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Jackson Once Upstaged Romanian Election

June 9, 2005

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) _ Thirteen years ago, Romania’s president waited outside a shabby orphanage as Michael Jackson met children inside. Beyond the walled compound, thousands of screaming fans jostled with security men and journalists, straining for a peek at the ``King of Pop.″

Ion Iliescu’s re-election campaign was in its final days, and Romanians were voting freely for only the second time since the communist dictatorship toppled at the end of 1989, but presidential politics were no match for Jackson, who was on his worldwide ``Dangerous″ tour.

The singer donated a playground to Bucharest’s Orphanage No. 1, flew in a dozen ophthalmologists and child development specialists to give care to needy kids, performed to an enraptured crowd of over 60,000 at the national stadium _ and left Romania a hero.

Today the orphanage is gone, replaced by a social services center and a kindergarten as Romania slowly finds its way out of the poverty and social ills left by the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.

The playground is still there but in disrepair. And the hysterical cries of ``Michael! Michael!″ are a distant echo.

But many Romanians hold vivid memories of the pop icon’s electric visit to a country scarred by Ceausescu’s iron-fisted rule, and his trial on child molestation charges hasn’t dimmed their feelings.

``I wanted to come to Bucharest to go to his concerts because they were once-in-a-lifetime events, but I couldn’t afford it,″ said Alina Vasiliu, 36, from the Black Sea port of Constanta. ``I am not sure that the accusations are for real, but it won’t affect the image of the artist for the Romanian public.″

Alexandru Ciocodeica, a member of a Jackson fan club who argues for his idol’s innocence in the California trial, recalled the excitement of another visit by Jackson in 1996.

``After he arrived at the airport, it was total madness. There were about 200 of us. I had been there all morning and we didn’t know when he’d arrive. He arrived and it was the first time I’d seen him,″ Ciocodeica said.

Some 70,000 people attended Jackson’s 1996 concert, which was preceded by a visit to the giant palace built by Ceausescu. The star made a twilight dash across the palace lawn, hotly pursued by young fans.

Thousands of teenagers waited hours in pouring rain and screamed themselves hoarse as they struggled with security to get closer to their idol. More than 100 camped outside his hotel, while some fans who couldn’t afford a ticket loitered outside the stadium.

``When I was young we all knew how to do the Michael Jackson walk,″ said student Maria Altescu, 22.

Jackson doesn’t generate the same enthusiasm today.

``Everybody liked him, but as usually happens when he is no longer at the top, nobody wants him anymore,″ said Florin Dinu, a 33-year-old dentist.

At the social welfare center that was once Orphanage No. 1, posters urge parents not to abandon their children, warn against child abuse and detail children’s rights.

Most of its employees are too young to remember Jackson’s visits _ or know that the forlorn wooden fort and swings that sit in a weed-filled garden were donated by the singer.

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