Former Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev: Bulgaria Needs Strong Executive, Not Strong Hand
Interview with Dr. Zhelyu Zhelev, Bulgaria's first democratically elected President after 1989.
Dr. Zhelev was born in 1935 in the village of Veselinovo near Shumen in northeast Bulgaria. He graduated with a degree in philosophy from Sofia University in 1958, repeatedly getting in trouble with the authorities of the communist regime in Bulgaria over his dissident writings and activities. In 1988, he founded the Club for Glasnost and Restructuring, and in 1989 - the Union of Democratic Force - the emblematic anti-communist political unions that played a crucial role in Bulgaria's post-communist Transition in the 1990s. On August 1, 1990, he was elected President of Bulgaria by the Grand National Assembly. On January 12, 1995, he was elected President of Bulgaria by the popular vote under the newly adopted Constitution, which established Bulgaria as a parliamentary republic. Dr. Zhelev served as President until January 1997. He has recently called for the establishing of a presidential republic in Bulgaria. This is just the first half of his exclusive interview for Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency), and it focuses on Bulgaria's current affairs. The second part will be released in the weeks to come, and is dedicated to Dr. Zhelev's memories from the beginning of Bulgaria's post-1989 Transition.
You are the first democratically elected President of the Republic of Bulgaria, and your opinion is respected by the Bulgarian people. Why have you recently put forth the idea of changing Bulgaria's form of government from a parliamentary to a presidential republic? What led you to call for that?
I have always insisted on this even though that in the period when I was the acting President of Bulgaria, I did not really insist that hard because some people always sought to create the impression that I was greedy for power. I was accused of aspiring to establish a personal regime, which was complete nonsense, of course, but at the beginning of the post-communist transition in the early 1990s such things were easily believed by the people in Bulgaria.
But now it is different, things have changed quite a bit since the crisis that we entered in 1996-1997. I have gradually formed this view that one of the reasons for the failure of the Bulgarian Transition in its economic dimension.
The presidential republic is much more appropriate for the countries in transition from communism to democracy and market economy, it is a lot more suitable for the solving the tasks they are faced with. And here I mean the European type of presidential republic established by General Charles de Gaul. In this system, the head of the government and the head of state are different persons, too, but the head of state has wider powers in the prerogatives of the executive branch, which creates a very robust and trouble-free mechanism of cogwheels. Because the Bulgarian Transition has been very hard, very complex, and it was extremely important for the executive to be proactive and consistent in carrying out reforms.
What are the flows of the parliamentary republic system that we currently have? Why do you think the presidential system would be better?
In the case of the parliamentary republic that our Grand National Assembly established in 1991, the executive is somehow very loose, unorganized, and not proactive enough. In the period of transition, this branch of power is the most important because you may have great laws adopted by the Parliament - for example, about restitution, privatization, restructuring of the economy, etc. However, if the executive does not apply those laws quick and without any hesitation, things gradually start to crumble.
On top of that, in the conditions of the post-communist Transition, the parliamentary republic has proved to be a form of government lacking in personal responsibility. Let's say certain things happen based on the laws adopted by the Parliament. But once those laws are voted, no one is personally responsible. Collective responsibility is collective irresponsibility. You can't seize anyone by the collar, and tell them, "You adopted this law, you are responsible"; and that usually has long-term consequences resulting in harsh impact on most of the people.
Do you have any examples from your experience proving this point - i.e. that the presidential republic is superior?
When I was first elected President by the Grand National Assembly in 1990, I actually started working on the basis of the old constitution of communist dictator Todor Zhivkov repaired by the Round Table (i.e. the forum of communists and dissidents that was set up to seek reconciliation between those two groups in Bulgaria in 1990 - editor's note). Of course all of those idiotic stuff about the leading role of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP), the requirement that kids and youth should be raised with love for the Soviet Union, was removed. There were 26 or 27 articles with this ideological provisions that we removed from the Constitution as soon as we scrapped the leading role of the BCP.
