Zhelyu Zhelev: Dissident who fought the dictatorship in Bulgaria before becoming its first democratically elected head of state

He spent years in internal exile, scraping a living from odd jobs on farms

Richard Thomas
Sunday 15 February 2015 17:50
Zhelyu Zhelev was Bulgaria’s first democratically elected head of state
Zhelyu Zhelev was Bulgaria’s first democratically elected head of state

Zhelyu Zhelev was Bulgaria’s first democratically elected head of state, after the years of monarchy and then of communist dictatorship which had succeeded centuries of Ottoman hegemony. He was elected President in June 1990 by the new National Assembly, after the fall of communism at the end of 1989.

A year and a half later, under a new constitution which had come into force the previous year, he was re-elected, this time by universal suffrage. He lost his party’s nomination for the 1996 presidential election, and was therefore unable to stand for a second term.

Zhelev was an intellectual and academic, nobody’s idea of a typical politician. He was born in 1935 into a modest village family in Veselinovo in north-eastern Bulgaria. He studied philosophy at Sofia University, graduating in 1958 and gaining a PhD in 1974, a remarkable achievement given that he was under a cloud as a dissident, having been expelled from the Communist Party in 1965. After his expulsion he endured years of “parasitism”, or unemployment in communist terminology, which he spent in virtual internal exile in his wife’s village, scraping a living with odd jobs on farms.He spent years in internal exile, scraping a living from odd jobs on farm

In 1982 Zhelev published Fascism, the book on which his political reputation was based. It he drew parallels between communism and fascism, and was banned. As he wrote, “Being a rabid anti-communist does not mean that one is a democrat; nor is frenzied anti-fascism a hallmark of democracy. To a democrat, both communism and fascism are abhorrent. Indeed, there has been no greater anti-communist than Hitler and no greater anti-fascist than Stalin, but neither of them is known to have been a democrat. Moreover, the 20th century has seen no greater butchers of democracy than the two moustachioed comrades.”

In 1988, when the events that were to topple communist regimes the following year were still unthinkable, Zhelev founded the Committee for the Defence of Russe, a dissident organisation whose ostensible purpose was to protect the city of Russe from the pollution emanating from Romanian factories across the Danube. Early in 1989, still months before the dictator Zhivkov was toppled, Zhelev founded the more openly anti-regime, but cunningly named, Club for the Support of Glasnost and Perestroika, and in due course became Chairman of the Coordinating Committee of the Union of Democratic Forces.

The new constitution provided for a head of state with few, if any, executive powers. Nevertheless Zhelev quickly established himself on the Eastern European and international scene as the leader of a newly democratised nation that was at first eager for change, but which became disillusioned as its politics sank into a familiar pattern of corruption and internecine strife. This process had already begun by 1996, and Zhelev’s reputation suffered by unjust association with it, which probably accounted for his failure to achieve a second term.

Two incidents can serve as examples of Zhelev’s honesty, incorruptibility and high-mindedness. Both happened during his five-day official visit to the UK in 1991, which took place at a time of great hardship for ordinary Bulgarians. As a result of a perhaps over-hasty switch from a command to a market economy there was massive hoarding and almost total scarcity of food and goods, accompanied by power cuts, during a particularly hard winter.

Maria Zheleva, his documentary film-maker wife, could not conceal her astonishment at the abundance of goods in the shops in London which, as she explained to her British hosts, contrasted so markedly with the situation in Sofia. During luncheon at Buckingham Palace kindly members of the Royal Household arranged with the management of one of the main supermarkets for Maria Zheleva to fill a large trolley with food that she could take back for distribution to the desperate clients of a Bulgarian charity with which she was associated.

Maria checked this offer with her husband, who vetoed it, as in his view it smacked too much of the old-style corruption he had set his face against. The shopping expedition took place, but the Zhelevs paid for it themselves.

The other event was quite different, but it illustrated Zhelev’s almost romantic high-mindedness. When he became President he made it known that he was determined to get to the bottom of the notorious “umbrella murder” on the streets of London of the Bulgarian writer and dissident Georgi Markov, and to bring those responsible to justice.

He asked if he could visit Markov’s grave, in a village churchyard in Dorset. As time would be short the programme provided for a trip to Dorset by helicopter. But the appointed day dawned too wet and cloudy for helicopters, so the pilgrimage had to be by road, which led to a good deal of last-minute programme adjustment. But as Zhelev later explained, a few minutes by Markov’s grave meant more to him than almost anything else in the programme.

Zhelev was gentle and not remotely “charismatic”. He was sweet and kindly, though with the steely determination of a true dissident. He and his wife, to whom he was devoted, were warm and hospitable. Their marriage was, however, marked by tragedy, with the deaths of their son in infancy and, much later, of their younger daughter.

Zhelyu Mitev Zhelev, philosopher and politician: born Veselinovo, Bulgaria 3 March 1935; married Maria Zheleva (died 2014; one daughter, one daughter deceased, one son deceased); died Sofia 30 January 2015.

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