RIGA - Baltic citizens have come a step closer to visa-free travel in the United States after Congress passed a bill to speed up the process.
Congress voted on July 26 to ease the requirements that a country must meet in order to be considered for a visa-free agreement. Shortly after the bill was passed, U.S. President George W. Bush pointed to the Baltic states, along with 10 other countries, as likely candidates for joining the system before 2009.
"Our current visa policy is discouraging hundreds of thousands of peaceful and well-meaning people from visiting the United States for business and pleasure," said Republican Senator George Voinovich, who added the measure to a larger bill concerning homeland security.
The bill must now be signed by Bush before it can take effect. Once the president signs it into law, the U.S. Department of State and Interior Security Department must decide which countries qualify for a visa free system.
Meanwhile, Paul Rosenzweig, an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security, held a meeting in Prague with representatives of the countries that could be affected by the bill. "These reforms, if approved by Congress, would enhance the overall elements of the security program and eventually permit visa-free travel to the United States for citizens of the countries that meet security elements," he said.
Establishing a visa-free regime with the United States has long been one of the top priorities of the Baltic states in their relations with the powerhouse. In a late June visit to Washington, Estonian President Toomas Hendrick Ilves pressed Bush on the issue, getting Bush to pledge his support for lifting visa requirements.
"I readily concede there's an inconsistency in our policy where the people of Estonia are treated differently from other people inside Europe 's even though the people of Estonia are making great sacrifices for the cause of democracy and liberty alongside with U.S. forces," the U.S. president told journalists after their meeting.
The U.S. has been under heavy pressure from Central and Eastern European countries to establish visa-free regimes. Poland and the Czech Republic have been especially vocal, arguing that they support U.S. foreign policy but are still treated in an unfair manner.
The new bill changes the conditions that stipulate which countries can apply for a visa-free regime with the U.S., raising the visa refusal rate limit from 3 percent to 10 percent. The other main requirement is that the portion of visitors who overstay their visas must remain below 2 percent.
New Latvian Ambassador to the United States Andrejs Pildegovics, the former head of the chancery of the president of Latvia who began his official duties as ambassador on July 25, said that the bill is "a step in the right direction," but that there is still a significant amount of work to be done before a visa-free regime could become a reality.
"[The bill is] a step in the correct direction, but it is not the final decision, not at all. To be realistic 's it is good that the bill is accepted, but its implementation will need time on all sides, the U.S., the Latvian government and the European Commission," Pildegovics said in a statement after the bill was passed.
The ambassador also said that the EU's conclusions about the bill would probably not be known until September, and then it will take legal experts at least a year to review the law in order to have it properly implemented. According to Pildegovics, the actual lifting of the visa requirement would not be implemented until late 2008 or early 2009. "None of the new EU member states can hope for visa-free regime to come in effect in the nearest months," he said.
A statement from the Latvian Foreign Ministry released on July 28 called on Latvians not to overstay their visas, which could possibly complicate the process.
The visa-free measure was attached to an anti-terrorism bill that provides for the implementation of the main recommendations of a September 11, 2001 investigation commission. It provides for a new cargo inspection system on passenger planes and in ports, and granting additional funds to certain U.S. cities to fight terrorism.
In addition to the Baltic states, Bush identified new EU member states Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, old EU member Greece, and South Korea as possible candidates to have their visa requirements lifted.