TALLINN - U.S. President George W. Bush said he would speed up the process of introducing a visa- free entry system for Estonian citizens after meeting with President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Prime Minister Andrus Ansip.
The issue was one of the main points of discussion between the three leaders during meetings in Tallinn on Nov. 27 and 28.
Bush said he realized that the matter was of deep concern to many Estonians, who wished to visit the United States to meet with relatives.
"[Ilves and Ansip] made it clear to me that if we're an ally in NATO, people ought to be able to come to our country in a much easier fashion," Bush told a press conference at the Estonian Bank on Nov. 28.
"I am pleased to announce that I'm going to work with our congress and our international partners to modify our visa waiver program. It's a way to make sure that nations like Estonia qualify more quickly for the program."
His choice of phrasing was interpreted as a message that other new NATO and EU states, including Latvia and Lithuania, might also be considered in the visa-free push.
But he said America had to be sure the visa-waiver program was secure enough to prevent abuse.
"We need to know who is coming and when they're leaving... We want people to come to our country, and we understand that a lot of Estonians have relatives in America. It's in our national interest that people can come and visit, but it's important to make sure that those who want to continue to kill Americans aren't able to exploit the system."
When asked for a timeline on the process, Bush said it would begin "shortly" but was not more specific.
Ilves added that Estonia had been pressing the United States for a visa free entry system for nearly two years, and had "come a long way" to reaching an agreement.
"Once the security requirements have been clarified and explained, then we will be able to implement them in our passports. This is simply a technical problem, but it is resolvable," Ilves said.
Bush also heaped praise on Estonia for its growing economy and democratic progress, and thanked the nation for its troop commitment to dangerous provinces in Afghanistan.
He also thanked authorities for securing security measures around Tallinn during his visit. Estonian Interior Minister Kalle Laanet said Bush recognized the security arrangements, which he said were necessary to protect the world's most threatened man.
However, Tallinn residents were less appreciative of the security cordons, which blocked many main roads during peak hours and brought public transport to a halt.
Many streets were lined with mesh fencing and concrete blocks. The roads directly outside Bush's hotel 's some of the busiest streets in the city - were closed during his stay.
Residents of one suburb were sent a leaflet ordering them to cover the windows on the side of the building overlooking Kadriorg Park, the residence of the president, during Bush's visit. They were also asked not to run through the suburb during his stay.
Some employees directed their workers to take a day off to avoid the inconvenience of traversing the city with blocked roads and stalled public transport.
Many residents saw the measures as excessive, particularly when compared to the unobtrusive recent visit of Queen Elizabeth II.