SOFIA (AFP) – Zhelyu Zhelev, Bulgaria’s first democratically-elected president and a humble hero in the toppling of communism, died on Friday aged 79, his family told AFP.
“Zhelev was a symbol of public and intellectual dignity and of uncompromising faith in liberty and democracy,” speaker of parliament Tsetska Tsatcheva said as the chamber held a minute’s silence.
Zhelev was the founder of Bulgaria’s anti-communist opposition before the ousting of the regime in 1989 and served as president between 1990 and 1997.
Born into a provincial workers’ family, Zhelev graduated in philosophy but was expelled from the communist party – and Sofia – in the 1960s for questioning Lenin’s theories.
A book he published in 1981 that likened communism to fascism was banned but copies still passed secretly from hand to hand among intellectuals.
In January 1989, he co-founded the Club for Glasnost and Perestroika, one of the first groups to openly criticise the regime.
When communism fell in November 1989, he became the leader of the anti-communist Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), which grouped several like-minded factions.
Following the ex-communists’ victory in the first democratic parliamentary elections in June 1990, Zhelev led massive street protests that forced the resignation of president Petar Mladenov.
Parliament then appointed Zhelev as president and in 1992 he won public backing in Bulgaria’s first democratic presidential election.
He served until 1997, refusing to move with his wife and daughters into the presidential palace and donated a third of his salary to a charity for orphans.
He did not hesitate to criticise his UDF movement, which took power in 1991 and had, he said, led to a rift in society.
Zhelev planned to seek a second mandate but lost internal UDF elections in 1996, when the party united behind his eventual successor, president Petar Stoyanov.
Zhelev, short with white hair and a strong regional accent, remained in politics but his public appearances gradually dwindled, although he remained widely respected.