Sunday, April 9, 2006

PRAGUE — U.S. and Czech officials think they have contained an outburst of anger in the Czech Republic over U.S. visa policies, at least for the time being.

Czechs, who consider themselves good friends and reliable allies of the United States, have long been frustrated that they must secure visas to visit the United States while residents of other European Union members such as France and Germany can travel to America visa-free.

That anger bubbled to the surface in mid-March, when Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, normally considered to be staunchly pro-American, called for the government to toughen its stand on the issue.

That sparked a round of anti-American invective in the press and more tough talk from Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek and his Cabinet, perhaps inspired by the prospect of parliamentary elections in June. Even Vaclav Havel, the widely admired human rights advocate and former Czech president, voiced his criticism of the American policy.

The tension began to ease last week after Mr. Paroubek accepted an invitation to meet U.S. Ambassador William J. Cabaniss Jr. and visit the embassy’s consular section, where visa requests are processed.

The two played down their differences at a subsequent press conference and agreed to meet again in the coming weeks. “We will try to create the conditions for a visa waiver,” Mr. Paroubek said.

Under U.S. law in place since the 1980s, a country cannot be waived from the visa requirement unless fewer than 3 percent of all visa applications from the country have been denied for two consecutive years. More than 9 percent of Czech visa applications were rejected last year.

Other criteria for achieving waiver status include an up-to-date extradition treaty — the existing treaty dates to before World War II — and modern passport-security measures, according to U.S. Embassy spokesman Jan Krc. The Czechs plan to introduce high-tech biometric security measures on newly issued passports later this year.

But many Czechs think they are victims of a somewhat subjective review process — a sentiment shared by their neighbors in Poland, Slovakia and Hungary. Asked why applications are denied, Mr. Cabaniss replied, “I think the most common reason would be the inability of the person to show that they would return to the Czech Republic after the terms of the visa” have expired.

Mr. Cabaniss said many people in and out of the U.S. government are working to get the Czech Republic into the visa-waiver club, but he refused to speculate on how long that might take.

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