But all that - i.e. my powers under the old constitution - was voted by the previous communist parliament which during the time of the Round Table just voted into law all of its decisions. The Round Table would make a decision, and it would be rushed into the Parliament, which had to adopt it because otherwise all people supporting the opposition would go to streets launching protests, demanding change and democracy.
I was elected President after an agreement between the Union of Democratic Forces and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (i.e. the former BCP - editor's note). The BSP won the elections for the Grand National Assembly that was supposed to craft the new Constitution, and had a majority. But we were a huge opposition. The BSP had control of the government and the Grand Assembly but we demanded the post of the President threatening to go to the streets again if they don't agree. This really scared them, and they were forced to meet our demand.
It is exactly thanks to those wider powers of the President - practically amounting to a presidential republic - which were reserved for Petar Mladenov, Todor Zhivkov's replacement, that I managed to carry out very quickly a number of crucial measures.
On my sixth day as President I abolished serfdom in Bulgaria. This was literally serfdom - a temporary decree which had lasted for 35 years, prohibiting Bulgarians from changing their place of residence within the country. This was typical Soviet serfdom modeled after the model of the tsarist autocracy in the Russian Empire before that. There were plenty of young people with qualification eager to move to another city, and they were not allowed that in their own country. I slashed with one blow, because the repaired old Constitution allowed me to do this by decree.
Another example is that a month after my election, the term of the local authorities expired. It was just impossible to hold elections for them at that time, just after we had voted for a Grand National Assembly, There were more important things to do - new laws, reforms. So I proposed the forming of local managing bodies where the political parties would be proportionately represented based on the representation in the Grand Assembly; those bodies would last until the next parliamentary elections, after the Grand Assembly completed its work. I could make this proposal because I had the right to initiate legislation. It was passed immediately. However, the situation in the country was such that the BSP representatives did not dare to assume their positions in those local bodies, who were practically controlled by us, the opposition, the UDF, which at the time was one huge anti-communist bloc.
This was very important because we gained our first foothold in the state institutions; before that we had no representatives in the state or local government whatsoever. We were, figuratively speaking, like a military trying to conquer territories only through air strikes, without troops on the ground. We thought that with our large demonstrations in the big cities our victory was guaranteed but that was not true. This was possible thanks to wider powers of the President under the old constitution.
Then I also initiated legislation depriving the so called "active fighters against fascism and capitalism" and their children of all state privileges. This was not because of some wild anti-communism on my part but because we wanted to create a rule of law, all people had to become equal, we had to shed all privileges based on party affiliation.
I want to stress how quickly and easily those things can happen when they are put forth and followed up personally, when the head of state has those rights, this is not a violation of the constitution and laws.
The next thing was the depolitization of the army, courts, prosecution, police, and diplomatic corps, which meant removing the BCP organizations within those institutions, banning political activities in them. For example, the army is a national institution, how can it be subordinate to the Communist Party.
I want to say this to you from my personal experience, and from the Bulgarian reality - how many things can be done by the presidential republic when the head of state has greater powers such as legislative initiative, and the right of veto that has to be overridden by a two-thirds majority, not by a simple majority. This is why I have always insisted on a presidential republic, not because of some kind of greed for power, but because this way things happen a lot more quickly and efficiently.
In the parliamentary system, measures are voted again and again, and returned to the working groups and committees, and they drag on for months and years.
What would have been different in Bulgaria's Transition if it was a presidential republic at the time you were the President? Would the Transition have been more successful?
If Bulgaria had continued to be a presidential republic as in 1990-1991, it would have been different. But the communists had created this initial system for their own President, Petar Mladenov; they had not thought that someone else would become the President. There were indications that I would also be elected by the popular vote so they did all they could to reduce the power of the head of state. All of things in Bulgaria would have been done a lot more quickly in those critical times - all sorts of report - if there was a presidential system; instead, those measures dragged on forever, or were only half-way.
