By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - The hermetically-sealed heavy steel door to the bunker of Romania's late communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu opens with a squeak, releasing a burst of cool air.
The bunker sits two levels beneath a lavish villa in an upmarket neighborhood in Bucharest, Ceausescu's private residence through the 24 years he ruled Romania, one of Eastern Europe's most repressive Cold War-era regimes.
"It is a transitional bunker," said tour guide Roxana Iliescu, pointing out that, with no bathroom or kitchen, it could not have been lived in for any long period.
"From what we know, it hasn't been used."
The bunker, which houses some of the dictators' hunting trophies, and an adjacent basement art gallery, were opened to the public in recent weeks, adding to the curiosities on display at the villa which started admitting tourists only last year, in what the government said was an attempt to help Romanians learn about their past and put it to rest.
The L-shaped mansion has 80 rooms in a variety of contrasting styles including Louis XIV bedrooms and an Art Deco cinema. Peacocks walk in the garden - descendants of a pair Ceausescu brought in after seeing some during a visit to Japan in the 1970s. A chess board with intricate wooden pieces has pawns carved to look like peasants.
The villa was ransacked during the revolution of 1989, but protesters did surprisingly little damage, Iliescu said.
Ceausescu, who would have been 99 on Thursday, was summarily tried and shot by firing squad along his wife on Dec. 25, 1989, the only Cold War-era communist dictator to be executed.
Up to 2 million people are believed to have been killed, imprisoned, deported or relocated in Romania between 1945 and 1989.
While his residence may look like an ornate, marbled time capsule from the 1980s, the country still bears the scars of his regime 27 years later.
Romania joined the European Union in 2007, but remains its second-poorest state, with entrenched bureaucracy and corruption that date back to those times.
Many communist-era officials are still in public life, wielding political and business influence. The government is still returning properties seized under communism to their owners, a process other countries in the region finished long ago.
In 2016, a court sentenced a 90-year-old prison commander, Alexandru Visinescu, for crimes against humanity, the first case of its kind. [nL8N15P2NE]
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)