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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2006, 00:25 GMT
New EU members juggle high hopes
By Ben Richardson
Business reporter, BBC News, Romania and Bulgaria

Bar in Sofia
Sofia's bars and hotels are buzzing with the noise of big business
The Bulgaria cafe is full of cigarette smoke as Sofia's new breed of movers and shakers drink brandy, check their expensive watches and do deals.

Pidgin English mixes with broken Bulgarian as the wealthy elite juggle mobile phones and seek a slice of the predicted economic renaissance.

It is a scene that is being repeated across Bulgaria and neighbouring Romania in the lead up to their European Union membership on 1 January.

Make no mistake, business is booming.

Better times

Vendors at the fruit and vegetable market in Sofia
Agriculture remains a large part of a the economy in transition nations

Growth in Bulgaria and Romania is expected to be close to 5% this year, wages have been rising, and with more money in their pockets and easier access to credit cards and bank loans, many consumers are starting to enjoy themselves.

This expansion is not an abstract concept or a jumble of figures on a page.

You can taste it in the petrol fumes that choke the crowded streets of Sofia and Bucharest, and you can see it in the building sites that dot the cities and countryside.

You can also hear it in the voices of people as they talk about what the future holds.

Maria Lenich is a 32-year-old German from Munich, whose family moved to Romania to set up a hotel in the town of Timisoara.

Adrian Dumitrescu and his mother Matilda
I don't have a lot of money to go around. But business has got better
Adrian Dumitrescu

Up and running since 2003, Hotel La Residenza has hosted celebrities such as the singer Shakira and looks after a stream of businesspeople employed by firms including Coca-Cola and French telecoms equipment maker Alcatel.

"This was a unique opportunity," she explains, adding that her experience of Romania has been "great".

"People have been helpful, and they want to stay and work in their country," she says. "We have not experienced any of the corruption that many investors are frightened about."

Surrounded by Christmas baubles and pricking his head on a plastic pine tree, Adrian Dumitrescu reckons that his Bucharest gift business will do well, even if EU entry means him paying more for his supplies from China and Turkey.

"I don't have a lot of money to go around," he says as his 70-year-old mother and trading partner looks on. "But business has got better."

Balancing act

Unfortunately, the problem facing transition economies like Romania and Bulgaria is that for every businessperson forging ahead, there are many more farmers, miners, and even doctors and teachers who feel left behind.

Ignoring this fact, lying to voters or spending heavily to improve a population's lot can often cause the type of economic problem and social unrest seen earlier this year in Hungary.

If EU membership is to be seen as a success in Romania and Bulgaria, analysts say, the key will be how the two countries manage the economic expectations of their populations.

Boris Petrov, left, with two friends
We just want to work and here there are no jobs
Boris Petrov

No more than a short walk from the swanky leatherette of downtown Sofia - but at the other end of the country's financial spectrum - is the capital's vegetable market.

On a brisk Saturday morning it bustles with life. The stalls are piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables, cheap clothes mixed in with kitchen utensils and bright ceramics.

Vendors shout over the strains of Eastern music and the sound of a couple arguing.

Business is brisk. But the mood is very different.

Boris Petrov is a 28-year-old Roma gypsy who is looking to leave Bulgaria and head for work in the UK.

"We face very strong discrimination," he explains. "I went to work as a taxi driver but they looked at the colour of my skin and said 'no'."

"In the UK we won't face discrimination. We just want to work and here there are no jobs."

European question

This pessimism about the opportunities within Bulgaria may be amplified by Mr Petrov's alleged treatment, but he is not alone in expressing the fear that a future within the EU will do little to improve the lives of the majority.

Questions about the impact of EU development funds - some 32bn euros ($42bn; £21.5bn) to be distributed in Romania by 2013 and another 11bn euros in Bulgaria - are more often than not met with raised eyebrows and snorts of derision.

Svetla Todorova and her husband
What does it mean to be European?
Svetla Todorova

Corruption will stop the money filtering down, people say; it will take decades for any significant change to come in the most neglected parts of the country where unemployment is often 50%.

In the meantime, survival is getting harder as prices rise more quickly than wages, something that the majority of people believe will only get worse with EU entry.

"What does it mean to be European?" asks Svetla Todorova, a former commissioner of economic regulation who is helping her husband sell shirts from a stall at the Made in Bulgaria trade fair.

"These are concepts that are put together by people on high. Ordinary people are worried about daily problems - is it safe, can they afford to buy food."

Top table

At the Bulgaria cafe, middle-aged men and beautiful young women are enjoying all the trappings of a free-market economy as the lunchtime rush calms down.

There is no doubt that Romania and Bulgaria have come a long way in a short time but the key will be ensuring that the majority feels as if they are benefiting from everything that Brussels can offer.

And not just the people sitting in the prime seats.


SEE ALSO
Expats risking it all in Bulgaria
11 Dec 06 |  Business
Q&A: EU enlargement
26 Sep 06 |  Europe

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