RIGA-TARTU - U.S. President George W. Bush announced on Oct. 17 that the United States is rescinding visa requirements for citizens of the Baltics.
The Baltic nations along with Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and South Korea will be added to the U.S. visa waiver program in about a month.
Present and former Baltic leaders point to this action as a great moment in relations and a bright point in the region's history.
"The Visa Waiver Program is a powerful instrument, which enhances trust and friendship among nations. Now the people of Lithuania see the "window" to the U.S. widely open, and I am convinced that our tourists and businessmen will feel the advantages of the changes and will respect them," Lithuanian Ambassador in Washington D.C. Audrius Bruzga said in a meeting at the White House.
Diplomats also highlight this decision as a positive step in furthering the already bright relations between the Baltics and the United States.
Ambassador to Latvia, Charles Larson said Â"we are pleased that President Bush has announced the expansion of the Visa Waiver Program to include Latvia. Latvia has been a consistent friend and partner of the United States standing shoulder to shoulder with us in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. This is another great step in the already strong relations between our two nations.Â"
This waiver grants 90 day visa-free entry for the purposes of tourism and business, reciprocating the entry requirements Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania place on U.S. citizens.
Former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said on public television that "it is an achievement and a valuable gift for the state holiday."
She also believes the decision to be a gift for the 90th anniversary of the Latvian state.
"We can be happy that all that is behind... I believe that it is an issue of time and other countries that do not have such a regime, will gain it with time."
In an interview with Latvian public television shortly after the announcement by Bush, Zatlers said that the decision points to "high confidence level in Latvian Interior structures and each citizen of Latvia."
During his announcement, made at a conference in the White House's Rose Garden, President Bush expressed his empathy with the previous visa frustrations experienced by citizens of the newly admitted nations.
"For years, the leaders of these nations have explained to me how frustrating it is for their citizens to wait in lines, pay visa fees to take a vacation or make a business trip or visit their families here in the United States," Bush said.
"These close friends of America told me that it was unfair that their people had to jump through bureaucratic hoops that other allies can walk around. I told them I agree with them," he said.
The decision has prompted widespread acclaim from the accepted countries. The Czech Prime Minister declared it "a removal of the last relic of communism and the Cold War."
It has, however, attracted a considerable degree of criticism in the U.S., with some lawmakers arguing that the relaxed entry requirements could enable terrorists to slip through the net.
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein told the press that "we know [the program] is exploited by dangerous persons," observing that the Department of Homeland Security currently has no system to ensure that visa-free entrants leave the country.
"It would be irresponsible, and illegal, to expand the Visa Waiver Program without complying with the mandates of the law. I believe the administration is taking the wrong approach by expanding this program and admitting new countries with even higher visa refusal rates," Feinstein said.
The Bush administration has refuted these claims, stressing the newly admitted nations have all agreed to implement increased security measures to ensure the safety of the system.
The measures include the developing of tamper-proof biometric passports, an agreement to share national security information, and a clause requiring travelers using this system to register in advance.
The EU has praised the increased cooperation between member states and their trans-Atlantic ally, viewing the deal as strengthening intercontinental relations. However, it seems the union is already eyeing further progress.
The International Herald Tribune reported that Jacques Barrot, the European Union's justice and interior affairs commissioner, said in a statement that he welcomes the development and looks forward to the quick admission of remaining EU countries to the Visa-Waiver Program.
All the nations that applied for the Visa Waiver Program already unilaterally allowed U.S. citizens to visit without obtaining visas.
Bush said other countries also are on the path toward getting visa-free treatment.
Only the citizens of these countries who hold tamper-proof biometric passports are eligible for visa-free entry. Estonia started issuing these types of passports in May 2007.
The waiver will not extend to holders of passports of stateless residents.
People wishing to travel to the United States must fill out an electronic form at least two days prior to travel. The applicants will then receive an answer within minutes on whether or not their name is on the list of persons not wanted in the United States.
With the recently declared amendments in place, only six EU countries 's Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Poland and Romania 's will remain excluded from the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.
The U.S. ambassador to Estonia, Stanley Phillips, told reporters in Tallinn that the exact date when visa-freedom comes into force will be announced by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in the near future.
This announcement of visa-freedom correlates with the opening of the longest runway in the Baltics at RIX Riga International Airport. The runway is now capable of long-haul flights and is able to land even the biggest airplanes. This means that in the near future, the Baltics may start launching direct non-stop flights to the United States for the first time.