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Slovak-US ties: Carrots, sticks and visa politics

PRIME Minister Robert Fico's socialist cabinet may differ from its right-wing predecessor on most issues, but on one question it remains in step - the need to get rid of the visa duty for Slovaks travelling to the US.

PRIME Minister Robert Fico's socialist cabinet may differ from its right-wing predecessor on most issues, but on one question it remains in step - the need to get rid of the visa duty for Slovaks travelling to the US.

Nevertheless, Fico cabinet officials - like their counterparts across Europe - have been growing increasingly impatient with the slow pace of progress in getting rid of visas for all EU members, and feel the US Congress is dragging its feet.

Foreign Minister Ján Kubiš said after returning from a late-September visit to the US, where he held talks with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other US officials, that dropping the visa duty for Slovaks and the citizens of other new EU member states was merely a matter of "making a political decision".

"This is a political, not a technical question, and therefore it should be resolved by politicians," Kubiš said.

"We don't think there are any technical criteria that we should have to meet. There have been cases in US history where the visa duty was removed through a political decision."

The United States continues to argue that the visa regime it imposes on selected states is a needed security measure following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. But for Kubiš, this justification is "insufficient".

"I cannot imagine that they could regard Slovak citizens or the citizens of other EU states as a security risk. It's a political issue and should be resolved by a political decision. This would put Slovakia, as a strong ally of the US, on the same level as other EU and NATO member states," Kubiš said.

Kubiš' words came following an agreement by the "Visegrad Four" states of Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, along with the Baltic grouping of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, to work jointly to have the visas dropped. The countries forged the agreement at the UN General Assembly in New York on September 23.

At a meeting with Kubiš on September 26, Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič said he was in favour of coordinated action against the US visa regime.

The Foreign Minister's tough stance also echoes an internal report by the European Commission's justice department, which said that Washington is making too little effort to extend its visa waiver to all EU states and that the EU should respond by slapping visa requirements on US diplomats.

The Commission will decide whether to introduce the visas before EU interior ministers meet on October 5-6 in Luxembourg.

US Ambassador to Slovakia Rodolphe Vallee said that if the new EU member states did decide to introduce a visa duty towards US citizens, it would complicate the existing road map towards having US visas dropped against them.

The US has repeatedly said it will waive visas only when countries meet certain requirements, such as a visa refusal rate of below three percent.

Edward Kemp, spokesman for the US Embassy in Bratislava, told The Slovak Spectator that the US embassy is following the rules set out in the road map for lifting the visa regime.

"The visa road map set up a series of criteria for any changes in the visa program. We are working diligently on this issue with the Slovak government," Kemp said.

"While we continue our progress along the visa waiver road map, approval rates for Slovak visa applicants are rising and refusal rates are falling. About 85 percent of Slovaks who apply for visitor visas obtain them, and the process is quick, with short waiting periods throughout most of the year," he said.

He noted that "to change the laws governing the visa regime, political action by the US Congress is required".

Signs of such action in the US Congress are already appearing. On September 26, congressmen Dennis Kucinich (Dem) and John Schimkus (Rep) approached Rice, calling for the administration to include the new EU members in the visa-free regime.

According to the Czech ČTK newswire, Kucinich and Schimkus have been trying to persuade other members of Congress to change their positions on the visa issue for several months now.

At a press conference in Washington on September 26, Kucinich said that Congress has to understand that people from the countries that joined the EU in 2004 do not represent a threat to US security.

"This has nothing to do with terrorism or immigration. It's about travelling, business, and friendship. We cannot be drawn in to this plan to build a wall around the US," Kucinich said.

Meanwhile, Schimkus praised the efforts that the new EU members are making to meet the criteria set by the US in terms of passports and biometric data, and for their awareness campaigns encouraging their citizens not to work illegally in the US or exceed their approved length of stay.

"The fact that these issues are being dealt with makes our fight for a visa-free regime easier," Schimkus said.

At the same time as pressure is building to cancel visa requirements for Slovaks on their way to the US, the Fico government has softened its tone on related areas in the Slovak-US dialogue.

Before he took power following the June 17 general elections, Fico said he would withdraw the Slovak unit from Iraq immediately on assuming office. Now, Kubiš says that the 100-strong unit of military engineers will not leave Iraq until February 2007, as originally scheduled. He also promised that Slovakia would consult with the US and other NATO allies about other possible forms of continued assistance in Iraq.

During a September 26 visit to Afghanistan, Fico also promised that 57 Slovak military engineers in Kabul would move further south as required by NATO.

He added that Slovakia wants to participate in the training of local security forces in Afghanistan as well as in Slovakia.

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