I have favored a presidential republic of the French type from the very beginning. At the time the new Constitution was still under discussion by the Grand National Assembly, I was invited by the BSP to express my opinion in my capacity as acting head of state. This was probably for the sake of the appearance but I did tell them what I thought pointing also to the dangerous international situation - there was tension between Greece and Turkey, tension in Romania, the war in Yugoslavia was about to start, developing into the most horrible scenario. They listened to me carefully but they still voted their own way. They were still with the old communist mentality, and adopted limited powers of the President because they had seen what it meant to have a reform-minded President from the democratic opposition. And they got scared of that.
Your idea about the establishing of a presidential republic now was invariably linked with the name of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. I believe your exact words were, "Boyko Borisov must set up a presidential republic." Why do you link your idea to him?
Well, of course, I am not saying that he should create it for his own sake...
Is your call for a presidential republic actually provoked by his political success?
Yes, partly. Because Boyko Borisov understands, he has the sense for a strong executive. Of course, within the law, not as a personal regime or dictatorship. I have noticed his sense for that earlier. Unfortunately, the majority of the Bulgarian population understands it as a "strong hand". Bulgaria does not need a strong hand, it needs a strong executive, which is totally within the framework of democracy. No one can claim that France, Finland, or the USA are undemocratic states.
Russia is an interesting sort of example because if it did not have a strong presidential power - it is another question how it is utilized - it could have fallen apart for a number of reasons. It is a huge state with a very big burden from the Soviet empire, and it needs this sort of presidential republic.
Of course, no can be sure there can never be abuse of power, but that is a different topic.
Do you think that the Bulgarian society is ready for such a shift to a presidential republic, and would welcome it? How would you forecast that this idea would develop, and what would be the way to realize it?
Yes, I think so. I remember clearly two public opinion polls on the matter of establishing a presidential republic from the 1990s; what made a huge impression on me was that only 2-3% of the Members of Parliament and other politicians favored the setting up of a presidential republic, while over 50% of the people did so.
Of course, if Boyko manages to carry out the program that his party GERB has undertaken, this would increase immensely the people's trust in him. It is enormous even now. A public support of some 85% is no joke, this is unprecedented, it has never happened before.
If they manage to carry out this program in fighting organized crime and the mafia, corruption and contraband, the support for the GERB party will be huge - if they at least manage to restrain all those things which hindered the success of our post-communist transition in all ways.
The way after that would be for Boyko to convince his own party and its supporters that Bulgaria needs a change of its form of government. They should launch a powerful mass campaign explaining to the people that presidential republic does not mean a dictatorship of the President, or all that nonsense that people are being tricked into believing. Even if the person elected President turns out to be insane, he can be removed - there is a constitutional procedure for that called impeachment.
In the present Constitution there is an impeachment procedure but there is no way for the President to dismiss the Parliament if the Parliament proves incapable of creating a government, or doing its job. We have had moments like this. In 1997, when the whole state collapsed amidst a horrible political and economic crisis, we had to wait until the Parliament decided to dismiss itself because the President has no power to that.
Speaking on the Bulgarian National TV recently, Boyko Borisov said he was not going to try to establish a presidential republic because he had enough power as he was now. How would you comment on that?
This is not about him having enough power, this is about having a form of government guaranteeing that whoever is the top elected official of Bulgaria would have enough power so that the executive could be as proactive as it has.
Should Boyko Borisov be viewed as the Bulgarian General De Gaul?
It is always risky to seek such comparisons. I have nothing against Boyko becoming the Bulgarian De Gaul, as long as he can handle this role. And I wish him good luck in that, I wish him to become the Bulgarian De Gaul. It will not be beneficial just for him or his party, it will be beneficial for Bulgaria. Because leaders and parties come and go, but the form of government should be sufficiently robust and functional.
Has GERB replaced the emblematic UDF that you founded as the major right-wing political party in Bulgaria?
What does "replace" mean? GERB will just continue what the UDF used to do. The UDF was the real rightist force, democratic, anti-communist, market-oriented; it initiated all those reforms and brought them to a certain level. GERB is going to continue this process.
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