Bulgaria looks to EU entry

SOFIA (Reuters) – Trifon Yarumov picks cigarette butts up off the street and smokes them because he can’t afford a pack of his own. The well-dressed 52-year-old, who has struggled to find steady work since losing a factory job 12 years ago, is one of millions in the EU aspirant state living below the poverty line. With per capita gross domestic product at just a third of the EU average, Bulgaria will be the poorest country to join the bloc if it gains entry on January 1 as expected. «Sometimes… I make up to 250 levs (127 euros) a month. It’s a lot of money to me… but in the winter it’s frightening. Sometimes I can’t find a job for months,» Yarumov said from a park bench in Sofia. The EU’s executive Commission is expected to recommend next Tuesday that Bulgaria and neighbor Romania be allowed to join in 2007, forgoing a possible one-year delay for slow reforms. Analysts say the poor Black Sea duo will face unprecedented problems upon membership as they come under further pressure for further economic restructuring and belt-tightening reforms. Although wages have increased over 40 percent in Bulgaria since 2001, a 2005 survey showed almost half of its 7.8 million people live on less than 2 euros a day. Purchasing power is lower than before the fall of communism in 1989. Data from the statistics office put average income for every man, woman and child at 105 euros a month. For the most extreme poor, around half of that comes from state subsidies, which may dwindle as Sofia tries to overhaul its pension and education sectors. «I expect Bulgaria to be lagging behind and to be dependent on the European Union for a long time. It will be a member always asking for further help and support,» said Ides Nicaise, an associate professor at Leuven University in the Netherlands. Horses and carts Poverty is most extreme in the countryside, where horses and carts are almost as common as cars and, according to a 2003 European quality-of-life survey, half of all homes lack flush toilets. In central Sofia early in the morning, Yarumov joins others rummaging through garbage cans looking for valuable castoffs. Like many of his generation, he speaks wearily of the decline in living standards since communism fell 15 years ago. «I used to have good friends, but now friends of mine who have jobs stay away from me because they think I might ask them to lend me money. Life is cruel,» he said. Polls show some 65 percent of Bulgarians support EU membership. Most see incoming foreign investment and new jobs as the best way to raise living standards. But, despite the promise of some 11 billion euros in development funds through 2013, analysts say it will take decades for Bulgaria to catch up with the rest of the EU. «The forecasts are not very rosy. It’s not going to be in our lifetimes,» said Gergana Noutcheva from the Center for European Studies. Yarumov is hopeful, but he and others of his generation wonder how EU membership could rival the life they once had under communism. «I’m not a communist, but in those times I was free and able to do what I wanted,» he said. «But now, I’m afraid to look people in the eyes.»