Bulgaria’s caretaker cabinet has nominated former French ambassador to Bulgaria Philippe Autié and outgoing German ambassador Matthias Höpfner to receive the country’s highest state honour, the Stara Planina First Degree.
The proposal was one of the first decisions passed by the new government, which held its first sitting on August 6, the day it officially took office.
“Both ambassadors made a great contribution to strengthening the civil society in Bulgaria. This is a moral act on our behalf for what they did in support of the Bulgarian society,” caretaker Prime Minister Georgi Bliznashki told reporters at a news conference after the government sitting.
The move is highly symbolic – Autié and Höpfner published a joint letter in July 2013, describing the anti-government protests at the time, prompted by the appointment of controversial MP Delyan Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security, as evidence of a crisis of public trust in the inner workings of the Bulgarian government.
“It is clear that the Bulgarian public insists that the political, administrative, judicial and economic elites subscribe to the principles of public interest. It is obvious that the society fears the penetration of private interests in the public sphere,” the two ambassadors wrote in the letter, published in the op-ed section of mass-circulation daily 24 Chassa.
The letter was warmly received by the protesters, with daily marches taking detours to pass by the French and German embassies and applaud outside the buildings. The French were given a double tribute, not only by a procession past the embassy during the July 14 Bastille Day reception but also by a live recreation of the famous Delacroix painting.
Soon after, however, Bulgaria’s foreign ministry announced plans to review the criteria for giving state honours to outgoing ambassadors, a move that was widely seen as retaliation for the public stance taken by the two diplomats. Previously, ambassadors ending their term were traditionally awarded with the Stara Planina at the Bulgarian presidency, following the formal nomination of the government in office.
Autié left Bulgaria in September 2013, without any state honours, but Bulgarian President Rossen Plevneliev made a point to meet the diplomat and gift him a rhyton, a copy of one of the ancient Thracian golden drinking vessels found near Panagyurishte in 1949, known as the “Panagyurishte treasure”. Höpfner’s term as ambassador in Sofia expires in autumn.
(Former French ambassador to Bulgaria Philippe Autié, left, and outgoing German ambassador in Sofia Matthias Höpfner)