- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

WARSAW — What was conceived as a feel-good meeting between Iraq-war allies has become much more serious because of new U.S. visa rules requiring visitors to be photographed and fingerprinted.

Analysts say the United States will lose perhaps its best friend in Europe if Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski is unable to win relief from the policy when he meets President Bush at the White House today.

The new procedures have incensed Poles, who feel jilted after offering unquestioning support to both the U.S.-led war on terror and the war in Iraq. The usually fractious Polish parliament united in condemning the visa initiative during a foreign-policy debate last week.

The U.S. policy is “a prescription for a public-relations disaster,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Boguslaw Majewski said during an interview in his office, where the walls bear two huge photos of the burning World Trade Center as a “reminder of what is important in our lives today.”

“It’s a mistake that should be overturned,” he said of the U.S. visa policy.

Although officials from both countries insist that overall relations remain strong, political commentator Konstanty Gebert warned that the meeting with Mr. Bush could have serious consequences for the Polish president.

“What will happen if the situation is not corrected is that the U.S. will lose a friend,” Mr. Gebert said. “If [Mr. Kwasniewski] returns empty-handed — which will be a humiliating defeat for an otherwise popular politician — it will also be a defeat for pro-American forces in Poland.

“What really adds to the anger is that Poland has gone seriously out on a limb to support the U.S., especially over Iraq,” said Mr. Gebert, who writes for the country’s leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza.

“We had our first combat death and, frankly, I think Poland has been treated shabbily.”

Similar sentiment is heard on the streets, though one local resident sought to strike a balance.

“On the one hand, it’s good if it increases our security,” said the woman, who gave her name only as Sylwia. “On the other hand, it classifies the Poles as a lower class of people. I’d feel like a criminal if I was asked to leave my fingerprints.”

The entry procedures, which went into effect this month, are part of a broader U.S. initiative to control the nation’s borders. Citizens of countries allowed to enter the United States without visas will have passports with biometric identification as of this fall, said Cameron Munter, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw.

Mr. Munter said the United States is trying to keep track of everyone who enters the country, not just those from poorer nations.

Citizens from all European Union members except Greece and industrialized nations such as Norway, Canada, Japan and Australia may enter the United States without visas.

One U.S. diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Poles “want a political answer to a legal problem,” explaining that while the Bush administration is grateful for Poland’s support, it has to follow the law.

Mr. Munter said the embassy’s best efforts to communicate the situation have fallen short.

“We can always do a better job of explaining, and it’s incumbent upon us to do that,” he said. “I would add, though, we would like to see the Polish government do its part explaining this as well.”

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