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Romania: EBRD Venue In Bucharest Symbolizes Folly Of Excess

RFE/RL correspondent Mark Baker was in Bucharest earlier this week to attend the annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He reports the meeting was less interesting than the venue: the enormous Palace of Parliament originally envisioned by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to house all of the branches of the Romanian government. Baker filed this reporter's notebook on the venue's symbolic importance to the meeting.

Bucharest, 23 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- International banking conferences are dull affairs, and the annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in Bucharest earlier this week was no exception.

The bank spent most of its time trying to convince participants that its role in promoting economic development is very important, even indispensable. Country and company officials were looking for cash. Real news stories were few and far between.

What made this conference special, however, was its location: Bucharest's Palace of Parliament, known during communist times as the "People's House" but which is more widely known today as "The House That Ceausescu Built."

It's difficult to describe the vastness of this building to anyone who has never seen it. At more than 330,000 square meters, it's the second-largest building in the world, after the Pentagon.

Its white marble, wedding-cake facade stands some 84 meters high atop an enormous artificial hill specially built to lift the structure over the city. The palace's front entrance commands a stunning view over what used to be called "Victory of Socialism" Boulevard, a street built to be both longer and wider than Paris's Champs Elysee.

The palace was the dream of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who wanted to put all of the organs of government under one roof. It was to be the jewel of "Socialist Bucharest," an entire quarter of the city constructed in the neoclassical style found in public buildings across communist Eastern Europe. Huge stretches of old Bucharest, including many historic structures, were razed to make room for the project.

Construction, begun in the early 1980s, was still under way in 1989 when Ceausescu was deposed and executed. Officials chose to complete the palace and surrounding buildings at enormous public expense. The Union Hall's 1,000-square-meter carpet weighs 14 tons and was woven with special machines. Some 3,500 tons of crystal were used for the palace's chandeliers, one of which weighs 3 tons and has 7,000 light bulbs.

The effect today is a fitting tribute to the oversized ambitions of the most ruthless of Eastern Europe's communist dictators. It's a dinosaur, vastly out of scale to its surroundings and functions.

Public attitudes toward the palace appear to be evolving. Initially, the building was derided as a folly, an embarrassment of riches in one of Europe's poorest capitals. The cost of completing it was said to be Ceausescu's revenge.

Now that the palace is mostly completed, and home to Romania's lower house of parliament, Bucharest residents appear to be taking a more realistic view. And some -- mostly young people who don't remember the Ceausescu years first-hand -- even admit to a sense of pride.

Twenty-year old university student Gabriela was just eight years old when Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed on Christmas Day 1989. She says she's not interested in things like the cost of the building and the boulevard, likely in the billions of dollars. She's more impressed by the acres of fine marble, the crystal and tapestries and carpets, all of which are Romanian in origin.

"It's something that belongs to the people, and we are proud of this building. That's all. We don't know any financial information or how this building was built [or] how much money was needed."

Her colleague, 21-year-old Corina, agrees and says that after the events of 1989, Romanians needed something to be proud of in their capital. "I like [the building], and I think that it is not too big. It's just perfect, and it suits Bucharest."

Tourism officials and travel agents would be the first to agree. The Palace of Parliament is the city's biggest tourist attraction. Even so, tourism revenue and conference fees offset only a fraction of the cost of operating and maintaining the building.

For all its splendor, it must be said the palace does not work well as a conference venue. The distances are too vast and the rooms too far apart for any meaningful interaction. The restaurant was so far from the main presentation rooms that participants didn't dare go off to lunch for fear of getting lost and wasting time.

But perhaps the venue played a symbolic role -- one not acknowledged publicly but which must have been on everyone's mind, at least to those in the EBRD.

In the early days of the EBRD's founding, the bank was savagely criticized for its own version of extravagant spending. As the bank was refurbishing its new headquarters in London, then-bank President Jacques Attali ordered that marble in the lobby be replaced by more expensive marble, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1 million.

The decision was vilified in the press as wasteful. At the time, the EBRD was reportedly spending more on itself in the form of luxurious furnishings and salaries than it was in Eastern Europe, where it was supposed to be lending.

The EBRD got the message. Attali was forced to resign, and the bank today is much more mindful of its fiscal responsibility.

EBRD officials and delegates walking the corridors of the Palace of Parliament no doubt admired the marble on the walls. But surely, too, they must have grasped how much money had been pointlessly squandered.

In democracies -- unlike dictatorships -- public institutions are duty bound to spend taxpayers' money wisely. Civil servants and institutions are held accountable for the expenditures, and extravagance is not long tolerated. And that's not a bad thing.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.