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PUBLIC SHOULD EXPECT DIPLOMATIC STATEMENT

Slovakia to put visa issue on the US table

SLOVAK officials confirmed that they would raise the "visa issue" during meetings with US President George Bush.
Before Bush's meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on February 24, the US delegation, including Bush, will attend a series of meetings with Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič and Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš

SLOVAK officials confirmed that they would raise the "visa issue" during meetings with US President George Bush.

Before Bush's meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on February 24, the US delegation, including Bush, will attend a series of meetings with Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič and Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda. Official sources indicated that the topic of US visas would appear on the February 23 meeting agenda.

"President Ivan Gašparovič has already signalled that he wants to raise this topic, and I can confirm that he will definitely do so during a meeting with President Bush," Gašparovič's spokesman, Marek Trubač told The Slovak Spectator.

Slovaks, just like citizens from the surrounding post-Communist states - Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - have to apply for visas to the US before travelling there. Applicants often get rejected, and the respective US embassies are not required to give a reason.

The visa regime was introduced years ago and has not changed despite the significantly altered relationships between the US and these Visegrad Four (V4) countries, all of which are now members of NATO and the European Union.

"President Gašparovič thinks that the US sees Slovakia as a faithful ally and a trusted summit host and that this sentiment should be reflected in a simplification of the current visa regime at the very least," Trubač said.

The ultimate goal of Slovakia is to have the US cancel the visa requirement altogether. According to Trubač, "We realize that this might take longer and that it does not depend on President Bush but on the US Senate and Congress."

The Foreign Affairs Ministry also confirmed the issue would be raised.

Juraj Tomaga, the ministry's spokesman, said that the visa issue was important to Slovaks. He pointed to the differences in the visa regimes the US has in place between so-called "old" EU members and a majority of the new EU members.

"The topic is particularly important to the public. Nine of the 10 new EU member states need visas when travelling to the US. The remaining EU members do not [need the visa]," Tomaga explained February 15.

Slovenia is the only new EU member state in which a visa to the US is not required.

"Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan said that building a relationship with the whole European community is an argument in favour of granting all European allies the same rights. That, I think, is the most important argument [for liberalizing the visa regime with Slovakia]," he said.

Those hoping that the US would simplify or change its visa policies were encouraged following a meeting between Bush and Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski. Bush reportedly said that travelling to the US should be simpler for Poles than it is.

"I don't know what concrete benefits President Bush's visit will bring regarding the visa liberalization issue. However, in connection with the recent visit by Kwasniewski to Washington, a 'roadmap' aimed at helping Poland qualify for the US Visa Waiver programme was announced. It was made clear that the US would be willing to work individually with other new EU members in Central Europe like Slovakia towards the same goal of qualifying for this program," former US Ambassador to Slovakia Theodore Russell told The Slovak Spectator.

According to local analysts, however, the public should not expect Bush to make any bold announcements about the visa regime during his visit to Bratislava.

"Obviously, nothing more than a diplomatic statement [can be expected]," said Ivo Samson, a senior researcher with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association in Bratislava.

"Any outright demand by Slovaks for visa cancellation is not realistic. The US could not make any serious concessions to Slovakia because it would trigger similar bilateral agendas with other NATO and EU newcomers," said Samson.

Bush's reaction to Slovaks, however, will be eagerly monitored in the other V4 states, according to analysts.

"We'll wait to see what message President Bush brings [about visas] to Central Europe," the Czech ambassador to the US, Martin Palouš, said recently to the ČTK news agency.

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