newly elected anti-communist rulers are confronted with an embarrassing paradox: they are exercising power in a building which is a monument to the country's former hardline Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

The "House of the People" is an eyesore on the Bucharest skyline whose construction in the Eighties involved the demolition of more than one- fifth of the old city centre and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of forced labourers.

The decision to move the lower house of parliament into the 3,000-room white marble palace was taken by the former Communist heirs of Ceausescu, who ruled the country from his overthrow in 1989 until their defeat in elections earlier this month.

But now the centre-right victors in the elections, who have promised to crack down on privilege, find themselves stuck in a building which for many Romanians is nothing but a kitsch monstrosity representing the ultimate symbol of Ceausescu's delusions of grandeur.

"We were always totally opposed to moving into this palace and even now want to explore the possibilities of moving back to our old premises or elsewhere," said Ion Diaconescu, a senior figure in the new coalition, after Friday's inaugural sitting in the palace. "This building is like an Egyptian pyramid: a vast structure built at great expense but with no practical use."

In the original conception, the House of the People was to be the crowning glory at the end of a four-kilometre Victory of Socialism Boulevard meant to epitomise the success of Ceausescu-style Communism. Nicolae and his equally megalomaniac wife, Elena, were to rule supreme from the palace, which was also to house the Communist Party Central Committee, government, parliament and the Council of Ministers.

At the time of the Ceausescus' overthrow and execution in December 1989, most of the external work on the palace, the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon, had been completed. But although initially some people wanted to tear it down in disgust, the consensus was that the project had reached the point of no return.

Early ideas for possible uses for the palace included turning it into a multi-purpose complex with commercial enterprises such as banks and a stock exchange, halls for international conferences and even the world's largest casino.

But when MPs discovered that the old building housing the lower house of parliament was in need of extensive renovation, they decided in 1993 to initiate the move to the House of the People. "Love it or hate it, we had to do something with the palace," Gheorghe Stan, then the deputy secretary general of the lower house, said. "And what could be more appropriate than having it serve as the home to the country's democratically elected parliament?"

Opinions on that vary. For many Romanians, steeped in poverty, the pounds 20m spent on adapting one-third of the palace's 710,000 square feet and equipping it with thousands of pounds worth of silverware, crystal and leather furnishings is nothing short of an outrage. "Luxury that defies common sense," the Romania Libera stormed last week.

Some believe the money is well spent. "This is a beautiful building reflecting the great talents of the Romanian people," Margareta Popescu said, as she walked her dog in the public park in front of the palace. "I am proud that in my youth such a building was constructed. People suffered, but look at what they created."

For those whose homes were in the path of the bulldozers, there is a different perspective. "I feel bitter every time I see this palace," said Alexandra Nikita, a medical student who was among the 150,000 Romanians forced to move for the project. "What we had before was so beautiful; what we have now is so ugly. And in a strange way, parliament has realised Ceausescu's dream. When I heard they were going to move into this building, I shuddered."