Zhelyu Zhelev, a philosopher and communist-era dissident who became Bulgaria's first democratically elected president in 1990, died Friday, his family said. He was 79.

Zhelev was the founder and first leader of the pro-democracy Union of Democratic Forces after the demise of the country's Stalinist regime in 1989. He served as president until 1997.

His successor, Petar Stoyanov, praised Zhelev's contribution to "bringing back Bulgaria to the family of free and democratic European nations."

Zhelev is survived by his daughter. No funeral details were immediately announced.