- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2008

PRAGUE | Residents of the Czech Republic should be able to visit the United States without visas within the next six months, easing a longstanding source of friction between Washington and one of its Eastern European allies.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the nation’s pending eligibility for the visa-waiver program during the same visit in which she sealed a deal with Prague to cooperate on a European missile shield program.

“I believe that the Czech Republic, which has been at the forefront of the visa-waiver discussions with the United States - that we certainly hope to be able to do this by the end of the year,” she told Czech TV.

“The president of the United States himself has been active in this, because he has felt very strongly that our allies need to be able to travel to the United States without a visa,” Miss Rice said in Prague.

The program will only be open to Czech citizens carrying biometric passports, which use fingerprints and digitized photographs to prevent them from being counterfeited by terrorists or criminals. Czechs with the old-style passports still will need a visa, according to the State Department Web site.

Miss Rice also gave hope of admission to the visa-waiver program to Bulgaria, but without setting a date. The former communist country, she said, will also need biometric passports before it can be invited to join the program.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said negotiations with the Bush administration have been completed, thus it is up to the Congress to approve the measure.

The visa-waiver program covers 27 countries, mostly in Western Europe but also Japan, Australia and Singapore, among others. In many former communist states that are now members of NATO and the European Union, the issue has become hugely important.

Both the governments and the people of those new U.S. allies complain the burdensome visa procedures make them feel like second-class citizens.

Those who have helped Washington in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, feel even more entitled to equal treatment with old allies like Germany and France. Prague further cemented ties with the United States this week by signing an agreement to host part of an anti-missile system designed to protect Israel and Europe from Iran.

U.S. officials said the Czech case is the easiest of all, because the visa rejection rate there in recent years has been well below the required 10-percent maximum of all applications.

Slovenia is the only former communist country to be granted visa-free travel for up to 90 days so far. The rejection rates in both Poland and Bulgaria are still more than 10 percent.

“We have an actual law that requires that the United States track certain indicators, and we are working with Bulgaria to track those indicators,” Miss Rice said in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.

High rejection rates are an indicator that many visitors remain illegally in the United States after their visa expires.

Miss Rice added that the administration “sought and received a change in the legislation,” which “now gives us the kind of flexibility that we need to be able to move forward” - a reference to a law making it easier for strong and devoted U.S. allies to get visa-free status.

“Let me remind you that Bulgaria was the first country in central Eastern Europe to have signed a ‘road map’ with United States” toward joining the visa-waiver program, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivailo Kalfin said at a press conference with Miss Rice.

All new NATO and EU members from Eastern Europe now have “road maps.” Outside Europe, the administration is seeking such status for Israel and South Korea.

The Department of Homeland Security plans to require travelers from visa-free countries to register online three days before their trip using a new Electronic System for Travel Authorization, so they can obtain pre-travel approval.

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