Bulgaria bids farewell to 'democracy hero' Zhelev

Bulgaria bid farewell on Sunday to its first non-communist president Zhelyu Zhelev, hailed as a hero of freedom and democracy in the Balkan country. Bulgaria's political and intellectual elite and several Balkan leaders gathered in the golden-domed Alexander Nevski cathedral in Sofia to pay their last respects to the former leader. Zhelev, a dissident who became Bulgaria's first democratically-elected president and led the country between 1990 and 1997, died on Friday at the age of 79. Throughout the day, hundreds of ordinary Bulgarians also filed past the coffin of the late president, who will be buried in a private ceremony later Sunday. "Zhelyu Zhelev is a symbol of the fight for freedom and democracy of the Bulgarians," President Rosen Plevneliev said at the funeral. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov hailed Zhelev's role in preserving ethnic peace in Bulgaria, a country with a strong Muslim minority, and for his good neighbourly politics in the Balkans. A dissident during communism, Zhelev was the most emblematic opponent of the regime of long-serving dictator Todor Zhivkov. He published a book called "Fascism" in 1981 that likened communism to fascism but it was almost immediately withdrawn from the shelves. However, about 6,000 copies had already been sold and were passed secretly among intellectuals. The book was republished after the fall of the regime. After Zhivkov's ouster in 1989, Zhelev was the founder and leader of the first anti-communist Union of Democratic Forces, which grouped several pro-democracy factions. Parliament chose the humble philosopher as president in 1990 and he won the first democratic election in 1992, remaining in office until 1997. Zhelev -- a modest, slightly built-man -- refused to move with his wife and daughters into the presidential palace. He also donated a third of his salary to a charity for orphans until his death. After he left the presidency, Zhelev founded an informal club of former heads of state from the Balkans, who debated strategies for development of the region. Zhelev's public appearances gradually dwindled in the past few years but he remained widely respected as Bulgaria's humble hero for democracy.