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Zhelyu Zhelev
Желю Желев
1st President of Bulgaria
In office
22 January 1992 – 22 January 1997
Prime Minister
Vice PresidentBlaga Dimitrova
Preceded byHimself (as Chairman)
Succeeded byPetar Stoyanov
Chairman (President) of Bulgaria
In office
1 August 1990 – 22 January 1992
Prime Minister
DeputyAtanas Semerdzhiev
Preceded byPetar Mladenov
Succeeded byHimself (as President)
Leader of the Union of Democratic Forces
In office
7 December 1989 – 1 August 1990
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byPetar Beron
Personal details
Zhelyu Mitev Zhelev

(1935-03-03)3 March 1935
Veselinovo, Tsarsom of Bulgaria
Died30 January 2015(2015-01-30) (aged 79)
Sofia, Bulgaria
Resting placeCentral Sofia Cemetery
Political partyIndependent (1990–2015)
Other political
(m. 1961; died 2013)
ChildrenMitko (died 80 days after birth)
Yordanka (died in 1993)[1]
  • Politician
  • philosopher

Zhelyu Mitev Zhelev (Bulgarian: Желю Митев Желев; Bulgarian: [ˈʒɛʎu ˈmitef ˈʒɛlef]; 3 March 1935 – 30 January 2015) was a Bulgarian politician and former dissident who served as the first democratically elected and non-Communist President of Bulgaria, from 1990 to 1997. Zhelev was one of the most prominent figures of the 1989 Bulgarian Revolution, which ended the 35 year rule of President Todor Zhivkov.[2] A member of the Union of Democratic Forces, he was elected as President by the 7th Grand National Assembly. Two years later, he won Bulgaria's first direct presidential elections. He lost his party's nomination for his 1996 reelection campaign after losing a tough primary race to Petar Stoyanov.


Early life

Zhelev 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 “social parasitism”, or unemployment in communist terminology, which he spent in virtual internal exile in his wife’s village, scraping a living from odd jobs on farms.[3]


Zhelev was a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party, but was expelled from it for political reasons in 1965. He was unemployed for six years since all employment in Bulgaria was state-regulated.[4]

In 1982, he published his controversial work, Fascism (Фашизмът).[5] Three weeks after the volume's publication in 1982, the book was removed from bookstores and libraries throughout the nation, as its description of the fascist states of Italy, Germany and Spain before, during, and after World War II made these regimes comparable to the Communist regimes in the Eastern Bloc.[6]


In 1988, just before the Fall of Communism, Zhelev founded the Ruse Committee, and in 1989 he became a founding member and chairman of the Club for Support of Openness and the Reform (a time when many such democratic clubs were formed), which helped him to achieve the position of Chairman of the Coordinating Council of the Union of Democratic Forces (Bulgarian: СДС, SDS) party.[7][8]

MP and President

Zhelev was elected MP in June 1990 for the 7th Grand National Assembly; the Assembly's main goal was to create a new democratic Constitution of Bulgaria. After the resignation of President Petar Mladenov, the assembly elected Zhelev his successor on 1 August 1990.[6] He thus became the first head of state in 44 years who was not either a Communist or fellow traveler.

1992 presidential election

Under the new constitution adopted in July 1991, the president was to be elected directly by voters, for a maximum of two terms. The first such election was held in January 1992. Zhelev led the field in the first round, held on 12 January. He then won in the runoff a week later against Velko Valkanov (who was endorsed by the Socialists) with 52.8% of the votes to become Bulgaria's first directly elected head of state. He immediately suspended his membership in the UDF. While the new constitution only barred him from serving in a leadership post with the party, he wanted to appear to be above politics. Since then, convention in Bulgaria calls for the president to not be a formal member of a political party during his term.

1996 presidential election

Zhelev sought a second term in 1996, but lost the UDF nomination to eventual winner Petar Stoyanov.

