By Eugene Tomiuc
Poland, one of the United States' staunchest allies in the war on terrorism and in Iraq, this week called again for the lifting of the U.S. visa regime for Polish citizens. The U.S. response so far has been guarded. President George W. Bush, during a meeting with week with his Polish counterpart Aleksander Kwasniewski, declined to make a firm pledge. But Warsaw's request has raised the possibility that other U.S. allies in Eastern Europe may soon follow suit.
Prague, 30 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- During his U.S. visit earlier this week, Alexander Kwasniewski repeated his call on Washington to drop visa requirements for Polish citizens.
The visa issue has long been a bone of contention in the otherwise excellent relations between Warsaw and Washington. The United States has a large ethnic Polish community, and Poland has dropped its visa requirements for U.S. citizens. Most importantly, Poland has contributed some 2,500 troops to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, and leads a large multinational force.
In return, it wants to join the 28 mostly Western European countries -- some of whom, like France and Germany, opposed the war in Iraq -- who enjoy visa-free travel to the United States. But the U.S. response has been guarded. When Kwasniewski put the question directly to U.S. President George W. Bush during a joint news conference on 27 January, the American leader said the decision rests with Congress. "We all love Poland, and we've got relatives in Poland, and we understand the need for dialogue and travel," he said. "We've got visa rules set by the Congress, that are on the books, and we look forward to working with the president on this issue."
But Kwasniewski, during an unusually frank exchange with Bush, said Eastern Europeans -- many of whom are set to become EU citizens when their country joins the bloc in May -- deserve the right to travel without a visa. "We will work, of course, but I would like to deliver this idea to you and to our friends: the future of the world is without visa, and not with visa," Kwasniewski said. "That should be our goal. [Bush: "Yeah."] And, of course, how to reach this important goal, that is [a] task for politicians, because [the] future of the world, with Poland, with Eastern Europe, with the world, is no visa. [Bush: "Right."] And speaking to you as a very modern citizen of Poland, that is the future. That is the future. [Bush: "Well, it could be."]"
The Polish request comes at a time when the United States is tightening restrictions on foreign visitors, in a move it says is meant to prevent potential terrorists from entering the country. Authorities at sea and airports on 5 January began taking photographs and fingerprints of visitors from foreign countries whose citizens require visas to enter the United States.
Many Poles -- who maintain close relations with the 9 million-strong ethnic Polish community in the United States -- see the new measures as an unnecessary humiliation for the citizens of a close U.S. ally.
Analysts say Kwasniewski was right to raise the issue so insistently. Heather Grabbe of the London-based Centre for European Reform, says lifting visa restrictions is very important because it offers a direct benefit to ordinary citizens. "Most ordinary citizens don't see the benefits of high political relations, or, say, a good rapport between President Kwasniewski and President Bush, whereas if the visa restrictions are actually lifted, that's an immediate and direct benefit to nearly 40 million Polish citizens," she said. "So I think they are actually incredibly important, and it was quite right of Kwasniewski to raise this issue, because if the U.S. is tightening the entry requirements as part of the fight against terror, then Poland should surely get some benefit from helping the U.S. in the fight against terror. So I think it's quite right that allies should ask for rewards from the U.S. for their support."
Other Eastern European allies of the United States have also indicated they may raise the visa issue with Washington as well. Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, who is currently on a week-long trip to the United States, has asked Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to "very seriously consider" reassessing the visa regime for Czech citizens. Some Czech deputies have also expressed their intention to link the visa issue to parliamentary approval of the deployment of a 120-man Czech special-forces unit to Afghanistan.
But analyst Mark Katzman, of the Economist Intelligence Unity, says it is unlikely that the Czech government will follow the Polish example and become more vocal. "I think there is more of a closer connection between Poland and the U.S. basically in part because of [the Polish] diaspora and other issues," he said. "But the Czechs, of course, will keep a careful balance between the two countries."
Balkan neighbors Bulgaria and Romania, who hope to join the European Union in 2007 and who have made contributions to the war on terrorism and to Iraq, could also raise the visa issue with the United States. Bulgaria has some 500 troops in Iraq. Bulgarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Liubomir Todorov told RFE/RL Sofia may also request the United States to abolish its visa regime "in the near future." "We are having very intensively developing relations with the United States, and we hope that in the near future we can be in the position to formalize a request for a waiver of the visa regime with the United States," Todorov said.
The visa issue could bear more importance in Romania, which has supported the United States both in the war on terror and in the campaign against Saddam Hussein's regime, and which has some 400 troops in Afghanistan and 700 in Iraq. Romanian Foreign Ministry spokesman Cosmin Dobran told RFE/RL that Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana is to discuss the visa issue with American officials during his U.S. visit next week. "This issue is due to be discussed at the State Department during Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana's visit to Washington next week. The issue is being analyzed and, depending on the [outcome of the] talks in Washington, the government will make a decision [regarding the visa issue] if it is deemed necessary," Dobran said.
Romania was the last EU candidate country to see its visa regime lifted by the EU in 2002. Its social-democratic government, which faces elections later this year, has publicized the lifting of the EU visa regime as one of its greatest achievements.
Analyst Heather Grabbe says requesting similar visa treatment from the United States could prove an important electoral issue in Romania. "For Romanians, to get a lifting of restrictions to [go to] the U.S. would be a big deal," she said. "It would mean that the U.S. is treating them the same as all the other Europeans. It's also a very popular measure, so I can see why it would be appealing in an election year."
Grabbe also pointed to the fact that all candidates set to join the EU will want to enjoy the same treatment as current EU members, whose citizens do not need visas to enter the United States For now, however, U.S. visa restrictions are decided on a strictly bilateral level.