VILNIUS - The topic of when and how Lithuania can be included in the United States' Visa Waiver Program dominated discussions during an official visit by U.S. Congressman John Shimkus that took place Jan. 16 - 19.
The Republican congressman traveled to Vilnius to attend a Euro-Atlantic summit (see article, Page 1) and to meet with Lithuanian government leaders to discuss bilateral relations.
Shimkus met with Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus on Jan. 17 during which the congressman gave assurances that both countries are trying to lift visa requirements, a process which he said requires time and effort.
On Jan. 18, Shimkus met with Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas, Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas and Parliamentary Speaker Viktoras Muntianas.
At the meeting the congressman stressed that Schengen accession was a key aspect in trying to achieve a visa-free regime between Lithuania and the U.S., Lithuanian press reported.
Shimkus also stressed Lithuania's contribution in countering international terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan and discussed energy security and NATO expansion issues.
Implementing a visa-free regime is one of the priorities of bilateral relations between Lithuania and the U.S., Vaitiekunas said after the meeting.
Without giving any firm date or timeline for Lithuania's inclusion in the program, the parliamentary speaker was nevertheless upbeat on progress towards the goal.
"Intensive and constructive efforts are being made in Lithuania to follow the Visa Waiver Program, almost all of the requirements have been met," Muntianas told BNS.
Lithuania's prospects of joining the U.S. Visa Waiver Program have so far been hindered by the fact that many Lithuanian citizens overstay their tourist visas and pursue illegal unemployment in the U.S.
This problem has resulted in a high number of rejected visa applications, which last year amounted to 11 percent. One of the requirements for inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program is that the portion of rejected visa applications be less than 10 percent.
Earlier this month Vaitiekunas raised eyebrows by stating that he does not see the visa-free regime as an "absolute good," as it would encourage Lithuanians to emigrate. At the same time, the minister claimed he would continue pursuing the visa-free regime as an important goal of Lithuanian foreign policy, BNS reported.
Prime Minister Kirkilas responded by saying it was not for Lithuania to decide on the issue. "In any case, solution of the matter does not depend on us to a big extent. It is the (U.S.) Congress that will decide," he told the press on Jan. 11.
Lithuania unilaterally lifted visa requirements for U.S. citizens in 1994.
Shimkus, who is of Lithuanian descent, is the head of the Baltic Caucus in the U.S. Congress and participated in the signing of the Baltic-U.S. Charter in 1998.
Adamkus said that the congressman had always been a Lithuanian ally who had made a considerable contribution to the country's Euro-Atlantic integration process.