It's been ten years since I lived and worked in Croatia, Kosovo, and Serbia, but there are still a few things indelibly seared into my memory. I remember seeing eight- and nine-year-old child selling cigarettes on street corners in Pristina late at night. I remember seeing children of the same age smoking those cigarettes as they'd being so their entire lives. Most of all, I remember being assaulted with cigarette smoke virtually everywhere I found myself.
"Mind if I smoke?" was less of a question than an announcement of intent. So many people smoke in that part of Eastern Europe that it seems almost as natural as breathing. "No smoking" sections in restaurants or on airplanes? Please. These folks light up in basketball arenas. Imagine running up and down a basketball court through a blue cloud of cigarette smoke. Old Communist-era office buildings were generally built with windows that do not open. Of course, there is no such thing as a smoke-free workplace, but then almost no one worries about it, because so many people smoke.
It is in this environment that Big Tobacco is expanding capacity. What people in this country might view as the marketing and packaging of death, officials in what is now known as Serbia and Montenegro view as much-needed foreign investment.
Of course, no one knows who is going to be dealing with the long-term health effects of all of this "foreign investment". In what is still a Third World country in many respects, money talks.
Serbia and Montenegro offer a business environment free of any of those nasty health or legal concerns that Western countries feature these days. Big Tobacco can play the role of the benevolent empire-builder, spreading cash and improving the lives of people and the tax bases of local governments. Never mind the fact that they are still manufacturing and peddling illness and death.
Eastern Europe in the post-Cold War era has not exactly proven to be a free-enterprise-friendly zone. Corruption, greed, and a thriving black market has made it difficult for Eastern European economies to adapt and thrive in the global free-market economy. This is particularly true in Serbia and Montenegro, which, as one of the lingering legacies of UN sanctions, was left with little in the way of a functioning manufacturing sector. Serbia and Montenegro is not devoid of natural resources, but years of UN sanctions has left the economy well behind the rest of the region.
Few in the West will know or care about Big Tobacco's exploitation of the dire economic situation in rural Serbia. Of course, the West hasn't exactly been falling over themselves to offer any sort of economic or humanitarian assistance. In that sense, you can hardly blame them for grasping at the one lifeline that has been proffered.
The sad thing about all of this is that the people who will suffer in the long term will be the children of Serbia and Montenegro. Of course, if it's a choice between children and money, let's remember that children can't vote, even in Serbia and Montenegro.