Later political career

After his defeat in the 1996 UDF primaries and after the end of his presidency in 1997, Zhelev remained in politics, but on a much smaller scale. He became Honorary Chair of the Liberal Democratic Union and Honorary Chair of the Liberal International and in 1997 went on to establish and preside over a foundation named after him. Zhelev was the initiator and president of the Balkan Political Club, a union of former political leaders from Southeast Europe. As part of the club he voiced his support for Turkey's accession to the European Union.[9]

In 2009, Zhelev also voiced his opinion that Bulgaria should adopt a presidential system based upon the French model: "The country should have both prime minister and president, but the latter should be vested in far-reaching powers so that he may control the executive power".[10]

Zhelev died in Sofia at the age of 79 on 30 January 2015.[11][12]

World Justice Project

Zhelyu Zhelev served as an Honorary Co-Chair for the World Justice Project (ABA).[13]


He was married to Maria Zheleva (3 April 1942 – 8 December 2013)[14] and has two daughters Yordanka (1963–1993) and Stanka (born 1966). Zhelev has two grandchildren from his daughter Stanka.[citation needed]

Awards and accolades

On 15 January 2010, Zhelev received the Order 8-September for his contribution to the recognition of the independence of the Republic of Macedonia from the former Yugoslavia.

Zhelev Peak on Loubet Coast, Antarctica is named after Zhelyu Zhelev "for his support for the Bulgarian Antarctic programme."[15]

National honours

Foreign honours


  1. ^ "Yordanka Zheleva". Orlando Sentinel. 28 April 1993. Retrieved 28 November 2017.
  2. ^ Detrez, Raymond (2006). "Zhelev, Zhelyo (1935- )". Historical Dictionary of Bulgaria (2nd ed.). Lanham, Maryland; Toronto; Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. pp. 491–493.
  3. ^ "Zhelyu Zhelev: Dissident who fought the dictatorship in Bulgaria before becoming its first democratically elected head of state". 15 February 2015.
  4. ^ Harris M. Lentz (4 February 2014). Heads of States and Governments Since 1945. Routledge. p. 117. ISBN 978-1-134-26490-2.
  5. ^ Желев, Желю; Желев, Желю Митев (1990). Фашизмът (in Bulgarian). Social Science Monographs. ISBN 978-0-88033-966-7.
  6. ^ a b Lynda Lee Kaid; Christina Holtz-Bacha (21 December 2007). Encyclopedia of Political Communication. SAGE Publications. p. 1015. ISBN 978-1-4522-6562-9.
  7. ^ "Профил на Желю Желев в "omda". Retrieved 16 December 2014.
  8. ^ Coordinating Council of the Union of Democratic Forces. Demokratsiya Newspaper, 27 April 1990.
  9. ^ "Bulgaria Ex-President Zhelev: Turkey Should Be in EU Already". Sofia News Agency. Retrieved 17 March 2014.
  10. ^ "Calls for Electing Prime Minister Borisov for Bulgaria's President Gain Momentum". Sofia News Agency. Retrieved 17 March 2014.
  11. ^ "Bulgaria's Former President Zhelyu Zhelev Dies". Sofia News Agency.
  12. ^ Okov, Slav (30 January 2015). "Zhelyu Zhelev, Bulgarian Post-Communist Leader, Dies at 79". Bloomberg.
  13. ^ "Honorary Chairs". World Justice Project. Retrieved 31 January 2015.
  14. ^ "Почина Мария Желева, съпруга на президента Желю Желев". 2013-12-09. Archived from the original on 2019-12-12. Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  15. ^ Zhelev Peak. SCAR Composite Antarctic Gazetteer
  16. ^ "Boletín Oficial del Estado" (PDF) (in Spanish). Agencia Estatal Boletín Oficial del Estado. 10 June 2003. Retrieved 21 February 2015.
  17. ^ "ENTIDADES ESTRANGEIRAS AGRACIADAS COM ORDENS PORTUGUESAS - Página Oficial das Ordens Honoríficas Portuguesas".
  18. ^ "Order Zasługi Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej". Retrieved April 21, 2023.
  19. ^ "Macedonia President: Bulgaria Leader in Recognizing Our Independence". Sofia News Agency. Retrieved 6 March 2014.