Bulgarian dissident, philosopher, and president, 1935-
“Sofia, Prague, Berlin. Sofia, Prague, Berlin.”
So went the revolutionary refrain of Bulgarian students as they formed a human ring around the country’s parliament building on 14 December 1989, rallying to quicken the pace of reform. The man who launched the chant was Zhelyu Zhelev, the dissident philosopher who would become the country’s first democratically elected president.
Twenty years on, the “lord of the ring” (as Zhelev was dubbed in a U.S. diplomatic communique about the December 1989 demonstrations) is spearheading another effort to change Bulgarian politics, aiming to restore the powers stripped from the presidency when he held it.
Zhelev was the central figure around whom Bulgaria’s nascent democratic opposition revolved. In 1982, despite having been expelled from both the Communist Party and the University of Sofia, he had managed to publish Fascism, a scholarly work written 20 years earlier that compared the socialist regime to the Nazi state. It was confiscated from Bulgarian bookstores and libraries, but samizdat copies traversed the Soviet Union and reached China.
In the foreword to a Gorbachev-era edition of his book, Zhelev speculated that multi-party democracy would come to the communist world only after a period of military dictatorship, but time and his own actions belied the prediction. After a period of environmental activism in the Danube town of Ruse, he joined the dissident Club in Support of Glasnost and Perestroika, which led to his revolutionary role chairing the coordination council of the Union of Democratic Forces, the chief opposition movement.
In August 1990, Zhelev, by then a member of parliament, was elected president by his fellow legislators. Bulgaria’s first direct presidential election in 1992 confirmed his mandate. He served until 1997, although his authority was considerably weakened by the ex-communists of the Socialist government in the early 1990s, and his influence further lessened when the Socialists returned to power in 1994.
After leaving office Zhelev resumed the role of public and political intellectual, most notably as founder and president of the Balkan Political Club, a VIP-heavy body of academics, diplomats, and current and former leaders pursuing “Europeanization of the Balkans” as the road to peace and development. At home he is an elder statesman, in which role he has recently taken on the cause of constitutional reform to strengthen the Bulgarian executive.
“A presidential republic is much more appropriate for countries in transition from communism to democracy and the market economy,” Zhelev told the Sofia News Agency in a September 2009 interview. “It is a lot more suitable for solving the tasks they face.”