- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Bush administration, having rebuffed demands from East European allies to lift entry-visa requirements for their citizens, has offered them a “road map” to meet the conditions set by U.S. law before they can qualify for a visa waiver.

But U.S. officials and their counterparts in those countries said the initiative has little direct practical value and was designed more to quell domestic criticism and political pressure on allied governments.

In what some officials described as a Catch-22, the United States says that it is up to a foreign country to meet the law’s requirements, the first of which is that the visa refusal rate for a country must be no higher than 3 percent. But it is American embassies and consulates that decide how many applicants are rejected.

“It has to be a mutual effort by the U.S. and our government if any real results are to be achieved,” said Elena Poptodorova, the Bulgarian ambassador to Washington. “So we are working with both the U.S. Embassy in Sofia and government agencies here.”

U.S. officials said the road map’s main goal is to familiarize other nations with the rules of the visa waiver program, which applies to 27 countries, and the conditions stipulated by immigration law for a country to qualify.

“This is a chance for them to see what they have to do and educate their publics on how they can achieve U.S. standards for visa-free access,” said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

But Marek Purowski, spokesman for the Polish Embassy, said that information is widely available and requires only a visit to the State Department Web site (www.state.gov).

“What we need is clarification of the visa policies and procedures,” Mr. Purowski said.

“Why do you refuse visas? Sometimes that is based on unbelievable things like you are a student, not married and don’t have a car, so you don’t qualify. If this is the policy, tell us, so we can tell our people. Then we’ll ask those who are not eligible not to apply, so they don’t drive up the overall refusal rate,” he said.

U.S. visas are a thorny issue in Poland. Pressure has been put on the government, which sent troops to Iraq, to stand up to the Bush administration.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski raised the matter with President Bush during his past two visits to Washington, going so far as to voice criticism publicly in the Oval Office of the U.S. visa policies.

But instead of a visa waiver, in January he was offered a road map as a consolation prize, Polish officials said.

Since then, other countries in Eastern Europe — Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — have asked for a road map.

The Latvian Foreign Ministry said last week that it will “launch a public campaign urging Latvian citizens not to overstay their U.S. visas.”

The ministry said the U.S. Embassy in Riga had agreed to “comprehensively review the assumptions under which its consular section applies the legal criteria for tourist and business visas, in light of improving economic, social and security conditions in Latvia as a result of its European Union membership.”

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