The blue European Union flag fluttered from government buildings in Sofia Friday ahead of Bulgaria's formal entry into the EU. But many Bulgarians are greeting their country's new membership with more concern than optimism.
"For 17 years now we have been fighting with the problems of this painful transition. Life is getting increasingly difficult, prices are rising and it is hard to make ends meet," said Vasil Dimitrov, a 52-year-old engineer from Sofia.
Such concerns are widespread: while few actively oppose Bulgaria joining the EU, many are apprehensive of the challenges ahead, particularly in reforming the economy _ and many feel they could lose their jobs.
Milkana Yordanova, who runs a family dairy operation in the remote mountain village of Smilyan, said she feared that cheap farm products from the EU could threaten their business.
"Our products are banned for at least six months from the European markets, while EU products without import duties will settle permanently on our market," she said by telephone.
"The Bulgarian economy still lacks a certain competitiveness," Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev admitted.
Expectations of rising prices, higher unemployment, waves of bankruptcy and general uncertainty are gaining prominence.
Many Bulgarians see the EU as a practical tool that will transform their everyday lives. The strict EU rules are expected to sort out a range of issues from judicial reform to traffic chaos. But high expectations may lead to disappointment and frustration.
"We hear from the government that the EU will pump billions of euros in our economy, but widespread corruption and incompetence in public structures could dash all hopes for a sudden prosperity," said Angel Kuzmanov, a 57-year-old entrepreneur.
When Bulgaria _ a Balkan country of 7.8 million _ joins the union of wealthy European nations on Jan. 1, its people will be the poorest in the EU, with an average monthly salary of just euro180 (US$236). In comparison, the average salary in Romania _ also joining the EU _ stands at about euro305 (about US$400.)
Worst off are those living in remote villages, far from the prosperous capital and the country's glittering Black Sea coastal resorts. In these rural areas, horse-drawn carts are still common.
The 100 inhabitants of the southern village of Tikale, for example, eke out a living from harvesting potatoes and breeding cattle. There is no road to the village, which lies three kilometers (two miles) from the main highway and is practically unreachable by car.
Asked about how the EU is likely to change Tikale, the villagers joked bitterly that any changes would probably take the highway, bypassing their village altogether.
But there is hope _ particularly among the young _ that EU membership will help improve living standards _ albeit gradually.
"I do not expect sudden changes, but it seems that we are on the right track and things will start to happen," said 27-year-old Petar Atanasov, who works in a software company and earns three times more than the average Bulgarian.
"When we become part of an open market, opportunities for business will improve," he said, adding that he expects many of his friends who went abroad seeking work to consider returning.
Government officials estimate that some 700,000 mostly well-educated Bulgarians _ nearly a tenth of the population _ have left in search of opportunities elsewhere since communism collapsed in 1989.
In spite of a recent economic recovery, low wages and a lack of jobs continue to push graduates and unskilled workers abroad. Fears that freedom of movement within the EU could lead to a much bigger exodus once Bulgaria and Romania join has led to some EU states imposing restrictions on workers from the two countries.
Political analyst Ivan Krastev, chairman of Center for Liberal Strategies, a think-tank, agreed that times ahead would be challenging but said it would be better to be inside rather than outside of the EU.
"The miracle is that when you are in, you start forgetting how not ready you were," Krastev said.