OBITUARY: Zhelyu Zhelev, Bulgaria’s first freely elected president

By bne IntelliNews January 30, 2015

Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -


Zhelyu Zhelev, the dissident philosopher and Bulgaria’s first democratically elected president, has died at the age of 79.

Born in 1935 in the small village of Veselinovo, Zhelev graduated in philosophy from Sofia University and briefly became a member of the Bulgarian Communist party. However, as his political views diverged from the prevailing ideology, he was expelled from the party in 1965 and banned from Sofia the following year.

This was the beginning of Zhelev’s emergence as a leading figure in Bulgaria’s democratic opposition in the later years of the communist regime, a position that was sealed with the publication of his best-known book, The Fascism, in 1982. The book analyses three fascist societies, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Franco’s Spain. While the book did not overtly criticise the Bulgarian regime, the obvious similarities between the fascist societies it described and the situation within Bulgaria caused it to be banned three weeks after publication. This move backfired, as The Fascism became Bulgaria’s most sought-after book until the overthrow of communism in 1989.

Zhelev and other opposition leaders had no direct involvement in the coup against Todor Zhivkov, Eastern Europe’s longest-standing communist dictator, who was deposed by the Bulgarian politburo. However, increasingly vocal criticism and mass rallies organised by the democratic opposition increased pressure on the regime as 1989 drew to an end. Zhivkov’s discrimination against Bulgaria’s large ethnic Turkish minority added to the unrest, as thousands of Turks went on hunger strike.

His reputation as an outspoken critic of the communist regime made Zhelev an obvious figure to look to for leadership after 1989. Zhelev was one of the founders and the first chairman of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), set up by dissident groups in 1989. He was elected to the new parliament in 1990 and headed a round table created to draw up plans for a democratic Bulgaria.

In August 1990 Zhelev was elected president by fellow MPs and, after the adoption of a new constitution in 1991, was re-appointed in the country’s first direct and democratic presidential elections.

The main achievements of Zhelev’s five-year term as president took place between 1992 and 1994. The November 1991 parliamentary elections resulted in a majority for the UDF, which formed a government alongside the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), with Philip Dimitrov as prime minister.

Numerous reforms, including the launch of a large-scale privatisation programme and a new law on foreign investment, were launched under Zhelev and Dimitrov. Bulgaria was recognised internationally as a state forging ahead towards a democratic market economy. Other achievements included soothing tensions between Bulgarians and Turks, which averted ethnic unrest at a time when neighbouring Yugoslavia was descending into inter-ethnic war.

However, with tensions rising both between the UDF and MRF, and within the UDF itself, Dimitrov lost a no-confidence vote in 1992. He was replaced by presidential advisor Lyuben Berov at the helm of an interim government supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), the MRF and some UDF MPs.

In December 1994, the BSP, the successor to the Bulgarian Communist Party, returned to power, spelling the end of the brief period of reform under Zhelev’s presidency. Unsurprisingly the relationship between Zhelev and new Prime Minister Zhan Videnov was tense, with the two sparring frequently over the economy and foreign policy.

Along with other East European transition economies, the final years of Zhelev’s term saw an increase in economic problems, with a decline in GDP, rising inflation and a slump in the value of the Bulgarian currency. Speaking at the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in March 1995, Zhelev said that Bulgaria was facing difficulties on its path to a market economy, with economic liberalisation leading to a fall in living standards for many and an upturn in corruption. “There has been a growing sense of frustration and insecurity,” he acknowledged.

Zhelev served only a single term as president. In advance of the 1996 presidential elections, the UDF, Agrarian Union, and MRF agreed to field a single candidate to increase their chances of defeating the BSP. This spelled the end of Zhelev’s rule, as he was defeated by UDF candidate Petar Stoyanov in the June 1996 primary. Stoyanov went on to defeat the Bulgarian Socialist Party’s Ivan Marazov, becoming Bulgaria’s next president in January 1997.

After the end of his presidency in 1997, Zhelev remained politically active though no longer in the mainstream of Bulgarian politics. In the international sphere, he initiated the Balkan Political Club of former leaders from the region and became an honorary co-chair for the World Justice Project, which aims to strengthen the rule of law. 

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