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Zhelyu Zhelev - The dissident president

Author: Ivan Vatahov Date: Thu, Apr 17 2003 3521 Views
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BY the end of 1990, when it became clear that the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP), with the new name of Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), was losing the public's confidence and should step down from power, a new star was rising on the Bulgarian horizon - Zhelyu Zhelev.

In 1992, Zhelev became the first president of Bulgaria to be elected in democratic elections. However, the road to the presidency was far from smooth. It started back in the 1980s when Zhelev was observed by the Bulgarian State Security for openly demonstrating himself as one of the critics of the communist regime, and thus becoming a dissident. It went through further, when in 1989, after Todor Zhivkov was forced out of power, Zhelev became one of the faces of the newly established Union of Democratic Forces (UDF).

Zhelyu Mitev Zhelev was born on March 3, 1935 in the village of Veselinovo, in the region of Shumen. He was a philosophy graduate of the Kliment Ohridski University in Sofia. Zhelev worked actively for Komsomol, the youth organisation of the communist party, and was also a member of the BCP for some time.

From 1961 to 1964 he was a regular post-graduate student at the Philosophy Faculty of Sofia University. In his dissertation thesis he attacked the foundations of Marxist philosophy and, in consequence, lost his job - he remained unemployed until 1972.

In 1974 he defended his thesis, and in 1975 he began work as a research associate at the Institute for Culture. Between 1977 and 1982 he was Head of the Culture and Personality Department at this Institute. In 1988 he defended his doctoral thesis.

In 1982 his book on fascism was published, subsequently banned and removed from circulation. Nevertheless, it has since been translated into 10 languages.

The 1980's were the time when a more organised dissident movement appeared in Bulgaria. Many of the most active participants in the Club for Glasnost and Restructuring, and of other underground organisations, were writers. Zhelev's book was about the totalitarian state, explicitly comparing communist countries to Nazi Germany.

The book, as one might guess, could not be published with its original title The totalitarian state. Zhelev then changed the title to Fascism, and it was published, obviously mistaken by editors, or by the publisher, for one of the countless books against Fascism and Nazism written from a communist point of view.

Soon after the publication, the authorities realised their mistake and the book was confiscated from the bookstores, but meanwhile it had become a bestseller of underground literature. It was borrowed from friends, and read by many more than those few people who had managed to buy it before the ban.

In 1988 he created the semi-legal Club for Glasnost (freedom of expression) and Restructuring, which, together with some other organisations of this kind, sped up Zhivkov's stepping down from power on 10 November 1989. Before this date Zhelev was one of the most widely known and prominent dissidents in Bulgaria, and was subjected to repression.

In December 1989 Zhelev took the lead of the newly formed UDF and in this capacity he won a seat in the Seventh Grand National Assembly, the first after the fall of communism.

In August 1990 the Grand National Assembly elected Zhelev president of Bulgaria. These were the days when he displayed his best abilities as a politician. He proposed a number of ideas and agreements that contributed to the removal of the communist framework.

Zhelev managed to preserve civil peace when starvation, rallies, strikes and hatred were threatening to destroy the country's fragile balance. In 1992 he became the first president of Bulgaria to be elected democratically in fair presidential elections.

Two years later, however, he was no longer supported by the political parties and personalities who had backed him in parliament and during the elections. He came to power in the name of democracy and ruled in the name of democracy, for he believed it to be the only way for Bulgaria's progress in the hard years of transition. But the efforts towards the implementation of democracy brought about economic collapse, unemployment and weakening of cultural values and morale.

Since the summer of 1992, dissension between Zhelev and the political party that he himself had founded, and that had nominated him for president - the UDF - became increasingly serious and far-reaching. As a result, in the autumn of 1996 Zhelev lost the primary presidential elections held by the democratic forces. Moreover, he failed in the April 1997 parliamentary elections, in which he participated with the Liberal Alternative Party he had previously formed.

In March 1998, Zhelev de- clared the forthcoming formation of a new Union of Liberal Parties designed to be a coalition of Ahmed Dogan's Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the New Choice Party, the Liberal Alternative and the Free Radical Liberal Party.

At the constitutive conference of the Liberal Democratic Union held on 10 June 1998 he was elected its president, and still holds this position today.

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