VILNIUS - Although struggling with dissatisfied voters at home, U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry won the hearts of many Balts on Sept. 17 when he pledged to seek an expansion of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program to include the United States' Central and East European allies. Kerry said that, if elected president, he would "balance our security needs with the need to modernize the way people travel from Poland and Central and Eastern Europe to the United States."
"Working together, we can accomplish this historic step," the democratic candidate said.
Since joining NATO and the EU, Poland and other Central and East European allies, most of whom backed President George Bush's campaign in Iraq, have lobbied to have the right to travel to the U.S.A. without a visa. The privilege is particularly important to Poles and Lithuanians, who have large communities in the midwestern part of the United States.
"These countries are critical allies of the United States, with whom we are working to further the cause of freedom. At a time when America faces new threats, I believe that America needs to embrace our closest allies and friends, not push them away," Kerry said.
The presidential candidate argued that the Visa Waiver Program "reflects neither the current strategic relationship nor the close historic bonds between our peoples and is out of date."
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis, currently on a visit to Kiev, applauded the decision. It "gives hope that the ongoing diplomatic consultations will be successful, and that the conditions for Lithuanians' travel to the United States will be easier," he was quoted as saying by the Baltic News Service.
"The very fact of such a statement is useful to Lithuania and should be hailed," Edminas Bagdonas, foreign policy adviser to President Valdas Adamkus, said. "It may encourage U.S. officials in charge of making such decisions to take a more favorable view on the lifting of visa requirements."
Kerry remains optimistic about the possibility of a visa waiver expansion. "Citizens of Poland and other new allies in Central and Eastern Europe seeking to travel to America should not find this experience humiliating or financially onerous," he said. "As president, I will work with Poland and qualified countries of Central and Eastern Europe to create modern and up to date conditions that balance our security needs with our close ties with these nations."