By Rosemarie O’Connor
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — “The three things I love about America — movies, Coca-Cola and John F. Kennedy,” said a member of the opposition Democratic Party known for his fierceness in debates and his interest in “freedom of speech and national security.”
He was speaking during a break between visits to the Virginia Capitol — but he wasn’t a member of the General Assembly. Rather, this was Radoslav Milojicic, one of five members of the Parliament of Serbia who visited Capitol Square last week with the Open World Leadership Center, an exchange program for emerging political leaders in the post-Soviet era.
During a floor session of the state Senate, Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, introduced the guests to a round of applause.
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax said it was an honor to have the dignitaries travel to the Capitol. “We are appreciative of your leadership in Serbia,” Fairfax added, noting the group’s “thoughtful engagement here in the Commonwealth of Virginia and in the United States of America.”
During their weeklong visit, the Open World delegates met with legislators and other public officials and received a tour of the Richmond area, with trips to museums, restaurants, stores and the Henrico County jail. The group also got a behind-the-scenes look at how news programs are produced at television station WTVR.
Top Virginia officials were still dealing with scandal and unrest during the visit. As protesters in Virginia called for Gov. Ralph Northam to resign, Serbian citizens marched in Belgrade against President Aleksandar Vucic. The demonstrators there say that Serbia has fallen into authoritarian rule and that Vucic has used political violence and a climate of fear to silence his critics.
The Open World Leadership Center said Serbia needs to combat corruption and take on democratic reforms before it can reach its goal of joining the European Union by 2025.
Modern Serbia, located on southeast Europe’s Balkan peninsula, was formed after the breakup of Yugoslavia. The country has struggled with wars and ethnic tensions involving Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. For that reason, the Serbian leaders visiting Richmond said they could empathize with the tensions in Virginia, which still wrestles with issues of race that date to slavery and the Civil War.
Aleksandar Stevanovic, who entered parliament as part of a movement called Enough is Enough, said citizens must have honest discussions about difficult issues.
“Without truth, reconciliation is fake. Truth can be unpleasant,” Stevanovic said. For example, he said, in order to have peace in Serbia, Serbs had to face up to the atrocities that members of a Serbian paramilitary unit committed at Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosniaks were murdered in 1995.
“To live in harmony, opposite sides must have respect for each other,” Stevanovic said.
To understand the role of the news media in accountable governance, the Serbian Parliament members toured the CBS 6 news station with anchor Reba Hollingsworth.
One delegate remarked on his love of the TV show “NCIS” when he spotted a poster in the station lobby.
The delegates asked how the TV station operated without funding from the government. Hollingsworth explained the importance of media organizations being independent from the government so that journalists can effectively report on corruption without fear of retribution.
The delegates said that in Serbia, journalists make low salaries and the media often rely on government subsidies.
On Wednesday, Virginia Commonwealth University hosted a discussion about Serbian culture and politics at VCU Globe, a living-learning community with an international focus. During their presentation, the Serbian Parliament member had a lot to say about their diverse country and their experience in America.
“Women hold 34 percent of the seats in the Serbian Parliament,” said Tijana Davidovac, a member of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. She said the country is proud of its efforts toward gender equality.
Afterward, Stevanovic remarked that the visit “helped us to see what the American political and economic system is really like.”
The delegates also gave some advice to America as one “post-conflict” society to another. Danijela Stojadinovic, a member of the Socialist Party of Serbia and a clinical biologist, left with a wish:
“What I wish for my country — for everybody to be able to lead a normal, happy life — is what I wish for all countries.”