RIGA - Latvia has officially completed the consultation process with the United States on the necessary prerequisites for participating in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which would allow Latvians to travel to the U.S. without a visa.
Latvian foreign minister Maris Riekstins is confident that the U.S. administration will agree to lift the visa requirement for Latvian travelers by the end of this year.
The minister, however, was unable to predict when exactly Latvian citizens will actually be able to start travelling to the U.S. without visas.
"Maybe from Jan. 1, maybe from March 1, but I think that we will get the final decision already this year," Riektstins said in an interview with the Baltic News Service.
Progress now hinges upon an official report due to be issued in October that will specify the rate of Latvian visa denial by the United States. The U.S. visa-free program requires a refusal rate of 10 percent or less, and Latvia's 2007 rate was 11.8 percent.
Riekstins said the number of visa denials has indeed fallen below 10 percent, which enables U.S. authorities to "proceed with granting visa freedom to Latvia."
The U.S. ambassador to Latvia, Charles Larson, also said that it looks as though the number of U.S. visa denials has slipped below 10 percent. Larson also predicted that the U.S. and Latvia could sign a visa agreement as soon as this fall.
Latvia was the first candidate to complete talks on joining the U.S. Visa Waiver Program on Sept. 18 and initiated an intergovernmental agreement on stepping up cooperation in combating serious crime. Latvia is planning to sign the agreement by the end of September.
Eight ex-Soviet bloc countries that joined the EU in 2004, including Latvia, and one of the old EU members, Greece, have asked Washington to add them to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program along with other Western European countries.
The waiver program allows citizens of the member countries to visit the U.S. without visas for up to three months. Visas would still be needed for work or study trips.
Latvia was also one of the first candidate countries to sign, on March 12, a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. regarding the waiver program.