- The Washington Times - Friday, October 17, 2008

President Bush angered staunch ally Poland Friday by excluding it from a group of newcomers to a program that allows citizens of certain countries to visit the United States without entry visas.

At a Rose Garden ceremony, Mr. Bush announced rescinding visa requirements for six other former communist countries — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — as well as South Korea, effective in about a month.

“For years, the leaders of these nations have explained to me how frustrating it is for their citizens to wait in lines, pay visa fees to take a vacation or make a business trip or visit their families here in the United States,” Mr. Bush said.

“These close friends of America told me that it was unfair that their people had to jump through bureaucratic hoops that other allies can walk around,” he added. “I told them I agree with them.”

But Poland, the Bush administration’s strongest ally in Central and Eastern Europe, which was the most vocal supporter of the Iraq war and sent troops early on, was absent from the ceremony.

“There is a sense of disappointment on our part,” said Pawel Kotowski, counselor at the Polish Embassy in Washington. “We hope the next administration will take up this issue as a top priority. We have signals from both [the Obama and McCain] campaigns that they will look at Poland’s membership in the program favorably.”

Twenty-seven countries, mostly in Western Europe, are part of the so-called visa-waiver program, excluding the newcomers. Congress now requires that less than 10 percent of the visa applications by a country be rejected before it qualifies for membership.

Mr. Kotowski said the refusal rate for Polish applicants was 25 percent last year but is now down to less than 14 percent.

The new members must issue biometric passports, which are tamper-proof and difficult to forge, to their citizens. They also must agree to cooperate with U.S. authorities on security threats and other safety issues.

Some lawmakers are worried that expanding the visa-waiver program could make it easier for terrorists and other criminals to enter the United States legally. The administration says it will soon require travelers from those countries without a visa to register online as part of a new program before their visits.

Mr. Bush expressed support for the bids of Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Poland and Romania to join the visa-waiver list. All those countries, as well as Friday’s additions, are members of the European Union, except for South Korea.

The EU welcomed the president’s announcement, which it said will “further strengthen” trans-Atlantic ties.

“It is a significant further step on the path to full visa-free reciprocity between the EU and the USA,” said European Commission Vice-President Jacques Barrot. “We will continue to work with the U.S. authorities to secure the same treatment for all European citizens.”

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